Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Justyn Stahl: Birder, Bird Police, Shrike Savior, God Emperor

A new year, a brand new interview brought to you by The Human Birdwatcher Project! Birders are people too! Occasionally, anyway. It's been too long since we've done an interview, but with such high demand it's time to get out there and talk to the birders of the world. Now, more than ever, The Birdosphere is swimming in mundane interviews, so it's time for a different kind of voice to rise above the masses.

We would like you to meet Justyn Stahl, one of those increasingly rare dedicated bird biologists who is also a dedicated birder, with his fingers (coated in Taki dust?) in seemingly everything...eBird reviewing/policing, California's bird police, the Christmas Bird Count, the San Diego Field Ornithologists, etc. I don't know how he has the energy for all of this; few birders can operate with the weight of this nerd burden without respite, but as you are about to find out, Justyn is no ordinary birder. Join us in a conversation about the birds of San Clemente Island, the journey from nonbirder to birder, and the current state of birding. 

BB&B: For the record, how do we pronounce your name? Some birders are very uncomfortable with your name.

JS: I’m not sure why it’s so difficult for people to wrap their heads around it. It’s pronounced just how it looks: Juh-STEEN. I guess that trips people up.

So what is it you do, exactly?

“It was whispered that while the shamans of the mainland might kill their enemies with poison, those of the islands were fierce wizards who used wolves to carry out their lethal designs.”

My official title is Le Roi D’l’isles Channel, which translates loosely into God Emperor of All Offshore Rocks South of Point Conception. My duties are largely ceremonial, involving the management of the San Clemente Loggerhead Shrike recovery effort. You may have read about it in Ranger Rick in the 90s. Prior to acquisition by the U.S. Navy in 1934, San Clemente Island (hereafter, the island, or simply SCI), was a wool ranch, and prior to that illicit things even too heinous for your dear readers occurred. The ranchers left behind thousands of goats, which went feral and ate pretty much every plant on the island, save for a few trees, and apparently, the box thorn on the west shore. While the Horned Larks and Western Meadowlarks were stoked, most land birds were not.  The Channel Island Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia graminea, extant on Miguel and Rosa) and the San Clemente Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus clementae, extant on Catalina and Rosa) were extirpated, and the island-endemic San Clemente Bewick’s Wren (Thryomanes bewickii leucophrys) went into that little tree cavity in the sky. Two that squeaked by ended up on the Endangered Species List: the San Clemente Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus mearnsi), which reached a low of 14 in 1998, and the San Clemente Bell’s Sparrow (Artemisiopiza belli clementeae), which bottomed out at 38 in 1984. Fortunately, the Navy has funded a massive recovery effort involving goat removal (finished in 1991; more than you could ever want to know about that is available right here), habitat restoration, predator control, captive breeding, release, and monitoring. I head up the last two projects: managing a crew of 10 biologists tasked with surveying the island year-round, attempting to find, band, and monitor every shrike and its nest on island, and in late summer releasing captive-hatched shrikes (raised by the San Diego Zoo here on SCI) to help augment the wild population. I’ve been doing this since January 2008 (Jesus, we’re almost up to the 10 year anniversary here), when I decided Jimmy John’s was not the best use of a Master’s degree in ecology.

Let’s just say the subs were too fast for me.

He wasn't kidding about Ranger Rick. This is gold!

How are the shrikes and sparrows doing? What's the outlook? 

I should open this portion of the interview with the caveat that I am not speaking on behalf of my employer or the United States Navy. That said, I was really hoping for a superbloom of shrikes to go along with the wild flowers that really went nuts out in the desert last spring. The stage was certainly set for such an event. As you know, we’ve been crippled by drought the last several years here in Southern California, and many of the storms that hit the mainland just skirted us. Winter 2016-2017, however, was one of the wettest years on record for the island and that should have (based on previous years’ data) meant good things for shrike productivity. Unfortunately, it appears one or more of the predators (seemingly rats) out here also bloomed and we ended up with one of the worst years, in terms of nest success, to date. The current adult population is somewhere around 85. And a poor year like this can only mean a decline into the next, so we’re not pumped for 2018. The sparrows, on the other hand, are thriving, and I hope they can ultimately be delisted. As the habitat on island has recovered, the breeding range of sparrows on SCI has dramatically expanded out of their box thorn refuge, with the last population estimate around 7,000!

