Thursday, April 2, 2015

Of Duff Diving, Nerd Networking and Junco Basking: HBP Brings You Christian Schwarz.

Today, the Human Birdwatcher Project ("birders are people too!") brings the birding scene that rare touch of humanity that only few of us will ever achieve. For this installment of our legendary interview series, we speak with Christian Schwarz, a truly multi-dimensional birder who can be found leading both pelagic trips and mushroom walks.  His upcoming book is expected to shake the west coast fungal community to its very core...with excitement, that is.

Christian, you are quite busy these days. What is keeping you so hard at work that you can't come to my house party this weekend for some liver conditioning?

Indeed. In 2010, I embarked on a project that has put my health, sanity, and relationships with other humans at great risk. Noah Siegel and I decided to write a new field guide to California mushrooms. Mushrooms aren’t like birds though: We don’t know how many species live here, many of them are still unnamed, and we don’t even know how to reliably identify a lot of the ones that are named. There has been much wrangling of primary literature. Minutia have been scrutinized. DNA has been sequenced. Beers have been drunk. After six years of work, we’ve settled on around 750 species to include in the book, and even so, it won’t be comprehensive. Thankfully, Ten Speed Press picked up the project and Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast is scheduled to be on bookshelves early next year.

There's a million bird books out there...some are indispensable, most are highly dispensable. What is the field guide scene like in Kingdom Fungi?  Where will your work fit in to the canon?

Currently, the mushroom field guide scene is blessedly simple to navigate. Arora’s Mushrooms Demystified is the gold standard. There will probably never be a better book for beginners (although it is in desperate need of updating). Lincoff’s Audubon Guide is excellent for the East Coast. Desjardin, Wood, and Stevens’ Mushrooms of California is the Johnny-come-lately, but promises to be a significant step forward. As for Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast, I have no qualms saying our book is going to be the best one for identification-minded mushroom folks in California. I think the fact that we’ve spent a shit-ton of time in the field will be apparent. Noah’s photos are the best around. That said, it might be a tough book for beginners who aren’t highly visual learners. But who knows, maybe people will hate it? Only time will tell.

Sclerotinia sulcata, by Christian Schwarz.

Aside from duff-diving, you are a confessed birder.  How did this come about exactly?  What drew you to the feathered ones?

The ongoing drought has had a lot to do with it. If I hadn’t been able to gaze at ducks and sparrows during those parched and rainless January days, I probably wouldn’t still be among the living. Then again, even in wet years, sometimes you’ve just been down in the duff too long and need to come up for air. Bird are obviously way more behaviorally interesting than mushrooms. That’s a big draw for me. I value birds for their soothing and hilarious properties especially.

Interesting...if true.  Describe your average birder for us.  What do they look like? What do they think about? What are their fundamental flaws?

Oh god. My role as myco-outsider has given me the privilege of choosing to have infrequent encounters with the birding “community”. Thankfully, as a young man first coming to terms with my ornithophilia, I was adopted by a Fellowship of Nerds who lived at the King Street Refuge for Naturalists. Although now a countrywide diaspora, the fellowship remains close to this day. I don’t think they’re really like other birders, but since I primarily go birding with them and their associated hangers-on, I’ll describe them. I wanna keep it short, though, so Imma do a haiku. Here goes:

Kids on the spectrum
Multitaxon burrito 
Love for life’s chaos

Whoa...what happened? I think I blacked out. That probably wasn’t my best work. I need a beer.

Please indulge us with your worst birding memory.

Getting robbed of everything I owned (including my passport) while birding in southern Mexico was pretty horrible. It pains me to think of the journal I lost, which I had filled with watercolors of extravagant Chiapan moths. Thanks to my fellow Bigoteros who did me a solid, I survived and made it back to the United States wearing a Hello Kitty Backpack with a grand total of 5 US dollars and 5 Mexican pesos to my name. But I did not die. The Gods decided Otherwise.

You are not known for chasing escapades, more for holding down Santa Cruz County. How is the Santa Cruz birding scene?  What should visiting birders be checking out?

I love birding in Santa Cruz. The patches are charismatic, and it gets occasional Vagrants of Exceptional Quality. The birders here are good folks, the drama is minimal, things are relaxed. Biggest downsides are lackluster habitat diversity (which is to be expected for such a small county), and the unreliability of getting pelagics to spend time in our waters (I’m a bit of a home-county lister). Visiting birders should head straight to Watsonville. For numbers, diversity, and an all-round pleasant time, south county is hard to beat. I particularly like visiting the CARE Park on the Pajaro River in spring (migrant Passerines), and Harkins Slough and College Lake in mid-winter (waterfowl and sparrows).

How do the mushrooming and birding communities differ?  What are their similarities?

Honestly, they’re pretty different scenes. For one, there isn’t enough known about mushrooms (in our area) to support much compulsive twitcher-type behavior. There’s common ground to be sure, but Christ, mushroomers are a lot weirder. Less disposable income, more often in trouble with the law, scruffier. But mushroomers really know how to cook, a lot of them brew spectacular beer, and boy can they party. I feel right at home.

Pycogonum stearnsi, Stearns' sea spider, by Christian Schwarz.

Aside from birds and mushrooms, you are known for your turnstone styles, lurking in tidepools. What world awaits you in the intertidal?

