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Awesome Podcasts to Get You from Airport to Hotspot

I spent a lot of time over the past year driving from one place to another.  Sometimes these excursions were short jaunts, but often they involved hours and hours of monotonous highway driving.  Colima Warblers and Whooping Cranes, like many other cool birds, just don’t hang out close to major airports.  To fill the mind-numbing void, I loaded up my iPod up with a ton of podcasts.  The best of these episodes could help to turn a six hour trek across three states into a moderately enjoyable afternoon.  After well over 200 hours of listening, here are my favorite podcasts for making the time fly, and also a few honorable mentions.

The Absolute Best Podcasts for Long Drives

this american lifeThis American Life

Rating:  ★★★★★

Overview:  The granddaddy of narrative-based radio shows, it still delivers entertaining, thought-provoking, and high quality episodes every week – even after more than 500 episodes.  The best stories are truly riveting and unforgettable: What happens when a sane person pretends to be crazy and gets committed to a mental institution?  Are sliced hog rectums being sold as calamari?  Does a found scrap of paper really contain the secret formula to Coca Cola?  What happens when inmates at a high security prison stage Hamlet?  Ira Glass and his team of reporters and producers find out.

Suggested Episodes: Pro Se (#385),  Doppelgangers (#484), The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar (#352), Switched at Birth (#360), When Patents Attack (#441), Act V (#218), Very Tough Love (#430), Original Recipe (#427), Million Dollar Idea (#412), The House on Loon Lake (#199)

radiolabRadiolab

Rating:  ★★★★★

Overview:  Jad Abumrod and Robert Krulwich weave science and technology stories together with philosophy and observations about the human experience to make a fascinating hour-long podcast.  This duo explores everything from randomness and coincidence to space and time to morality and mortality.  Amazing soundscapes add to the listening experience.

Suggested Episodes: Stochasticity, Parasites, Race, Cities, Unraveling Bolero, Argentine Invasion, Speedy Beet

planet_moneyNPR’s Planet Money

Rating:  ★★★★★

Overview:  Dumb name, incredible podcast.  You might think that a podcast about economics would be boring, but this one is anything but.  Recent episodes explore issues such as: Is it illegal to sell your old MP3s?  Why is LeBron James underpaid, and why doesn’t he mind?  What is a firefighter worth?  Why didn’t the price of Coke change for 70 years?  Most episodes are a bite-sized 20 minutes of so, and totally worth your time.

Suggested Episodes: Rocky Pipkin, Private Eye Vs. The Raisin Outlaw (#478), The Eddie Murphy Rule (#471), The Surprisingly Entertaining History Of The Income Tax (#356), The Hidden Digital Wealth In Your Pocket (#449), It’s Hard To Do Good (#460)

snap judgmentSnap Judgment

Rating:  ★★★★

Overview: Storytelling – with a beat.  Glynn Washington hosts this hour-long podcast featuring amazing stories – sometimes humorous, sometimes heart wrenching.  Music and sound effects augment the experience.  Dig it.

Suggested Episodes: Choosing Sides (#408), Rage Against the Machine (#410), Absolution (#310), Crossing Borders (#214), Fighting Back (#212)

freakonomicsFreakonomics Radio

Rating:  ★★★★

Overview: Stephen Dubner and Steve Levitt collaborate on this informative and entertaining short-format podcast.  Episodes vary in length, but most are in the 6 to 25 minute range, with some longer specials.  A little zanier than Planet Money, but a nice complement to it.  Recent episodes have explored topics such as: Who owns the words that come out of your mouth?  Was Jane Austen a game theorist?  Do baby girls cause divorce?

Suggested Episodes: The Upside of Quitting, Government Employees Gone Wild, How Much Does Your Name Matter, The Cobra Effect, The Days of Wine and Mouses

99% Invisible99% Invisible

Rating:  ★★★★

Overview: Roman Mars explores the hidden world of architecture and design in these short but polished podcasts.  Why did early slot machines pretend to be vending machines?  Were car makers the driving force behind criminalizing jaywalking?  How did a simple circle and horizontal line painted on the hulls of ships save the lives of thousands of sailors?  What special considerations must architects keep in mind when designing spaces for deaf people?  Roman is your expert guide for these topics and more.

Suggested Episodes: Game Changer (#77), The Modern Moloch (#76), The Great Red Car Conspiracy (#70), Broken Window (#67), Razzle Dazzle (#65), The Best Beer in the World (#55), A Cheer for Samuel Plimsoll (#33), Check Cashing Stores (#18)

The MothThe Moth Podcast

Rating:  ★★★★

Overview: Entertaining and moving true stories, told live by the people who experienced them.  Some make you laugh, some make you cry, some make you think.

Suggested Episodes: Elna Baker: To Russia With Love, George Lombardi: Mission to India, Lisa Lampanelli: Fat Girl, Interrupted, Tristan Jimerson: A Dish Best Served Cold, Elna Baker: A Mexican Mormon Christmas, Ernesto Quinonez: Dog Days of Spanish Harlem, Janna Levin: Life on a Mobius Strip

Honorable Mentions

Decode DCDecode DC

Andrea Seabrook cuts through the spin and theatrics in our nation’s capital to take a clear-eyed view of our federal government and its politics.  If you’re tired of political coverage which seems to have an agenda, try this one out for a change.

How to do everythingHow to Do Everything

Want to know how to win a hockey face-off?  Cook cicadas?  Recruit a Russian double agent?  Rescue a deer stuck on the ice?  Take a portrait of the president?  These guys can tell you.  Light-hearted and fun without being dumb or silly.

Life of the Law

Life of the Law

A look at how the law and our legal system intersect our lives in mundane and extraordinary ways.  My favorite episode so far is about jury nullification – when a jury acquits a defendant they believe to be guilty – and how and why this outcome is tolerated in our country.

Love + RadioLove + Radio

Stories and interviews about everyday people doing interesting things.  The quality is a bit uneven, with some terrific podcasts and some that are only so-so.  Some episodes are not appropriate for children.

 

dinner party downloadThe Dinner Party Download

“How to win your dinner party” – a mix of food, culture, conversations, and advice.  This is a recent addition to my podcast diet, but I have enjoyed the episodes I’ve heard so far.

