Sunday, July 17, 2011

Birding In Tamarisk Is Like A Rectal Exam: Coco Speaks

The Human Birdwatcher Project is proud to present it's newest addition to our one-of-a-kind, oft-hailed, much-lauded interview series about birders and birdwatchers. Today we talk to Coco, whose way with words paints birding in an entirely new light. To use a popular phrase around these parts...things may never be the same.

All photos of Coco by Seagull Steve. All others are by Coco himself.

Hello Coco. So what is it you do, exactly?

Itinerant (sometimes) birder…

I am currently off-duty, professionally speaking, since I rolled an ATV on top of myself at 30mph in Nevada last summer. After sliding for some distance, along a BLM road, through a field of yellow flowers, underneath 300lbs of vehicle, I collided with a fence. When I woke up, I became aware that I was broken in several specific ways, and that the machine was liberally urinating gasoline onto my chest.

I have not always had the pleasure or embarrassment of being a birder. In fact, birds have only been on my radar for a few years. However birding is one of the main sources of highlight and distraction throughout my day. For example there’s a smattering of spring migrants distracting me right now. Filtering through the window are the sounds of a Townsend's Warbler, Hammond's Flycatcher, Orange-crowned Warbler, Olive-sided Flycatcher and Western Tanager. The main reason I got out of bed this morning was because I heard an unfamiliar call note, and was excited enough to run outside.

I had knee surgery and am not supposed to do field work this season, so I am currently employed as a common weed-puller, a hired yard work hand for old ladies, absentee owners, and slovenly small town “normal Americans”. By the strange logic of the economy and culture we live in, none of these people actually have any interest in gardening, per se, but they all wish to maintain appearances. Anyway, in the end, none of that really matters, since they pay me, and since the work is quietly un-mechanized I can hear the birds.

Field jobs. They have the potential to be awful and usually pay someone just enough to live like a bum. On the other hand, a field job could be the defining experience of someone’s lifetime. Tell us about them.  

Especially if you are sort of lazy, there are psychological and physiological reasons to enjoy fieldwork above and beyond providing an actual paycheck. In my case mainly this has to do with imposing structured purpose and mandatory difficulty that I might not otherwise “voluntarily” commit to.

This structure and difficulty combo turns out to be a positive thing in the right doses. For a long time I didn’t understand this, and couldn’t fathom why I was so depressed all the time. Eventually I clued in to the major correlation between long periods of unemployment and depression. Basically I am much happier when I am located in a matrix of purpose and stress load. It turns out that even if the work is arbitrary, it justifies itself by relieving me of having to justify myself. Some very basic psychology is at work here. I still have a remnant aversion to any commitment or decision because I assume that I will make the wrong decision and that all future outcomes will likely be terrible, but I have realized that this anxiety is probably an authoritarian fiction produced by my weak and cowardly imagination.

I have always been of the opinion that working outside is the best medicine. Even when it’s bad it’s kind of good, because it gives you something concrete to bitch about, instead of the more haunting existential stuff. It’s more like, “fuck, these mosquitoes are BAD!”

For field science jobs, the extremity of stimulating experience is the best, and the worst aspect of such work. It has this intense masochistic level of filth and isolation and hardship that tends to be self-rewarding. Since you are surviving the persecution of nature but also experiencing the highlights. Basically it’s nice to get your mind blown by seeing unusual places. Field-tech jobs are essentially “engaged tourism.” 

Describe the transition from human being to did you fall into America's most embarrassing pastime?

It was not all that different from those “seeing eye” pictures that were briefly popular some years ago, and which I have never been able to make my eyes make sense of. I basically had no idea what people were looking at. Birds were totally invisible to me.

As a total novice I was completely shocked to discover how many birds were sharing the particular neighborhood I was living in at the time. It was like I suddenly realized that I was actually living a very cool neighborhood with lots of diversity. Nothing had changed objectively, except that I became aware of everybody. It’s startling to have those moments where you realize how much has been going on that you are unaware of.