I was a tidepool fanatic before I got distracted by mushrooms. The siren song of saltwater has recently led me back to the brine. Looking for invertebrates along the rocky shore is very similar to hunting mushrooms - my brain falls into the same groove. But once you learn about the ecology of the intertidal, the similarity stops. I can barely fathom the life cycles of some of these crazy invertebrates. As for what awaits me? Brilliantly-colored soft-bodied things. Things with hard, articulating exoskeletons. Octopi that are smarter than some of my college classmates. Delicious mussels. Fish to fuel nightmares. Inspirational sponges.

Flabellina iodinea, spanish shawl, by Christian Schwarz.

Inspirational sponges...I believe there is a market for that.  You recently started an eco-tourism company of sorts.  Tell us about it, how it came about, how you like it so far.

Right! It’s called Redwood Coast Tours. We lead outdoor walks and workshops focused on local organisms and their ecology, mostly geared towards adults. I got the sense that there was a desire not being met - I heard people saying “Hey! I’d really like to know more about these organisms!”, but not really having anywhere to turn. So I’ve been working to build a network of natural-history nerds who are really excited about their organisms of interest, and who love to teach people about them. Whether it be mushrooms, birds, snakes, butterflies, squirrels, whales, spiders, plants, or sea slugs, I want people to come to us and find their curiosity engaged by excellent naturalists. As a company, we’re brand new, but so far I’ve had an amazingly fun ride. It’s been a privilege to work with the naturalists who’ve led trips so far, and the participants have been uniformly lovely folks. When I see people get super excited about weird little organisms, Life Is Not Pain.

Obligatory question: If one were to go birding under the influence of select mushroom varieties, what might transpire?

Hypothetically? Well, one might have a really good time. One might feel profoundly affected by the songs of vireos. One might see behind the mask and recognize the Wrentit for what She Really Is. One might bask in the wholesomeness of a bathing junco. One might see undulating waves of grassland rise to meet the ocean’s horizon whilst surrounded by the bizarre songs of meadowlarks. One might feel content at one’s core.

Photos of Christian with dead pintail, dead Blue-footed Booby, and live Bird Policeman by Adam Searcy, Amy Patten and Lindsey Mercer.  Thanks to Christian for doing this interview, and for showing us the incredible bonds that can be forged among the half-dead tilapia and swirling flocks of the Salton Sea.


  1. That spanish shawl is insane-looking- can those be found on the OR coast too? Want. I am a fan of the "Man and the Dead Booby" photo. Not enough people pose with their dead things.

    1. Spanish Shawl is more of a southern CA species, but if there were ever a time one could see one as far north as Oregon it's now, while El Nino conditions are creating warmer water temps that allow southern species to survive further north. They've been spotted as far north as Trinidad, CA this year (, so Oregon doesn't seem impossible.

  2. Birding on funny mushrooms? Well, first off, you wouldn't want to drive anywhere or operate any heavy machinery or walk too near the edges of cliffs. Then, of course, you might see quite a few birds not in your guidebooks.

    The real birds that you might see would not look like the photos in your guidebook!

    But if you want to experience this sort of "nature under the influence," try Telluride. They are known for the entheogenic focus, and you could get some non-hypothetical answers to your question!

    Frankly, nature is spectacular enough without any sort of metaphysical/hallucinagenic

    It can also be pretty hard to sometimes even walk around on those shrooms, depending on dose. I do remember a pretty spectacular trip back in the sixties, at what was deemed the most beautiful park in WI: Peninsula State Park. Because of that "don't drive under the influence thingy," and the fact that I was only 16 and it was my parent's car and I only had a learner's permit, my gal pal and I hitchhiked to that Park (an interesting experience in and of itself!) and then pretty much collapsed upon our bellies for the next several hours, while the waves came to shore in colorful, sparkling ripples and the clouds were shifting and alive with violet, pink and mauve, and butterflies flew over us in the tall grass. Or at least, we think they did. Also not quite sure if there really was a picture perfect white suited sailor and his best gal in a pretty pinafore, tripping along the sand. They did make it even more movie-quality adorable, though. ;)

    But that was long before I fell in love with either birds or mushrooms. I prefer to do both my mushrooming and birding without having to check my hallucinations against my field guides. I like to stay sharp in the woods ... you never know when a hand-reared, released to the wilds, doting parent whooping crane will take a keen dislike to your red neckerchief! This actually did happen to me, in Florida!

    In other words, the thrills are already out there, folks.

    We look forward to finally seeing your book, Christian, and hopefully it will be a helluva lot more field portable then either MDM or CA Mushrooms! Knowing you and Noah as I do, I suspect it will be more geared to the geeks, but that's OK, since I'm one of them!

    Birds be cool, shrooms be sweet. Same as it ever was.

    1. I'm a firm (well, mostly: still working off some winter weight ; ) proponent of trying all mushrooms (or plants, for that matter) that I find, usually raw. It's widely known that cooking removes many of the essential natures of wild foods. When walking outside I find that my connection to a place is made much more profound if I engage in some foraging behavior like the critters around me. I've not had any bad experiences yet (but plenty of good ones--sans pinafores, unfortunately!). I'm sure that Christian's book will be useful for some, but people who crave a more spiritual interaction with nature will probably be turned off by the "mushroom academy" approach. As for driving under the influence of mushrooms--I'm in full agreement, Debbie. Why drive through the wondrous natural world when one can walk?