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Greater Honeyguide About Peter Cashwell



So I wrote a play.

This is new territory for me. Having written nonfiction, short stories, novels, poetry, and most other forms of writing, I guess it was inevitable that I would eventually drift into writing drama, but in some ways it surprises me that it took so long. I mean, I've been working in theater in some capacity for years, starting back when I was 15, and I've done practically everything that can be done in a theater other than costuming and makeup. Why didn't I write a play before?

Well, I should note that I've tried to write a play before. I adapted a favorite graphic novel (Kyle Baker's WHY I HATE SATURN) a few years ago, but when I discovered Baker didn't own the rights to it, I figured there was no chance of ever getting permission to stage it. I've also written some fragmentary bits that may turn into a play someday, but I suspect I'll need to change a few things (including the working title, "Crepuscule with Nellie.") But this was the first time that I'd been hit with an idea for a play and actually managed to get into a fully-constructed form.

The idea hit me after Kelly and I drove down to Alabama at the end of July. En route, we listened to Bill Bryson's audiobook of his Shakespeare biography, and I was reminded of something I learned while researching Along Those Lines: that Thomas Bowdler's famous expurgated edition of Shakespeare's plays was actually created primarily by his sister Harriet. Unfortunately, as an unmarried woman, she could not be acknowledged as the plays' editor. Not only would it have been unseemly for her to take on such an editorial role, Harriet could not be credited with removing the naughty bits from the plays because she would have to admit to understanding why they were naughty. 

That particular Catch-22 struck me, and I began thinking a play about the Bowdlers themselves might be better than the bowdlerized versions of Shakespeare's plays, and that led me to look more deeply into the family's history, which turned out to be fascinating. Despite their reputation as bluenoses par excellence, the Bowdlers were surprisingly unconventional in some ways--such as the fact that Thomas/Harriet's mother and older sister Jane were both published (albeit anonymous) authors, which was highly unusual in the late 1700s. Brother John was a retired businessman who spent his later years pushing for prison reform and resisting reform of the Anglican Church, while sister Frances was the only member of their generation who did not write for publication--but she turned up in print because of her friendship with diarist/novelist Fanny Burney.

Other than their names and publications, however, I opted to ignore the Bowdlers' history, creating my own versions of their characters and playing with the conventions of theater as I saw fit. I have added several original characters to the mix, cooked up an utterly ahistorical plotline, and thrown in a lot of jokes, and I don't apologize for any of it. I'm waiting on feedback from some trusted readers, some with theatrical experience, some with literary chops, some with both, but if I can wrestle the next draft into shape, perhaps I can figure out how to get this thing staged somewhere.

I'm calling it The Kindest Cut. We'll see where it goes from here.

6:52 PM

Missing Out

As former SFWA president, friend of the blog, and general all-around mensch Marta Randall is fond of reminding me, "The Golden Age of Science Fiction is thirteen." It is demonstrably true that in my case, at least, the things I was fond of circa 1976 are things I remain fond of, even if time and experience has proven to me that a lot of it was pretty bad.

I mean, I am almost always delighted when I'm in a used book store and stumble across an old Bantam paperback of one of Doc Savage's adventures. I first came across Doc in his short-lived Marvel Comics version back in 1972, but I wasn't really hooked until I found a copy of The Derrick Devil while visiting my grandparents. The fantastic gadgetry, the exotic locales and period details, the nonstop bickering of Ham and Monk, and Doc's total unflappability combined to make me a huge fan of Kenneth Robeson's creation. That didn't change when I found out Robeson didn't exist, except as a pen name for Lester Dent and and a handful of other pulp writers, and it certainly didn't change when I grew up, re-read one of my old Bantam books, and realized... man, that prose is just plain not good.

The point, however, is that this realization in no way makes me dislike Doc Savage. If the rumored Doc movie starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson ever materializes, I will be there. I will pay money. And if it's any good, I will say a prayer of gratitude to the cinema gods who previously rained down misery upon Doc fandom with the 1975 Ron Ely movie. 

