Thursday, September 19, 2013

"Dates involving binoculars are a difficult sell": The Human Birdwatcher Project is Off-Duty with Officer Searcy

We recently spoke with Officer Searcy on his experience with bird policing in California. He spoke of The Godfather, daily mind-boggles, warranted caution and misidentified birds. But believe it or not, Officer Searcy is more than just his job. Although many struggle with the concept, he is not just a bird policeman; sometimes he is just a regular birder with regular problems. He daydreams about birding the Salton Sea. He longs for the touch of a woman. He dwells constantly on the plight of the creosote. As a grizzled birding veteran, readers would do well to heed his cries...more weirdness. Less pomposity. More creosote. Less khaki.

Seagull Steve: The year is 2050. What living birder will have the highest (as sanctioned by the CBRC) California list?

Officer Searcy: Curtis Marantz or Paul Lehman.  I think that they will both stoop to performance enhancing drugs and/or bionic alterations (Curtis could hybridize with a recording unit) to prolong life and lucidity, and, consequently, extend their state lists.  Everyone else I know will be dead by then, God willing.

I think Curtis would meld seamlessly with a recording device. They would not reject each other. It's safe to say birders, as a whole, are an interesting lot. What would you like to see more of in the birding community? And what is holding us back? 

More public craziness.  More hardcore raging.  Realized wacky ideas.  Idiot schemes.  Willingness to make, admit, accept, and move the-fuck-on and learn from public mistakes.  Naked birding, in an intellectual sense—admit one's shortcomings and weaknesses and ask for people to teach you some relevant shit.  Too many birders are way too proud to ask for help and too many of us take ourselves way too seriously.  We need to lighten up and have as much fun as possible as often as possible.  I try to live by this philosophy and it has gotten me nowhere of consequence so I must be doing something right.

Freedom of choice.

Describe what the average birder is to you. What they look like. What they think about. What keeps them up at night.

WASBOFs: White Anglo-Saxon Birders Over Fifty. Covers most of them and you can guess what they look like.  Weight might be slightly skewed below the mean for the general population.  Money to burn. Shitty dressers, at least in the field (Khaki in Los Angeles?  At the LA River?  A vest?  A fucking safari hat?).  I think birder thoughts are normally distributed around something involving birds.  They are likely kept awake by fear of public humiliation in any identification context, and maybe by excitement of the next potential rarity.

Are you aware that more than one person has described you to me, unironically, as being "brilliant"? Is this how you perceive yourself?

It's all in the mind's eye of the beholder, Seagull. I cultivate friendships with unintelligent people—thus, I appear intelligent ("brilliant"?) to outsiders.  It's a clever trick. I can count several people on one hand right now who are a hell of a lot more brilliant than I am.

This is part of a secret Bird Police ritual.

You must have a lot of fingers on that hand. Aside from your reputation for knowing stuff (and crud), you are known for being....eccentric, which I imagine you would not disagree with. Can you explain the allure that birding has for bizarre people?

We aren't magnets.  Weird shit attracts weird shit.  I don't know where on society's bell curve most of us come from, but it's not the middle (thank God).  I can't fully explain the allure that birding has for other bizarre people, but I can take a quick shot at its allure for me.  Maybe it will illuminate something for someone.

Birds are accessible and ubiquitous.  You can bird watch from your yard, a cruise ship, a low-flying plane, a fishing boat, in the mountains, on a road-trip.... ad nauseum.  They are fucking everywhere. They are attractive, physically, aurally, and behaviorally.  They can be hilarious to watch.  And, finally, listing.  That shit is dangerous—a lot of the wackiest of birders are also some of the most hardcore listers.  I think it's part of the record-keeping and record-breaking mentality that attracts an eclectic set of eccentrics to our strange patch of experience.

Favorite places to bird. Why?

In California, The Salton Sea in winter. Loads of birds, salt, great rarity potential, actively spreading rift valley, flamingos, turpidity.  It's like the East Africa of California.  The list of hella rare birds I've seen there is long and growing by the year.  The SESS CBC is like a homecoming every year--good friends, hardcore birder ragers, broken cars.  I could wax hella poetic on The Sea for another 30 pages.

