September 2017 Archives
Day 16: Your favorite female bird
We're once again largely limited to the realm of sexually dimorphic birds, and I think it's time to give some love to a bird whose male companion hogs an inappropriate amount of it.
Thanks to its bold coloration, comfort around humans, and popularity throughout the USA (often demonstrated by its recognition as an official state bird), the Northern Cardinal gets recognition from non-birders on a regular basis--but only the male Cardinal. When you look at the logos of the sports teams that have adopted the name "Cardinals," you'll see only the scarlet head of the male. Te red-crested brown head and orange bill of the female? Nowhere to be seen. Even the St. Louis baseball squad's two-birds-on-a-bat design features a pair of all-red males:
(Oddly, whether in St. Louis, Phoenix, or Louisville, the birds' bills are pretty much always colored yellow, which is not something you'll ever see in the field.)
If the female Cardinal hung around with another bird, however, I think her beauty would be a lot more apparent. The brilliance of her bill contrasts so perfectly with her black face, just as the male's does, but instead of being lost in the glow of redness, it's set against warm brown and all the more visible for it. She presents her beauties with a subtlety unknown by her brazen companion--washes of red here and there, mainly in the tail--and her fluttering flight, whether through the underbrush or from tree to tree, is endearing as well.
One thing I love about Cardinals is that you'll so often see them in pairs--one calling to the other and moving toward its partner in short flights. It's an important reminder that birds, like human beings, are organisms that work primarily as part of a set, and that no set is complete with only one kind. That's certainly the way it's always been in my house, anyway, and I'm glad to find the bird world in accord. 1:20 PM
Day 15: Your favorite male bird
Northern Shoveler 5:09 PM
To avoid going back to "favorite bird"on this one, I guess I have to work with the male/female distinction, which means we'll be talking about one of the many bird species with pronounced sexual dimorphism. That cuts out a lot of them--in North America, gulls, rails, sandpipers, cranes, pigeons, owls, flycatchers, vireos, corvids, most thrushes, most raptors, and most sparrows, for example, usually cannot be sexed in the field. Still, that leaves me plenty of options: orioles, finches, tanagers, warblers, woodpeckers, hummingbirds, game birds, and loads and loads of waterfowl.
Since dimorphic males tend to be brighter and bolder than the females, it's not hard to find one appealing, and sure enough, my favorite male is one whose colors and patterns stand out a little more than on his distaff. Given the number of waterfowl whose hens favor a cryptic brown or grey, I doubt I'm shocking anyone by noting that it's a drake, but the actual species might be a bit of a surprise.
The Wood Duck male is, no question, a strikingly beautiful bird, from its brilliantly colored bill to its epic sweep of crest feathers to its gleaming chestnut breast, and I know more than one birder who loves it fiercely, but my own tastes run to the less flamboyant members of the dabbling ducks. The Gadwall drake is probably the least flamboyant of them, but its subtly vermicular grey plumage is handsome indeed--like a fine tweed or herringbone. The male Pintail is far more striking in pattern, if not much more colorful, mixing stripes and fields of white and brown that a pinto might envy, and its long, elegant tail plumes also serve it well. And let's not sell the Mallard drake short: as common as it is, it's still a gorgeous bird whose glossy green head can make even a veteran birder draw in his breath when the light is right.
Indeed, my particular favorite is kind of a Mallard done sideways. The Northern Shoveler is uncommon, though it can turn up in great numbers if you're in the right place, and its take on the basic Mallard plumage is likewise off the beaten track. The head isn't a rich medium green contrasting with a yellow bill--almost exactly the colors worn by the Green Bay Packers, if that's a useful field mark for you--but a forest green, shot with purple, which sets up a striking contrast with the bird's other features: the vivid yellow eye, the enormous blue-black bill, and the bright white feathers of its chest. Combine that with the bright rufous sides--the Mallard's less rusty brown is on its chest--and you've got as appealing a set of colors and patterns and shapes as you're going to find in an American duck.
My only regret is that William H. Macy didn't use the drake as his symbol when he played the Shoveler in Mystery Men.
Another opportunity wasted.
Day 14: Favorite book by your favorite birder
See Below 5:19 PM
Alas, during yesterday's prompt, I kind of cheated myself out of today's prompt. By choosing my father as my favorite birder, I prevented myself from having an answer ready for today, seeing as how Dad has never written a book. So far as I know, he has no plans to write one, but if he did ever opt to write a memoir, I would urge him to call it Driver's Education, because there's no question that a lot of it would involve his experience behind the wheel. I suppose he might prefer to focus on the issue of college admissions, since that's the field he explored professionally for over three decades, in which case I would push him to title the book ADMIT/REJECT.
The two topics above actually merge in of my favorite stories about Dad's days at the UNC admissions office. He never actually did so, but he claimed he was sometimes tempted to get vanity plates for our two cars. One would say ADMIT and the other would say REJECT, and he would spread the rumor that his admissions decisions on any given day were based on which car he drove to work. Alas, he never bought the plates, let alone spread the rumor, but I admire his imagination.
Still, the lack of Dad-penned books leaves me with little choice but to look over the birding authors I mentioned yesterday and recommend my favorite book by each of them, so here goes:
I mentioned it yesterday, but let me reemphasize my love for this thick volume, in which Dunne lovingly lists everything he knows about every American bird species so that you can just about see it in front of you even if it isn't. Far too voluminous to carry in the field, this is a book you want to have in the car so that you can research any troubling sightings after you get back from the trail. Dunne's prose is so descriptive, so full of precision, that you can't help but feel he's looking at exactly the bird you saw--or that he most certainly isn't, which is often just as good. I loved his essay collection Small-headed Flycatcher. Seen Yesterday. He Didn't Leave His Name, but if you own only one Pete Dunne book, make it the EFG.
This was a tough call. I was fortunate enough to be in Ithaca while Tim was working on Imperial Dreams, his often terrifying account of searching for the Imperial Woodpecker in the drug-infested highlands of Mexico, and since I was his intern, he let me look at some early drafts, which a) filled me with smug glee, and b) just about curled my hair. I could easily have picked that as my favorite Gallagher, but I'm going with the book that introduced me to him. Literally. Our books were both reviewed in the same article back in 2005, and I pushed the reviewer for an intro so I could gush at Tim directly. If you're a woodpecker fan, you'll want to savor every detail of his hunt for the Ivorybill.
The definitive road book for birders, this is an account of the first recorded Big Year by the guy who did it in his teens and went on to become the author of field guides galore. For a reader like me whose geekery includes both birds and geography, it's like crack. Enjoy!
As if Marie couldn't make a beautiful photo out of mundane ingredients already, she turns her eye to the fantastic landscapes of Mono Lake. It's like a Pink Floyd album cover come to life on every page.
Okay, I recognize that this is not a birding book, but dammit, when you find a wise, funny, fantasy/horror novel for young people--and one with both beautiful illustrations and a wonderful flawed heroine at the center, at that--you don't ignore it just because it's not as heavy on birds as you might like. You read it and you love it and you follow the author on Twitter and enjoy yourself when she starts threads critiquing the often-bizarre animal husbandry theories in Swiss Family Robinson. You just do.
And one to grow on: due in 2018, look out for Rosemary Mosco's Birding Is My Favorite Video Game. You'll definitely want to check that one out. I know I will.
Day 13: Your favorite birder
The Man, The Myth 4:48 PM
Oooooo, tough one. There are so many birders I've been lucky enough to join in the field, even though I've taken relatively few organized birding trips. Still, whether I'm with a group or in a friend's passenger seat, the instruction and camaraderie I've experienced birding with others have been invaluable to me. My list of favorite birders would have to start with Mary Stevens, who dragged me into the birding community with an invitation to help her out with a Christmas count back in 1991. It would go on to include my teaching colleagues at Woodberry: Tom Parker, Jim Reid, Karen Bond, Will Cole, and Chris Sprouse, not to mention former WFS students such as Arnold Koehnke and Jacob Foster. Since departing WoFo, I've had the good fortune to get fine folks like Nick Morgan, Ginger Walker, and Lee Bristow to come out and bird, and I've gotten good use of their eyes and ears.
