Friday, February 27, 2009

Book Review: Birding for Everyone – Encouraging People of Color to Become Birdwatchers

Birding for Everyone: Encouraging People of Color to Become Birdwatchers. By John C. Robinson. 2008. Wings-on-Disk, Marysville, Ohio. Order from On My Mountain.

The typical review that I’m used to writing essentially assesses whether the book (or CD, in one recent example) is up to snuff as an ornithological reference. In doing so, I rely upon my own knowledge and experience with the birds of the region, as well as comparisons to similar works. This book doesn’t fit the mold of my usual review subjects, and I can’t really say that it allows comparison with similar literature. First of all, it’s more or less a social commentary, not a birding reference. And as far as comparing it to other similar works, no book on this topic has ever been published (though I do remember a brief look into the issue in the Birding magazine a few years ago). I think this is the book’s primary strong point and one that makes it worth reviewing.

In my reviews I also occasionally comment on the language, writing style, and organization of information, mostly simply based on my impression of how well I’ve managed to understand what is being communicated and how well I’ve followed the author’s point of each section. Not being a professor of English or a literary genius, my opinion bears little weight. But I take requests of writing reviews seriously and don’t hesitate to give my opinion here.

I will stick to this format for my writing this review, even though the nature of the topic seems to rather elicit my opinion on the lack of minorities in birding, what the causes of this are, and what should be done about it, if anything. I do indeed have some thoughts on these, but they are hardly with the authority of a sociologist.

Taken directly from the introduction, “The purpose of Birding for Everyone is to explore the lack of minorities among birdwatcher, reasons for the relative absence of minorities among birders, and effective solutions as part of outreach and recruitment programs.” The book strays from this purpose in a very haphazard way, and it seems to do so only in order to make for a text large enough to be called a book. Several chapters seems irrelevant and written with different audiences in mind. They serve only to distract and muddle the importance of the topic at hand. But overall it is written clearly and I never had trouble understanding what was being communicated.

Any book needs an introduction, and I think the autobiographical nature of the first chapter, titled “The Making of a Birdwatcher” serves well. The author is African American, so his personal tale of how he came to be a birder is not only pertinent as a case study, it’s also a fun, inspiring read, and most birders will be able to relate. Also autobiographical in nature, but out of order and much less pertinent (more of a distraction) are chapters 3 and 4 (“Guess Who’s Coming To Bird” and “Why Study Birds?”). The first illustrates the author’s skill as an ear-birder (to establish a sense of membership with a birding audience?), as well as point out how his being a black birder came as a surprise to others. The second is an anecdote about an emotional connection the author experienced with birding and his wife. I found it to be little more than an embarrassing confession that establishes the author’s heterosexuality, but did I need to know that, and what does that have to do with the issue of minorities in birding? Let’s move on.

Chapters 2 (“How Do I Become a Birder”), 5 (“How to Identify a Bird: Ten Secrets to Becoming a Better Birder”), and 6 (“Birding and the Internet”) are perhaps even more tangent to the purpose of the book. The intended audience here seems to switch back and forth as well. Is it for the budding beginner? For the experienced birder? For the policy expert? For the potential mentor or educator? It’s hard to tell. Maybe this material would have been appropriate as a supplement or as an appendix intended as a resource for educators or counselors not involved in birding whose goal is to get kids interested. More appropriately placed are Appendices B and C (“Birding Festivals” and “Birding Tours”) which could have been lumped with these chapters in such a supplementary section.

Finally, only starting with Chapter 7, “The Hard Facts,” followed by Chapter 8, “Expanding the Research” and Chapter 9, “The Interviews,” do we get to the topic at hand. This section could have easily started with Appendix A, the actual questionnaire used to determine the level of birding participation by African Americans. It is clearly shown that African Americans and other ethnic minorities in the United States do not participate in birding and nature study as much as the average American. In the interviews we get to hear how a few birders who belong to various ethnic minorities became birders. Why this issue is significant and what might be done about it is expressed in the final chapter, “The Challenge—Are You Up For It?” which also includes commentaries by Ted Eubanks and Paul Baicich. My recommendation is to read Chapter 1, then skip 2-6, plunging directly to Chapter 7.