So what makes a good podcast?  I think there’s a strong element of storytelling in most of my favorites.  They offer up some sort of intriguing premise: a mystery, a conflict, a counter-intuitive assertion, a question, a surprise.  And then explore that premise providing details, spinning out a narrative, talking to experts, and/or discussing the outcomes.  Snap Judgment provides this awesome flowchart for determining whether a submission is right for their show.  It includes questions like:

Will your story make me laugh or cry?

Is there anything at stake?

Is there a conflict?

Are there compelling characters?

In addition to gathering good material, the best podcasts are tightly edited.  They have a sense of tension, coherence, or densely packed content.  There is no unnecessary talk, no lame airtime.  Reflective pauses or breaks between stories are relatively short and covered by interesting music or sounds.  Here’s a hint, podcasters – sitting around shooting the breeze with your buddies does not make for entertaining listening, no matter how clever you are or how famous your guests are.  The care that goes into structuring and editing a well-produced podcast is obvious, and very much appreciated!  If you want to learn about making a high quality, finely polished product check out anything by Roman Mars, Jad Abumrod, Ira Glass, Glynn Washington, Andrea Seabrook, or the Planet Money Team.

As a teacher, it also strikes me that most of these podcasts share many of the features of a good lesson:  the topic is interesting or relevant, the audience is highly engaged, the content is memorable, examples/analogies/stories are used to elucidate the topic, important details are included, and humor is used appropriately and effectively.

So the next time you’re driving through the night to see catch that rare Yellow-green Vireo or vagrant Flame-colored Tanager, load up on some good podcasts first and let these fine story tellers keep you company on that long, lonely road.

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What I Learned From a Year of Visiting Schools

The “newsworthy” media reports on the state of education in our country are largely discouraging.  The articles I read in newspapers, magazines, and blogs often focus on failing schools, disappointing test results, or the tragic criminal behavior of a few isolated teachers or administrators.  Acrimonious school board meetings make the news, as do research reports showing how American 4th graders are falling behind students in other parts of the world, especially in subjects like science and mathematics.  If you take these snippets as representative of our educational system in the US, you could easily conclude that our young people are doomed.

But after spending some time during this last academic year visiting a wide variety of different schools, I have found the real picture to be much more complicated.  Yes, there are problems – many of them large, pervasive, intractable problems.  But there are also some reasons to feel grateful and even a few reasons to celebrate.  And above all, there is reason to feel hopeful.  Here’s why:

Teachers are Amazing

Granted, I set out to find some great teachers and great schools, not to fill out the Top Ten list for the Suckiest Teachers in America.  Even so, my travels gave me plenty of opportunities to spend time in huge spectrum of schools (public and private, rural and urban and suburban, crushingly poor and fantastically wealthy).  At most of the schools I visited I spent a whole school day, seeing a full range of teachers.  What I saw was inspiring.  These educators have a passion for teaching and care deeply about their students.  They manage superhuman feats, among them:

  • Getting up at 4am every weekday to find time to prep for class, set up labs, or get those papers graded
  • Juggling classes of up to 40 teenagers at a time – not just managing the chaos, but engaging and inspiring them
  • Coaching, sponsoring clubs and activities, directing plays, doing dorm duty, counseling advisees, and generally providing a bounty of activities and support systems for students outside of class
  • Writing their own curricular materials and text books, even though they gain little or nothing financially from these endeavors
  • Using their own prior personal experiences as lawyers, historians, EMTs, park rangers, scientists, business executives, journalists, and soldiers to add to the educational experiences of students.
  • Engaging 9th graders in a collaborative cancer research project with students and professors at a local university
  • Meeting with students before school, through their lunch breaks, and after school – sometimes into the evening hours
  • Fighting NYC traffic – 90 minutes each way – just to make it back and forth to school
  • Spending their own money – often hundreds of dollars – to get supplies and materials to make lessons more interesting and more meaningful
  • Holding the rapt attention of a class for up to 90 minutes by telling stories and jokes that deliver the content in a compelling way (several groaned disappointedly when a student realized that class had actually ended a few minutes ago and they would have to leave).

Teachers are Innovative

Some education critics and pundits complain that teaching today looks much like it did 150 years ago, with teachers lecturing at the blackboard while students passively take notes.  While this is a scene repeated in many classrooms across the country, I was surprised by the level of innovation and creativity teachers brought to the lessons I observed:

  • Exploring ‘flipped classroom’ techniques, POGIL, and the Harkness method to use classroom time and ‘homework time’ more effectively
  • Utilizing a huge variety on online resources in smart and effective ways: access to primary documents, physics simulations, journal articles, photo databases, educational videos, scientific safety data sheets, etc.
  • Using Twitter and other social media to effectively communicate with their colleagues across the country, sharing ideas and scheduling massive online conversations about best practices
  • Developing “student-centered” lessons and curricula in which students take responsibility for their own learning and get to practice deeper level cognitive skills like critical thinking, planning, analysis, trouble-shooting, and evaluation.
  • Creating custom manipulatives and simulations that allow students to model complex systems and learn how they work
  • Using real world problems to create context and allow students to relate to the lesson – how would you go about designing a high performance skateboard?  what architectural features of a house affect the rate of heat loss in the winter?  what kind of drug delivery system would release chemotherapy drugs in the presence of cancerous cells but not healthy tissue?

Students Love Learning

If you believe the buzz about kids in the 21st Century, you might conclude that they are all technology-addicted, zero-attention-span brats with an over-developed sense of self-esteem and self-importance.  While not all kids thrive in our schools, it was encouraging to see that the negative stereotypes of this generation are either over-simplified or just plain wrong.

  • Students love learning.  When presented with an interesting and well-designed lesson, the vast majority of kids are willing to jump right in.  While school doesn’t have to be “fun,” there’s no denying that learning can be enjoyable and engaging.
  • Students respond strongly to skilled and knowledgeable teachers who care about them.  It was interesting to follow the transformation of a single student from a classroom with a talented, passionate teacher (3rd period) to a tired, less effective teacher (4th period).  The student’s engagement and performance changed by orders of magnitude.
  • The harder the problem, the harder they try (at least up to a point).  As any video game designer can tell you, challenging activities can be really fun.  Lessons that push students to the limits of their capabilities while still allowing them to experience some success and a sense of accomplishment can be highly effective learning environments.
  • Students care about each other and the broader world.  More than any generation before them, students are attuned to global issues and want to do something to make the world a better place.  They talk about international human rights, climate change, and disaster relief.  They join clubs and organizations, volunteer their time, and raise money.  And many of them are planning careers that hope to address some of the great problems of our modern age.