I have managed to get several people who claim not to be birders into the field with me, among them my cousin Michael Cope, who hosted me in Los Angeles, Shari Jacobs, who gamely braved the up-and-down of West Virginia with me, my old friend Nan McKenna and her daughter Maggie, who took me out to Point Reyes National Seashore, and author/friend of the blog David Abrams, who shared a beautiful morning of owl-chasing with me a few summers ago.
My 2011 sabbatical at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology was arranged by the esteemed writer, editor, and falconer Tim Gallagher, who taught me a lot of things in the field and in the office, and who introduced me to a Murderer's Row of ornithological heavy hitters: Kevin McGowan, Robyn Bailey, Jessie Barry, David Bonter, Myoko Chu, Wes Hochachka, and the big boss himself, John Fitzpatrick. Tim even forced me--FORCED me--to take a course from the legendary Steve Kress, who taught me a ridiculous amount of information about field ornithology and left me wanting to learn more.
Of course, Tim is also an author, and he's one of many whose bird-related works have helped me become a better birder. Obviously I have to thank Roger Tory Peterson for the whole "field mark" idea, but I never met him, and more recent birders have been extremely helpful to me as well. Back in 2004 I was lucky enough to spend a day tooling around Cape May with Pete Dunne, whose keen eye and gentle good humor made the experience just about perfect. A few years later, I obtained a copy of his Pete Dunne's Field Guide Companion, a work of gargantuan proportions, and one that has given me a great deal more confidence in my judgment in the field; I can't recommend it highly enough.
My work for Audubon.org introduced me to several terrific writer/birders whose online presence continues to delight me: Kenn Kaufman is perhaps the most respected figure in American birding today, while Nick Lund's energetic wit informs his work as The Birdist whether he's blogging or tweeting.
There are, however, birders I haven't birded with (and in some cases have never met) whose work has inspired me. Chief among this group is Ursula Vernon, who has been a real mensch on several occasions; I look forward to finally getting to break out the binoculars with her. If not for Ursula, I would never have met Tina Klein-Lebbink, who hauled me across 1500 miles of the Pacific Northwest in order to fill my life list. I have become a big fan of the work of Rosemary Mosco, and if we ever get the chance to bird together, you'll hear about it.
Nor have all the birders who have helped and inspired me done it by writing. Photographer Marie Read was a mysterious figure when I was in Ithaca, and she would turn up unexpectedly whenever our class was out in the field, usually draped with zoom lenses and camo, but a look at her work will just stun you. (Someday I will own the Eastern Meadowlark photo that accompanied my article "You Must Believe in Spring" in Living Bird.)
With all that said, in determining my favorite birder, I've got to vote for the ringer in the group. I've hauled many a member of my circle of friends through a birding experience, willingly or no, and my family members have suffered as well. Some of them have been very helpful about it, mind you; without Kelly's company, I most likely would have missed the Tawny Owl that turned up in the parking lot at the base of the Civita di Bagnoregio pedestrian bridge, and I've had help from my mother, my brother-in-law Odell, my son Ian, and my Aunt Linda on a number of bird-related outings.
But in the end, I have to name the birder who has done the most for me as both birder and human being: my father, Richard G. Cashwell. He has devoted his time, his money, his travel experience, and his unparalleled driving ability to getting me around the country to see new birds and new places. With him I have traveled across the heartland, through the Great Plains and all the way to Denver, from Las Vegas to the Four Corners and back, through the Everglades out to the extremity of Key West, through the Mississippi Delta to the streets of New Orleans, from the Finger Lakes to the rocky shores of Maine, into the jack pine forests of Michigan, along the lakeshore in Cleveland, over the crests of the Rockies to the Great Salt Lake, and all around the pine woods and barrier islands of his beloved North Carolina homeland. He will never be as obsessed by birds as I am, and frankly, that's probably a good thing, because somebody has to tell me it's time to put away the binoculars and get back in the car. But once I do so, I know I will be ferried safely to a place with good food, and good company, and a decent chance of not having to pick up the check. That, without question, is the best birder a man could ever want to meet.
Day 12: A bird you used to love but don't anymore
This is a somewhat challenging prompt, as there aren't a lot of birds I dislike. Still, the wording suggests that I can talk about a bird I now like LESS than I used to, so I'm going to settle for that.
On the face of it, the Canada Goose is a handsome, even striking bird, but I'm long past the point of being able to judge it purely on appearance. Even taking into account its pleasantly raucous honk, with all the associated images of freedom in the skies, Branta canadensis is just too ubiquitous in distribution, too noisome in its habits, for me to love it unconditionally. When I was young, seeing their sleek black heads and vivid white chinstraps was a treat, but since they've more or less given up on migration and settled in as consumers of the Great American Lawn, there's not much delight to be had anymore. Instead, I'm forced to consider the lakesides and river rocks and golf courses and parklands they've festooned with their great green turds, like the product of a Play-Doh Fun Factory gone rogue.
Worse, from a birder's perspective, they've become both more demanding and more confusing. Where once taxonomists declared that a single species roamed the wetlands of our continent, there are now nearly a dozen subspecies, including the Dusky, Aleutian, and Richardson's Canada Goose, and one, the Cackling Goose, has achieved full species status. The Cackler is at least drastically smaller than the typical Canada--little larger than a Mallard--but distinguishing the others is a matter of calculating shades of grey-brown and centimeters of size, and I'm just not sure it's worth it for a bird whose primary role in life seems to be imitating a high-speed pasta maker.
I'll never hate them--they're far too elegant, and when they have goslings among them, their little flocks turn into adorable family portraits for all to see. But after years of living between two ponds where they were frequent visitors, I'd have to say the bloom is off the rose. Sic transit gloria mundi. 8:49 PM
Day 11: A bird you hated
Perhaps it's a consequence of my personal political beliefs, but I've never worked up any kind of hate for a species of bird. Even European Starlings, for all the damage they've inflicted on our ecosystem, aren't evil. I'm unhappy that Eugene Schieffelin saw fit to bring them to the USA for a really dumb reason (see The Verb 'To Bird', chapter 6, for the full explanation), but I don't hate the Starling as a species. I don't hate the Canada Goose for spreading our nation's landscape evenly with goose poop. I don't even hate the Plain Chacalaca for hiding from me and making me spend an entire day wandering Sapelo Island in frustration that I couldn't get a life bird in Georgia.
There have, however, been a handful of individuals who have crossed me. These are typically birds whose behavior has directly interfered with my lifestyle in some way--defecating on me or my possessions, for example. But I think the only bird I ever actually wanted to kill was one that I encountered back in high school, when my family lived on Chapel Hill's Smith Avenue. My folks had bought a freestanding bank of five condominiums, then knocked a hole between two of them to make a house for us. My brother and I had bedrooms upstairs on the outer side, with my room lying in the back corner, close to the woods behind us. That gave me a pretty good look at any bird life that came into the yard, but it also left me vulnerable in a way I hadn't expected.
Like many teenagers, I was a fairly heavy sleeper, but the sound that jolted me awake in the early grey light of one spring morning was like nothing I'd heard before: a heavy, metallic rattling that seemed to vibrate every wall of the building. After a few seconds, there was a pause, during which I tried to identify the gigantic machine that was making the sound--was someone running a pneumatic staple gun or something?--and then a moment or two later it sounded again. This time I was awake enough to be analytical, and I realized that it sounded like a woodpecker's drumming, only far, far louder, and with a very definite metallic quality.
After lengthy peering out the window, I still wasn't any more able to explain the noise, but there was no question of going back to sleep, so I staggered through my morning routine and headed to school.
A morning or two later, it happened again, and this time I was at the window looking for information as soon as I was awake. If this wasn't a woodpecker, I wanted to know what the hell it was, and if it WAS a woodpecker, I wanted to know how it was making such a ruckus. I still didn't spot any likely suspects, but I did begin to think that the noise was not coming from anywhere in the neighborhood. It seemed to be coming from right outside my window.