I didn’t grow up birding, or have my grandmother give me my first bins when I was 6 or anything like that. The first place I remember having a Sibley (or any bird guide for that matter) was in LA of all places. I went birding on the concrete banks of the LA River and saw some mallards and a red-tail.

What is your first experience interacting with other birdwatchers?

I had one friend who was into it, so that obviously must have been the infection route. He definitely hooked me up with my first birding job, which, in fact, I think, was only in 2009.

The first people I worked with were either friends, or soon to be friends. I thought they were quite fascinating and wonderful. This was in southern Nevada, in the Mojave, and what I remember most is the improvisational discussions we had while walking in the morning as we tried to attach mnemonic associations to the cascade of bird noises emerging from the thick stands of mesquite and tamarisk. “Seeing” the sound through a mnemonic key sometimes bypasses all laborious consideration and makes a vocalization instantly unforgettable. Thus, I learned, identifying birds is not simply a rote task, but a creative one as well.

I do remember being amused by seeing everyone with their binoculars pointed in one direction, but that job was ridiculous amounts of social fun because there were other teams of field-techs working the same umbrella project looking at different aspects: amphibians, insects, botany…etc. so there was essentially a giant semi-nerdy semi-psychedelic party scene transplanted to the middle of the Mojave and raging on for months.

Describe your average birder for us. What do they think about? What do they talk about? What do they look like?

It’s fun to stereotype (I guess?), and it’s true that a lot of birders are old and do dress like Dwight Schrute’s parents, but really the more I think about it the more I have to concede that birders are diverse in their appearance and interests.

In terms of obsession though the average birder is essentially convinced that it is worth driving a few hundred miles to see an unusual species. This is precisely as fun as it is unethical. Most of the birders I know can’t actually suppress the observation of birds, and have a kind of automatic running commentary, or mental-turrets, all the time, relating to identifying any potentially bird-related movements in their peripheral vision. So that whatever they are doing birding is always a layer going on.

My average birder probably plays several instruments, and is in one-or-more real or imagined bands. His or her interests are a blend of witty cosmopolitan thought, roll-with-the-punches naturalist-romantic bum, and goofy intellectualism. Observing the life and death drama of other species tends to engender, or reinforce, feelings of pathos and concern and therefore my average birder is relatively passionate about systems of politics and justice...but on the other hand, my average birder is averse to taking anything too seriously, without cutting that shit with comedy, since that would be entirely overwhelming and depressing.

Drugs and birding. Do they mix?

Not quite. Not in terms of psychedelics at least, or pot. Since birding implies a fair amount of quotidian focus on detail. Mundane drugs like coffee and its antithesis beer are decent accoutrements or accessories to birding. I would have to say that Baily’s and tea played an indispensible role in finding the rumored snow bunting paramour pair this winter.

Partly it’s the fact that any additional ritual you can sow into the equation that keeps you outside will increase your chances of seeing something cool, and since “waiting” is boring, you may as well have a drink.

I quite definitely went cold turkey on all illicit substances to get up to speed for my first bird job. There was no other way to keep all the sounds straight in terms of memorization. Nonetheless I was totally overloaded during training. Each day, after not too many hours, I would become incapable of separating any new audio input into categories. In the face of too much new information all noises would become indistinguishable. I actually don’t like this sensation at all. It’s like all the neurons in my mind have fused in a horrible car crash. Images are loud and noises are bright. This “cacophony scenario” would smooth itself out by the next morning, unless I pushed it too far in which case I always ended up corrupting the knowledge I had acquired and causing massive migraines. Maybe I should have been doing drugs.

This process changes over time through a proliferation of clues and contexts so that recognition becomes increasingly automatic and achievable with fewer and fewer clues or details and less conscious effort. Though, of course, this is only within familiar bounds, and circumstances always conspire to surprise and embarrass.

Do you think it is possible to be a hardcore birder without being a nerd of the highest degree?

