Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Guest Post: The World According to Birders

I totally goofed up today and did not post my guest blog for James M. Jackson! He got it to me in plenty of time and neglected to post this! I can't not do it, though. You'll LOVE it. Here's a bit about Jim:

JAMES M JACKSON is the author of Bad Policy for Barking Rain Press. Known as James Montgomery Jackson on his tax return and to his mother whenever she was really mad at him, he splits his time between the woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Georgia’s low country. Jim has published a book on contract bridge, One Trick at a Time: How to start winning at bridge, as well as numerous short stories and essays.

Please visit where he has a continuing updated list of places that carry the book and where people can read the first 4 chapters and get a 35% off coupon from Barking Rain Press.

Now, here's his post~~~~~

I have been a birder (note, not bird watcher) for over 35 years. Most birders keep lists: a life list of all the different birds they have seen, state lists, county lists, backyard lists (where I spotted this red-shouldered hawk). Many keep total lists as well as lists for each year. I was the same way for the first half of my birding life, but since then other interests have captured more of my time and attention.

My partner, Jan, and I love road trips. For me, there is nothing like seeing a biome first-hand to start to understand its history, its people, and yes, its birds. Neither one of us had been to the Rio Grande valley. 
This January we rectified that gap in our experiences.

While we enjoy road trips on our own, I know I learn more about a region using professionally guided field trips. In addition to the guide there were eight of us on the tour. Jan is not a birder. She enjoys seeing the geography, loves walking outdoors and prefers looking at ducks because they are big and stay still. Those LBJs (little brown jobbers) that flit from perch to perch, hiding behind leaves are not very interesting to her.

One of our other members was a new birder. Several had been in the area several times and had joined the trip in hopes of seeing two or three specific birds they had previously missed. My rusty skills left me in the middle of the pack between these two extremes. And frankly, these days I would just as soon spend an hour watching a robin working over a pile of leaves for a morsel as see a brand new bird. But truth be told, I would not drive hours to see a robin, but I would for a new-for-me bird!

One of the things I do when I’m not out looking at birds is write. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy seeing different parts of the country. I won’t place a character in a locale if I don’t have some experience there.

If the birding is slow, I start to think about how a story might fit a particular local. For example, the Rio Grande is not very wide and the Border Patrol folks travel the river in high-speed boats you can hear ten minutes before they arrive. So smugglers…

Or I start thinking about how characteristics of the people I’m traveling with might flesh out a story. Some people are like the long-billed curlew above right or the common pauraque above left, whose camouflage makes it seem one with the environment. You need to look closely at the curlew picture to see how long its bill is. And if you don’t already know where the bird is, you may never spot it in the field, even though it’s almost two feet tall. If someone had not pointed out the common pauraque I would have passed it by.

Others stick out like this green kingfisher. They wear bright colors as if to say, “Look at me! Look at me!” When we do look closely, we notice the mud on its bill from capturing a tasty morsel from the mud.

Some just want to be left alone, like this yellow-crowned night heron trying to ignore me while I took its picture. Some, like this scaled quail, have no clue of the impression they make on others as they go about their business.

Now being a birder is not without its problems, one of which is being engrossed in a movie when from the middle of an Amazonian jungle comes the haunting ululation of a common loon. The call might be perfect for the mood of the scene, but someone would have to kidnap a common loon to get it to visit a South American jungle. It’s North American and prefers open water.

Sometimes the sound techs will get a bird in the right habitat, but wrong season, and I’ll hear a warbler signing its mating song in the middle of winter.

I use my love of the outdoors and of birds in my writing. None of my characters, so far, has been an avid birder. Seamus McCree, the protagonist of my mystery Bad Policy, does enjoy birding and often makes references to birds.

For example, Seamus’s girlfriend (a bodyguard) has been away on business for a long time and Seamus is wondering what their status is but hasn’t figured out how to resolve the situation. He takes a run in a nearby park and the comparison between his life and what is natural slaps him in the face.

On my run, I purposefully slowed my pace and added a loop to include Burnett Woods, where the trees sang with spring bird migration in full swing. Coupling was in the air and in the woods. I was having difficulty putting one foot in front of the other. If you don’t like the way things are going, I chided myself, do something different.