As you may have guessed, the culprit eventually revealed itself after a few more days of early-morning banging: a male Yellow-shafted Flicker, eager to proclaim its territory to the surrounding birds, had discovered the wonderful resonance of the aluminum rain gutter that ran along the edge of the roof above my window. I spotted it after losing my patience and doing some pounding of my own on the glass, then opening the window to yell at whatever was out there. I saw the bird winging away from the house, put two and two together regarding the gutter, and started making plans for retaliation.
I never had to bother with the eventual plan, which would have been purchasing a plastic owl model to fix to the corner of the roof, because I had apparently scared the Flicker into finding a new surface for drumming. Instead, I just went back to bed with a certain degree of mistrust in the avian world, and a knowledge that while birds as a whole are good, every species has its assholes. 8:46 AM
Day 10: Favorite non-American bird
My birding sessions outside the US have not been extensive; they have essentially all been brief forays into the field while traveling for other purposes: helping an in-law move to Canada in 2017, researching Italy for a collaborative novel with Kelly in 2003, guiding a student group through England in 1999, etc. In such locations even the common birds can be lifers, but I have had very little occasion to travel far from my lodgings in search of more obscure or wary birds. Luckily, I had one come to me.
When Kelly and I were traveling Italy, we spent a weekend in one of the most unusual places I've ever visited: the tiny hilltop village of Civita di Bagnoregio
. Perched on a mesa of fragile tufa stone, which is gradually eroding away, the city can be reached only by crossing a pedestrian bridge; you'll have to leave your car in the parking lot. (This is not all bad; I got my first Tawny Owl in that parking lot.) The city itself is full of anachronisms, whether it's the multivarious architecture of past centuries or the simple absence of automobiles, and its only lodgings are above the Trattoria Antico Forno. Rick Steves has written about the pleasures of both the city and the Antico Forno, so we used his advice to book a room there. Upon our arrival in mid-afternoon, we encountered our host, Carlo, who promptly made us sit down al fresco and enjoy some wine and a little pasta in red sauce; this welcoming gesture never appeared on our bill, but for a pair of exhausted and overheated tourists, it was a gesture that will never be forgotten. (Sadly, I can find no evidence that Carlo is still operating the business; the website he created some years back appears to have vanished.)
I should note that I gave active birding the old college try. I made a deal with Kelly on our first night there: she could sleep in, but I was going to get up early, take my binoculars, and hike down to the bottom of the valley that surrounds the city--the only outright birding session I would take during our two weeks in Italy. Sadly, the combination of heat, topography, and vegetation made it a fairly hard hike for a fairly limited set of birds. I did (after years of trying) finally get my Eurasian Jay, but that was literally the only new bird I saw during the roughly 90 minutes I spent below Civita. By contrast, I had earlier logged two lifers on our first approach to the bridge (Sardinian Warbler and Eurasian Nuthatch) and picked up another (Blue Rock Thrush) while looking over the rooftops of the city from our room's window. Civita was a place that presented you with birds; it did not encourage you to go out after them.
The best presentation of all, however, came late in the afternoon on our first day there, when we came back to the city from a brief errand into nearby Bagnoregio. We were slogging back across the bridge, marveling at the medieval walls in various stages of ruin around the city, when a most improbably bird lit on a tree right at the edge of the cliff. Its boldly pied wings were what caught my eye, but as soon as I had it in focus, the lovely tawny-pink head and chest also stood out--and then it raised its improbable crest to announce itself as a Hoopoe.
I had been hoping to see a Hoopoe since my first trip to England in 1982, though I knew that they pass through Great Britain only during migration, and only in the very southern portion of the island. Still, I had gamely kept my eyes open every time I was in the bird's preferred habitat, which is "farming districts and open, grazed country," according to my copy of Princeton Field Guides' Birds of Europe. Granted, I didn't watch carefully in more urban European areas--London, Florence, the airport in Munich--but wherever there were crops, I was after a Hoopoe, which the book said "spends much time on ground."
Needless to say, one of the places I was NOT expecting to see a Hoopoe was in a tree. Growing atop a cliff. Next to a crumbling medieval wall. Far from anything flat, or farmed.
But there it was, and even if there had been the slightest doubt, I could not have sustained it after the bird lowered its crest and released its cry into the wind: a plaintive, heartfelt, unmistakable "Oop oop oop."
And with that, the Hoopoe cemented its status as my favorite non-American bird, outdoing other worthy species such as the Red Kite, the Great Green Woodpecker, and the Common Kingfisher. By presenting itself to me in such an improbable manner, with such clarity and distinction, it made me love it. And I would do so even if I didn't know its glorious taxonomic name: Upupa epops. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a bird to be reckoned with.11:03 AM
Day 9: A bird you thought you wouldn't like but ended up loving
This prompt is a little too overstated for accuracy, because I never really believed I wouldn't like the Canyon Wren. On the other hand, I didn't believe I would love it, either--I simply didn't think very much about the Canyon Wren.
I knew what it looked like, mind you; for years I'd seen it sitting on page 305 of my Sibley Guide, and it looked attractive enough. But its range is limited to Texas and states west of it, so it was not a species that I expected to deal with in any important capacity. Maybe I'd log it when I got out west, but in the meantime, I had no good reason to pay attention to it.
That all changed, as you might expect, when I actually encountered one.
Back in March 2010, I accompanied my father and my son Ian on a spring break trip into the wilds of west Texas, specifically because Dad and I were eager to visit Big Bend National Park. I'm not sure how much of this eagerness was shared by Ian, who was 18 and on break from his freshman year at VCU, but we tried to keep him amused by stuffing him full of good food. (He and I were not frequent eaters of beef, but we had to admit that the steaks and burgers in Texas were the best we'd ever had.)
The isolation of Big Bend NP cannot be overstated; the nearest Texas town with a hotel, Marathon, is 25 miles from the park boundary, and about 50 miles from the park headquarters. That would have been a bit of an inconvenience to us even if we'd found a vacancy in Marathon. As it was, we had to settle for the next nearest hotel, which was in Fort Stockton, another 50 miles past Marathon. That left us with over an hour of driving the next morning just to get to the edge of the park, and the best birding was going to be near (or beyond) headquarters. That necessitated rising well before dawn, and well before either of my not-really-all-that-interested-in-birding companions wanted to rise, so I spent the day before focusing far more on planning our travel and soothing my family than I did on any species research.
We came in sight of the park's Chisos Mountain range right around sunup, and we were treated to both the gorgeous desert landscape and a close look at a young javelina on the roadside, which got Ian interested enough to clamber up through the rental car's sun roof for a better look. The birds, however, were keeping a low profile; I logged a single Curve-billed Thrasher at Panther Junction, the park's main intersection, and the rest of our drive into the Chisos Basin was scenic as all get out, but ornithologically uneventuful.
As we took a foot tour of the slopes around the Basin Lodge, however, a number of species (and a great many deer) caught our attention; I logged such lifers as the Rock Wren and Rufous-crowned Sparrow, and even got a brief glimpse of a Mexican Jay. But what was fascinating me most was a clear, distinctive song
. And when I got a look at what was making it, I fell in love.
There atop the desiccated branches of a century plant was my first Canyon Wren. The photo doesn't do the colors justice: in the morning light, the creamy white throat faded into salmon and then rich rufous, like an unstirred glass of Thai iced tea. And the song continued, one of the few bird songs I know that can be accurately described without being imitated: it's a series of notes sliding down the chromatic scale. It's simple, distinctive, and rather beautiful, and it will forever remind me of a singular morning with my father and my son. I call that love.
Day 8: Most overrated bird
American Robin 6:25 PM
As recently as eighteen months ago, I would have had a clear candidate for this designation: the Bald Eagle.
"How?" some might object. "How could a big, bold raptor, beloved as a patriotic symbol by American everywhere, be overrated?" Let's face facts: it's not really a special treat to see one anymore. Though the Bald was rare in the Lower 48 in my youth, the 1972 ban on DDT and a variety of other conservation efforts have increased its population to an enormous degree. Its reputation as a thief and scavenger, promoted long ago by Benjamin Franklin, is also worth considering, but the real issue is a simple one: it's overplayed.