Resources Matter

While I found some very effective teachers and highly motivated students in every school I visited, it was also shocking to see the enormous disparity between well-funded schools and those that were sorely lacking in resources.  In one weekend I went from a school with lavish classrooms and labs, an average class size of about 10 students, and an endowment of nearly $1 million PER STUDENT to a school without books or basic supplies, classes of 35+, and a building that hadn’t been renovated in 60 years.  While there was some good teaching happening in both places, the challenges faced by the students and teachers at the second school were extraordinary.  It’s hard to teach chemistry without equipment and supplies, without books and computers, and without classroom and lab spaces big enough to adequately accommodate all of your kids.

After seeing some of these schools, it makes me sick to hear the pundits on TV saying things like “throwing money at the problem won’t fix the problems with our schools.”  Some of these political hacks think that they are suddenly educational experts, perhaps because they once spent time in a classroom.  Their diagnosis: bad teachers.  Their prescription: more teacher accountability, more student testing, and less government interference.  My response?  They are clueless idiots.  OF COURSE throwing money at the problem is the solution.  Let’s imagine some other scenarios outside the realm of education, shall we?

***

Doctor: Chief, patient care is suffering.  Our MRI is broken, and the X-ray machine needs to be recalibrated.  Also, if we got some new lab equipment, we could run more sophisticated blood tests to better diagnose disease.

Hospital Exec: Why is it all about technology these days?  Back when I was a doctor, we didn’t even have MRIs.  Being a good doctor isn’t about having fancy tech toys to play with – those things are expensive, and I’m not sure we need them.

***

Engineer: We can’t seem to find and retain highly skilled engineers for the new NASA project.  Maybe we should think about increasing pay and benefits?

Project Manager: Engineers are overpaid as it is.  The problem is that they are lazy and poorly trained.  Why would you pay engineers more if they are not doing a good job?  What we need is more effective college engineering programs to prepare future engineers better.

***

Researcher:  Boss, we have no new pharmaceuticals in development.  Once our other patents expire, we’re sure to lose market share.  Maybe we should spend some money on research & development?

Pharma Exec:  Throwing money at the problem is not going to help.  Instead of spending MORE money on R&D, we just need to spend it in SMARTER ways.  We need to think outside the box – maybe we should just test our current drugs more extensively?

***

In most other professional endeavors, providing money for competitive salaries and paying for basic materials is a no-brainer if you want to achieve quality outcomes.  Why should education be any different?

While there are courageous doctors who accomplish noble things in areas of the world without diagnostic equipment and proper medical supplies, they are hampered by the lack of appropriate resources.  Imagine how much more good they could do with a little technological and human support.  Likewise, teachers in poor schools are able to accomplish some incredible work with little or no money.  But their efforts could be greatly amplified if they only had access to decent teaching resources.  And if we want to attract and (more importantly) retain talented teachers, we’ll have to actually pay them a competitive salary (unlike, say, the $36K we pay Washington teachers with a BA and 5 years of experience – per http://www.k12.wa.us/safs/pub/per/salallocschedule.pdf).  That is not even a living wage in Seattle, and other professionals with similar amounts of training and experience make double or triple that amount (see for example http://www.indeed.com/salary?q1=Engineer&l1=Seattle%2C+WA).

While teachers in more wealthy schools have many more options for putting together effective lessons for their kids, most of them work just as many hours as teachers in poor schools – and often for the same pay.  Most of the teachers at the prestigious boarding schools I visited are required to live in the dorms, and regularly work 80+ hours a week for a surprisingly small salary.  Like their teaching colleagues elsewhere, they do it because they love their jobs, feel that their work is meaningful, and honestly enjoy working with young people.

Looking back on my year, it is all of the teachers that I have met that make me feel hopeful and inspired.  They are smart, hard working, and courageous.  They often make sacrifices of time and money in their own lives because they believe that educating the next generation is critically important.  Teachers of America, your passion and dedication is amazing.  Your students love and appreciate you.  And you are making a difference in their lives, and in the future of our country and our world.

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Birding, Gamification, and Implications for Education

Amongst those strange souls who are wild bird enthusiastists, there are bird watchers, and then there are birders.  I often describe myself as a “bird watcher” because that describes my hobby in the most simple terms.  I go outside, I find birds, I watch birds.  Bird watchers enjoy birds on an aesthetic level, and are often keen to understand their behavior and natural history.  I also like the term “bird watching” because it is less opaque that the rather bizarre term “birding.”  In the past when I have mentioned to acquaintances that I spent the weekend birding, on more than one occasion I have been asked  what kind of shotgun I have, or how many pheasants I bagged.  After all, if you met some guy at the beach who claimed to be “fishing” with binoculars (but without a rod and reel or a net), you might wonder if he’d lost his marbles.

Birders are similar in many ways to bird watchers, but the term ‘birder’ usually connotes someone who is more serious about certain aspects of the hobby, particularly identification and keeping various kinds of lists.  Birders are more likely to consider their passion for birds beyond the realm of merely a hobby.  If you hear someone at a hawk watch debating the gender and age of a soaring raptor a mile away, or a person out on the mudflats discussing the exact parentage of an immature hybrid gull, you are probably listening to self-described birders.  They might travel extensively, hoping to add a never-before-seen species to their ‘life list.’  Birders are also more likely to do various flavors of Big Days or Big Years, in which they attempt to find as many birds as possible within a certain geographic area in a specified span of time.  As someone who has just completed a Big Year spanning the continental United States and Canada, I’m a birder too.

High Island

Essentially, birders have taken bird watching and converted it into a game.  And what a game it is.  If you think football is impressive with its 100 yard field and hundred-man teams, or think a five day cricket test match is something, you have never really pondered the epic scope of a North American birding Big Year.  The ‘field of play’ is nearly 8,000,000,000 square miles and spans from the Florida Keys (24° N latitude) to Ellesmere Island, Canada (83° N latitude) and from Newfoundland (52° W longitude) to the end of the Aleutians (179° W longitude).  There are 20 billion players in this game, perhaps 50,000 human teammates (or competitors?) and billions and billions of sparrows, hawks, woodpeckers, hummingbirds, loons, and warblers who don’t care a whit about playing a game with people but are nevertheless the star participants.  The game lasts 365 days in a row (the length of 2920 football games, at three hours each, played back-to-back).