There is a lot that can be pondered, discussed, and theorized about this issue. My contribution to the discussion would be to encourage one to not think of the lack of participation among minorities as a result of barriers, a theme throughout this section of the book. Rather, think of it as a lack of opportunity. The difference may seem merely semantic at first, but from a practical perspective, the difference is huge. If barriers are the reason, it sounds more like a problem, that something abstract must somehow physically be removed. This seems a daunting, almost impossible task. A lack opportunities, on the other hand, simply means they need to be created.

Another way of looking at the entire issue, in order to explore causes and possible solutions is to compare birding participation between other groups. To turn it somewhat on its head, look at participation levels only among white people, but compare them in the United States with those in England. You will find a much higher level of participation in England. Without the possibility of reaching out to racism and exclusion as reasons (which are indeed barriers to many things, and can’t be eliminated as a factor in the situation in America), one might more clearly see what sorts of opportunities are needed to increase participation in birding in any group or region.

I hope this book reaches a wide audience and that people take the issue seriously. Getting more people interested in birding, nature study, and the environment can only be a good thing.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Hiking Ramanote Canyon

In the interest of continuing my education into the remote areas in the Atascosa Highlands Christmas Bird Count circle, I planned a hike down Ramanote Canyon with my friends Laurens Halsey and Jake Mohlmann. Getting to lower Ramanote is pretty straightforward – just drive to the end of Camino Ramanote in the town of Rio Rico, just off of I-19. But it's the dense oak-pinyon-juniper woodland at the heads of the canyons that holds the most promise for adding interesting species to the CBC. Unfortunately, there is but one official trail in the entire mountain range, and it leads only to Atascosa Lookout, skirting across the top of Bellota Canyon. So Laurens, Jake and I planned a cross-country hike into uppermost Ramanote from that trail, then, by leaving one car at the end of Camino Ramanote, we could make a one-way hike. To make a long story short, we found a route that involved very little bushwhacking, an easy descent, and great access to the very nice woodland that drapes the north-facing slopes of the canyon. Much of the hike was made easier by trails created by the abundant illegal border traffic (mostly immigrants). Further evidence of their presence was apparent in the usual form of trash — clothing and food containers in various stages of decay. Our route took 6.66 miles.

This Rough Stink Bug (Brochymena sp.) was under a rock.

A beautiful, healthy hedgehog cactus, possibly the Claret Cup (Echinocactus triglochidiatus), with red flowers in April-May that are pollinated by hummingbirds.

Evidence of illegal border traffic was common. I thought this one was a good example of how Spanish and Portuguese can differ. "Chata" is just the brand name for this packet of refried beans (with sausage and cheese), but in Brazil, chata means something like "stupid jerk."

One of the most amazing encounters was with a trio of Montezuma Quail that Laurens spotted only after Jake and I had walked by one within arm's length. It was crouched motionless on a boulder just above the streambed, not quite as invisible as when they are on the gound among grass clumps. Click on the photo for a larger image.

After spending several minutes photographing the first bird, we looked around and discovered two more right next to us, including this male. Other good birds on the hike were Townsend's and Black-throated Gray Warblers, Painted Redstart, Hepatic Tanager, and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher.

One of the more surprising discoveries was the presence of many Anna's Hummingbirds throughout the canyon. During the CBC there were no hummingbirds recorded, so it was clear they had since arrived, taking advantage of the blooming Point-leaved Manzanita (Arctostaphylos pungens) throughout the hillsides.

Southwestern Mock Vervain (Glandularia gooddingii) was also blooming here and there but probably didn't offer much in the way of nectar.

It was exciting to discover the presence of both Small Ballmoss (Tillandsia recurvata), the only bromeliad in Arizona, and Mexican Orange (Choisya dumosa var. mollis), here in the understory in a small part of the canyon. This particular variety of Mexican Orange is endemic to these mountains. Some were 5 1/2 feet tall.

This was a particularly beautiful stretch of the canyon, where both of these rare plants were, as well as an Elegant Trogon.

These exuviae (molted skins) are from the Pleasing Fungus Beetle (Gibbifer californica), left where the larvae emerged as adults. They were on the underside of an oak branch that had fallen across the dry, rocky bed of a side ravine.

There were a few butterflies, such as this Sara Orangetip.

And this Painted Lady.

This is looking down canyon near the end of our hike.

A Weekend With My Valentine

A walk down Tanque Verde Wash below Wentworth Road and through the 49er Country Club neighborhood...

