Thursday, February 21, 2013

Best Friends and Unstable Freaks: Photography, Birding and Field Work With Jill Wussow

Those of us who have toiled in the mines of the Birdosphere for many years know that you start to build some key alliances over time. I have known Jill (without actually meeting her, how 2013) for longer than any other of my blogger friends, so she is a perfect choice for bringing back The Human Birdwatcher Project's interview series. As HBP reminds us, "birders are people too!", and I think Jill proves that...but as I've said, I've never met Jill, although I would be surprised if this developed into another Manti Te'o situation.

Jill's work and questionable deeds can be seen on her blog, Count Your Chicken! We're Taking Over!, and on her website, Jill Wussow Photography. You may also harass her on Facebook right here. All of today's photos were taken by photographer, blogger, sometimes-birder and Golden-cheeked Warbler servant, Jill Wussow.

Jill. Back when I started BB&B in 2008, you were the first blog I found which featured someone who did the same kind of work, yet took really good photos, and even started a blog at practically the same time. I was weirded out, but intrigued. When did you start taking seasonal field jobs? What were your first couple of jobs?

Oh, I'll tell you everything. A lot of it. Some of it.  2005 is when the magic happened (and when all hell broke loose). I took a Student Conservation Association gig playing with sea turtles, Piping Plovers and American Oystercatchers. I met some pretty spectacular people and made some of my worst enemies. You know how it goes. The end of the season ended with a love a shorebirds and a restraining order (uh, not against me). I was obviously hooked. 

You've been in the blogging game for days and have won worldwide acclaim throughout the internet. You are a true maven of the birdosphere, perhaps even a Bloggess. What is your secret? Why did you start blogging?

Oh yes, worldwide acclaim. It does get rather tiring. Yawn. I felt the need to spread the good word, and being nomadic, it was a good way to keep friends and family in the know of my whereabouts. And well, frankly, nature, bird, wildlife photography is kind of what I love doing. That passion thing, you know what I mean? It pumps me up when others get it and appreciate it. 

You clearly like birds a lot. Whats wrong with you? What drove you to them?

Yeah, they're okay. You're right. I kinda like 'em.  But here's the thing: they came to me and I couldn't stop them. It took me a little while to get into the whole birding thing. I can't lie about it. But once I did (thanks to a certain warbler), well, sweet baby Jesus, Tucker! I am not a lister and unless someone else is paying for gas and grub, I'm not about to travel hundreds of miles from Mississippi to Big Bend to see a Tufted Flycatcher....Oh. Hold up. This actually did happen. And my photo of it got on the front of the Western Birds Journal. obnoxious of me. 

But seriously, like you said, there's a lot wrong with me. 

How did you start birding?

I can't lie, it was thanks to an ex. He was/is a rabid birder and it took some time but I realized that as painfully dorky as birding is, it can be sort of...what's the word I'm looking for..."cool?"  It took a little while though and I still am easily distracted ( I may or may not have ADHD or something similar) by shiny shit or bright colors. Even though I started studying birds in 2005, it wasn't until the end 2007 when I realized what was up. The Golden-cheeked Warblers sucked me in. They became my new best friends and they all have wicked personalities. I love them, and I know they love me too.

What did you think about birdwatchers before you knew any? What do you think about them now?

I thought they were f'ing obnoxious and painfully nerdy.  I stand by this statement.  I mean, not all, but a good percentage. I stopped [whitewater] paddling because of elitist egotistical dicky-bags, and birders can be awfully similar. There's really no need to be a pretentious birder, so this confuses me. I'm a very competitive person, but seriously, with birding? It's irritating and it makes them (the people, not the birds, come on) even less cool, so get a grip, really. I prefer birding with just one or two other people; those group things bum me out...maybe I'm anti-social, and maybe birds don't love huge groups of humans. That being said, when I lived in Humboldt County, I got extra competitive and loved seeing my name above certain Humboldters on eBird. Ahem. Now, eBird pretty much bores me. 

Being a seasoned field biologist, you are an expert on field biologists. What do they think? What do they look like? What do they talk about?

Oh boy. If we're going with average, I'd say use keywords such as:  dirty, dorky, backpacks, gearheads. What? I dunno. I used to think there was a common theme but I've done more than 10 field seasons now and I'm not really sure. In my ideal field biology world, there is a lot of not-bathing going on, backpacking/hiking, field guides, good beer, frisbee, barefoot running shoes, vegetarianism/veganism, piece of shit cars, hummus, Dr. Bronners, "hey, check out this bug!," mountain bikes, weird incestuous relationships. Things like that. Of course the list goes on. Unfortunately, there seems to be a lot of Jack Johnson type music and recent graduates who like to talk the (scientific) talk rather than walk the walk. So. It's a little weird because I know who the true average field biologist is. And I wonder, Tucker, who are we being replaced with? Who?