San Clemente Island Bell's Sparrow. Appealing to many, seen by few. Photo by Justyn Stahl.

Some believe that the shrikes on Santa Cruz Island are at least as distinct as the San Clemente shrikes, or even more so (i.e., they should be awarded full species status). Any opinions on that?

Let me back up and take the opportunity to thank you for not confusing the taxon we’re dealing with here. When I tell people I live on San Clemente Island, most (non-birders) say, “Oh, I drive through there on the way to work.” Not possible. Most birders are also off-track, “Oh, you work with scrub-jays!” False. I suppose this is not as bad as the tourists up north mistaking Los Farallones for Hawaii, however.

Off the top of my head, I would suspect that being closer to the mainland, the shrikes on Santa Cruz would be less distinct. That land was all connected at some point, and we’re dealing with an uplift out here.  The subspecies occurring on Cruz (as well as Rosa and Catalina) is L. l. anthonyi (the Island Loggerhead Shrike).  A few anthonyi, I believe, have been captured on San Clemente in winter, and I know genetic mixing between clementae, anthonyi, and the migratory migrans was still occurring in the early 20th century.  A recent paper illustrated this...and in re-reading that, it seems that anthonyi is more distinct. Shows what I know. Feel free to dismiss any further claims I make in this interview.

For a birder, you're not exactly old. Do you recall what life was like before birding? What drove you to the feathered ones?

I grapple with being 37. I still self-identify as young, but realize I’m somewhere in the realm of middle age at this point. Gray hairs. Back pain. Unexplained rashes. My employees not knowing who Kris Kross is. I think my behavior at times is confusing to older birders. Life before birding (1980–2002) revolved almost exclusively around punk (and later hardcore) and skateboarding. I went to as many shows as possible, occasionally touring with bands that friends were in. I worked at a radio station for 4 years. I suspect few birders came out of that environment. You and Dipper Dan did, I believe. The birder-photographer Rick James’s punk roots run deep. I was straight edge for 7 years. As for my origin story, it’s not the typical “ever since I was 4, I’ve been attracted to nature and birds” bullshit, no offense. I, admittedly, got in late. In my senior year of college, I needed a biology elective, so I took ornithology. I bought some cheap binoculars and had the eastern Peterson. I’d basically just go what I think we call bird watching; walking the trail at the nature center with the paper checklist from the kiosk, and seeing the same Black-crowned Night-Herons every time. When I got to grad school, I met a guy, Chris Burney, who is probably the real reason I got seriously into birding. I think he had asked me how many birds I’d seen, which I didn’t know was a thing, but I had checked them off in the guide (in the actual checklist in the back). 157. Chris, having been to Peru, Mexico, and South Africa was over 1000. I was like, “Whoa.” We started birding a lot together, seriously neglecting our graduate studies to catch migration at a few places around Gainesville. That winter we drove through South Texas and into Tamaulipas and spent a few days at El Cielo/Gómez Farías. I don’t recall the actual moment, but at some point I was surrounded by birds I’d never even heard of and that was probably the moment that I was like, “OK, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.” So I guess the bullshit spark story happened for me too, just much later.

Since transitioning, I’ve had fewer ankles injuries and no run-ins with skinheads, but I’ve found several parallels between birding and skating. California is clearly one of the best places to pursue either, often in the worst neighborhoods, and some of the best spots are kept secret by locals. Both have had very influential clothing styles, and there is strong mistrust of rollerbladers throughout both demographics. One major difference, besides the age distribution, is that I’ve never witnessed a former birder stumble out of a bar drunk, grab someone’s binoculars, and attempt to show off in front of his buddies. I mean, I’ve certainly been birding drunk, but I’m still actively birding. Speaking of drinking and birding, we need to hang out more often.