Baja.  See much of the above and add endemism, wackier vagrants, a greater sense of exploration and a healthy hint of danger.  Mole Lizards and Boojum trees.  Jesus, but that place is fucking grand.

Speaking of Mexico, you just returned from birding down there. What were the dizzying highs? The filthy, filthy lows?

With Justyn "Bret" Stahl and Christian X. Schwarz...we hit the ground running.  Flat tire a mile from the airport and an accident within 4 hours of landing.  The guy we hit (Romeo Grajales) ended up threatening to sue our insurance company on our behalf, talked down to the police so that they wouldn't screw us over (“make firewood out of a fallen tree”) and bought everyone lemonade.  We still had to bribe the police to get out of some bullshit citations, but it was well worth it.  “Not everyone can be Romeo Grajales.” -- Romeo Grajales

Birding was good and birding was bad as is birding's wont.  We missed some cool shit that we had targeted (e.g., Stahl’s Chat, Belted Flycatcher, Tody Motmot, Nava’s Wren) but saw lots of cool shit we had targeted, such as Slaty Vireo, Red Warbler, Pink-headed Warbler, Rosita’s (Rose-bellied) Bunting, Giant Wren, Bridled Sparrow, Bar-winged Oriole, etc.  Having no hummingbird or fruit feeders, no eco-lodges, and no real birding infrastructure (and lots of degraded habitat) definitely makes for some challenging (and fun) bird-hunting.

The definite low of the trip was below Union Juarez in a coffee/cacao/rubber plantation: we stopped to pee and our car was broken into (lured away by feathered sirens…).  I lost no material goods but my companions were hit.  Schwarz lost EVERYTHING of relevance to his itinerant existence.  It was raining. Thunder was rumbling.  Rubber was dripping.  But lessons were learned.   “Every ugly experience is a chance to grow.”  -- Romeo Grajales

We fixed the window, rallied, and moved on--two days were screwed by the window repair, so we missed the chance to see some hella cool birds (White-throated Jay, Blue-capped Hummingbird, etc.)  but shit turned out ok.  We hiked through cloud forest on a  volcano, ate endemic bread, drank endemic drinks, had tamales in Guatemala, tlayudas and mezcal in Oaxaca, and slept on the floor of a magical vulcanizadora (El Duende).  The mountains of Oaxaca are amazing: one flock of ~75 Crescent-chested Warblers with about 15 Red Warblers and a mix of other species--the wintering Warblers here are legendary and this was only August.  A return trip is a must: I am already planning a counterattack.  The endemics must fall beneath my gaze before my time is up.  Accident, robbery, five flat tires, sex hotels, El Duende, hella birds, hella endemics:  Mexico is the best and I highly recommend it.  Just stay the fuck away from Belissario Dominguez.

A creosote is counted, and subsequently confirmed.

You are the founder of eCreosote, a cutting-edge citizen science project that aims to count all creosote bushes. Please tell us more about eCreosote, and its ambitious goals.

This is a subject near and dear to my heart, Steve, and I’m glad you brought it up. We know little about Creosote.  Precious little.  We census ourselves every ten years.  We count everyone, every ten years. But have we ever counted the Creosote? No.  And we need to.

Creosote is a keystone species of some pretty shitty habitat—can we afford to let that habitat go from shitty to extra-shitty to even shittier, a slippery slope, the end of which is either coarse sand or solar farms?  I don’t think we can, but I also don’t know that we can’t—and that’s why we need to count those bastards, before it’s too late.  To quote a famous British geneticist, speaking on Creosote: “Better to count them now. Don't you wish someone had counted the leaping salmon in the Colorado river when they thought all those fish were pointless?" - Robert Lanfear.

I urge your readers to climb aboard das Kreosot Zug:

Back to birding...I tire of people trying to convince others (and themselves) about how "cool" it is. I obviously don't deny that it is an excellent thing, but I think birders need to stop living in denial and accept the true reality of birding. Do you accept the inherent nerdiness that comes with being a bird addict?