It's that cinematic connection that has me thinking about adolescent fandom, because we're about to be presented a movie version of a book that is beloved by millions: the Ava Duverney film of Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time. I've seen the previews, and they look pretty darned good. I'm also excited by the prospect of seeing a fantasy/SF movie in which so many of the faces onscreen are nonwhite. Oprah Whitney is getting top billing, with Mindy Kaling also getting a starring role and Gugu Mbatha-Raw playing the mother of protagonist Meg Murry. Prominent white actors will be appearing as well--Chris Pine as Meg's father, with Reese Witherspoon and Zach Galiafinakis also in prominent roles--but Meg herself (played by Storm Reid) and her brother Charles Wallace are being presented as biracial, which has got to be some kind of first for a major motion picture.

(I'll admit to a little personal fondness for the idea of biracial representation. Though I can pass for a WASP with ease, my maternal Azhkenazi heritage has always made me root for characters with parents and grandparents in multiple categories.)

But for all my interest in the movie... I never read the book. Not when I was a kid. Back in 5th grade, Ms. Fulton would regularly show us episodes of Cover to Cover , which introduced me to many of my favorite books: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, The Children of Green Knowe, Ben and Me... I remember seeing them all read and illustrated by host John Robbins. And I vividly recall seeing the episode featuring L'Engle's book. When I next got to the school library, I flipped through it, and may have even checked it out, but I never got through it. I picked it up a couple of times over the next few years, because I genuinely saw plenty of reasons why I would like it, but for some reason it never quite grabbed me.

Well, over the last year, I've had cause to seek a fair amount of comfort reading--I can't imagine how the real world might have produced that need--and I've looked back at a number of old favorites. I re-read all seven of the Chronicles of Narnia over the summer, and I recently plowed through Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea trilogy (ignoring the later books in the so-called Earthsea Cycle, which I read as an adult.) I haven't lost my critical faculties at all; I recognize Lewis's misogyny and paternalism quite easily, thanks, and I appreciate the depth of Le Guin's worldbuilding even more now than I did when I first fell in love with her work. But there's no question that my very real affection for the work of Le Guin and Lewis, warts and all, rests on a foundation laid down before I first shaved.

And that foundation simply doesn't exist for L'Engle. I missed out. And now there's nothing I can really do about it.

I finally read A Wrinkle in Time last year, well after turning fifty. And it was... fine. There were elements I quite liked, but at the same time, so much of it seemed dated, or tame, or derivative. Obviously, it's NOT really derivative; it's simply so influential at this point that other creators in other media have used it as a source. But having come to it so late in life, I simply can't appreciate it for what it is in the minds of so many others. I hope it the movie kicks ass at the box office, and I hope I can glean from that cinematic treatment some of the joy I couldn't get from the book.

But man. I am so, so glad John Robbins did a show about A Wizard of Earthsea.

7:22 PM

Blue Virginia

I'm happy about the statewide victories by Ralph Northam, Justin Fairfax, and Mark Herring. It's good to feel that my fellow Virginians have rejected the kinds of fanatical tribalism pushed by Trump-Lite candidates such as Ed "MS 13" Gillespie and Jill "Transvaginal Ultrasound" Vogel. But these aren't the most important victories of the week. Those might be explained away (as a number of conservative commentators are trying to do) by saying "Oh, Virginia's a blue state, with a bunch of socialist swamp creatures in the DC suburbs. Of COURSE a Democrat won there." I don't think that's true--witness the reliably red Richmond suburb of Chesterfield County going to Northam--but it's at least something that could happen in theory.

But it doesn't explain what happened all over the state.

Last Tuesday, in districts whose gerrymandering has been a major project of the state GOP, voters selected their representatives for the House of Delegates. That gerrymandering had been successful enough to leave the Republicans in firm control of the House, with an advantage of 66 seats to 34, nearly a two-thirds majority. That majority has encouraged the GOP to pursue victory in the culture war here in the Commonwealth, proposing laws that would defund Planned Parenthood, protect civil servants who refused to perform same-sex marriages, etc. And only the governor's veto has been able to stop them. In short, there's a reason why Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe broke the all-time record for vetoes by a Virginia governor in only 3 years, 2 months of service.