Since that fateful road trip, Justyn birds the Neotropics regularly. He photographed this Black-faced Antthrush (a bird I have on my stupid heard-only list - ed.) at Calakmul, Mexico.

The Human Birdwatcher Project has documented a noticeable increase in the number of younger (for birding, that means <40) birders in recent years. Why is birding no longer only the realm of stodgy geris?

The strange thing is I’m not witnessing this increase in person. Between San Diego and Los Angeles, there’s what, 10 million people? I can count on two hands the number of relatively active birders I know that are my age or younger. But with the frequency the phrase “Young Birder” is thrown around, you’d think the streets would be crawling with them. Where are these people? On that topic, I don’t really like that “Young Birder” phrase. What is that even supposed to mean? I can understand wanting to have a club or camp and not have geris show up, but I don’t know, saying “I am a Young Birder” makes me uneasy. Just be a kid.  I guess it’s not as bad as self-identifying as a “Hipster Birder” or a “Jeopardy Winner,” however. Or an “Oregon Birder.”

They are out there...the kids I mean. I see them on the reg. They are probably reading this post. When I was a childbirder, it was just me and one other kid in all of southern California, as far as we knew anyways. Maybe you are shielded from them by some kind of inner circle…but I’ll ask you about that in a minute.

You do most of your birding in Los Angeles County, even though you live in San Diego. How do you like it? 

I pay rent and get mail in San Diego, but 20 days a month I’m out here in Los Angeles County. Due to the nearest point of land, San Clemente Island is considered to be in LA, but that really only matters to birders, the fire department, and the sheriff’s department. But it certainly matters to birders. Aside from being an above average location to find Vague Runts, it also hosts introduced/established populations of Chukar and Gambel’s Quail. I get complaints from mainland birders about the rarity scene out here, but I suspect the daily/hourly eBird Needs Alerts for the game birds must really drive them up the wall. As a wise man once said, “Anyone who subscribes to hourly Needs Alerts deserves what they get.” I know one chemist who counts a mainland LA Chukar, though.

I know very little of the Los Angeles birding scene. I know there are a few people there in perpetual Big Years as there are here in San Diego. The traffic there is heinous. I’ve attempted to go there a few times, only to sort of flail around in the heat of the day, get stuck in traffic, and then just give up and go get a donut before driving back south, generally without whatever I was chasing..although immediate success was just had with a White-eyed Vireo on my last trip up there. It’s fucked though. I’ve seen the only two Common Redpolls, the only Smith’s Longspur, the only Bluethroat, the only Red-flanked Bluetail, etc. etc. in Los Angeles County but not a GREAT HORNED OWL.

But I spend most of my time off in San Diego missing whatever rarities are around by a day or two.

Much has been said of San Diego's powerful and secretive Inner Circle, who are alleged to control all of San Diego County birding. Is it a drunken, fanatical conspiracy theory, or are the rumors true?

Let me start off by congratulating Todd Ingess on his full recovery. The San Diego birding community almost lost one of its longest resident members. Not many people knew of Todd prior to the Great Sparrow Incident of 2013 (he had been hospitalized since a car wreck in 2001), but he is known to those in the Inner Circle. I had assumed the worst, as I’d not heard from him since his last plea for “one of those special birds [to] fly up to [his] window and bless [him] with just a few moments of its life.” But in December 2016, at an Inner Circle Ceremony prior to the Anza-Borrego CBC, there he was, back on his feet and healthy as ever. 

But yes, there is an Inner Circle. There are Inner Circles, I suspect, in many bird communities. Or at least every one that takes itself seriously (i.e., I doubt there is one in Oregon). If you look for and find rare shit, are willing to chase other people’s shit, and aren’t a dick/stringer, you can find yourself on the fringes. You can’t get upset when you don’t get a call or email about stuff though. Sometimes birds show up in sensitive areas and hordes can’t be allowed in. Sometimes you get a rep for being a jerk and you aren’t getting a call then. But no one is suppressing stuff to hurt non-assholes. Shockingly, those completely outside of the Circle often find Vagues that no one else sees (to wit, the Swallow-tailed Kite in San Diego) or that everyone but one Platinum Diamond Select™ Inner Circle member sees (to wit, the first chaseable White Wagtail in San Diego).