Like a lot of classic rock songs, the bird is presented to us so often that we've become rather tired of it. Everyone from Anheuser-Busch to the NRA to the US Postal Service is waving an eagle around, and over two dozen colleges use the eagle as a symbol--even, somewhat bizarrely, in cases where the actual mascot is something else entirely. (See "Tigers, University of Auburn.") To say that the eagle is overrated is more of a comment on the rating than on the bird.
It doesn't help that the Bald Eagle is so hugely popular with non-birders, who assume that it's the bird everyone wants to know about. I know I'm not the only birder who will often go wandering in the woods and encounter a layman who insists on telling me, no matter what I'm actually looking for--warblers, ducks, even the nearest bathroom--how to get to the place where he heard some people saying they'd seen a Bald Eagle. Basically, these well-meaning folks are like the people who don't play the guitar, but who insist, when they see you have yours, that you lend it to them for a minute so they can show you they know how to play the riff from "Smoke on the Water." (For you guitarists with younger friends, change that last to "Seven Nation Army" and the joke works just as well.)
Still, even with my longtime thoughts about the Bald stored firmly in my head, my mind was changed by an incident on the shores of Lake Washington in the spring of 2016. On a stroll down the road along the lakeshore, I noticed a pair of Balds chasing a gull over the lake. Knowing what I know about eagles, I assumed they was pursuing the gull, which it dwarfed, in order to bully it out of a fish it was carrying, but as the pursuit grew more intense and the gull's dodging became visibly more desperate, I realized I was mistaken.
As I documented back in April 2016, the two eagles were not after a fish. The immature might have been just helping its parent out with a hunt, but the adult was after the gull itself. And a second or two later, it was all over. The eagle knocked the gull out of the sky with ease, seized the seabird in its talons, and soared into a tree right beside the lakeside drive where I was walking. It then proceeded to tear the unfortunate gull asunder, taking occasional pauses to call out its defiance to the other eagles that came circling too near its perch.
So yeah. Watching this take place didn't make the bird's rating any less overhyped, but it sure as hell moved my opinion of the Bald Eagle considerably closer to that rating.
That leaves me in a rather awkward position, though. Where else do birds fall short of birders' opinions of them? It can't be where birds whose reputations are already fairly negative (European Starling, House Sparrow, Brown-headed Cowbird, etc.) and it can't really be where birds with reputations as exceedingly cool are in fact exceedingly cool (Peregrine Falcon, Swallow-tailed Kite, Magnificent Frigatebird, etc.) Perhaps I could pick a species whose fame among birders is based on something other than its own qualities--its rarity, perhaps, or the difficulty of distinguishing it from a similar species, but neither the Red-cockaded Woodpecker nor any of the seemingly dozens of Empidonax flycatchers really struck me as overrated.
So in the end, I had to go with a bird that's perfectly adequate on its own merits, but hyped by non-birders often enough to leave it well short of its reputation: the American Robin. Historically, it has always lived in the shadow of its namesake, the more brightly-colored and celebrated European Robin, after whom the New World bird was named by homesick emigrants. Other than their orange chests, ground-feeding habits, and relative comfort around humans, the birds have little in common, but that didn't stop Americans from trying to push the Robin as everything from a standard of measurement (most birds' sizes are given in relation to the Robin because of its familiarity) to a magical exemplar for children. It should be noted, however, that the bird has NO business popping up in a London townhouse to help Mary Poppins; I'm sure there were plenty of out-of-work European Robins who could have played the part just as well, but Hollywood is a biased town.)
In the end, though, it's really the Robin's status as a Harbinger Of Spring that makes it seem overhyped. Excitement over the Year's First Robin is supposed to be a real thing, despite the fact that the bird can be found in every state of the contiguous 48 states throughout the winter. (It migrates out of the high Rockies in Idaho and Montana and the northernmost parts of the Great Lakes and New England states.) It's neither rare nor difficult to find, its song is rather monotonous, and though it can be diverting to watch one cocking its head to listen for earthworms, I can't say I know many birders who'll devote much time to a long-term viewing of the Robin. Is it a bad bird? Not at all. But based on all of the above, I'd have to call it overrated.
Day 7: Most underrated bird
When a bird is easy to see, it's also easy to underrate. As I've said before, we would be far, far more appreciative of the glories offered by Cardinals and Mallards if only they weren't so common. I think there are plenty of other birds about whom the same can be said--the American Goldfinch, all three American bluebirds, and most varieties of pigeons--but I'm going to focus on one that seems to have a decidedly low profile, despite qualities that should make it a birder's favorite.
I'm talking about Hirundo rustica
, the Barn Swallow, a bird which is as easy to spot and to identify as any in North America. It's common (the most common species of swallow on Earth), widespread (found on every continent but Antarctica), and familiar even to people who don't pay much attention to birds. If you are near open country or open water, you have every chance of seeing one, and unless you live in the polar regions or the deserts of North Africa, Arabia, or Australia, you will probably have them hanging around your vicinity at some point during the year.
And they're bloody gorgeous.
When they're in flight, the motion is what stuns you: the elaborate dance of the pointed wings and the long forced tail, all trailing the bird like pennants behind a self-propelled kite. Over a lake, they flash downward to the surface to drink, leaving only a series of rings in the water; over dry land they waft up over your head, pivoting and tumbling after insects before plunging down to crest the grass. The silhouette is unmistakable, the flight distinctive; you need only a glimpse to know you've got a swallow, and only an instant more to see the deep fork of the tail and confirm a Barn. It's a ritual for nearly every American birder nearly every summer.
But should you be lucky enough to see Hirundo rustica at rest? Suddenly you have a moment to gather in the details of this bird's plumage, and again, it's stunning. Even a notoriously poor photographer like me can't make it look bad:
I mean, look at that. The delicate tines of the tail, the scissored, swept-back wings, the glossy indigo back setting off the female's creamy underside and the russet throat and forehead patches... this is pure elegance.
I was fortunate enough to get a close look at nesting Barn Swallows during our visit to Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake. It's not hard to find a swallow's nest on a man-made structure, but they're typically interested in keeping that nest well out of reach of humans. At the Visitor's Center on Antelope, however, they were a bit less fearful, and that helped me get right up to snap this picture of another female building her nest, daub by daub:
I even got close to this male, whose sex is announced by his pale rusty belly:
In a sane universe, these birds would be treasured as the stunners they are, but their familiarity seems to make too many birders all but indifferent to their presence. No one goes out birding and hears a companion say, "Hot damn, Barn Swallow!" At most, you'll hear someone mention it as a sign of the changing season, as though its appearance were merely a matter of routine, and not the miracle that brings this tiny package of feathers and spirit into our view from far across the globe: "Ah, there's my FOY Barn Swallow!"
Hirundo rustica may well be a bird we need. But it also far more than we deserve.
Day 6: A bird that makes you sad
Most birds make me pretty happy, though certainly some make me happier than others. At the same time, there is very definitely one bird that makes me sad because it hasn't had the chance to make me happy in a long while: the Bobwhite.
When I was younger, Bobwhites were not at all hard to encounter, and even if you didn't see the little quail, you stood a pretty good chance of hearing its eponymous call. As it was for many birders (and many Southerners), the bob-whiiiite whistle was one of the first birdcalls I learned to identify, and I often heard it in the fields and piney woods of central North Carolina. Every so often, you'd get a look at the white stripes on the head of the male as he trotted back toward cover, and if you were really lucky, you might catch a glimpse of chicks trailing after their parents. They were familiar, homey birds, and I took them for granted.
I didn't know as I was growing up that they were disappearing.
Some recent reports of Bobwhite populations have them declining by as much as 85%, almost all of it due to habitat loss. The hedgerows and overgrown areas that used to separate small fields have vanished as those fields have been sold by family farms to large corporations, or the fields and hedgerows alike have vanished as suburbs and strip malls push out into the countryside. Whatever has happened, however, my own logs back up the idea of massive population declines. I saw a couple of Bobwhites in 1997 on the grounds of our house on Grelen Farm, but that was the last time I saw one without going out in search of it. I did hear one--once--from the yard when we lived along Route 15 (2008-2015), but even with our massive grassy lot and plentiful cover, not a single quail ever showed its face.