And on Tuesday? That powerful majority vanished in a puff of orange-colored air.

In district after district, angry Democrats took to the polls to send a clear message to the party of Trump. With plenty of fresh candidates, many of them women, offering challenges to Republican incumbents, the 34 sitting Democratic delegates were joined by new faces. Six were declared almost as the polls closed Tuesday night. Then a few more results came in, and a few more, and a few more, and suddenly Blue Virginia was whispering about the impossible dream--could we actually flip the House?

That's still unknown as of this writing. There are four races too close to call and the recounts have yet to take place; in fact, candidates can't even call for a recount until the results are officially certified on November 20th. One district in Newport News is currently showing a GOP lead of a mere 13 votes, so we can pretty much assume a recount will be requested there, and any race where the margin is less than 1% can legally go to one. But even without the recounts, Democrats currently hold 49 seats. Any change in the results would strip the Republicans of their control of the chamber. (They still hold the state senate 21-19.) And perhaps most importantly, even if the GOP clings to its majority, it will face not only the obstacle of a veto from Northam, but the necessity of complete unanimity. If even one Republican delegate refuses to go along with the party, the GOP cannot win a vote.

In other words, what I see as I look around the Commonwealth is the promise of better days ahead--unless you're a Republican. So long as GOP incumbents clings to the corruption of Trump, the cowardice of Ryan and McConnell, and the moral bankruptcy of Roy Moore, they will face the prospect of removal from office in 2018 and beyond. And nowhere is that more true than here in Virginia.

As Kelly put it, thinking of the 5th district's Republican Congressman, "I hope Dave Brat is looking at these results and shivering in a puddle of cold urine."

12:11 PM

50/50 Project Map Update

Howdy, all. I thought it was time to post an update of the map I posted a few years back showing my progress on the 50/50 Project. (You can make your own map right here.) For those of you who don't follow this blog obsessively, 50/50 is my continuing quest to see a life bird in each of the 50 states. Following last year's trip to the Pacific Northwest, I'm now standing at 37 states checked off. There are still a number of states I haven't visited (the Dakotas, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Alaska) as well as a frustrating number I've visited without logging a lifer, and now you can see them all in living color!


(Red states are those where I've seen a life bird; pale blue states are those I've visited without seeing a lifer; dark blue states I have not visited at all.)

*Alaska is likely to be the final state on this list; I very much want to go there, but I suspect it will be easy to get a life bird once I do.
*Kentucky is probably the state I'm most worried about; I've got to somehow see a new bird despite the fact that I've already seen lifers in pretty much every habitat in the area, so the only birds left there are birds that are relatively hard to find.
*I've barely spent time in Arkansas, so it's not shocking that I don't have a lifer there.
*I'm targeting Wisconsin and Minnesota next. We have friends in those states whom we keep intending to visit, so they seem like reasonably tempting possibilities.
*Georgia. Fucking Georgia. I have family there. My grandparents are buried there. I have traveled there for work and for pleasure. I have been there dozens of times in my life, and have birded some parts of it hard. And I've got nothing. Sapelo Island? Been there. Okefenokee Swamp? Been there. Harris NWR? Been there repeatedly. And NOTHING new has appeared. I'll be back, and I'll be ready, but jeez, Peach State, give it up already.

Updates as warranted

8:31 AM

After two solid months of meme-related material, perhaps it's time to take a moment for updates on the writer's life. 

*The biggest news is the change of address for Dixon, who moved to his new digs in Carrboro, NC, three weeks ago. He starts a new job tomorrow, and he and his housemates are planning to establish some form of artistic collective there, so his upcoming adventures promise to be interesting ones. He has already put together an electronic-music soundtrack for a play (Dante Piro's "Level 4," which is set in a video game), which you can hear or even purchase from the folks at Bandcamp here. He's also working on finishing up a script for his current artistic collective, Nu Puppis, which hopes to stage it in December. We'll keep you updated.