Since nerds and nerd-dom are experiencing a total public-perception renaissance, this cheeky denigration is actually a sly form of flattery to all birders who are hardcore – esp. those of the highest degree. In that sense, we probably all aspire to be bird-nerds of the highest order.

On the other hand, a certain amount of the awkwardness that suffuses the experience of birding is the fact that most birders are old. And since being old has yet to become hip, and probably can never be, since it is the one identity completely unshielded from embarrassment by ironic belonging, maybe the question is: is it possible to be a bird-nerd without being old?  The answer to that question is a tentative “yes.” There are some younger birders out there.

But if birding were really cool in the sense that a majority of young people wanted to seem to be involved in it, then it would become a mating device (which all present signals indicate it most certainly is not), and suddenly there would be so many people “posing” (with binoculars instead of skateboards) in order to belong to the popular cultural image. But maybe birding is incapable of becoming a phenomenon to which people can simply belong because it is essentially about observing “other” rather than being about a self-conscious ritual of self-display.

That makes birding sound really boring. This has been like a public dis-service statement to all birders.

Are you friends with other birders? What do you think of them?

I am not friends with enough other birders. The amalgamated brain sees many things. Ideally it’s nice to be friends with people who are excited and knowledgeable about many things. But I am also not friends with enough computer scientists, or authors, or filmmakers. Where are you people anyway? Maybe I am not friendly.

Do you have any mental problems? Demons to battle that would explain why you became a birder?

If I have a mental demon, I guess I would be that I am angry a lot of the time. I am angry that I don’t have better ideas, more perceptive comprehension, and better solutions to problems. I am capable of being similarly disappointed in others, though I am more forgiving.

None of this explains why I became a birder unless the conclusion is that I like birding because it’s easier than certain other pursuits and therefore is more emotionally rewarding because I can moderately succeed at it (audience yelling, boos, hysteria, anger).

Your worst birding memory. Go.

Birding in tamarisk is like a rectal exam that goes on all day, except tamarisk is the rectum and you are the probe.

Why should people care about birds?

I have no idea. I just returned from birding in the Elwha valley and the experience seems to refute the idea that you can explain something like “why should people care…”. The answer as laid out in paragraphs is so labored and painful, whereas being outside is a pleasure and a delight. But…

The answer that I keep going back to is illustrated by a reductive thought-experiment. Imagine a world without them. I.e. imagine a world without trees, without fish, or without birds…etc. The fact that they exist is in some ways startling, but it seems easy to imagine how much suckier life would be without them. What would they draw in kindergarten? Just blank pieces of paper, stick figures alone on a blank page.

In terms of the overview I guess I am a not a proponent of the idea that we humans are the only species on the planet that have a handle on how to live a meaningful life. That idea seems false to me and, in fact, boring, scary, and myopic. So, since we are not the only species worth it’s existence, we are not the only species worth caring about…? That’s pretty flabby logic. I guess, since the truth is awareness is a cultural phenomenon. I am a proponent of awareness. I think once you are aware of something the rest of it - the caring, etc. - works itself out.

Failing that, there are the personal health reasons to consider. I think the surgeon general has recommended seeing at least two birds a day to lower your risk of cardiovascular disease – something about a bird-sighting specific neurotransmitter that lowers acid levels in the blood.

It’s also pleasant escapism and free entertainment, even without even getting to deep into any evolutionary concepts. It’s nice to have a non-human entertainment option. Depending on what reality you are trapped in, human conversation can either be liberating and really fun, or it can be repetitive and depressing. Either way, it’s nice to have an alternate reality to escape into.

I feel like I just threw everything I had in the fridge at this question and still didn’t come close to answering it.

Favorite place to bird? Why?

Like most birders, and unlike most birds, I have low site-fidelity. In fact, thanks to gasoline, I am unethically poly-regional. But locally, in Port Angeles WA, in the winter and early spring, I usually head down to Ediz Hook.