Some of these birds are relatively easy to find, like Surf Scoter or Rough-legged Hawk:

Surf scoter

Rough-legged hawk

Some of them require going to a specific place at a specific time, like Whooping Crane (Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas) and Rufous-capped Warbler (Florida Canyon in Arizona).

Whooping Crane

Rufous-capped Warbler

Some are so rare that even within this vast playing field that you can’t really count on them to show up at any specific location, like Crimson-collared Grosbeak or Barnacle Goose.  You just have to ‘chase’ them if and when they show up.

CC Grosbeak

Barnacle Goose

The rules of this game are pretty simple: find and ID as many birds as you can in the prescribed geographic area within the time limit.  The birds have to be alive, wild, and unrestrained when they are seen.  No dead birds.  No pet shops.  No eggs (?!).  Oh, and you have to engage in ethical behavior while you’re watching them (no harassing or killing birds, no trespassing, no disturbing endangered species, etc.).  Other than that, you can pursue the game any way you like.  Want to rent a helicopter?  Or limit yourself to species seen on foot, bike, or kayak?  No problem.  Want to bring a friend or hire a guide?  Ok.  Want to count birds you ID-ed by song or call, but didn’t actually see?  Totally fine.  All of these variations are sanctioned by the American Birding Association.  Of course, you can also ignore the ABA completely and make up your own set of rules.  As birders say, “it’s YOUR list” – meaning, you can play whatever game you want to.

Beyond the epic scope of a Big Year, the things that make it fun are the many challenges.  Just finding a particular species can be tough.  Can you pick out the rare Eurasian Widgeon from a huge flock of American Wigeon?  Do you know where to go to find the tame but often maddeningly elusive Spruce Grouse?  Will you actually see that secretive rail or sparrow out in the endless expanse of saltmarsh?  And then there is the challenge of identifying some birds.  There are 11 species of flycatchers in the genus Empidonax, many of which are almost identical except for the tiniest differences in physical structure and plumage.  Some birds can only reliably differentiated by voice.  Others show important but subtle ID clues in flight.  Still others are best identified by a combination of range, habitat, and/or behavior.

And what you do “win” if you play this game?  Mostly a batch of enjoyable memories, a sense of accomplishment, and perhaps the thrill of discovering something new.  There are no cash prizes, no trophies, no fame for the “winners” – perhaps just a little recognition and admiration from the tiny fraction of the overall population that claims to be serious birders.  People often ask me how birding is “refereed” – how do you know that a birder has seen the birds that he or she claims to have seen?  The short answer is that birders operate on the honor system.  There are very few “cheaters” for the same reason that so few people cheat running marathons, or climbing mountains.  Sure, there are always a few people willing to take the subway, but most people run marathons for the sense of accomplishment.  They do it to get in shape, to push themselves, to join a community of runners, to add meaning to their lives.  Cheating would defeat the purpose.

Spending this past year playing my own version of a birding game while simultaneously visiting a large number of schools has lead me to think about the ‘gamification’ movement in education.  Evolutionary biologists tell us that the origin of play and games in many species may be an adaptive response to make learning new skills fun.  Lion cubs might play with each other to hone their hunting skills, while human cubs engage in games to sharpen their athletic prowess, intellect, or social skills.  Teachers look to capitalize on this natural fit between learning and games in their classrooms.  Games may help to motivate students to practice skills or gain knowledge, hoping to accumulate prizes or “level up” – or just because the act of playing is fun.  Playful learning can foster collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking.  Many games allow students to model the real world, and let them interact with this model in authentic and compelling ways.  Simulations can teach students cause and effect relationships, arm them with new strategies or tactics, or simply provide them with different perspectives or new points of view.

Tower

Manipulatives

Of course gamification is not a panacea for all of our educational ills.  And it can be done poorly.  If the game becomes disconnected from meaningful learning experiences, it ceases to be a valuable education tool.  Some birders get so wrapped up in the game of birding that they also begin to disconnect from the other meaningful aspects of their hobby.  I’ve seen a few birders who will drive eight hours straight to see a new bird, watch it for all of 5 seconds, tick it off their list, and hop back in the car.  Gone are an aesthetic appreciation of the creature, a curiosity about its behavior and natural history, and a sense of wonder and connection with our world.  For these reasons, I try to remind myself that I am a bird watcher and not just a birder.  And when I go back to teaching this fall I will embrace fun and games with my students, but I will also remember that games by themselves cannot replace wonder, curiosity, and a passion for understanding our world.

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Gambles That Don’t Pay Off, And Those That Do

The plan was to spend the last three days of my Big Year in Gambell, a tiny Yupik community on the very northwest tip of St. Lawrence Island.  It’s the bit of North American land that is closest to Siberia, only 46 miles away.  On a clear day, you really can see Russia from your house.  Even when visibility is less than perfect, you can see tomorrow.  The International Date Line is only 23 miles distant.  I wanted to go to Gambell.  I wanted to see tomorrow.  I wanted to see the millions of sea birds that are said to fly by the sea watch there.  I wanted to know what Siberia strays would get blown across the strait.  I wanted to see how people live in that tiny corner of our world.

But in order to get to Gambell, you need to take a tiny plane from a company like Bering Air.  But Bering Air doesn’t fly when the weather is bad, and lately it hasn’t been too pretty in Nome.  As warmer air blows in from the south, it hits the pack ice and cools, creating thick fog.  Thick fog means no flights to Gambell.

planes waiting

I went to the airport on Sunday morning.  The weather was marginal in Nome, but Gambell was completely socked in.  The flight was delayed.  And then delayed some more.  I updated my blog, and waited.  More reports came in.  The weather was still bad.  This was frustrating.  There wasn’t much to do in the small one room waiting area.

waiting room

Then, miraculously, the weather in Gambell improved enough to maybe land a plane.  But in the meantime, the fog in Nome got worse, and now the plane couldn’t take off.  We waited some more.  Eventually, the flight was canceled.  I was stuck in Nome.  I scrambled to find a hotel room for my unexpected stay – there was one room at the Aurora Inn.  I was told that maybe we could go tomorrow.