First: it is super-nerdy.  No point denying this.  It is a fact.

That being said, it is way more cool-nerdy than a hell of a lot of other hobbies and objectively better than a hell of a lot more.  We are out connecting with nature, hiking up stupid mountains, going to Madagascar, and vomiting over ourselves on painful spring pelagic trips—birders get to go to some pretty fucking cool places as a result of their hobby.  If it was Star Trek or comic books (or both), we’d go to Comic-Con.  Every year.

I'm pretty sure that would be rad, actually.


I don't think that's a thing.


You are getting obscure.

Fucking snail shells...

I've been well-paid to hunt snails. It's legit.

Stamps for God's sake.

No one does that anymore.

There are some shit hobbies out there—I think birding has a serious edge.  But it’s still hella nerdy.

Officer Searcy is a fierce predator. Here he consumes a shrew (Sorex trowbridgii). The complete birder requires a complete diet.

I can't argue with you there. For a birder, you're a young dude. Do you recall what life was like before birding? What drove you to the feathered ones?

Before birding…

The women flowed three sometimes four deep. I could hardly keep up. It was too much. Birding allowed me some breathing room.  The women still come knocking, but they are fewer and much easier to resist—dates involving binoculars are a difficult sell.  To answer your reader’s obvious question (especially your 18 to 20-something painfully attractive 53-65 kg female readers with low to moderate self-esteem) yes, I am single.

The mind reels.

Going back even further in time; Herps came first—I was (and am) a rabid chaser of all things scaly and amphibious from my first retrievable fragments of memory.  What ultimately drove me to birds?…forced isolation and bird's ubiquity.  I got sick for a while in my early high school days and started seriously watching my bird feeders—this turned into a yard list (which pretty much equaled my life list for my first year or so of birding).  Once the listing started, shit went downhill.  I've been rolling ever since.

I can't help but notice that this is exactly how Felonious Jive, the Great Ornithologist, began his addiction as well. Perhaps you too are destined for greatness. Or perhaps not.

Favorite bird?

A month ago, California Towhee.  Brown.  Underwhelming.  Underappreciated.  There is a towhee family that visits the seed pile outside of my office window every day.  I also have a vole (Microtus californicus) that visits.  I frequently catch sight of a creature out of the corner of my eye and think “the Vole!” [viz., Voldemort] only to turn and see that it was actually a Towhee.  Need I say more?

Today, Canyon Wren. No explanation required.


  1. "dates involving binoculars are a difficult sell"....perhaps you are asking the wrong girls... :-P

    1. Of course, one must be asking girls in the first place.

    2. Women love creosote. Long live creosote.

  2. The most important question ... Where can one get one of those awesome eCreosote bumper stickers?

    1. Bumper stickers available. Address needed. Donations appreciated.

  3. You shoulda tried all that back in the 60s. We took no hostages and did it on serious drugs...creosote root. Girls birding? A dream in the haze of creosote smoke.

  4. Totally brought to tears by the nobility of the eCreasote effort. How can I make a donation?

    I know I am of the - as you so delicately put it- WASBOF taxon... But at least I was naked birding long before you little herp wrestlers were glimmers in my eye... ;)

    I hope my WASBOF ID does not discount my very real need to have a bumper sticker and contribute to this worthy cause.

    2nd Gen birder

    1. Bumper stickers available. Address needed. Donations appreciated.

  5. On the subject of eating shrews, was Officer Searcy involved in this?

    1. "A group of British scientists at Scotland's Rural College in Edinburgh were awarded the Probability Prize for scientifically proving that the longer a cow has been lying down, the more likely it is to stand up, and for the related discovery that once a cow has stood up it is extremely difficult to say how much time will pass before it lies down again."

      Seems like Douglas Adams is writing from beyond the grave.

  6. The eCreosote stickers were not produced en masse. Due to popular demand, there may be another pressing at some point.

  7. Great to finally get some recognition. Even if it is from one so unhinged. Next time, ask him about dirigibles.