Archivy etc.

opinions, occasional rants, and sometimes things that have nothing to do with archives at all. Nothing here should be assumed to be reflective of my employer's opinion(s) nor should it be assumed that at anytime afterward, this is what I still think.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Birding on the edges

Birders are weird. Probably in a lot of ways, especially to non-birders, but what I discovered some time ago while hanging out with a lot of my birding friends is that most seem unwilling to self-identify as birders. It's like being a birder is a claim to some sort of level of expertise they haven't quite achieved yet.* They always have somebody else to point to who is better, just because that person has been to a location they've never been. Or whatever. It's just weird.

I'm willing to admit I'm a birder. I'm not a very good one, but I will admit to it. I haven't yet gone on a vacation solely for the purpose of looking for birds, but it has in the past couple of years been in the top two reasons for some of the trips I've taken. I think at that point, you just have to claim the label and move on.

I came late to birding, relatively. I'd moved to Alaska and gone on a few wildlife watching cruises. And something clicked one day in 2004 while I was listening to a tourist rhapsodizing over identifying a crow in Seward by a call. Seriously? A crow? She'd traveled thousands of miles and was excited about a crow? A northwestern crow, different from the American crow more common in the contiguous US. And suddenly I realized I was seeing birds here that other people took once-in-a-lifetime expensive trips specifically to see. So I started tracking, sporadically, what I saw, or at least the more exotic ones. Then a few years after that around 2007-2008, I started filling in some blanks and by 2011, I was recording the list a little more assiduously. You can tell: that's the year I start writing in more of the "dickey birds" as one birder friend puts it when annoyed at her inability to identify them (LBJs: Little Brown Jobs is perhaps the more common phrase for those).

Tree swallow at Potter Marsh (Anchorage, AK)
It's also a weird list because it is dependent on the date I first documented having seen the bird. So while I've seen whooping cranes some years ago, I don't have a date on that occasion so they aren't on my life list yet. I have a Northwestern crow in 2004, an American crow in 2011 (I grew up in Seattle. I saw American crows daily in my childhood). An emperor goose (check out that range!) predates an American goldfinch. I saw a common eider a year before I saw a wood duck, that mainstay of the Midwest and east coast and which, I'd like to point out, I still haven't seen in mating plumage. The list displays a few errors of documentation such as when in 2015 I realized that though I'd seen a number of great horned owls over time including having been strafed and screamed at by one in the 1990s, I hadn't bothered to put down an exact date. Also it only includes the ones I can verify having seen with possible distinguishing marks, rather than just winging by at high speed or only hearing. (Add the Pacific wren and golden-crowned kinglet for the just-heard listing).
Northwestern crows. No, I can't really see the difference, either.
In conversations with birders friends elsewhere, I realized what a weird list it was, by virtue of having been started in Alaska. And I decided to list it out not by species but by year, to see how well it reflected the Alaska bias. And it did. It also reflects the bias of my traveling, like to a friend's wedding in Hawaii for a long weekend in 2011, and how much time I had on those trips to bird or not, depending on I was with and their tolerance for "hey, wait, I want to figure out what that is" and definitely dependent on whether the person I was with was a birder who could spot and identify and teach me what I was looking at. It reflects the bias of one of my regular birding companions who is  apparently fascinated by shorebirds, which despite my every effort I rarely can identify without copious assistance. It's definitely heavy on the west coast, since that's where I've done the preponderance of my travel, but also reflects an occasional foray further away such as a trip to FL in 2011. I am grateful that when I go visit those elsewhere friends, that they find my "Western Kingbird? How cool!" amusing and will stop the car so I can get a good look.

The list so far. At 265, I have a long way to go to get to the 900+ birds that occur in North America and Hawaii. If I never get to the full count? I really am okay with that. I'm not obsessive about this. In the meantime, it's good for my memory and gets me outside a lot more than I'd probably otherwise do. Not such a bad reason to call myself a birder.

  • Pelagic cormorant
  • Bald eagle
  • Black oystercatcher
  • Tufted puffin
  • Northwestern crow
  • Common raven

  • Greater scaup
  • Ring-necked pheasant
  • California quail
  • Red-necked grebe
  • Red-faced cormorant
  • Killdeer
  • Arctic tern
  • Thick-billed murre
  • Kittlitz’s murrelet
  • Rhinoceros auklet
  • Horned puffin
  • Belted kingfisher
  • Blue jay
  • Steller’s jay
  • Black-billed magpie

  • Harlequin duck
  • Sandhill crane
  • Black-capped chickadee
  • Red-breasted nuthatch

  • Trumpeter swan
  • Mallard
  • Canvasback
  • Willow ptarmigan
  • Pigeon guillemot
  • Marbled murrelet
  • Grey jay
  • Bohemian waxwing