It was still only 5pm, so I wandered the streets of town.

Foggy Nome

Nome Church

I stopped by the combination Subway/movie theater.  I’m betting it’s the only Subway in the world that has a movie theater inside of it.

Subway Movie Theater

The new Star Trek movie was playing – I could tell by the Nome-style movie poster.

Nome Movie Poster

I bought a ticket.  The theater itself was small, but really nice.  I enjoyed the movie quite a bit.

Early the next morning, it was still foggy – but… was it my imagination?  Was it a tiny bit less foggy?  I went to the airport.  It was my imagination.  The flight was delayed, and then delayed again.  Then, Nome got less foggy.  A flight to Savoonga actually left.  Gambell was marginal.  We might go.  Then the fog rolled in again, and the flight was canceled.  Maybe we would go at 4pm this afternoon.

I caught a ride into town, and toured Nome.  I went to the Nome museum, and learned about the native people who have lived in western Alaska for thousands of years.

Ivory carving

I learned that Wyatt Earp actually travelled from Arizona to Nome during the gold rush of 1900.  He opened a saloon here, and sold supplies to the prospectors for two years before heading back to the Southwest with a load of cash.

Wyatt Earp

I also learned about dog sledding.  Alaskans take their dog sledding very seriously.  Nome is the official ending point for the Iditarod Dog Sled Race.

End of Iditarod

I ate lunch at the Bering Sea BAR (and restaurant).

Bering Sea Bar

I admired the fact that at 65 degrees north latitude you can mount solar panels on the SIDE of a building.

Side mounted solar panels

I even went inside a store that sells real things.

They Sell Real Things

I did not go inside this bar.

Sin City

After a while, I took a cab back to the airport.  At this point, I have taken both cabs in Nome at least three times each.  Bering Air is still on weather hold.  I wait in the tiny room for news.  Then the news comes.  The flight is canceled.  Maybe it will go tomorrow, but the weather forecast is the same as today (and yesterday).  I call my wife to discuss options, and listen to her calm and thoughtful words over the loud and crackling static.  She is very supportive of anything I want to do.  I have now wasted two of my original three days scheduled for Gambell.  I don’t know when I will be able to get there.  And more importantly, I don’t know when I could fly back.  Bering Air has canceled the last five flights to Gambell, and no one has gotten on or off the island in almost three days.  I don’t want to be stuck there, especially since there are no restaurants and almost no places to buy food or supplies.  I am frustrated and discouraged.  I call Alaska Airlines and get reservations for the next flight back to Seattle, which is tomorrow.  I call Bering Air and tell them to take my name off my list for the morning Gambell flight attempt, and they start processing my refund.

I walk home through the fog, a bit sad.  I don’t know when I’ll get the chance to try to go to Gambell again.  This was supposed to be the grand finale of my Big Year, and instead it was a grand letdown.  After several attempts, I finally find a place to stay the night – at the Nugget Inn, and I begin to walk to the hotel through the dense fog and the surreal eternal daylight of summer Nome.  The evening is calm, the air is cold, and the gulls stare back at me from their perch on a small iceberg just offshore.

As I walk, I begin to think of the fog as a metaphor, both for my Big Year and for my life.  Fog can be frustrating – you think you can see a bit of the future up ahead, but it is hazy and uncertain.  Many times you just want to look across the strait and see tomorrow clearly – it seems so close – only 23 miles!  Sometimes you think you have things figured out, you think you know what’s coming – but then out of the mist comes an unexpected surprise, an unplanned wrinkle, an unforeseen detour.  Often these surprises that appear out of the fog are unwelcome, annoying, or even painful.  But occasionally out of the fog comes something wonderful: a kind new friend, a delightful new experience, a marvelous new view of the world that you weren’t expecting.  The fog helps to keep life mysterious and exciting, full of wonder and anticipation and novelty.

When I started my Big Year last June, I had some idea of what was in store, but so much was unknown.  I stared into the fog and tried to make out the landscape ahead.  But hidden behind a veil were a great deal of things I just couldn’t predict.  Many of them were wonderful surprises: bonding with my wife over two White-tailed Ptarmigan chases up Mt. Rainier, meeting amazing teachers at Bronx Science and Groton in the same week and becoming inspired by their shared passion and their different paths to educational excellence, seeing the amazing seascape of the Dry Tortugas and hearing Wes Biggs tell unforgettable (and hysterical) stories, watching master teacher Bill Palmer do extraordinary things with very ordinary resources, showing up in Massachusetts just in time to see mega-rare Northern Lapwing and Little Egret and enjoy a spectacular burst of late fall radiance on Cape Cod, and experiencing an extraordinary four days exploring the sea and tundra around Nome with my instant new friends Neil, Abe, and Joe.  I was graced with all of these surprise gifts appearing out of the fog, and I am so grateful for the opportunity to spend a whole year stumbling my way through this undiscovered country and uncovering unexpected wonders.  If it weren’t for the uncertainty of the fog, there are many experiences I probably would have skipped, and my year would have been immeasurably poorer (and I’d have fewer embarrassing and funny stories to tell).

When I got back to the Nugget, I was still a bit disappointed to be missing out on Gambell, but I had a new appreciation for the fog.  My friend and mentor, Than Healy, believes that metaphors can help us make sense of our lives and our experiences.  I will try to embrace both the literal and metaphorical fog in my life, and appreciate the mystery and majesty that it brings.  Even though I often tell myself that I hate surprises, the wonderful little surprises of my Big Year are what made it special.  There will be another time to visit Gambell, but for now the last surprise of the year is for my kids: Daddy is coming home a little early.

Signpost

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Protect Birds for the Next Big Year

I am back from Florida, and scrambling to get ready for my penultimate trip of the year: Big Bend National Park and southeastern Arizona.  But before I go, I’d like to take a minute to ask you for your support.  As I’ve traveled around North America this year, I have been reminded that the natural world is both stunningly beautiful and also incredibly fragile.  Birds like Kirtland’s Warbler and Whooping Crane teeter on the brink of extinction.  Whole habitats, like the California coastal marshes, Washington’s big sage country, and Minnesota’s tall grass prairies and wetlands are threatened.

