April 2009

Phoebe Snetsinger biography

Finally a book about a birder’s quest you don’t have to be a birder to enjoy.

Sometimes it is good to be a blogger. My blog had caught the attention of author Olivia Gentile and I was asked to review the new biography Life List: A Woman’s Quest for the World’s Most Amazing Birds she had written on Phoebe Snetsinger, the first birder ever, and still the only woman, to pass 8000 species of birds seen in the world. Phoebe hardly needs a presentation among birders, but for the rest of the world the words of Pulitzer Prize winner Jared Diamond sums it up nicely:

“Except for one thing, this book would rate as a great adventure novel and fictional psychological portrait, about a woman’s obsession with bird-watching, its effect on her relationships with her husband and her four children, and the horrifying mishaps that she survived on each continent—until the last mishap. But the book isn’t that great novel, because instead it’s a great true story: the biography of Phoebe Snetsinger, who set the world record for bird species seen, after growing up in an era when American women weren’t supposed to be competitive or have careers. Whether or not you pretend that it’s a novel, you’ll enjoy this powerful, moving story.”

It should take some 3 weeks until I eventually got the book sent to me by Olivia. I was sold on this book even before I started reading it. I just love the flash promotion intro to the book inserted above. This is the coolest thing I have seen for years. The simplistic design, the fast change of birdnames, ticking away 2 names per second on white background, the loose illustration and the music build up to a final crescendo and gran finale are just awesome.
The picky birdwatcher would maybe object that some full birdnames are not shown completely (i.e. Parrot), but the whole concept just blew my mind. I put it on my facebook, recommended the site www.oliviagentile.com to my Twitter friends and some of the lists I subscribe to. Some said to me that they ordered the book of Amazon as soon as they’d seen the ad.
I guess I earned my free copy already!

Did the book hold up to the expectations?

While Snetzinger’s own memoir Birding On Borrowed Time was well received among birders and very well written, some reviewers complain there are just too many birds mentioned to be of interest for a non-birder. Olivia Gentile’s book also mentions many glorious species, but it is well balanced and gives the reasoning of the complete switch and obsession that came to Phoebe’s life with birding. It was about self-fulfilment that was impossible for a woman in the 50. Phoebe had straight A:s through college and could have had a tremendous carrier had she been living two decades later. Instead she became a housewife.  After she found birding at the age of 34 she started becoming more at ease with her situation. At the age of 49 she had just started taking some organized birding trips outside the US and was diagnosed with Cancer and given one year to live. This was the turning point. She had seen less than 2000 species of birds. From now on she would grasp the day as it came and do what she like most. Birding!

It turned out that the cancer receded and she was to add over 6500 species more to her life list over the next 18 years to finally die in (ironically not from cancer) in a car crash during a birding tour on Madagascar. The birding during these years became an obsession that put strain on her marriage, the relation with her kids and also exposed her to many dangers on her trips during some brutal hikes and dangerous boat and car-rides.
The book covers well her motives and the reactions in her surrounding.

Her friend Terry Witt who participated on many tours with her writes on BirdChat list:

Those of you who have read her autobiography, “Birding on Borrowed Time”, will be familiar with the fascinating story of her birding career.  “Life List” recounts again much of this material, but in addition, delves into the extended family history in detail, and makes an effort to explore her personal side in incredible depth.  The author had cooperation from Phoebe’s family, and a wealth of information from her many friends in her effort to try and understand this remarkable and most unique individual.

Phoebe was a good friend of mine, and I thought I knew her well, but after reading the book, I was amazed at how much of her private life and thoughts she kept hidden.  The real irony is, that I am sure that much of this materiel would never have come to light save for her untimely death.

The author Olivia Gentile writes in the introduction:

I decided to write some sort of essay on birdwatching, and I called a few bird clubs near my home in Manhattan to see what they had going on. One man misunderstood and thought I was interested in joining his club. He tried to encourage me. “Who knows?” he said. “Maybe you’ll be the next Phoebe Snetsinger.” The man had never met Phoebe, but he knew all about her (as most birdwatchers do, it turned out) and he told me a little. That was back in 2001, two years after her death, and I’ve been piecing together her life ever since.

Phoebe liked to write things down, and I’ve been able to reconstruct her life largely by following her paper trail. In addition to the poetry she wrote in her forties, I read letters she wrote to friends and family; notes she wrote to herself during good times and bad; and the notebooks she kept on her trips, which were meticulous and often quite personal. I read articles she wrote for the newsletter of her bird club and for magazines, and the many articles that were written about her. When she was 65, she started working on a memoir, which was almost complete when she died.

I interviewed Phoebe’s family: her two brothers; Dave, her widower, who still lives outside St. Louis; and her four children, now in their forties and fifties, all of whom have careers in the natural sciences. The Snetsingers are private, dignified people, but they shared with me what they were comfortable with (and, generously, allowed me to read and quote from Phoebe’s papers). I interviewed dozens of her friends, most of them birders, and I found that a lot of them had stories worth telling, too. I did a lot of birdwatching myself, both in New York and in some of the places that were important to Phoebe, including Kenya and Peru, two countries in the tropics that are particularly rich with birds.