*What this means for Kelly and me, of course, is a bit of a lifestyle change. Our apartment is small enough that going from three occupants to two makes a noticeable difference in space, so that's good. On the less positive side, we don't have a strong young back to take care of certain chores (taking out the trash, say), and the unfortunate fact is that Dixon was becoming a pretty damned good cook by the time he left, so now my own inadequacies in the kitchen are a bigger part of our routine. Dixon has been my regular sounding board for ideas about art and music and theater for a good while now, and I'm already missing our conversations about such topics, but I'm truly excited about the possibilities his move offers him, so I'll muddle through. Alas, the one person who cannot fall back on such comforting thoughts is Ripley, who's only in our house at all because Dixon insisted we spend time with her at the SPCA. She's not lying by the door howling or anything, but there's definitely a bit of separation anxiety making itself known; if Kelly's at home with her and I've been gone for a few hours, Ripley will reportedly climb off the sofa and begin pacing anxiously around the living room. Basically, when she gets her next visit with Dixon, she's going to lose her tiny doggie mind.

*It's been a fairly light summer for birding (perhaps the lingering effect of my big spring count and the tick bite and illness that followed it), but I did manage to get the year's first Northern Harrier during a trip to Dutch Gap Wildlife Reserve yesterday. It was particularly pleasant because I was leading a birding trip there for a student and his grandfather, and the former had never seen a Harrier; the latter had, but he knew it as a "Chicken Hawk." The weirdest FOY bird of recent months, however, came a week earlier, when I was down in Chapel Hill. I was dropping off some of Dixon's stuff, such as his dresser and his guitar, and spending the night at my parents' place. The weather was cool enough to make sitting on their screen porch just about perfect, so I took my morning cup of coffee outside and monitored their feeders for a while. The usual suspects appeared--cardinals, titmice, chickadees--but I was also able to see a small, drab bird flit into the small tree near the corner of the porch. Other than its small size and active behavior, I couldn't see many field marks, but its GISS was screaming "warbler." I got a glimpse of the thin bill, so that much was confirmed, but there still wasn't much in the way of field marks--except a small white patch on the edge of the wing: the "pocket handkerchief" mark. Yes, there in the leaves was a young female Black-throated Blue Warbler. It's not as striking as the adult male, but by gum, I'll take it.

*With the start of the school year, I have found myself staying on top of the academic stuff pretty well, but my pleasure reading has taken a HUGE hit. Since September 5th, I have finished only two books. One was a re-reading of Tom Standage's entertaining but feather-light A History of the World in Six Glasses, which examines the development of beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and cola. The second was a delightful "graphic novel," which is a term I hate to use for a nonfiction book: Dinosaur Empire!, Abby Howard's first book in the Earth Before Us series. It's ridiculously informative, thanks to Abby's paleontological background, and you'll find touches of her trademark black humor throughout, but it's primarily intended to let young readers know just how cool prehistoric animals really were, and it succeeds on that level very well.

*I should note that I read all the time, and regularly fall asleep with a book in my hand, but over the last month or so I've been primarily re-reading bits of old graphic novels on such occasions. And of course I've been reading scores of student papers, but that's not really reading for pleasure. I mean, I don't do it if they don't pay me.

*At the end of July, Kelly and I took her new convertible Beetle for a test-drive to Huntsville, Alabama. NOTE TO TRAVELERS: this is not a city to target for a visit during high summer. It was over ninety every day we were there, and the humidity was impressive even to a native Carolinian like myself. Luckily, we spent most of the week indoors with our friend Q, who showed us such tourist attractions as Unclaimed Baggage, the nation's only place to buy all the stuff that gets lost during air travel. Some of it comes from suitcases, some from unclaimed shipments of manufactured goods, but whatever it is, you can buy it there: clothing, kitchenware, books, musical instruments, shoes, camping equipment, jewelry, and electronics galore. Computer and phone chargers are so numerous you can buy them for $0.99 each. I bought a Kindle for fifteen bucks. I haven't used it yet, but at least now I know I CAN travel without carrying dozens of books. We also found a high quality microphone, so when we eventually get down to recording our podcast, Kelly and I will sound good.