I really shouldn’t be talking about this…but one more thing needs to be said. In middle school, there was a sale on cassette singles at the music store at the mall: three for $10. One of those purchased by a young me was “Bad Boys (the theme from Cops)” by none other than Inner Circle.

A horrendous and shameful photo of a monumental rarity. Photo by Justyn Stahl. How embarrassing.

Let's face it, with the birds you've found or helped document on San Clemente Island (Los Angeles County's first Smith's Longspur and second Dusky Warbler most recently), you are one of California's unsung birding heroes...you get little credit for your constant coverage of a fascinating migrant trap because none of the birds you see, which have included staggering megas, are chaseable.  What affect has this had on your self-esteem, on your relationships with friends and family?

Working on SCI has taken a serious toll on my family life. My mom disowned me when I sent her the shitty photo I had of the Bluethroat. I’d documented California’s first fucking BLUETHROAT with a point and shoot camera. Like 4x even. It was embarrassing and a shame on the family. I think they were evicted from their house and all manner of misfortune followed.  “You mean Red-flanked Bluetail?” No, that was years later, and found by Jethro Runco, with his beautiful mustache and extremely tight Wranglers. That bird got a metric shit tonne of attention, so much so that I nearly lost my job. Someone somewhere thought that “rare bird” meant endangered (or even extinct?) and thought I’d spoken to the media about it without going up the chain of command.

Side note: one thing that’s frustrated me year after year is how few field biologists are really into birding. Working out on the island, all you have to do is have functional vision or hearing and you can (and will) find good shit. You find more if you really try but the birds are there, just look at them. Very few people have, over the years, had any interest in it. Which is fine, I suppose, that’s not their job, but I treat it, for myself, as an obligation at this point...out here with the torch keeping the darkness away. I worry that if/when I depart, the fire here will go out. There have been a few people willing to put in work though, most notably in recent years: Nicole Desnoyers, Ben Sandstrom, Jimmy McMorran (an annual fall migrant), and the enigmatic Johnny Galt.

In recent years, I’ve gotten more credit, I suppose, recently being deputized by the Bird Police, which led to higher than normal feelings of imposter syndrome, and eBird review privileges. I must say, truly, I was honored to be asked to do this interview as well.

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

The average birder? The average birder, to me, is still that caricature that everyone pictures: geri, Tilly hat, bino bra, zip-off tan quick-dry pants. You know, the group photos in all the bird tour catalogs. They show up in hordes at the Biggest Weak. They sit at feeders in Madera Canyon for hours. They probably actually think about things other than birds, but pursue it as a hobby. I doubt they stay up too late.

Are there any tendencies or recent trends with birders that rub you the wrong way?

How much space are you willing to set aside for this answer? In no particular order: tagging whoever the current Big Year birder is on every ABA rarity on Facebook; referring to eBird as Ebird, e-bird, or ebirds; incidental eBird reports of crows and grackles from the highway in your home state; the need for an ABA [field] guide to every state; unidentifiable photos submitted to eBird; those “me too” posts of photos to listservs for the latest low level rarity; the proliferation of Red-tailed Hawks and female Brown-headed Cowbirds in bird identification forums;  a general unwillingness to explore new areas, but instead just going to the same rarity trap over and over...I don’t even want to think about this question anymore.

Justyn and Dipper Dan bravely head offshore to take terrible bird photos to pointlessly upload to eBird checklists. Someone has to do it!

Speaking of recent trends, I wanted to ask you about eBird, since you are heavily involved with it these days. How do you think eBird should treat chronic stringers? Should eBird continue to tolerate them in an attempt to be open to everyone, or should they show they actually care about data quality and ban some users from contributing to public output?