This book is about Phoebe, and about birding, a way of life I wanted to better understand. But it’s also about the broad and fundamental questions Phoebe’s life raises. What happens when society pushes you into a role you aren’t meant to play? If you’re told you only have a short time to live, how should you spend it? Where is the line between dedication and obsession, and when does obsession cross the line into pathology?

What does it mean, ultimately, to live, and die, well?

Final verdict – Phoebe Snetsinger and I.

I LOVED THE BOOK!  I am 48 years old, and turning 49 this year. The same age as Phoebe had when she was given her “death sentence”. It scares me! Particularly, since I have a 2 year old daughter and my Peruvian wife Elita is almost 6 months pregnant with another daughter. I have to last for at least another 20 years! I have to keep fit and have taken up my Marathon running again. But, I also want to see some more birds and travel the world. It will be tough balls to juggle .
My life list is a around 3600 species maybe more (I haven´t done the math for a long time) so I would have a head start on Phoebe. But,  I don’t think I will be as “mad” as Phoebe, that would be too irresponsible. In the bird tour business and birding in remote areas, albeit rarely, shit happens, which the book illustrates with rape, kid-napping, gunpoint assaults, shipwreck, car-accidents, fatal altitude sickness, poisonous snake bites, tropical diseases, broken limbs, murder and simply disappearing in the forest. (Don’t tell my wife!).
I am not taking long trips at present. I suffer being away only a couple of days from Luciana, my daughter, but I will be guiding a two week trip next month. And next year I shall be taking even longer trips. I have to juggle it gently, I think.
The book inspired to my recent idea of writing a book:  “1000 birds to see before you die”.  Maybe this is a reasonable compromise? Not to go for all the birds in the world, but for the 1000 best ones. Don’t be surprised if I suddenly start offering birding tours to far-flung places around the world, with myself as leader/coordinator employing local guides. Anyone up for going to see the Helmeted Vanga on Madagascar – Phoebe Snetsinger’s last zest? I’d take you!

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Flowering Trees in the autumn in Lima

Frangipani Plumeria obtusa

Frangipani Plumeria obtusa is a popular ornamental tree in the tropics. This particular species (if I identified it right) is originally from Colombia.

Lima is covered in sunshine still. It is true that the coastal fog sets in on the waterfront of Miraflores in early mornings and late afternoons,  but just two kilometers inland we still enjoy nice warm completely sunny days all day long.  We are supposed to getting chillier days soon and a couple of months without any sun – just gray and foggy days.  Sadly enough, this is the Lima that most tourists will see. They tend to come mostly in June-September to visit Manu and Machu Picchu, coinciding with the distinct dry season of the South East of Peru, as well as the main holiday season of the Northern hemisphere. In a way it is sad they don’t get to experience the nice and sunny days of Lima.
For once, this post is not a post about birds, it is about trees and flowers in Lima right now. I am writing this post partly because I want to document some of the plant life in Lima but partly because I thought it’d be a good contribution to Festival of the Trees blog carnival with deadline tomorrow as I write this. Also, I hope maybe some of the tree experts participating in the carnival can help me correct my ID:s.

Plumbago auriculata Cape Leadwort

Plumbago auriculata Cape Leadwort

I learnt some about garden plants when I was guiding in Madeira in the late 80s and early 90s. Some say that Madeira is an immense Botanical Garden. I enjoy finding many of the plants I recognise from Madeira in bloom here in Lima as well, such as this Cape Leadwort Plumbago auriculata, originally from South Africa.
An interesting fact is that that flower calyx has glandular hairs with sticky mucilage that protects the flower from piratic insects that would steal pollen or nectar without pollinating the flower.  The insect would stick and eventually die. It is thought that such defence against unwanted pollenators is the orign of many carnivorous plants, such as Sundew Drosera sp that also have sticky surfaces or tentacles to trap insects. Drosera belongs to  the same order Caryophyllales as the Leadworts.

Floss Silk Tree Ceiba speciosa

Flower details - Ceiba speciosaCeiba speciosa Floss Silk Tree

I was wondering whether I, mostly a birder could, or even should, submit something to a blog carnival of trees. I don’t know much about trees I must admit. However, the decisive tree that is in bloom right now in Lima is the Floss Silk Tree, with the lovely pink flowers on bare branches devoid of leaves, made me give in. Such tree make even the most intense birder a tree-lover. What is more, it is a favorite haunt of the feral Canary-winged Parakeets and the Pacific Parrotlets that usually are very difficult to see, except when they are in the leafless Ceiba. This tree native of SE Brazil and adjacent Argentina and Paraguay, is closely related to the Kapok tree Ceiba pentranda of the Amazon. Look at the flowers! Yes, it does belong to the Malva family Malvaceae!