*One of Huntsville's main attractions is Lowe Mill, a retired textile mill now divided up into offices and stalls for artists of all sorts: photographers, potters, architects, painters, printmakers, cigar-box luthiers, you name it. Q's own textile-based business, The Foldout Cat, is there, with yarns, fabrics, crocheted and knitted items, and a variety of delicious baked goods. She also has several looms set up to do the specialized variety of weaving known as saiko, which is fun to do, as well as likely to produce cool materials. There is also a shop specializing in gourmet popsicles, some of which are alcoholic, so even if you don't enjoy the artistic offerings, you can still have a darned good time.

*It's been an odd season of writing. For reasons I can't really explain, I started writing a play. I think the spark of the idea was ignited while Kelly and I were driving to and from Huntsville, listening to the audio version of Bill Bryson's Shakespeare: The World As a Stage. I've been a Bryson fan for decades now, and I greatly enjoyed the chance to hear him sound off on the Bard's biography. I learned a good bit that I didn't know, such as the fact that the current Globe Theatre is almost entirely based on a description written and sketched by a single Dutch tourist, but I also got to thinking about the issue of playwrighting, and during some conversations with Kelly, the germ of an idea appeared. I came home, sat down, and began pounding out ideas. By the time school started again, I was about sixty percent of the way done, and now I'm closing in on the 80% mark. I'm hoping that I'll celebrate New Year's Day with a completed draft, and then I can try to figure out how the heck a guy gets a play produced.

*And if you dont already know, the subtitle of this entry is a play on the chorus of "Marduk T-Shirt Men's Room Incident" by the Mountain Goats.

10:34 AM

The Bird Meme: Day 30

Day 30: Your favorite bird of all time

Avis postera

Well, here we are again: the finale of another 30-day writing prompt. Granted, it took me 40 days to get here, but you have to allow for some flexibility, especially during the school year.

The final prompt, however, is one that feels a bit redundant. I've already had to name favorites in so many different categories (and in many cases define the categories) that I can't say I have much interest in picking yet another fruit from the same branch. You already know I like Red-headed Woodpeckers, and Canyon Wrens, and Northern Shovelers, Northern Cardinals, Wood Thrushes, Peregrine Falcons, etc. And I already know this: having seen any one of them, I would cheerfully ignore it for the chance to see a different bird. The second bird wouldn't even have to be a lifer--it would just have to be something I hadn't already seen in the last few minutes.

It's only logical to conclude, therefore, that my favorite bird is Avis postera: the next bird. I went out this morning to see the next bird, and I did. And then I saw the next bird, and the next, and the next. Every time I bird, I am hoping to see my favorite bird, and every time I bird, I am successful.

We travel through our lives one bird at a time, and if we stop wanting to see the next one, we run the risk of stopping altogether. That is a risk I am not yet prepared to take.

So: onward and upward.


11:52 AM

The Bird Meme: Day 29

Day 29: A bird everyone hates but you like

Red-winged Blackbird

A strange prompt, this one. For one thing, I don't really know that I could name a bird that everyone hates, though it seems likely that the least popular species in the North American count area would most likely be the invasive ones--with the foreigners, European Starling and House Sparrow, at the top of the list, with invaders from other regions  (such as the House Finch) coming just below them. I suspect even the more attractive members of the exotic species will attract at least some ire, since the Mute Swan and Ring-necked Pheasant are displacing some native birds, but the Ring-neck has been embraced by many Americans, including those in South Dakota, who made it their state bird. I'm not sure yet what to make of the rapidly expanding population of Eurasian Collared-Doves, which don't seem to have attracted the same kind of hatred as the Starling, despite being equally exotic,

But if I can't think of a bird everyone actively loathes, I can certainly name a bird that hardly any birders actively love. Indeed, the Red-winged Blackbird would seem to be so widespread and so conspicuous that many birders consider it beneath their notice. In my youth, they weren't a common sight in Chapel Hill, but any trip to visit my mom's family in the Low Country of South Carolina would scare up redwings aplenty. I therefore got used to viewing them as something of a treat, a slightly exotic bird of the marshlands whose liquid rattles were part of the background music of the Sea Islands--the feathered version of the cicada.