In fact, since I began keeping year lists in 2004, I have logged a Bobwhite on only a handful of occasions:
--in Cape May at the New Jersey Audubon Society's 2004 Spring Fling weekend
--in Virginia's Rappahannock River Valley NWR in 2005, right after I logged my first Blackpoll Warbler
--in June 2006 when one flew over Route 15 near Green Springs, VA
--in August 2009 along Route 15, a little further south, near Boswell's Tavern
And that's it. I haven't seen or heard a Bobwhite in eight years, and I have grown pessimistic about ever seeing one in my yard again. At this point, I'm not terribly optimistic about ever seeing one period. And that's enough to make anyone sad. 8:04 PM
Day 5: A bird that makes you happy
Well. That was a week. Getting back to classes always takes a little time and adjustment, but this week things were exacerbated by two additional complications: first, the need to construct a new Team Teaching course for Friday morning, which ate up most of Wednesday evening, and second, a trip to Charlottesville on Thursday night to see the David Wax Museum's 10th anniversary/1000th performance gala. The band was in top form, adding a horn section, full rhythm section support, and even a few songs performed on the floor out in the middle of the audience. Getting home after midnight, alas, did throw off the ol' sleep cycle just a bit. And of course one of the things that suffered was blogging.
Still, I'm back and ready to consider the issue of birds and happiness. I want to be careful not to confuse a bird that makes me happy with a bird sighting that makes me happy, because there have been plenty of occasions where I was absolutely delighted to see a bird. First sightings of life birds are a prime candidate for this kind of delight: my first look at the flaming colors of the Western Tanager, for example, or the hell-for-leather stoop of my first Prairie Falcon. But these are literally the only times I've ever seen these birds, so I can't be sure if the bird itself is more delightful than the prospect of adding it to my life list. Unexpected sightings are also very likely to get included on such a list; the Roseate Spoonbill that flew past the Sapelo Island ferry in Georgia a few years back, for example, still makes me smile, partly because it's such a great bird (and one I'd seen only once before) and partly because I took such a terrible, terrible photo:
(Hint: look waaay to the right)
But I wonder whether I should perhaps be picking another kind of bird: one that I see frequently, but which always makes me happy when I do. There are plenty of these. I'm still a bit awed whenever I see a Bald Eagle, despite the fact that they frequent my area, and I feel much the same way about the Great Blue Heron. The bright colors, absurdly bobbing flight, and happy-go-lucky "potato chip" call of the American Goldfinch are a combination that never fails to please, and the spectacle of a Pileated Woodpecker winging its way over me will never become dull.
In the end, however, I decided to go with Clark's Nutcracker (a/k/a the Whiskeyjack) despite the fact that I have seen only a handful, all of them in the state of Wyoming. (I did glimpse a greyish bird in Utah's Bryce Canyon NP in 2008, but couldn't confirm its identity.) In 2013, my parents and I took a trip from Salt Lake City up to Glacier NP, and on the way we spent an evening in Jackson Hole. The next morning I persuaded my folks to take the tram to the top of Rendezvous Mountain, where I got a spectacular look at the Grand Tetons and the surrounding countryside, but I also logged a couple of life birds--albeit somewhat unsatisfying ones. My glimpse of a Black Rosy-finch atop the mountain was just barely good enough to make the ID. Only slightly better was my first look at a Whiskeyjack, which appeared directly below our tram car, winging out of cover and immediately back into it, but clearly displaying its pearly grey body and black-and-white wings en route.
Luckily, a few hours later, we were in Yellowstone NP, and when we stopped at a roadside lavatory, a couple of nutcrackers were hanging out in the evergreens nearby. This gave me ample time to watch them, and I quickly discovered that these birds seem to contain all the mischievous, fun-loving impulses that I've observed in other corvid species--the brashness of the Blue Jay, the experimentalist nature of the American Crow, and the aeronautic skill of the Common Raven. They were loud, talkative birds, and they hopped and flitted around the trees without the slightest concern for the prey or predators to whom they might be announcing themselves.
I was liking them already, but then one of them pulled off one of the boldest, most beautiful, and arguably most foolish maneuvers I've ever seen from a bird, and I fell in love. From a branch high in a pine--at least thirty feet up, probably closer to fifty--the Whiskeyjack stepped off his branch and fell. And kept falling. It's not unknown for a bird to use such a drop to pick up velocity, then spread his wings and swoop off toward a new location, but this guy was still pointing straight at the ground halfway down the tree. And more. He was a grey-and-black deadweight, seemingly plumbing the full height of the tree, wings still held against his body, and I really wondered if I was actually going to witness the first documented bird suicide.
But suddenly, only a few feet from the unforgiving earth, he flicked his wings out, turned them upward sharply, and screeched to a halt, only inches from impact. He landed delicately, looked around for a moment, and let out a jeering chuckle, just to announce to everyone in the area, "I meant to do that."
I don't know this bird well. But the ratio of smiles to encounters is extremely favorable to it. And that makes me happy. 1:06 PM
Day 4: Favorite bird of your favorite genus
Okay, I may have misled you. When I spoke about my fondness for the Melanerpes woodpeckers yesterday, I hinted that my favorite bird might lie outside that genus. I mentioned several birds that I dearly love, including the elegant Black Skimmer and the handsome Tricolored Heron, and I could have mentioned others that I consider wonderful, such as the Peregrine Falcon, Clark's Nutcracker, and Swallow-tailed Kite. But honestly, I knew where this entry was headed even as I wrote yesterday's: straight back into the Melanerpes.
When I was young, Red-headed Woodpeckers were fairly easy to see. There were wetlands all around the neighborhoods where I grew up, and RHWs weren't shy about venturing from them into the housing tracts nearby. I definitely saw them in the late 60s outside our house on Tinkerbell Road, way out east toward Durham. When we moved closer to the center of town, our house on Sugarberry Road backed directly up against a briar-festooned stream (known to us simply as "The Creek," though I've since seen it referred to as Battle Branch, a tributary of Bolin Creek). The water snaked around the kind of dead trees that RHWs and other woodpeckers found almost paradisiacal, and I naively assumed I'd always have them around for my enjoyment.
But in 1976 we moved again, this time to the south side of town, closer to the central namesake of Chapel Hill, and the sight of a Redhead became something I had to travel for. Worse, I was moving into middle school and high school and there were a lot of things distracting me from birds. By the time I got re-introduced to the pleasures of birding, I was 25, and the Red-headed Woodpecker was in decline. Even after we moved to Fayetteville in 1991, I had better luck spotting the rare Red-cockaded Woodpecker than getting regular looks at the RHW. A few years later, I had brief hope that a pair might take up residence on the main quad at Woodberry Forest School; one of the students, an avid birder, helped me spot a couple of immatures in one of the great trees, but after that first year, they never returned.
In short, this is a bird of my childhood, now increasingly elusive, and that sense of loss makes its already stunning beauty almost aching in its purity. The boldness of its pied wings and back would startle in any case, but when they are set against that gorgeous, unmarked red head and neck, there's simply no bird to match it.
I am occasionally reminded, when I see a common bird, that it's actually quite lovely--that the glossy green of the Mallard drake's head or the slaty blue of the Blue Jay would be treasured if they weren't so easy to see.
With the Red-headed Woodpecker, there's no reminder needed. This is a bird I don't just see; it's a bird I feel. And sometimes I miss it more than I can say.
(Photo by Brian Small at Audubon.org)
Day 3: Your favorite genus
For those of you who don't play the taxonomy game very often, I'll just note that a genus is the category of organisms one level more general than a species. In other words, a genus will (almost always) contain a number of different species that resemble one another in certain ways, but which do not (for the most part) interbreed. (The fact that there are so many qualifications in that statement is an indication of just how shaky the concept of "species" is among working biologists.) There's usually more than one genus (plural genera) in a family, and multiple families within an order, and so on up the old King Philip Came Over From Greater Spain mnemonic.