Please consider making a donation to the Nature Conservancy on my behalf.  I’m trying to raise $700 by the time my Big Year ends in mid-June (only 6 weeks away!), $1 for each species I hope to see by then.  If you can chip in 1 cent per species ($7), or 4 cents ($28), or even 10 cents ($70), I’d really appreciate it.  (No partial refunds if I don’t quite make it all the way to 700!).  My wife has already kicked in some money (thanks, Kristi!), so I only have $500 to go.

You can donate at the Nature Conservancy’s website here: http://support.nature.org/goto/degrys

I thank you very much, and so does this Kirtland’s Warbler!

Kirtland's Warbler

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Migration Miracle

People in Seattle often ask me why I go to Texas to go bird watching.  And they often do so with a skeptical tone in their voice and a perplexed expression on their face.  There are many reasons why Texas is arguably the very best place in the United States to go birding.  One is the large number of specialties that occur here and nowhere else in this county or in the world (Golden-cheeked Warbler, Black-capped Vireo, and Attwater’s Prairie Chicken to name only three).  A second reason is the proximity to the Mexican border, where many Mexican species reach their northern-most limits and a few rarities from further south occasionally just venture into the US (like Least Grebe and Crimson-collared Grosbeak).  These reasons alone would make Texas a must-visit.  But there is a third reason to come down to the Lone Star State, and it has to do with migration.  In order to fully understand why Texas is such an amazing place to see migrating birds, it’s helpful to back up a minute and consider why birds migrate in the first place.

Migration is an expansive and complex phenomenon.  Birds migrate for many different reasons.  But here is a brief introduction to why many of our birds “fly south” in the winter and “fly north” in the summer.  A big clue can be found in our global geography.

world map

Even a casual glance at a world map shows that there is more land mass north of the equator than south of it.  In addition, the two largest continents of the Southern Hemisphere taper to a point as they approach the South Pole, leaving a relatively small land mass at high southern latitudes near Antarctica.  In contrast, continents in the Northern Hemisphere tend to flare outwards as they go north towards the pole, creating a huge expanse of territory in the north temperate and arctic regions.  These lands in the northern US and Canada, northern Europe, and Siberia can be bitterly cold in winter, often locked below layers of ice and snow.  In the summer however, these vast areas warm considerably.  There is abundant nesting habitat, swarms of insects, and an explosion of seeds and fruits there during the brief boreal summer.  In short, it is a paradise for birds, but only for a few short months from early May to the end of the September.

While many birds are content to live their lives in the tropics year round where temperatures are mild and food is consistently available, some species have discovered that it is worthwhile to travel north during our summer, feast on the incredible abundance present, raise their young, and then high-tail it out of there before the weather turns again.  It is a risky strategy, but one that can pay huge dividends.  We call these birds who have taken on this high risk/high reward lifestyle in the Americas “neotropical migrants.”  They include our summer breeding songbirds like warblers, orioles, tanagers, and flycatchers.  We often think of them as “our birds,” but really, we are just borrowing them for a few months.  They spend most of the year in Central and South America, often leaving as early as August and not returning until May.

Now you can begin to appreciate why Texas can be an amazing place to see birds in the spring and the fall.  Almost all of the neotropical migrants who breed anywhere in North America must pass through (or at least over) Texas twice a year.  Anytime in April or September, you can be almost any place in Texas and see migrants passing through.  But there are some locations which are truly special places to see migrating songbirds, especially the true dare-devils of this risk-loving group.

Suppose you are a Yellow Warbler, and you are trying beat all of your peers to the prime nesting habitat in an Ohio wetland.  Arrive too early, and there are no insects to eat and you may freeze to death.  Arrive too late, and all the of best territories and mates are already taken.  So you need to race there as fast as you can right during the “Goldilocks” window – not too early, and not too late.  Traveling up from Central America, you could play it relatively safe, and travel all the way around the Gulf of Mexico.  Some birds do this; we call them “Circum-Gulf migrants.”

Traveling north, they eventually hit the Gulf of Mexico somewhere near the Yucatan Peninsula (perhaps at point A, below).  There they scream “oh crap!” (or whatever birds scream when they find out that 600 miles of open water stand between them and that sexy female warbler they hope to find in Ohio), and turn to follow the Gulf all the way around the eastern coast of Mexico and up into Texas, arriving at Point B several days later:

Gulf Map

Of course, there are also the dare-devils that I mentioned earlier.  They eye the Gulf and say to themselves, “Hey, 600 miles is no biggie.  If I leave here at sunset, I could fly all night and all morning and be there by lunchtime – especially if the weather is good and I have a SE tailwind to push me along.”  These extreme risk takers, called Trans-Gulf migrants, are making a pretty good bet.  They can save a couple days of precious travel time by flying nonstop over the Gulf of Mexico.  Of course they cannot eat or drink en route, and they can’t rest until they make landfall, some 18 hours later.  For healthy birds, everything is usually fine unless they meet bad weather in transit, like a northerly headwind, rain, or (worst-case scenario) thunderstorms.

When the wind blows from the north or storms brew over the Texas shoreline, birders head to the coast, to places like High Island (point B on the map above).  High Island is a tiny town just a couple dozen miles from the Louisiana border, and just half a mile from the beach.  It sits on a salt dome, so it is a dozen feet above the surrounding salt marsh flats.  The added elevation means that it’s the only place for miles and miles around that has trees (the little bit of added elevation means that their roots are not drowned by saltwater).  The Houston Audubon Society has several small nature sanctuaries in High Island filled with trees and native vegetation.

Boy Scout Woods

Trans-Gulf migrants that hit unfavorable weather are in trouble.  Some exhaust themselves and drown in the Gulf.  The ones that make it to land are in desperate need of a place to rest and food to eat.  They look for any suitable place to set down, even if it’s just a couple acres of trees like the nature preserves at High Island.  Birders on the ground can watch birds literally falling out of the sky.  You can see dozens and dozens of species – sometimes thousands of individual birds – hopping around at your feet and in the bushes, trying to find food and water and just rest for a minute.  My wife and I once witnessed a dozen Scissor-tailed Flycatchers come in off the Gulf just over the waves and crash-land on the sand dunes, where they sat, exhausted.  One April morning in Key West, I watched a thunderstorm precipitate a massive fallout of birds in a tiny park near the island’s tip.  I saw 100 Yellow-billed Cuckoos and 300 Indigo Buntings flopping around the bushes and small trees, along with about 60 other species of birds.  While fallouts are exciting for bird watchers, they are bad for bids.  The daredevils are paying a heavy price for their high risk strategy, many forfeiting their lives.