The hook is at its best during the nadir of winter when lightless eight-hour days and northern depression have you by the nuts. In the fog of perpetual gloom, under the alluring perpetual coffin-lid sky, it is easy to see the whole cast of waterfowl floating off shore – brant, goldeneyes, scoters, mergansers, harlequins, loons, longtails, …etc, etc, and the shorebirds - black-bellied plovers hunkered down, and dunlin scavenging on a beach the color of ruined steel, and sanderling gleaming like small flickering light along the water’s edge.

On the other hand going there in the detergent-bright light of June is pretty much marked by an unimpeded absence of birds, and views of empty shoreline and smoking paper-mill stacks. So this time of year the best places are the habitat edges and thickets.

If you had to be predated upon by a particular species, what would it be?

Instinctively I want to say butterflies or western sandpipers, but in practice I’m not sure how that would work. If hummingbird gorgets caused blinding seizures, and they flew in mesmerizing swarms, and drank blood, that would be fascinating. (I do actually sometimes fear that they will fly into my mouth and perforate my trachea - a neurosis I developed in southeast Arizona). I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed, but the Pileated Woodpecker has an actual hatchet attached to its face  - that gives me heart-flutters of fear.

Or maybe some kind of loony toons scenario, like if a crow dropped a razor-clam over the beach that accidentally hit a Caspian tern on the head which in turn crashed through your window causing to swerve off a bridge so that your body could become a floating intertidal feast for all involved…

Maybe the most humiliating would be getting mobbed by gulls in an alley behind a fast food joint and being torn apart like a bag of garbage.

People across the land are dying to know...have you had "relations" with any other birdwatchers? What's it like?

That is an outrageous and unfounded allegation (In a word, it was “sandy”).

Do you have a Spirit Bird?

It’s good to have a delegate from each ecosystem you are working in to watch over you. Ever since Mexico I have been in love with the Least Tern, with their flippant dives and annoying but endearing call. Also I am semi-infatuated with the Canyon wren – a bird so synonymous with his eponym-habitat that even his vocalization seems to mirror it – a long, descending, trill-laugh echo that is both ghostly and ticklish. I’ll just leave it at that. Otherwise, the list will proliferate.

What was the last rarity you saw?

He was a Lapland longspur, all decked out in breeding-digs, and he stole my heart. I saw him on Ediz hook last week - slumming it with House sparrows.

Who is your favorite birder?

I admire birders who are good at specking.**
*totally unrelated to “pishing”.
*see under: identifying birds at great distance through scopes.

The future of birding. What is it?

The future of birding, being dependent on habitat and the survival of actual birds, will probably be increasingly taking place in semi-apocalyptic waterways, preserves, and denuded habitat fragments. Small exurban ponds and low diversity woods near highways and surrounded by office parks and light industrial complexes.


  1. I'll be honest, I dreaded reading this because it looked long and there weren't a lot of pictures. But it was great! I could probably cut and paste a bunch of his answers and have my autobiography all ready to go. Seriously. I'm going to call it "Maybe I am not friendly."

  2. Thanks Jen! Yeah Coco is quite verbose...I did a fair amount of editing too. So do you want to be the next person interviewed? I have half an interview from someone else but he just made a baby so I don't expect the other half anytime soon. You don't have to be friendly.

  3. Excellent interview w/brother Hot Coco. So many instances of insight and humor. Oddly, I fell hard for the Least Tern this year as well. The imp of the terns, to be sure. Like taking a fish in your beak and making 6 other terns chase you in order to impress a lady Least Tern. What's that all about?

  4. Oh geez, interviewed? I am afraid I wouldn't have answers even a tenth as good as Coco's. But yeah, if you get desperate...

  5. i want that freaking oystercatcher shirt NOW!

  6. @Jen youre totally next in line. Watch out. @Jill theyre sold exclusively in Puerto Penasco, Mexico. I got a pupfish shirt but that was amongst my many things stolen earlier this is pain (la vida es dolor).

  7. Coco is cool. And loco. Thanks for a good visit.