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How to Know the Birds: No. 21, Hawaii’s Most Perfect Bird

Last year in Birding magazine, we ran a multi-issue series on the birds of Hawaii. Jeffrey A. Gordon started us out in the Feb. 2018 issue with a tribute to the iconic ‘i‘iwi; Lisa Crampton and Helen Raine followed with coverage in the Apr. 2018 issue of the behaviorally fascinating ‘akikiki; then Andy Bankert told the story of the Bonin petrel (June 2018 issue), rarely seen yet restricted as a breeder to the archipelago; next up was Eric VanderWerf, with a sobering account in the Aug. 2018 issue of the recent extinction of the po‘o-uli; in the Oct. 2018 issue, Lance Tanino regaled us with reflections on the plucky red-crested cardinal, introduced from South America; and Frank Izaguirre put a wrap on our series (Dec. 2018 issue) with an appreciation of the Hawaiian duck, which apparently arose from hybridization between mallards and Laysan ducks.

The natural histories of the six featured species all speak, in one way or another, to the central theme of a 2018 book, Belonging on an Island, by Daniel Lewis. Subtitled Birds, Extinction, and Evolution in Hawaii, Lewis’s work explores the powerful and problematic ideas of nativeness and community in a place so remote. The staff at Birding didn’t set out with the intention of affirming the author’s message, but the matter of belonging is simply unavoidable in any consideration of the Hawaiian avifauna.

I had occasion to reflect on that matter in an encounter a couple weeks ago with this bird:

Photo by © Ted Floyd.

It’s a wandering tattler, Tringa incana, and I saw it along the rocky seacoast of Kailua-Kona, on the west coast of the Island of Hawaii, a.k.a. the Big Island. I say “rocky seacoast,” you say “wandering tattler.” Talk about belonging.

Here’s a video:

If there was ever any doubt, it’s been erased. Where there’s surf pounding on rock in the Pacific Ocean region of the ABA Area, there’s bound to be tattlers.

The bird put into flight a short distance, and I clambered over the sea rocks to where it had put down:

Photo by © Ted Floyd.

Look at how worn the plumage is, hardly surprising given all this bird’s been through. Wandering tattlers breed on desolate mountains in the arctic—across much of Alaska, east to Yukon, and west well into the Russian Far East. To get to Hawaii, the bird undertook a spectacular oceanic migration, needless to say, but it also flew many hundreds of miles overland. And once the bird gets to the Aloha state, it’s not all luau stew and shave ice:

Photo by © Ted Floyd.

I wince at the thought of sea spray and camera lenses, and I can’t even imagine what it’s like to get that stuff on your feathers for months on end. Or when a menacing rock crab, Grapsus tenuicrustatus, will saunter past:

Photo by © Ted Floyd.

But it’s not all Discovery Channel nature documentaries for our wandering tattler. The bird was on the beach in Kailua-Kona, I’ve already mentioned, a bustling seacoast city. Homeless humans were encamped here, a stone’s throw—not even—from the well-maintained multiuse trail that winds along the shoreline. We were in the land of harbors and hotels, tourists and traffic, sightseeing and commerce, and more.

The tattler took a few steps toward me, then lay down to rest:

As I watched the snoozing tattler, I gave thought again to the matter of belonging—to the conundrum of a bird that “belongs” to salt spray and sea rocks in the tropics, but also to remote and rugged mountains in the arctic, to lonely expanses of open ocean, to homeless encampments along a multi-use trail, to the glitz and glitter of the big city.

All of which is to say, The wandering tattler is perfectly Hawaiian.

Let me explain.

 

The original peoples of Hawaii, explorers and entrepreneurs from points west and south, must have been just about the most adventurous and cosmopolitan humans to have ever walked—and of course sailed—this Earth. Their form of government was complex and advanced, borrowing from Asian and possibly even European models. They were ingenious engineers, skilled agronomists, and the world’s greatest navigators. They were the first to introduce Old World birds to the ABA Area, and when they wanted new crops, they set out for freaking South America to get them. That whole Christopher Columbus thing is pretty namby-pamby in comparison.

