September 2017 Archives
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 bad 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 tat'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