I didn’t witness any spectacular fallouts this time in Texas, but I was near the coast on several occasions when a light mist was falling or when the wind shifted slightly from the north.  At the South Padre Island Convention Center, there is a small planting of trees – really no bigger than a modest-sized suburban backyard.  But it is one of the only natural shelters for miles around for tired migrants.  The blue and yellow building in the picture below is the Convention Center; you can see the trees poking up slightly above the surrounding salt marsh:

Convention Center

One afternoon I watched that tiny area fill up with warblers, buntings, vireos, and orioles.  Even normally shy species were too hungry and tired to play coy.  This Black-throated Green Warbler flitted close around me for ten minutes, almost landing on my head:

Black-throated Green Warbler

Black-throated Green2

As the Convention Center has become well known as a stopover place for migrant songbirds, volunteers have planted more trees and bushes, and even added a water feature for the birds.  Drips and water features are very attractive for neotropical migrants, who are thirsty from their flight and often want to bath and clean their feathers.  I saw a steady parade of birds come through the little pool, like this Yellow-rumped Warbler (left) and Nashville Warbler (right):

Warblers in the water

And then some Indigo Buntings came by:

Indigo Buntings Join

And even a Painted Bunting, whose brilliant blue, red, and neon yellow-green plumage is not adequately captured by this bad photo:

Painted Bunting

On that particular day, Nashville Warblers were particularly abundant, and I watched a steady stream of them come by to bathe:

Nashville Warbler bathing

A group called the Valley Land Fund decided to add a little more migrant stop-over habitat about a mile south of the Convention Center.  They bought up a number of adjacent vacant lots in a residential area, and planted them with trees and shrubs.  They fenced them off, but also created many spaces for birders to see into the new natural gardens they made.  In this way, the birds got a refuge, and birders got another place to watch the birds:

SPI woodlots

Valley Land Fund

Of course some migrant birds like sandpipers and plovers don’t find sanctuary in trees on their journey.  I’ll write about them in my next post.

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Protecting and Celebrating Wildlife, Texas Style

I live in the Seattle area, a place known for its liberal politics and conservation-minded outlook.  The stereotypical Seattleite drives her Prius to the grocery store and packs local, organic produce and ‘green’ cleaning supplies into the re-usable hemp bags she brought from home.  Her friend is scrupulous about composting food scraps, riding his bike to and from work, and replacing all of the incandescent lights in his home with compact florescent bulbs.  Don’t get me wrong, I applaud these efforts to reduce, re-use, and recycle.  But what bothers me sometimes is the smug attitude that some Northwesterners have about their eco-friendly lifestyle, and the thought that if only the rest of the country were “more like us” we’d all be a lot better off.  Well, Seattle, I have news for you: you could learn a lot about protecting and celebrating nature and wildlife from the great state of Texas.

While much of the Seattle ethos of conservation centers around reducing our environmental footprint, the Texas approach I’ve seen on display here this week is all about getting people excited about nature.  They want people to experience the joy and wonder of the great outdoors, to educate them about the fascinating habitats and wildlife that surround them, and to help them forge deep connections with nature.  And one of the logical outgrowths of loving nature is a desire to preserve and protect it, a motive that is woven into the Texas strategy.  How do they manage to accomplish all of this?  They’ve done it through an ambitious program of education and marketing, and by partnering with businesses and communities to demonstrate that conservation can be great for local economies, businesses, and families.

One of the first steps down this path was the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail.  People had been coming to the Texas coast to watch birds for decades, and at some point local birders got together with area business leaders and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to create an official ‘birding trail.’  The trail consists of a compilation of the most interesting bird watching locations along the coast.  A description was written about each location, and beautiful full-color maps were printed showing how to get to each place.  Physical signs were also placed at each location, to help birders find the place and to attract the attention of nature-loving passers-by.

Great TX Birding Trail

The trail was a hit, and helped to cement Texas as one of the most popular spring birding destinations in the country.  Over time the program has expanded to include the rest of Texas.  There are now nine different birding or wildlife trail sections encompassing nearly 1000 different sites around the state.  You can still order the gorgeous printed maps, but of course now the entire statewide Trail is available free online.

In the late 1990s, a new venture to promote birding and nature tourism in Texas was launched: the Texas Birding Classic.  This event is basically a bird-watching competition.  Teams compete to see who can see the highest number of species in either a 24-hour period, or in a several day extended event.  There are many different categories for the competition – some for young people, some for folks who wanted to stick within a certain geographic area, and some for nuts who want to run the entire Gulf Coast seeing as many birds as humanly possible.  The Classic is fun and promotes the wonders of Texas wildlife, but it is also a conservation fund-raiser.  Teams collect donations for the event, and the winners in each category get to help decide which conservation project along the Texas coast gets a conservation grant.   To date, almost $800,000 has been distributed to over 60 projects, including the new marsh habitat and boardwalk (which I love!) on South Padre Island.

SPI Boardwalks

 

Birding Classic Conservation

The Texas Birding Classic has become so popular that this year it is expanding from a week to a month, and geographically from the Gulf Coast to statewide.  You can find out more about it at the GTBC website.

At this point, Texans began to really see the great potential of birding in Texas.  Businesses saw tourist dollars, communities saw potential infrastructure investments and tax benefits, and nature-lovers saw a new interest in conserving wildlife and protecting important habitat and resources (like water).

The Texas Coastal Management Program commissioned a study in 2004 on the impact of ecotourism in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.  The results were stunning.  According to the report, as many as 50,000 people came to the Valley every year primarily for watching birds and butterflies, contributing as much as $170 million and “several thousand” jobs to the local economy.  In an area of the state that suffers from high rates of poverty and unemployment, the influx of nature-tourism was a substantial boost to the local Rio Grande Valley economy.