I could just pick a genus based on my single favorite bird species, but realistically, those genera which contain several of my favorite species get a leg up here. It's kind of a song vs. album question; my favorite Elvis Costello song is probably "Man Out of Time
" from Imperial Bedroom
, but there are so many great songs on King of America
that I'd have to rate the latter as my favorite EC record.
Thus, however much I may love the Black Skimmer or the Tricolored Heron, I have to go with the genus that contains multiple awesome species, and that means woodpeckers. The improbable and beautiful overspecialization of woodpeckers makes them alternately amusing, astonishing, and even a bit poignant, if you're the kind of person who, like me, worries about deforestation; let's face it, as trees go, so go the woodpeckers. That said, there are spectacular birds in the family Picidae, and though some may go for the genera that contain Europe's Great Green Woodpecker (Picus) or the Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus), I've got to go with Melanerpes on the strength of these American beauties:
: thanks to its bold but classic combination of black plumage set off by a scarlet head and white belly & rump, I'm always happy to see one.
: the familiar woodpecker of my Southern homeland, filling the woods with its friendly chad call and showing off its ladder-patterned back (see below).
: a stunning, clownish face done up in red, canary, and black, with a sociability and hoarding habit that make its actions a delight to watch.
: a honking great improbability of red, pink, and forest green. You haven't seen anything quite like this.
I still haven't seen the Gila or Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, the other two North American members of the genus, but I'm confident that when I finally do, I won't be disappointed.
Day 2: A bird that you've seen more than three times
A fairly large category, this. I suppose it would be possible to just toss off "European Starling" and go off on a rant, but I kind of took care of that in TV2B. Perhaps it would be better to find a slightly less common bird for today's subject. What'll it be?
How about a regional specialty? If you're a Southerner, you're used to hearing all about Cardinals and Mockingbirds, but one bird that sticks pretty strictly to the lower side of the Mason-Dixon line doesn't get nearly that degree of attention: the Blue Grosbeak.
Perhaps it's the competition from the Indigo Bunting that drives the Big Blue into relative obscurity, but I think there's an argument to be made that it's a handsomer bird. The male's shade of blue is certainly less brilliant than that of the male InBu, but it's plenty rich in itself, shading almost to violet in the right light, and it's perfectly set off by the silvery bill and (especially) the chestnut wing bars. Basically, this bird is accessorized to the max. Nor is the brown-and-chestnut female anywhere near as drab as the female InBu, whose plumage may well be the most generic of any songbird; there is literally no field mark to go by except the utter lack of field marks.
I've spotted Blue Grosbeaks on numerous occasions, but it's still a bit of a thrill to get one, as I typically see them only a few times a year, usually in the summer months. They migrate completely out of the US during the winter, and when they get back to the Southern states, they're here at the time when the heat is most likely to keep me indoors. They seem to turn up almost exclusively in low trees on the edge of open spaces, but of course, that's where they're easiest to see. And of course, every record I have for them is in a state that used to be part of the Confederacy--VA, NC, GA--with the exception of the one I spotted near Cape May, NJ, which is still technically south of the Mason-Dixon line. 6:11 PM
My favorite sighting, however, is probably the one I logged on the bird feeder behind our house on Tiger Drive back in 2005. A male stopped by in late April, flaunting its wing bars to the neighbors, but I didn't see it again. Instead, I got a visit a few days later from the two birds it combines: a male Indigo Bunting on one side of the feeder, and a beautiful male Rose-breasted Grosbeak on the other. It was a pairing that would have delighted me in any circumstance at all, but somehow knowing the bird they were there to replace made their arrival even more satisfying.
I don't know about you, but I really found a lot of value in the last month's approach to blogging. Daily writing is almost always a good spur to creativity, and I find it even more helpful to have a prompt; it spares me the agony of deciding what to write about, and it usually keeps me heading in a single direction (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) rather than writing whatever I can get down and only seeing its ultimate direction after a few hundred words. Basically, using a meme helps me work through a lot of the distractions to which I'm often prone.
Trouble is, there aren't that many topics I want to write about for a month. Music is one of them, obviously, a topic I know from a variety of angles, some professional, and one on which I've had passionate opinions for decades. What else could I talk about at such length?
People who've heard me opining in depth on topics such as geography, the Bill of Rights, or human sexual development are already laughing at the idea that I could have trouble picking a topic, but the truth is that my knowledge is generally broader than it is deep. I know a little about a lot (and almost nothing about even more). But what do I know a lot about? Well, my academic training lies in English and education (though I took almost enough history for a minor--but UNC didn't offer minors in 1985), and the jobs I've worked have fallen almost exclusively in those realms. I've also been paid to make fast food, supervise day campers, wash dishes, serve ice cream, sell books, comics & records, play music, and supervise extracurricular activities ranging from rock climbing to soccer to theater to debate, but do I really know enough about them to sustain anyone's interest? What do people really ask me about.
It should have been obvious from the first, but the obvious has been known to elude me on occasion. There is a subject I've studied at length since my childhood, written about professionally, and spoken about on radio, on television, and in front of live audiences. I even took a sabbatical from my day job so I could go learn more about it from the experts.
Thus, for the next 30 days, this is where I'll be telling you everything I know (and a few things on which I'm willing to make wild speculations) about birds. Like I've never done THAT before.
Day 1: The best bird you saw last year.
I keep track of my sightings on a variety of lists: a life list, a year list (since 2004), and typically a trip list when I go to a new place. Ordinarily I will write down only the most recent sighting for that list--I didn't record every single House Sparrow I saw in 2014, for example--unless there's something especially noteworthy about a particular sighting. I don't log all the Eastern Towhees I hear in the shrubs across the street when I walk to my car in the morning, but I certainly recorded the quartet of Barred Owls that Kelly and I spotted late one night while walking the dog.
Looking back at the last 12 months' worth of listed birds, then, I'm picking through nearly 150 different species. The single largest chunk of them were logged on a late-April count I did with my friend Lee down near Williamsburg, VA, but I had also had a very profitable trip to Virginia Beach with Tom Parker a few weeks earlier. There were some gems in those lists. Williamsburg gave me my first White-crowned Sparrow in several years, one we spotted hopping around near an odd-looking sparrow that caught my eye and eventually revealed itself as a Savannah. We also had a great day for warblers, logging Yellow, Northern Parula, Prothonotary, and Yellow-throated, as well as Yellow-breasted Chat. We even got a Veery and a brief glimpse of a Red-headed Woodpecker.
Tom and I hit the jackpot on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, parking on the first island and scanning the rocks for waterfowl and shorebirds. We saw a surprising number of Common Loons, as well as a Horned Grebe, but our two best birds were close in and easy to spot: a flock of five Brants swam just off the rocks of the island, giving me by far the best look I've ever had at the species. (My two prior views were across a huge marsh at n New Jersey and down from a 200-foot cliff in Seattle.) I also helped Tom get a lifer on the rocks: Purple Sandpiper, which I'd seen only once before, on a rocky piling off Cape May in 2011.
Heck, I was even proud of a solo ID I made over Thanksgiving. We were celebrating with a family vacation to Emerald Isle, NC, and early one morning I went out onto the beach to catch the sunrise (and any birds that might be similarly inclined to catch it.) Presented with an enormous flock of gulls standing to the east of me, I remembered the sage advice first presented to me by Tom Parker, but reiterated by experts like Kevin McGowan and Steve Kress: bird every bird. Most of them were the expected winter-plumage Laughing Gulls, but a few larger birds stood around amongst them. I'd seen Herrings and Greater Black-backs over the past few days, but I dutifully looked over the flock trying to match bills, legs, and backs to the expected species--and got something unexpected:
Just left of center you'll see the unusual suspect: a white-headed dark-backed gull with legs of a definitely yellow cast. Herrings and Greater Black-backs have pink legs, and the back on this bird was definitely too dark for a Herring anyway. This, then, was a Less Black-backed Gull, only the second I'd ever seen, and the first that wasn't on the Avon River in Bath--a definite candidate for Best Bird of the Year.