Seamus also uses his grounding in bird nature to make comparisons. He and his son are eating. He has no appetite because someone has just been killed. Not so his son, Paddy.

Paddy, who still had the metabolism of a hummingbird, eyed my plate and at my nod swapped his empty one for mine.

We learn Seamus feeds birds in this sequence when he is being interrogated by the police and first finds out why they have taken him in for questioning.

“When were you last in your basement?” [the cop asked]
“My basement? I have no clue. Maybe to get food for my bird feeders? Tuesday? Wednesday?” I wracked my mind trying to piece together the last week, but my sleep-deprived brain didn’t work. “Look. I’m tired. I’m hungry. I want to help because whatever you’re investigating, I didn’t do it. Is Abigail okay? What happened?”
Lewis snapped his fingers at the sergeant who brought over a 4x6 print, which he laid face down on the table between Lewis and me.
“Go ahead,” Lewis said. “Take a look.”
I searched their faces for a clue, but they sported flat cop eyes—daring me to turn over the photo. Instinctively, I picked it up by its edges. Not that I didn’t trust them…actually, I didn’t trust them. For whatever reason, I mentally counted to three before flipping the print over. I gagged. A nude man, his face blown away by a shotgun blast, elbows, knees, and ankles shattered, burn marks on his chest, sat in my basement on one of my porch chairs. Orange adjustable straps, just like the ones I owned, held his body to the chair.

All those scenes from Bad Policy took place in the Cincinnati area where we lived for many years. Now that we’ve visited the Rio Grande Valley, I might be able to add a future scene from that area—as long as the point of view is from a character who hasn’t spent much time there. If the character actually lived in the area, I’d have to go back and study it more---hmm, that’s not such a bad idea…

 ~ Jim


  1. Great pictures and fun post.

  2. Interesting post--and a reminder that everything we do and know is valuable when we write.

  3. Great observations, Jim. I'm a birder, too, although I don't get out as often as I used to.

    Now I have even one more reason to read your book!

  4. I love the pictures! I think Jim took all of them, too.

  5. Thanks for having me, Kaye.

    Yes, the pictures are mine. I don't have time to become a better photographer. I have friends who see the world through their cameras, for me the photograph is the afterthought.

    ~ Jim

  6. Your pictures are at least as good as some of them in my bird books! I feel I have to have several so I can look the pictures up in each one when I'm trying to ID a new bird. (I'm a VERY amateur birder.)

  7. I'm not a birder, but I enjoy watching birds and I feed them all year long. I've always enjoyed going on hikes with birders, who identify those little birds you refer to as jobbers,I think. When I was backpacking, I was always behind the others in my group because I was trying to see one of those small elusive birds. One of my sisters, who I camp with every year, is very good at identifying birds. She doesn't keep lists, but seems to remember every bird she's ever identified and where it was.

    After reading the excerpts from your book, Jim, I'm more than ever excited about reading it.

  8. Gloria,

    We often refer to them as LBJs - little brown jobbers. Sometimes also referred to as dickey birds.

    A "technical" term for a subset of flitting birds are CFWs - confusing fall warblers. In the spring when the sap is running all the birds are into color. In the fall when all they are hoping to do is get to the next spring, color only attracts hawks and so everyone (especially the first year birds) are wearing camo.

    ~ Jim

  9. Many of them are UFOs to me! We discovered that we have a pair of genuine Eastern bluebirds nesting in our back yard! I'm thrilled. This is only the second time I've ever seen one.

  10. I am jealous, Kaye. They are one of my all-time favorite birds. I put up a bluebird house this year. We have pairs in the neighborhood, but so far none have chosen to use my nesting box.

    Eastern Bluebirds can nest more than once a year, so as a landlord you have responsibilities to clean out the nest after the hatchlings fly.

    WE want baby pictures when the time is right!

    ~ Jim

    ~ Jim

  11. Really? Maybe I've figured out what that little board is for, then. I think we can swing it aside to get access to the nest. It's nailed to the tree near the tiny hole they use to go in and out.

    I never would have known that--so glad you told me!

  12. I love watching birds myself. They are beautiful and fascinating. Great pictures!