There's no question that the male is both stunning and woefully underappreciated. The glossy jet-black plumage is accented perfectly by the two epaulets, scarlet chased with yellow, patches providing just enough color to pop out from the contrasting background. (It's also a combination of colors that I particularly love; the tricolored German flag is one of my very favorite examples of vexillology.) In addition, the sleek shape, from pointed bill to stiff tail, makes it look completely at home in the air--a bird fully deserving a namesake like the SR-71 spy plane.

But I understand why some people don't appreciate them: they're common as dirt. As hydrogen, even. When I arrived in Iowa City in 1995, I was stunned by their numbers. There seemed to be a redwing atop every stalk of grass in the Hawkeye State. No matter how beautiful a bird is, there comes a point where its ubiquity drowns out its beauty. Stars are beautiful, too, but after a cluster of them gets too big, they stop being pretty and become either commonplace or actively painful to look out. In parts of the country, I feel confident that the Red-winged Blackbird has become the former, though I can't rule out the latter.

In addition, there's nothing especially gorgeous about the female or the juvenile male. Other than the pointed bill and the general size and shape, there's not much similarity with the male's field marks, and streaks of mottled brown don't excite many birders no matter what bird is sporting them. So yeah, I can see why people don't get excited about them. I also understand why not everyone loves Robyn Hitchcock's music, or the novels of John Varley, or a perfectly-cooked batch of collard greens. De gustibus non est disputandum, as the poet says.

But don't ever let me hear you calling the redwing a "trash bird."

8:15 PM

The Bird Meme: Day 28

Day 28: Favorite bird name

Nomenclature and I go back a long ways. I can get picky about the names of everything from a super-hero to an album, from a sports team to a small town, so believe me, there are plenty of things I can say about the names of birds.

For one thing, there's the important fact that we are discussing names, plural. Each bird species has at the very least a scientific name, a/k/a the Latin binomial from the system devised by Linnaeus, and a common name used by the people who live in its habitat. And should that habitat extend over an area where the people speak more than one language, well, you're going to have to decide whether you want to talk about Alauda arvensis, an Alouette, or a Skylark. 

For myself, I'll just note that even though I do love some binomials dearly--Troglodytes troglodytes, Pica pica, and Upopa epops are all high on the list--I think this discussion is best reserved for common names, and only those in English, since this is the category with which I am by far the most familiar. Indeed, I think I'll even limit myself to the North American birds, rather than create an argument over whether the New World birds named after Old World birds--Robin, Redstart, Magpie, etc.--have better names on one side of the pond or not. With those caveats, let's consider the issue: would a Rosy-finch by any other name smell as sweet?

For the most part, American bird names are functional rather than elegant. Some are bluntly descriptive: Yellow-throated Warbler, Black Phoebe, Red-throated Loon. Some describe the habitat where the bird will likely be seen: Spruce Grouse, Mississippi Kite, Mountain Chickadee. A handful are named after the bird's call: Killdeer, Bobwhite, Whip-Poor-Will) and a fair number are given eponymous names to honor a naturalist who described them (Audubon's Shearwater, Lewis's Woodpecker, Harris's Hawk.) Few American birds receive names that demonstrate any real creativity, but here's a quick list of some that do--my Top Ten of American Bird Names:

10. Brown Creeper
9. Snowy Egret
8. Hermit Thrush
7. Prothonotary Warbler
6. Razorbill
5. Evening Grosbeak
4. Loggerhead Shrike (who should really be a Dickens character)
3. Yellowhammer (which isn't officially the Northern Flicker's name, but a nickname I love)
2. Magnificent Frigatebird

And at number one? The best name altogether combines a basic functionality (describing the bird's color and behavior) with a perfectly assembled set of phonemes that make it sound even cooler than it is. This is a bird whose name might well have been chosen by Jack Kirby for a guest character in an old Avengers comic. (Though now that I think about it, I can actually imagine Kirby having Captain America locked in mortal combat against the Brown Creeper, or pitting Iron Man against the man called... RAZORBILL.!) 