The true best of the bunch, though, was a sighting that was elevated mostly because of the target: a bird I'd never seen before. Reports of young gulls flocking with other species are a fairly regular feature of Virginia Rare Bird Alerts, but when those reports indicate that the flock is less than a mile from your house, you take notice. This one placed the flock near Brown's Island, just down the James from us, and better still, it was centered around a spot that was easily visible from RVA's newest public structure, the T. Tyler Potterfield Memorial Bridge.
The TPot, as it has inevitably come to be called, is a pedestrian bridge, so if you want to haul your spotting scope onto its span in the early hours of a frigid February morning, the only real danger you face is wind chill. It also provided an excellent view of the flock's roost: a series of ruined towers and pilings remaining from one of Richmond's numerous fallen bridges. In the clear morning light, there was really only one field mark worth looking for at this distance: a big white back. 9:55 AM
We're so used to thinking of gulls as white birds--remember Watership Down?--that we sometimes forget that most have backs of grey or black. That was certainly clear to me as I scanned the birds squatting atop the northernmost piling, a great sheared-off chunk of brick-red stone looming a good thirty feet over the water. Most had backs of slate-grey (the Herrings) or nearly pitch (the Greater Black-backs), with a few immature birds fudging the differences between them, but before long, I was startled by the sight of a gull that was almost pure white in the morning light. In truth, a young Glaucous Gull has a pearly pale-grey back, but its contrast with its fellows was as clear as, well, black and white. The dark-tipped pink bill sealed the ID, and my life list was longer by one species--the only species I've added since my return from Seattle in the spring of 2016.
And that's what it takes to be the best bird of the year.
Day 30: A song that you haven't listened to in awhile
The terrible irony of the rock listener's life cycle is that one's teenage years are defined by the music of the time, but that music is mostly made by people who were teenagers some time before. And now, here we are, watching the musicians most important to us dying off, being instructed by them in matters of mortality just as we were once instructed by them in matters of growing up. Where once upon a time dead rock stars came in only two categories--drug overdose or plane crash--there are now a host of them dead from the ailments of the elderly and middle-aged: heart disease, cancer, depression. And we can't look away--these people are important to us. All we can do is see the name, feel a pang of grief, and play the record.
That's what happened to me over the weekend when I saw the name of Walter Becker, already celebrated in this venue as a founder and driving member of Steely Dan, once my Favorite Band. He was only 13 years older than I, but that decade and a bit gave him a leg up on establishing a music career that changed me and thousands like me. Since hearing about his death, I've read articles about the band's career, grumbled over lists ranking their albums, watched video clips of interviews and speeches (Becker's and musical partner Donald Fagen's Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction speech is well worth the two minutes you'll need to view it), but in some ways, I was most moved by a single image:
Here was Steely Dan reduced to its core members--Fagen sporting Joe Cool's shades at Schroeder's piano, the balding Becker as Charlie Brown--and somehow captured perfectly. Of course this is where they came from. But while Charles Schulz's school-age characters never grew up, instead philosophizing wistfully about the isolation and frustration of a never-ending childhood, Becker and Fagen had grown up and found a way to channel that isolation and frustration into smart, self-aware, and drily ironic art. The passage of time had not broken them; it had sharpened them, and their cold, keen edge gave a generation of nerds hope that they too could use wit and craft to get them through adulthood. I saw the image, and I felt the pang.
There was nothing left to do, then, but play the record. I hadn't listened to it in years, but I thought it would be appropriate to spin the first Dan album I learned to love, 1977's Aja. This is the opening number, a clean, carefully perfected track full of unlikely treasures. It's not my favorite Dan song. It's certainly not my favorite song on this record, and Becker doesn't even play on it. But he made it for me, and long ago it gave me pleasure, and peace, and a little hope. And I thank him for it.
Similarly, as I come to the end of this meme, I give thanks to Q for posing these questions some time ago. They've given me pleasure, and peace, and a little hope that I can still get something written when I need to. Ultimately, though we make art for ourselves, we depend on other artists to show us how; indeed, we learn most of what we know about art by being members of their audiences. I'll never be able to pen a song or bend a note like Walter Becker, but perhaps by thinking about his songs and his notes, I'll better understand what I do and how to do it. 6:45 PM
So: let's go do what we do, people. Drink up and get out of here.
Day 29: A song currently stuck in your head
For this prompt, obviously, there's no choice involved. You go with the song currently rattling around in your skull whether it's one you feel strongly about or not. As it happens, however, the song stuck in my head is one I'm very fond of, by an artist I like very much. Kelly turned me on to the Mountain Goats probably ten years ago, mostly by obsessing over Tallahassee
and its bizarrely cheerful anthem of Hopeless Bleak Despair, "No Children."
(Let me just say that you really haven't lived until you've been standing in a concert venue with a thousand other people lustily singing "I hope you die/ I hope we both die!" at the top of your lungs.) But as I soon began to recognize, the Goats have a lot more to offer than catharsis with a shot of irony.
Anchored by prolific songwriter (and novelist) John Darnielle, the band is arguably a one-man act, but whether you use "it" or "them" or even "he," there's no question that you won't like the Mountain Goats if you don't like Darnielle's voice. It's a little too nasal, or too enunciated, or too something, for a lot of people, and given my own issues with different voices, I am sympathetic, but at the same time unpersuaded. To me the careful enunciation serves to cut through the background noise of the song, lending a valuable clarity to the lyrics, and for all Darnielle's gifts with melody, lyrics are his raison d'etre.
Treading the same fine line that Billy Bragg walks, by which I mean that between big emotional statements and specific bits of imagery, Darnielle is a gifted observer who rarely needs to craft an unusual rhyme to create an arresting verse. Instead, he just lays out a few details to capture your attention: the bottle of St. Joseph's baby aspirin and the Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers... the guy in the skeleton costume... the hawks descending on the rabbit... the smear of Tiger Balm on Sonny Liston's glove... all the little bricks that help build the edifice of the song.
In "Damn These Vampires," those bricks include the hiss of the turbines, the high beams in the rain, and of course the beautiful blue muscle car. If I ever form a Mountain Goats tribute band, which is not beyond the realm of possibility for someone with my track record, it will almost certainly be called the Sapphire Trans-Ams. The themes of addiction, debasement, and faint, distant hope are all lurking in those details, woven in amongst the chiming piano chords and the high-register bass work. It's a beautiful piece of work, this song, and I for one welcome it to my head.
And this time tomorrow? Something else will have crawled in, like a burly baby cuckoo, to shove it out. 7:55 AM
Day 28: A song that reminds you of your boyfriend/girlfriend
I've been married for a little over 31 years now, so well over half my musical experience has been as a married man. Basically, since we started dating in 1985, new music has come in one of several categories: songs that Kelly introduced me to, songs that I first heard in Kelly's presence, or songs that I first heard knowing that she'd probably hear them soon herself.
One of the latter came to me (and to her) through the agency of the late, lamented Readerville.com, which you may recall as my regular online home for most of the Oughts. One year, about a half-dozen of us decided to make up CD mixes of some favorite music and share them, a decision that led me to discover a number of unfamiliar songs, including one called "My Rights vs. Yours." This was my introduction to the New Pornographers, whose blend of tight harmonies, aching melodies, and mysterious lyrics drew me in quickly, and (as soon as I'd picked up a copy of Challengers, the album containing "MRvY") Kelly as well.
How did I know? Well, there's one difference between Kelly and me that becomes fairly apparent in the car: I am far, far morely likely to turn up the music and sing along. It's not that she won't do it, but that she's far more selective about which songs to sing, at least when we're riding together. It wasn't long before I'd first inserted Challengers into the car's CD changer that I began to notice her doing it with the New Pornographers' songs--and especially with "Go Places."
The purity of Neko Case's voice gets a fine showcase on this tune, but I felt pretty sure that wasn't why Kelly enjoyed singing it. She tends to engage with a song based on its lyrics, and before I long, I realized that what she really enjoyed about the song was singing its chorus:
Come head-on, full circle
Our arms fill with miracles
Play hearts, kid, they work well
Like magic, play aces
Stay with me, go places
Once more for the ages
Maybe it's a request, maybe an invitation, maybe an order. But even now, a decade after she began singing it, I hear her and think, "Okay. Okay, I will." 1:46 PM
Day 27: A song you make fun of
Since I have written thousands of words on the subject, many of them over the last month, I suppose I could say that I take popular music very seriously indeed. Unfortunately, I'd be lying. Like every other subject involving human beings, pop music has myriad absurdities to delight and amuse the observer, so mockery is almost always an option. The only real question is what to mock, though an argument about how best to mock it may well follow.