The Hawaiian word for Tringa incana is ‘ūlili, which, I gather, means the same thing that it does in English: gossip, storyteller, tattler. The ‘ūlili in Hawaiian lore is a go-getter, a mover-and-shaker, never content to stay in one place. Across vast swaths of the ginormous Pacific region, the bird comes and goes as it pleases.

The idea of belonging to, or belonging on, Hawaii is a paradox, for it is here, perhaps more than anywhere else on Earth, that we’re all wayfarers in this life, coming and going, adapting and advancing, restless and unsettled, yet cut of the same cloth, connected by common bonds, all in this thing together.

 

The wandering tattler, or ‘ūlili, isn’t endemic to Hawaii. The species doesn’t even breed in the region. Yet it is an exemplary—in its way, a most perfect—Hawaiian bird. Photo by © Ted Floyd.

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Birding as Birders See It

A review by Nick Minor

The Birders: A Melodic Journey through Northern Colombia by Gregg Bleakney

WhereNext, 2019

https://tinyurl.com/y2gwr5dq

As a birder, a communicator, and more simply, a person who just loves a good story, I’m always elated to find media that succeeds at what should be a simple task: depicting birding as birders see it. This past February, a film titled The Birders: A Melodic Journey through Northern Colombia came out that beautifully demonstrates this sort of success.

But before we dive deeper into The Birders, let’s agree on some terms. After all, we could mean many things by, “birding as birders see it.” What we need is some description of the experience of birding—some boxes to check—that we could use to “test” a piece of media. Let’s give it a go: birding is an entryway to learning deeply about the natural world and our place in it. It’s a means of scratching our innate, biophilic itches. It’s an opportunity to experience new places and new cultures and to grow. It’s even a form of competition, one that’s as varied as it is intellectually stimulating. Any piece of media that depicts most if not all these qualities, at least in my book, successfully depicts birding as birders see it.

Tied together, all these qualities of birding have a profound impact on those who do it, making it a much richer, more deeply human experience than is often depicted. Just think: how often do you see media that portrays how birding helps us find ourselves through constant rediscovery of the wild world? Or how birding tethers us back into the rich community of life on earth, often connecting us with each other in the process? In these times when the living world is increasingly imperiled, it seems such an activity is a potent and necessary antidote. This is especially the case when it comes to inspiring the next generation of naturalists and conservationists. And yet, the potential for broadly impactful, naturalist-driven storytelling on any platform still seems conspicuously untapped.

Luckily, times are definitely a-changin’. And though you might not expect it, YouTube, Google’s burgeoning video content platform, might just be the key to this change.

You read that right. YouTube, once best known for cat and prank videos, has recently become a booming platform for high-quality content. With more than a billion hours of video watched per day, it is rapidly approaching the reach once only possible on TV. To match this growth, the average production value of YouTube content has exponentially skyrocketed within the past few years. Full shows and feature-length movies are now regularly debuted on YouTube, so much so that talk of YouTube shows alongside TV shows is getting more common by the day.

YouTube’s success naturally results from its volatile alchemy of a low barrier-of-entry and an immense viewership. This alchemy, which has empowered many thousands of creatives around the world, presents an unprecedented opportunity to transform perceptions of birding. In recognition of this opportunity, there have been numerous attempts to seize it even since the start of 2019. Two in particular have been subject to widespread acclaim. One is the weekly show Birds of North America, hosted by Jason Ward (check out Nate Swick’s conversation with Jason on the American Birding Podcast here). The other, of course, is The Birders, an hourlong documentary with an ambitiously high production value to boot. The latter is why we’re here, so let’s dig in.

Thanks to funding from the Colombian government (Procolombia), The Birders was borne of a partnership between Sancho BBDO world wide and the Global Creative Agency & Production Company, WhereNext. WhereNext founder and Director of The Birders, Gregg Bleakney, tapped National Geographic filmmaker Keith Ladzinski and Diego Calderón of COLOMBIA Birding as the film’s leading protagonists. Its storyline is simple: Calderón shares Colombian birds and culture with Ladzinski as they travel through sections of the Northern Colombia Birding Trail. They start in the arid habitats of South America’s northernmost peninsula, the Guajira, and then ascend into Colombia’s highest range, the Santa Marta Mountains. After two stops there, they descend into the low, coastal rainforest of Tayrona National Natural Park, and then close out the trip in the cloud forests of the Perijá mountains, the northernmost extension of the Andes.