You simply will not find any name cooler than... 

Black Vegetable.jpg
Oh, all right. The Black Skimmer, then.

9:05 PM

The Bird Meme: Day 27

Day 27: The most surprising sighting of a bird

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

Some entries for this meme are real puzzlers. Some are not. This would be one of the latter.

It's not that I haven't had plenty of surprises when birding. Finding a Canada Goose nesting in a hollow tree? Surprising. Spotting my first Chuck Will's Widow perched about a foot off the ground three feet from a boardwalk in Corkscrew Swamp? Unexpected. Encountering an American Woodcock on the ground outside the downtown Richmond SPCA? Unusual.

But when it comes to the most surprising sighting, I'm going to have to go with one that ticks off all the boxes on the checklist:

1. Preparation: if I'm outside with a pair of binoculars, I'm not necessarily counting on a good bird, but I'm clearly out there looking for a bird of some kind. A truly surprising sighting would therefore have to come in a situation where I'm neither seeking birds nor equipped to spot them at any distance.

2. Location: after I've been birding in an area for a while, I have a tendency to assume that any bird I see will be a local. It doesn't take long; after I'd been in Seattle for a few days, I was ready to assume any gull I spotted was a Glaucous-winged, and in the majority of cases, I was right; I was similarly inclined to assume any big black bird was an American Raven after spending only a day or two in the Four Corners region. In short, if a bird's going to shock me, it's going to have to appear in a place outside its usual range.

3. Probability: a surprise bird has to be a matter of long odds in every way. The bird has to be in an unlikely place and an unlikely time, sure, but the bird is not the only element to consider here; we must also consider the birder. If I'm in a place I frequent, only the bird has to do anything unusual, but if I'm passing through an area I rarely go, the improbability of the bird's presence is multiplied by the improbability of my own. It's not just a flying arrow hitting a stationary target, but an arrow hitting another arrow in midair.

And sure enough, my Most Surprising Sighting qualifies in all these ways. I saw the bird when I wasn't birding, or even remotely prepared to bird; I was driving home from helping a friend move, with neither optics nor a field guide to help me see or identify anything I saw, and my mind was on the fact that Kelly and I would be celebrating our 14th anniversary that night. The bird was nearly a thousand miles outside its usual range, having decided to spend the summer nesting with its partner in a habitat far away from home, and I had seen no rare bird alerts that might have notified me about its presence. And finally, I was taking a road I had never taken before, curious about whether it might save me a few minutes returning from my friend's new place; the bird never returned to that nesting place after summer's end, and I'm not sure I ever drove that road again, turning our meeting into a singular event indeed.

I can also report that the silhouette of a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher is equally singular. Though I had never seen one in the flesh, I knew exactly how it was shaped, thanks to many years of flipping through Peterson, and when I spotted that shape on a barbed-wire fence along Virgina Route 647 just north of the Rapidan River between Unionville and Orange, I had no doubt about the bird's identity. What I had significant doubt about was whether I had hallucinated it or not. The cloud of dust I kicked up from hard braking on the dirt road threatened to obscure the flycatcher entirely, but fortunately it hung around long enough for me to see it again, confirm the silhouette, take note of the pearly-grey body, and spot the salmon-pink wing linings when it took off to fly to the nest it had built on a nearby pylon. Against all odds, and all logic, I was celebrating my anniversary with a life bird from the Great Plains.

I finally spotted a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher in its native habitat almost exactly eleven years later, when my father and I were spending a night in Emporia, Kansas, on the way to Denver. It was still a beautiful bird, and a treat to list once more, but there's no question that Sighting #2 did not--could not--live up to Sighting #1. Of all the improbable moments I have enjoyed since I took up birding, that July afternoon ranks as the most improbable, and one of the most delightful.