Bougainvillea

Bougainvillea
Bougainvillea hardly needs any presentation. It is widely cultivated in the tropics but has South American origin. Many cultivated forms are hybrids and sterile and come in a variety of colors. It can be found in full bloom now and is often visited by the Amazilia Hummingbird.

Norfolk Pine Araucaria heterophylla

Araucaria heterophylla and Harris's Hawk
This is one of my favorite garden trees. The Norfolk Pine Araucaria heterophylla from the island of Norfolk discovered by Captain Cook in 1774. When it is young it looks like a minimalistic completely symmetric Christmas Tree.  Old,  as this tree in the picture,  it is less symmetrical, but still a great place tree to spot a lone raptor. Look carefully!

Harris's Hawk.

There it is – the Harris Hawk and finally a bird in this blog post by a birder about trees.  Could not do this without one – could I?

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Twitter Karma

Not on Twitter yet?

Twitter logoWell, in that case this post is not for you, unless these initial reasons I am listing here can convince you to jump onboard! I have dealt with why I like twitter on previous posts and why it can also be a time-sink and seemingly a complete waste of time.  Here are some specific reasons why birders and nature bloggers should consider being on Twitter.

  • share a sighting
  • promote your blog
  • help promote blogs of others
  • recieve recommendations of good articles to read
  • know what your friends are doing
  • feel part of a community
  • get news quickly
  • keep on eye on the buzz
  • follow those that share an interest with you
  • subtly promoting a product or service you offer just by being a person behind the same product or service.

You simply add people to follow, that shares your interest. I have used Tweetdeck in which I search for all tweets containing birding and birdwatching to find people to follow.

As soon as any of the keywords is mentioned in a tweet,  I will see  this message in my Tweetdeck search column.

tweetdeck-columns1

I check the last 20 posts of the twitter poster and if I think it sounds interesting enough I follow. The person I follow will get a little ping in the email saying that @kolibrix is now following. Hopefully, that person opens the link and can read my latest tweets and the short bio I have in my profile and consequently will follow back.

STOP PRESS: I just learnt about the New Seesmic desktop. A similar system as Tweetdeck but with even more possibilities. Coming any day now. If it does all it says it does I will probably move to Seesmic.

Why you should follow back?

Yesterday, I cleaned up my twitter account. I used two resourses. Friend or Follow and Twitter Karma that all0ws you see who is following back.  I prefer Twitter Karma as it gives the possibility to check a few or all and bulk unfollow/follow.  I was surprised to see that I followed over 330 people without a reciprokal follow. A large proportion were people who are no longer active on Twitter. No point in keeping them of course. But also, included were a few actively twittering birdwatchers.

I find it a bit surprising that a birder does not want to be connected with another birder on Twitter, so my best guess is that it is mere negligance. After all there were some 130 people following me that I was not following back. I made life simple and erased all the people not following back. Birders will get new pings from me following shortly as I still monitor birding activity and will add active birders one by one. I am also adding people interested in conservation and travel.
To keep my part of this deal, I started to follow all that I did not follow.  I immediately got some very suspicious direct messages, so they will probably be spammers to keep away from. Those that send me spammy direct messages  or porn suggestions will be both blocked and deleted. If you want to thank someone for following, do so openly, not in a direct message.

Why should you follow back? Because the same way you want to reach out with your tweets to your followers, your followers want to reach you with their tweets. But what if you are not interested in 95% percent of the time of what they had for breakfast and what birds they saw in the backyard. Tweetdeck gives the possibility to organize the people you want to follow more closely into a column.

Twitter Karma is about having about as many followers as you are following. What is your your Twitter Karma? Any of those that follow you, that you ought to follow?

Twitter -logo by Josh Seman

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Porcupine in Manu

I just checked Birdchicks blog, where she is in Oklahoma looking for Lesser Prarie Chickens and other birds. However, today instead she is blogging about North American porcupine (Erithizon dorsatum) which is not uncommon in NW US. This caused me to remember that I still had not uploaded my crappy pictures taken with my Blackberry in Manu last year. It was my first encounter with a porcupine ever, so to me it was a major happening seeing a new mammal – as new birds are getting fewer apart on the more familiar routes that I am doing. Never to late. Here they are.

Bicolor-spined Porcupine

We had just visited the famous Macawlick at Blanquillo a few hours down river from Boca Manu. That morning was great with a hunting Ocelot also attaining the lick – luring to try to catch a macaw. On the way back as we canoed back I noticed a strange shape on the roots of a fallen tree in the river. I thought it was part of the roots at first, but soon realized it was some strange animal. We could approach quite near. Unfortunately, I was the only one having a camera handy – on my telephone! Apparantly, it is a good swimmer cause it was not there when another group past later.

According to Emmons “Neotropical Rain Forest Mammals” the only Porcupine in range is the Bicolor-spined Porcupine  (Coendou bicolor). Normally, it should have white tips on some spines, but some are completely dark. Several days further down river there is another species – the Brazilian Porcupine (Coendou prehensilis). I don’t suppose it would swim upriver to confuse us?

Bicolor-spined Porcupine (Coendou bicolor)

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