I'm pretty consistent about mocking some musicians. As you know if you've been reading this series of posts, it's hard for me not to joke about Aerosmith's penchant for making practically every song about sex (even the ones I like), or Morrissey's tendency to sing on the third of every chord behind him. I'm also willing to poke fun at artists I thoroughly enjoy, sometimes by mimicking voices; I've been known to try singing in Johnny Cash's voice on countless occasions, testing our household theory that JC could sing anything. (The exceptions so far discovered: "She Bop" and "I've Never Been to Me," but don't assume Johnny would struggle with any song from a female point of view, because I know damn well he could actually pull off "Milkshake" or "Total Eclipse of the Heart.") The alternative approach is to imitate someone singing a song that is wildly inappropriate for them; believe me, there's a lot of cheap laughter to be had when Katharine Hepburn sings the Rolling Stones' "Let It Bleed."
I've even been in a few parody musical acts working this territory. The best-known, for a given value of "known," was the semi-legendary Great Wall of Doo Doo, the world's only Wall of Voodoo tribute band, which I formed in the mid-80s along with Foreign Bodies bassist Dan "Zingo" Munger" and three of the Pressure Boys: vocalist/trombonist John "Zippy" Plymale on guitar, guitarist Bryon "Elmo" Settle on lead vocals, and sound engineer Mike "Cheeseman" Beard on percussion. (I handled keyboards and backing vocals.) Our mission was to perform a variety of our favorite WoV songs ("Red Light," "Call of the West," "Can't Make Love," "Ring of Fire," and of course "Mexican Radio" made the set list), but we also performed a bunch of other songs in the WoV style (which involved an electronic drumbeat, found percussion--Mike's use of the electric football playing field was groundbreaking in this regard--discordant guitars, and a vocal delivered in Stanard Ridgway's distinctive nasal twang, usually out the side of the singer's mouth). These songs included Devo's "Pink Pussycat" and the theme song from Warner Brothers' "Road Runner" TV show, among others, but one of my favorite songs in our repertoire was performed almost straight: Flash & the Pan's "Walking in the Rain."
The combination of slow, pulsing beat, rolling bassline, and slightly suspended block chords was not much like the rest of our set, but Bryon so loved the way the lead singer said the word "billboards" that we were forced to play it. It's the only song by the band that I've ever heard, but it's stuck with me for over 30 years now, and even if it's not entirely accurate to say we made fun of it, we certainly enjoyed the hell out of playing it in the course of our set, and we were certainly making fun of other stuff. I think that gives it a legitimate case for inclusion here. Enjoy! 8:17 AM
Day 26: A song by your favorite band
"Your favorite _________" is a dangerous label for me, as it implies a degree of certainty about something, and I'm nothing if not open to reconsidering an opinion. I'm entirely capable of providing a list of things I like, or things I would consider among my favorites, but it's rare that I'll take the extra time and effort to whittle the entire list down to a single capital-F Favorite. I certainly couldn't do it with books or songs or movies or authors or craft beers, particularly because the choice is often completely dependent on context; the things I get from reading Terry Pratchett are not the same things I get from reading Ursula K. Le Guin or David Quammen or Tom Stoppard, so naming one my Favorite would be an exercise in foolishness.
Oddly, however, I have long been willing to extend the capital F to bands. Perhaps it's the fact that they're collaborative efforts, so I don't feel like I'm singling one particular person out for an ego boost and shafting some other deserving individual. (I certainly don't have a Favorite solo musical artist, though my listening habits, purchasing history, and concert attendance point would all pretty clearly at Robyn Hitchcock.) Perhaps it's the fact that I established a Favorite Band early in life and have thereafter been willing to replace the incumbent; by contrast I've never chosen a favorite book or a favorite song or a favorite writer, so doing it at this point would seem grotesque.
But these are the facts: back in third grade, I decided that the Jackson 5 were my Favorite Band. I now know that much of their appeal came from the work of others, particularly the Funk Brothers and the incredible host of Motown songwriters, but "I Want You Back" is "I Want You Back"
and I simply will not hear a word against it. If that was the only thing the J5 had ever done--ignoring "ABC" and "I'll Be There" and "Maybe Tomorrow" and "The Love You Save" and every other great song--the universe would still be a richer place for "I Want You Back," and my choice of a first Favorite Band would be completely justified.
It didn't last, of course. As one ages, one's exposure to more and more music allows one's attention to captured by many different sounds and styles, and by the time I entered junior high in 1976, I had left the J5 behind and was listening to all kinds of other stuff: the mellow harmonies of America and Seals & Crofts, the now-historic late-career experiments of the Beatles, the mind-expanding brilliance of Stevie Wonder, you name it. In a year or two I'd be digging into everything from Kansas to the Eagles to Earth Wind & Fire, but I still hadn't committed to a new Favorite Band.
That changed in 1977, when I got hit from two directions by Steely Dan. I had long loved the Elliott Randall-driven guitar fest "Reelin' in the Years,"
but I'd never bought the band's debut album, Can't Buy a Thrill
, until roughly the same time I bought their newest release, Aja
, largely on the strength of its first single, "Peg."
The all-but-impenetrable snark of the lyrics, whose references to drugs and sex and California culture left me mystified, did nothing to turn me away from the tasteful sneer of Donald Fagen's voice, the sonic precision of their rhythms, and the seemingly endless parade of fantastic session men: Steve Gadd, Larry Carlton, Wayne Shorter, Jay Graydon, and the background voice of a generation, Michael McDonald. Long before I bought a third Dan album, I had made the change: Steely Dan was now my new Favorite Band.
That lasted a little over a year.
Though I'd heard plenty of their songs as individual pieces, particularly those from Tommy
(whose overture, as played by the Assembled Multitude
, had been a hit single in 1970), I didn't know much about the Who. That changed during the summer of 1979, right after my sophomore year of high school, when I happened to read a Rolling Stone
review of the new movie about the band, The Kids Are Alright
. Curious, I decided to attend a showing, and I walked out of the theater changed. The final performance of the film--indeed, the final performance of the Who, at least as the band was originally formed--is a live and all-out assault on "Won't Get Fooled Again"
(see Day 23) that triumphs over every expectation. If I'd never bought the soundtrack, never gone on to purchase copies of Who's Next
and Who Are You
and ever other album the band had released to that point, that one performance alone might have driven me to declare the Who my new Favorite Band.
Again, it was not a designation that would be held for long, because I started college in the fall of 1981, and in January of 1982, I was well into my career as a DJ at WXYC. I worked the 9 a.m. to noon shift on Sunday, right after Triangle Slim's trad-music show, "The Orange County Special," but before "Jazz on a Sunday Afternoon," which ran from noon to four. One Sunday I dipped my hand into the playbox of new music and pulled out a 12" single by a band whose name seemed vaguely familiar, but I couldn't have told you why: XTC. The song was called "Senses Working Overtime," and after I did my duty to the station by dropping the needle down, my life would never be the same.
With their wit, their astonishing gift for melody, and their seemingly endless creativity with arrangements, XTC became my favorite band soon after that, and despite years of frustration for their fans, a gradual disintegration to a duo, and then a final breakup in the wake of their 2000 release Wasp Star, they have never released their hold on that position. I remain entranced by the jangling swirl of English Settlement, the pounding post-punk snarl of Black Sea, the loving neo-psychedelia of their best-known album, Skylarking (not to mention their hippie-dippie alter egos, the Dukes of Stratosphear). Though I've loved many bands I've discovered since elevating XTC, including They Might Be Giants, R.E.M., the Mountain Goats, and the Roches, they're still the ones I automatically think of when the word "favorite" comes up. They earned their capital F long ago, and I have to wonder at this point if there exists a band capable of taking it from them. Watch this space. 4:12 PM