4:40 PM

The Bird Meme: Day 26

Day 26: A bird that changed your opinion about something

Savannah Sparrow

If you've read Along Those Lines, you may recall the story of my struggle to accurately gauge my birding skills when I was signing up for the Spring Field Ornithology course at Cornell. Given the three available categories--Beginner, Intermediate, and Expert--I opted to list myself in the Intermediate column. And if you recall that I was at the time hanging out with people like Tim Gallagher, Steve Kress, and Kevin McGowan, you'll probably agree with me that I took the correct option.

Still, even given my tendency to hang out with people who are far better birders than I, every once in a while I manage to do something to alter my opinion of my own skills. Sometimes I can take credit for simply noticing something that the rest of the group did not--a bird in the road far, far ahead of our bus on the SFO trip to Cape May, for example. It turned out to be a Turkey Vulture, nothing special, but I was still rather pleased to spot it before Steve Kress was even aware it was there.

To make a bigger shift in my self-image, however, requires more than open eyes; it requires open eyes and a healthy dollop of intuition. Such was the case near the end of April, when I accompanied my colleague Lee Bristow down to the Williamsburg area to help him with a breeding bird count. It was a perfect day for birding, and when we met a pair of Lee's old friends at a strip mall just after sunrise, I could tell that we were in for a productive day. 

Lee is an ear birder by preference, and on this occasion he hadn't even bothered to bring a pair of binoculars; instead, he simply wandered around announcing the name of whatever he heard, allowing the rest of us to track it down and log it. It was a remarkably effective system, I have to say, because we were jotting down species at a furious rate all through the early morning, even though much of the habitat didn't seem promising: lots and lots of post-industrial landscape gone to weeds and scrub, but full of spring breeders: Blue Grosbeak, Great Crested Flycatcher, Indigo Bunting, Field Sparrow, you name it.

At one point we boarded the cars and headed through the remnants of an old outlet center for pottery, one where the long driveway to the main road was lined with hedges, and we began spotting a lot of activity in the shrubs: a White-eyed Vireo here, a Common Yellowthroat there, so we were taking it fairly slowly. I was in Lee's passenger seat, window down, and off in the hedge I noticed a small, streaky sparrow. 

We had already logged a number of Song Sparrows, and there was no good reason for me to assume this bird was anything else, but nonetheless, I asked Lee to stop while I brought my binoculars up. Yeah, there it was, not too deep into the leaves, but not giving me the clearest look at its field marks, either. I could see streaky sides, a pinkish bill, reddish wings, strong lines on the side of its head... nothing that precluded SoSp, but nothing I could really rest a different ID on. I turned my attention to the legs--pink--and waited to get a glimpse of its breast, which finally revealed the hint of a darkish spot. 

By now, everything I knew about Song Sparrows, and everything I could see in my field guide, was telling me to make the call and move on; we had plenty of territory to cover yet, and this was just one rather drab bird. But something kept nagging at me, an element of posture or plumage that I couldn't quite reconcile with the obvious bird. I kept looking for something, and finally, with a slight shift on the part of the bird's perch, I had it: a look at its tail.

Which was notched.

Song Sparrows have all of the field marks I've mentioned above, but their tails are long and rounded. That meant this had to be something else. And as it gradually moved into better view and revealed a slight yellowish cast to its head, the bird at long last announced its identity to us: Savannah Sparrow. It's not a bird I've seen often, but with patience, careful consideration of the field marks, and an unusual willingness to trust my instincts as a birder, I had brought in my first of 2017. And when Lee and his friends commended me for the check on our list, I felt even more like a Real Birder.

Better still, by stopping for the Savannah, we'd left ourselves in a position to look at a second unusual visitor: the first White-crowned Sparrow I'd seen in several years.

And that, in a nutshell, is why I consider the Savannah Sparrow a bird that can help me reassess my opinions. It has little effect on my thinking when it comes to music or politics, but if it keeps me out in the field with a pair of binoculars, it's a change I welcome.

8:40 PM


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