Front and center, of course, are the birds. The film contains cleverly shot and edited footage of more than 60 species, including endemics like the Santa Marta Parakeet, Santa Marta Woodstar, and the Perijá Tapaculo. They don’t hold back on classic objectives either, like the Lance-tailed Manakin or a speciose mixed flock in a shade-grown coffee plantation. Often, footage of these birds is paired with suspenseful storytelling that aims to show viewers how difficult it was to attain. This “meta” kind of framing, where a film is about filmmakers filming the film (try saying that three times out loud), finds a natural home here. Ultimately, birding becomes the rich experience that it is through the journey more than the destination. Euphoric moments of luck and success are made that much sweeter by all the anticipation, by hours in muggy, mosquito-filled jungle, by waiting and watching with no guarantees that nature will cooperate. The meta storytelling in The Birders, illustrating the painstaking effort behind some of its footage, does an excellent job in getting this point across. It turns out that the suspense that can make birding so exciting also happens to make a good story. Who would’ve thought (read: sarcasm)?

Throughout their journey, the film also makes a point of digressing into how local, indigenous music has long been inspired by birds. This included the creation of bird-inspired original music by five Colombian artists. Almost recalling the formulaic style of Travel Channel shows, the pacing of shots in these digressions can be admittedly dizzying or even jarring compared to the pacing of the rest of the film. That said, these digressions play an important role: they add a welcome cultural flavor to their journey, and they emphasize that just looking for birds, of course, does not require that you ignore everything else. Indeed, you should celebrate whatever new experiences you can.

Early in the film, Calderón is up front about the fact that his journey with Ladzinski is unlike his work with most clients. Instead, their journey had a grand objective: to share Colombian birding with the world through professional-grade, cinematic footage. This means indulgent slow-motion close-ups, spectacular time lapses, dramatic drone shots…you name it and The Birders probably has it. And though The Birders is certainly a promotional project, it tactfully avoids being too obvious an advertisement. Rather, it simply showcases the wonders of Colombian bio- and ethnodiversity, leaving the viewer to decide whether it’s somewhere they’d like to go.

A promotional film like this comes in an important time of rebirth for Colombian ecotourism, one that the characters don’t shy away from addressing explicitly. As the duo endeavors to shoot the first ever professional footage of a Perijá Tapaculo toward the end of the film, we learn that Calderón was captured by guerrillas in the very same place fifteen years earlier. These guerrillas kept Calderón imprisoned for months, and yet, Calderón himself explains that he wanted to bring Keith there to prove something: Colombia has moved on. These bird-rich places, once shrouded in conflict, are not what they once were. Though Colombia was once famously dangerous for tourists, places like Perijá are safe once again. Ladzinski and Calderón’s success at filming the tapaculo, then, symbolizes the success of Colombia in leaving behind the harsh conflicts it was once known for.

While The Birders doesn’t hold back with lavish close-ups of exciting birdlife, I don’t think we could peg it as a traditional nature documentary. As the title indicates, this film is about people—a birding film rather than a bird film. Though certain parts—like their exploration of the Vermilion Cardinal with the Wayúu people or their deep-dive into the Lance-tailed Manakin’s courtship ritual—are informative, The Birders does not seek to instruct you about the natural world. And it’s probably not unfair to say that many experienced birders of Colombia may find its information somewhat rudimentary.

But to judge it negatively on this basis would be to misunderstand what the film sets out to do. The Birders portrays a rich, fast-paced human experience in a beautiful way. Put another way, it is an adventure film. To those aware of the vibrant world of independent adventure documentaries—including prominent standouts like recent Oscar-winner Free SoloThe Birders’s style will be familiar. It’s an approach that comes as no surprise from Keith Ladzinski. His curriculum vitae is dripping with adventuresome projects with National Geographic, a long list of outdoor gear companies, as well as his own Boulder, Colorado-based production company, 3Strings. Case in point: one of his most recent filmmaking efforts was a series largely filmed on Mt. Everest (see Episode 1 here).