Meeting up with another friend, Barbara, to look for the Pine Warbler and Orchard Oriole...

Birding through Madera Canyon and up Florida Canyon, seeing Hepatic Tanager, Rufous-capped Warbler, Olive Warbler, and Arizona Woodpecker...

Hiking up Ventana Canyon, finding a Magnificent Hummingbird and seeing dozens of Black-chinned Sparrows and other desert birds...

These are the memorable things that filled the 3-day weekend I spent with Matthew, who drove all the way from Laguna Beach.

Arriving at Madera Canyon, snow still on the shaded slopes where we hiked.
Matthew paying the $5 fee.
A Gray Hairstreak (rather worn) at Evergreen Cemetery, where we did not find the Pine Warbler, but did see 7 Vermilion Flycatchers and several West Coast Ladies.

Florida Canyon with Friends

On Thursday, February 12 I joined my friends Greg Corman and Susan Fehlow and their friend Dodie Logue on a visit to Florida (prounounced flo-REE-da) Canyon on the NE side of the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson.

The attraction here is a pair of Rufous-capped Warblers that were first reported in late December. It was a short hike up a rocky streambed to the area that is the birds' territory, but they aren't always so easy to find.
Looking through many Lesser Goldfinches, Black-chinned Sparrows, and other species, much of our time was spent standing, looking, and listening.
Eventually we had amazing views of both birds. These are the only individuals of this Mexican species known to be in the state (another pair is currently being seen just across the border in New Mexico).

We later wandered downstream, through a lovely oak woodland, and into a dense mesquite and hackberry bosque.In my attempt to attract mixed flocks of small birds, I pished and imitated the calls of Western Screech-Owl. In addition to many Ruby-crowned Kinglets, we ended up seeing Hepatic Tanager, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Gray and Hammond's Flycatcher, Black-capped Gnatcatcher, and many others. But it wasn't all that surprising when a Western Screech-Owl also began calling back from a distant oak tree in response to my imitation. What was surprising is that the bird continued to call when we had bushwhacked our way to that oak tree. Usually, as soon as the owl sees you, it will slink back down into its cavity and refuse to take the bait further, apparently preferring to avoid you (a potential predator) over challenging a putative intruder (my imitation). When we first checked the tree we found nothing, but then when it responded again it was right overhead, and Dodie spotted it perched on a branch. In the first photo below, you can see the bird near the center. In the second photo, I used a not very common technique called "digibinning." I just held my simple digital point-and-shoot up to my binoculars and clicked the picture. Susan helped by shading the sun off my camera lens with her hat.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A Week at Palenque WINGS Tour

I returned a couple days ago from leading the WINGS Palenque Tour. With only four participants, all really nice people, and all skilled at spotting birds and getting on them with their binoculars, it was a pleasure leading it. We tallied an official group total (seen by leader and a participant) of 216 birds in just 6 days, as well as 3 mammals, 9 herps, and at least 34 butterflies. (Another 15 leader-only birds were a bit less cooperative, and a Royal Flycatcher was seen by 3 of the participants.)

The best bird came during our last minutes at the Palenque ruins when two of the participants spotted an all blue bird with purple on the throat and belly in the fruiting fig tree above us. I missed it, but they identified it as a Lovely Cotinga, one of my most wanted birds in North America. I've birded many locations over the past 11 years where that bird occurs and had never seen one, so I was in something of a panic and decided that we were going to be late for lunch and checking out of the hotel. After at least 5 minutes of straining our necks, sifting through all the movement of dozens of Scrub and Yellow-bellied Euphonias, Clay-colored Thrushes, Green Honeycreepers, Brown Jays, and Collared Ara├žaris, the bird finally returned on its lightning-fast, rattle-accompanied flight — a fantastical vision of shimmering blue with fathoms-deep patches of lush purple on the throat and the belly. It gulped a fig or two before vanishing again, before everyone could get on it. After another 5 minutes, it returned, this time sitting for about 20 seconds on an open branch just under the canopy, long enough for all of us to get a great view through the 32X spotting scope. Wow.

Click on the photo sheet below for a larger view. Above is a panorama of just a small part of the Maya ruins of Palenque, a bustling city for a couple centuries around 700 A.D., in what is now northern Chiapas, Mexico.