The Jack Johnsonites are to be feared and loathed, there is no question.  It sounds like you have worked with as many horrible people as me. Any embarrassing/aggravating stories you want to share?

I have worked with many more horrible people than you have. I guarantee it. The aforementioned restraining order incident (which was heaps of fun), the alcoholic cactus poacher, the previously-jailed heroin addict, the 300 pound guy who wanted to kill anyone with a vagina, the crazy Mormon who I'm pretty sure was hiding bodies in her spare time, the gun-wielding slut grad student...I don't want to write a book here, Tucker, but I easily could. I'd like to say the drama thing escapes me but that's just not the case. I often feel like I'm in the middle of some twisted Real World Field Biologists nonsense...which, by the way, is a really good idea. Also, I do have a pretty horribly embarrassing story that involves a field dump, but I'll save that one for a rainy day. And one more side note: I've met some of my best friends doing field work, they're not all unstable freaks!

Is it possible to be a hardcore birder or biologist without being a nerd?

Yes, just look at Elias Elias!! I love him, and I hope this doesn't embarrass him because I mean it in a flattering way. 

I'm pretty sure Elias is a nerd (no offense Elias). Moving take facemelting pictures. What gear do you work with? Anything not in your optical arsenal that you'd really like to have?

Oh. Why thank you, kind sir. I use a Canon 7D as the body. Wildlife and birds are taken with an OS Sigma 50-500 mm. I dunno if everyone wants to get gear giddy right here, so here is the link to my goods.

Of course I'd love new and improved goods, but honestly, what I've got right now gets the job done and I'm not going to complain...I do have to send a lens back to Canon to get fixed though, which sort of blows. 

What's it like being one of the dominant wildlife photographers in the Birdosphere? If you dropped this "biology" bullshit you would be huge!

Sell me. Sell me! Yea, I wouldn't complain if I could make some bucks off photos, at least enough to buy groceries. I wouldn't complain at all. That'd be pretty badass.  But at the same time, I love. I LOVE field biology. But it sucks because I'm all old and stuff now and I feel like maybe I'm the old weirdo who the rest of the crew talks about. Not that I'm paranoid, but you know what I mean. I'm 32, dude. Gross. Gives me a huge complex. However, full time gigs are not for me. And I get my kicks studying birds. I love and value what I do for money but I also love and value my play time (and sanity). Some may call me a slacker. 

It is well known that you have been cruelly persecuted by the Catholic Church and repeatedly denied help by the health insurance industry for chronic debilitating pain. Right-wing America is out to get you. Yet you continue to thrive in the midst of it all. Surely your drive to go on is based on a strong desire to see a certain bird....what is it????

True statements, my friend.  My willpower actually stems from (shade-grown) coffee, yerba mate, and IPA. That, and a need for justice and revenge. I dunno. I have dreams about Fork-tailed Flycatchers on a fairly regular basis. And sadly, there was one just a couple hours from me recently. I failed to acknowledge it for various reasons. I need/crave another Central America trip in the near future (so your CR blogs aren't really helping with that, mmkay?). I see what I see, and I'm always pumped to see it. Because in the end, I'm not picky. I love birds (and all wildlife), and it all puts a big dorky smile on small dorky face. I'm so embarrassed right now.


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  2. I can't handle this. How embarrassing. Who wrote this nonsense? I mean, really.

  3. Loved the part about Real World Field Biologists and can totally relate to watching weird incestuous relationships go down! Great post!

    1. Thanks!
      Reassuring that others know what I'm talking about!

  4. Yay! Thanks, Steve, good stuff!! She is the bomb. And while I've done less fieldwork than she, and a lot of it was within my cozy-NPS-cocoon-of-yore, I've mostly met great people out there. But, I've not been a fieldwork-way-out-in-the-boonies-and-with-coworkers girl, so I think that probably attracts a different flavor of biologist. Plus, if you have to LIVE with your coworkers (way, way out there), yikes. That's gotta ratchet everything up about 10 notches. SO glad she's blogging & sharing, and SO glad you interviewed her. =)

    1. I really think a lot of my stories are worth a book-I'll keep you updated! There's some c-razy stuff that goes on out in the boonies- whooo!

  5. Splendid post! I've done a bit of field work in my time, and the picture painted here seems far more realistic than the calm, zen focused picture in the advertising materials!

    Stewart M - Melbourne

  6. Yes. Epic. I've been on both sides of the field tech/supervisor divide and can attest that this is raw truth. To be fair though, The Crazy loves Jill the way D. chrysoparia love delectable soft-bodied caterpillars. I experienced more shenanigans, legit drama, and psycho characters in our one season on the OBX than in my other three years combined. It finds her. The Crazy. Fortunately her natural Awesome is more than up to the challenge.

    1. Haaa. Shiloh speaks the words of truth here. The crazy flock to me. Legit drama and psycho characters. Really no better way to put it. I like to think I can hold my own - thanks, Shiloh-you-go! :)