In response to this report and other similar studies, RGV business leaders and elected officials got together with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the US Fish and Wildlife Service to form what is ambitiously (and a little ridiculously) called the ‘World Birding Center.’  Despite its overly-grandiose name, the WBC is a really cool project.  They aim to identify and/or create great places for birding in the Valley, and then publicize them to entice nature lovers to come on down and visit.  How exactly do they do this?  As an example, let’s take one of the WBC sites I visited a couple of days ago: Estero Llano Grande State Park, one of the first new properties developed in cooperation with the WBC.

EL World Birding Center

The first thing they did was create some great new wetland habitat:

Estero Llano

 

They built a cool new visitor center and gift shop.  Inside you can buy snacks and educational gifts and books.  They also have a huge whiteboard outside devoted to wildlife sightings:

EL Visitors Center

(Check out the note on the lower right of the whiteboard in the picture above – I have photos of that Flammulated Owl!)

The WBC also added lots of interpretive signs detailing information about the plants and animals that live at Estero Llano.

EL Signs

They added a beautiful full color map and detailed information about the park:

EL Map

And they created a spacious covered deck that looks out over one of the lakes.  The space was designed so that it’s easy to look out, but harder for the ducks and water birds to see in – which means that many critters swim right by the viewers.

EL Deck

The bathrooms are modern, large, and clean.  Cool bird-themed art done by local artists decorates the wall:

EL Bird Art

One of the things that I love about Estero Llano is that it doesn’t just cater to the hardcore birder or nature expert, or the upper middle-class ecotourist.  There are binoculars to rent (at extremely reasonable rates) in the visitor’s center for people who don’t have them, and a telescope is set up on the deck for use by visitors.  Docents and volunteers are on hand to answer questions and lead bird walks.  Many visitors are casual nature lovers who are just out for a stroll and thrilled to see a heron or egret up close.  Most of the newer signs are bilingual, reaching out to many of the local Valley residents whose first language is Spanish.  But the very best thing about Estero Llano is that they have great birds!  The biologists and naturalists who helped plan the park did a fantastic job creating excellent habitat.  During my visit I saw a huge assortment of ducks and shorebirds, some of the valley’s specialty kingfisher species, a dozen night-herons, and the Pauraques I wrote about recently.

Estero Llano is a win-win-win-win.  Wildlife is protected and habitat is improved, the community gets a great new space to enjoy, serious birders get to geek out on cool birds, and local businesses get increased revenue from tourist dollars.  Estero Llano had dozens of visitors the day I was there, but since it is a relatively large place it didn’t feel crowded.

Birders

You can really see that at Estero Llano, the WBC is reaching its ambitious goals: “The mission of the WBC is to protect native habitat while increasing the understanding and appreciation of the birds and wildlife. Our project is a global model for conservation and ecotourism development.”  You can read more at the WBC website.

All around the Valley, similar scenes are playing out.  The Valley Nature Center in Weslaco is not affiliated with the WBC, but they are using some of the same strategies towards some of the same ends.  They have a six-acre site that they are protecting and restoring with new trees and native vegetation.  They have also set up several bird feeding stations and water drips to attract birds and other animals.

Feeding Station

Their efforts are paying off in many ways.  The improved habitat has attracted new wildlife (like the Clay-colored Thrush I wrote about), and the new wildlife has attracted new visitors.  New visitors have helped attract funding for a brand new education and nature center building for the site.

Construction Sign

And a new building means new construction jobs for the Valley, and another economic reason to value conservation – completing the virtuous circle.

This idea that conservation can have powerful economic benefits is catching on all over Texas.  I noticed that the new Rockport-Fulton Chamber of Commerce offices have a large Whooping Crane statue prominently displayed.  And the Captain of the Skimmer, who makes a living guiding nature lovers to see the Whoopers at Aransas NWR, had on-board as his co-leader this time a biologist from the non-profit International Crane Foundation.

Skimmer Sign

I also noticed on my trip to Texas a proliferation of “birding festivals” – events that bring tourists to town for organized field trips, seminars, speakers, etc.  I think there are something like 20 birding and nature festivals scheduled in Texas this year, from Featherfest in Galveston to Eagle Fest in Emory.

EL Birding Festival

In fact, I ran into a couple of tour groups from the Laredo festival two days ago.

All of this is not to say that the Texas approach to conservation and ecotourism is perfect, or that it is a “magic solution” to any problem.  I think it is fair to say that it is a work in progress.  But I do think it’s a pretty nifty idea.  And it really got me wondering: where the heck is my Washington state World Birding Center?  How come we aren’t doing more things like this in the Puget Sound area?

Now Washington state doesn’t have 600+ species of birds like Texas, but we do have more than 500, including some relatively rare and sought-after ones.  We have Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge located an hour south of Seattle, a real gem of place that hardly anyone (even in Seattle) knows about.  Texas advertises their nature hotspots on TV and on paper brochures, on giant billboards and in nature magazines, on the internet and in the newspaper.  And we… don’t.  The Olympic Peninsula is one of the premier birding spots in the United States, where you can get great close-up views of Harlequin and Long-tailed Ducks, Rhinoceros Auklets, and Tufted Puffins.  Yet when I meet birders from other states, no one has visited there.  Everyone has been to Texas.  When you drive the backroads on the Olympic Peninsula, you see bumper stickers that say “Save a logger, shoot a Spotted Owl.”  The folks in the Rio Grande Valley have bumper stickers for the WBC.  Local groups have been trying to save Skagit and Samish farmland from development an hour north of Seattle, but land there is under significant threat from development.  Maybe if nature lovers around the country actually knew about it – that you can go there and see thousands of Snow Geese, Tundra and Trumpeter Swans, and five species of falcons – there might be more support to keep the area protected.

Yes, we do have a Washington Birding Trail (featuring art by my favorite Washington artist, Ed Newbold).  And there are a few Washington birding events, like the Othello Sandhill Crane Festival in eastern Washington.   But these were things that Texas was doing decades ago.

So, progressive eco-groovy Seattleites, I have a question for you.  Put down your organic soymilk latte (in a compostable cup!) for just a minute, and think about this: can we learn some important things about conservation and ecotourism from our friends down in Texas?  And what Texan lessons can we apply here in Washington state?

 

 

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