Plus, if we look back at our description of birding as birders see it, it turns out that The Birders checks almost every box. In it, we watch as Ladzinski learns deeply about the natural world through a birder’s perspective. He becomes enamored with the diversity of life in Colombia, enjoys some particularly exciting species, and broadens his thinking about how biodiversity can bring us to exciting new places. We experience the scratching of biophilic itches with Calderón and with Colombian locals, and through some impressive footage of Colombian birds themselves. We experience new cultures through musical digressions, and through interviews with local townspeople who are included as an integral part of the birding experience. The only box it fails to check, understandably, is the competition box. Seeing as it’s aimed at broader audiences, the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of birding competition is likely too nitty-gritty anyway.

Overall, perhaps it’s safe to say that The Birders is not really about birds, or even really about nature. It is about experiencing birds, experiencing biodiversity, and experiencing different cultures. Though some birders may prefer less people-focused nature filmmaking, the adventure film style may be the key ingredient to The Birders’ charm for broader audiences. Even more importantly, it succeeds in depicting birding as birders see it: an adventure. What more need we ask of birding films?

–=====–

Nick Minor is an ornithologist, evolutionary ecologist, science communicator, and thinker about all things birds. After getting his start in the Chicago birding scene, Nick recently completed a Bachelor’s degree in Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior at the University of Minnesota. There, he worked on various projects exploring the avian tree of life with Dr. Keith Barker, with whom Nick tackled questions like, “What is a species?” and “How do they originate and coexist?”. Now, Nick’s home base is Laramie, Wyoming, where, as a graduate student in Dr. Matthew Carling’s lab at the University of Wyoming, he will continue exploring these questions though studying the Lazuli x Indigo Bunting hybrid zone. Ultimately, Nick’s foremost passions are figuring out why life on earth (specifically birdlife) is so diverse, and sharing how the naturalist lifestyle is a timely antidote to 21st-century disconnection with nature.

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Rare Bird Alert: November 15, 2019

Notable birds continuing in the ABA Area include a Blue-footed Booby (ABA Code 4) in California and the still present Antillean Palm-Swift (5) in Florida.

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American Birding Podcast: Documenting Birders on the Border with Otilia Portillo Padua

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Rare Bird Alert: November 8, 2019

Sorry for the quick hit with regard to the RBA this week. Much of the ABA staff is down at the Rio Grande Valley Bird Festival this week. Come down and say hi if you’re in South Texas! Further, eBird’s current outage means the visual part of the post is limited. Get well soon, eBird!

[read more…]

Hawaii’s Forests Are for the Birds

A review by Lance Tanino

Belonging on an Island: Birds, Extinction, and Evolution in Hawaii, by Daniel Lewis

Yale University Press, 2018

320 pages, hardcover

ABA Sales–Buteo Books 14862

Belonging on an Island takes us on an amazing historical journey, laying out a feast for connoisseurs of Hawaiian natural history and any reader interested [read more…]

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A review by Laura Kammermeier

A Season on the Wind: Inside the World of Spring Migration, by Kenn Kaufman

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019

282 pages, hardcover

ABA Sales–Buteo Books 14936

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A review by Dominic Mitchell

Handbook of Western Palearctic Birds: Passerines, by Hadoram Shirihai and Lars Svensson

Christopher Helm, 2018

2 volumes–1,281 pages, boxed hardcover

ABA Sales–Buteo Books 14873

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How to Know the Birds: No. 20, Alien Fairies in the Big City

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I’d spent a fair bit of time these past several decades in and around L. A., San Fran, San Jose, [read more…]

Blog Birding #422

Martha Cartwright’s recent birding trip to the Bahamas dealt with the fallout from Hurricane Dorian. She tells the story at Birds Caribbean.

From September 1 to September 3, for those three days, the world had been watching in awe and anguish the videos coming out of Abaco and Grand Bahama Island. Friends and family [read more…]