A timely question, as big changes are allegedly afoot for data quality in eBird. Chronic stringers, I believe, are excised like the cancer that they are. The problem, however, is proving that they are stringers. Good birders can smell one a mile away. Most cannot. There are a few I’d like to see outed, but it’s outside my jurisdiction. The plebes hold these metastasized humanoids up in high regard, largely due to social media presence. I think actually proving the stringing can be difficult, though. Being a bad birder is acceptable at eBird, however. But they’re supposed to be working on an eBird-lite for those folks.

Interesting. I am under the impression that most chronic stringers not only get to submit data to public output like the most skilled contributors, they actually can get reviewer privileges. But enough of eBird, big years are as popular as ever as well. It's becoming increasingly predictable to do a big year then write a book about it. Does this hold any interest for you?

I haven't read any big year books except Kingbird Highway and The Big Year. Just because you’re a birder doesn’t mean you are a writer. For that reason, I would really doubt that any of those Big Year books are any good. But that’s just my prejudice. The Big Year (the book) was fun, but written by a writer. The movie was shit. As for doing a big year? Sure, why not, especially, since it’s now possible to just crowd-source the funding for it. But big year birding, at least in the ABA area (however you choose to define that), seems so passé. Granted, a lot of birding is just chasing, but an ABA area big year is almost exclusively chasing. But once you do one, you’re somehow held up as some sort of expert, regardless of how much you actually know.  I’ve been saying it for years, if people want to really throw down, do a Total Ticks Big Year. No sleep. No blog posts. No wasted time on Attu. You’d need a damn stenographer to keep up, but if you survived it? Props.

The game of Pocket is a cherished pastime on birding trips. Do you have any experience with this that is appropriate for public consumption?

I will say only this: I had not eaten Takis prior to that night. I may again someday, but I can say with almost absolute certainty I will never again watch a grown man eat them out of someone else’s hand like a baby deer.

My friend, it has been a pleasure (cueing up Avail 4 AM Friday). Congrats on the child. I look forward to seeing you in a few weeks. I think the last time was looking at that bastard hybrid shrike in Mendocino. Saludos.


  1. Thank you for reminding me that Ranger Rick was (is?) a thing! I loved it as a kid.

    1. Me too. It probably had a more significant impact on me than I give it credit for. Still is a thing!

  2. mind blowing quote from question 2. incredible final photo. the stuff in the middle was pretty good too.

    1. Yeah buddy. I was thinking we could check in with some of the people we have interviewed in the past, might have to do a Cassowary update if you are down.

  3. Oregon Birders are the worst. Thank god I moved to Washington.

    Everyone's favorite OR stringer recently became "anonymous" on eBird and no longer shows on the top 100. Now I kind of miss reading their crazy comments for rare birds.

    Lastly, that Mountain Chickadee is like three times actual size on my computer screen. Frightening.

    1. Ooh did they get blacklisted?

      I was hoping the giant MOCH would leave an impact on people.

    2. No one seems to know for sure but I'm guessing it was an involuntary situation.

  4. Great interview. I guess I would consider myself an intermediate birder. I've been doing about a dozen years, but I'm active duty military, so I'm not not ranked or anything : ) So my point (and I do have one) is that I just don't put anything on eBird that they would push back against. I mean, I do my best to identify the birds I see (and if I don't think I know, then I leave it unidentified). But I don't want to be accused of being a stringer, so if I see a good bird by myself, I'll put it on my own year list, but don't put it into eBird. Thanks for doing this blog. I learn a lot from it.

    1. Well if you don't have any way to get photos of something unexpected (digi-binning is always a possibility if desperate), a good description goes a long way. Not that I am really into Marantzian tomes, but getting into a routine of writing a few sentences of description for interesting birds (flagged rare or otherwise) will make you look at birds more thoroughly and help your birding skills along. So while a reviewer may not be 100% convinced about your description of something with a highly nuanced ID, for a lot of species a thorough description should be just fine to convince other birders, especially if you address similar species and the field marks that eliminate them. Stringers don't really go to all this trouble. But maybe you know all that already, just throwing it out there!

  5. I appreciate the feedback. I'm not a photographer (though I appreciate those of you who are). I will try what you suggested next time I find myself in this type of situation.