  • American wigeon
  • Northern shoveler
  • Brown pelican
  • Great blue heron
  • Hudsonian godwit
  • Mew gull
  • Western gull
  • Black-legged kittiwake
  • Common murre
  • Rock dove
  • Downy woodpecker
  • Violet-green swallow
  • Bank swallow
  • European starling
  • Yellow-rumped warbler
  • Dark-eyed junco
  • Common redpoll
  • House sparrow

  • Canada Goose
  • Barrow’s goldeneye
  • Common goldeneye
  • Common loon
  • Merlin
  • White-crowned sparrow

  • Gadwall
  • Green-winged teal
  • Ring-necked duck
  • Long-tailed duck
  • Northern harrier
  • Lesser yellowlegs
  • Greater yellowlegs
  • Short-billed dowitcher
  • Long-billed dowitcher
  • Great grey owl
  • Tree swallow
  • Snow bunting

  • Muscovy duck
  • Northern pintail
  • American white pelican
  • Anhinga
  • Double-crested cormorant
  • Tri-colored heron
  • Snowy egret
  • Great egret
  • White ibis
  • Turkey vulture
  • Black vulture
  • Osprey
  • Peregrine falcon
  • Pacific golden-plover
  • Rednecked phalarope
  • Ring-billed gull
  • Spotted dove
  • Hairy woodpecker
  • Western scrub-jay
  • American crow
  • Chestnut-backed chickadee
  • Brown creeper
  • Northern mockingbird
  • Common myna
  • Summer tanager
  • Savannah sparrow
  • Lapland longspur
  • Northern cardinal
  • Pine grosbeak
  • Japanese white-eye
  • Zebra dove
  • Yellow-billed cardinal
  • Saffron finch
  • Yellow-fronted canary
  • Common waxbill
  • Java sparrow
  • Peafowl

  • Greater white-fronted goose
  • Snow goose
  • Eurasian wigeon
  • Cinnamon teal
  • Redhead
  • Lesser scaup
  • Black scoter
  • White-winged scoter
  • Surf scoter
  • Common merganser
  • Ruddy duck
  • Pacific loon
  • Pied-billed grebe
  • Horned grebe
  • Eared grebe
  • Western grebe
  • White-faced ibis
  • Red-tailed hawk
  • American coot
  • Black-bellied plover
  • American golden-plover
  • American avocet
  • Black-necked stilt
  • Willet
  • Whimbrel
  • Long-billed curlew
  • Semipalmated plover
  • Pectoral sandpiper
  • Franklin’s gull
  • Bonaparte’s gull
  • California gull
  • Herring gull
  • Glaucous gull
  • Ivory gull
  • Parakeet auklet
  • Mourning dove
  • Eurasian collared-dove
  • Barn owl
  • Snowy owl
  • Northern flicker
  • Horned lark
  • Cliff swallow
  • Boreal chickadee
  • Marsh wren
  • American dipper
  • Ruby-crowned kinglet
  • Townsend’s solitaire
  • Varied thrush
  • American robin
  • American pipit
  • Orange-crowned warbler
  • Grasshopper sparrow
  • Song sparrow
  • Western meadowlark
  • Yellow-headed blackbird
  • Red-winged blackbird
  • House finch

  • Brant
  • Common eider
  • Bufflehead
  • Redbreasted merganser
  • Hooded merganser
  • Wild turkey
  • Red-throated loon
  • Cattle egret
  • Golden eagle
  • Semipalmated plover
  • Solitary sandpiper
  • Spotted sandpiper
  • Dunlin
  • Least sandpiper
  • Wilson’s snipe
  • Common snipe
  • Red phalarope
  • Glaucous-winged gull
  • Parasitic jaeger
  • Long-tailed jaeger
  • Alder flycatcher
  • Barn swallow
  • Arctic warbler
  • Grey-cheeked thrush
  • Red-whiskered bulbul
  • Eastern yellow wagtail
  • Yellow warbler
  • Wilson’s warbler
  • Northern waterthrush
  • American tree sparrow
  • Fox sparrow
  • Lincoln’s sparrow
  • Golden-crowned sparrow
  • Lesser goldfinch

  • Emperor goose
  • Mute swan
  • Wood duck
  • Arctic loon
  • Black-footed albatross
  • Sooty shearwater
  • Pink-footed shearwater
  • Black-vented shearwater
  • Fork-tailed storm petrel
  • Brandt’s cormorant
  • Black-crowned night heron
  • White-tailed kite
  • Rough-legged hawk
  • American kestrel
  • Marbled godwit
  • Black turnstone
  • Surfbird
  • Sanderling
  • Western sandpiper
  • Heermann’s gull
  • Elegant tern
  • Caspian tern
  • Aleutian tern
  • Pomarine jaeger
  • Cassin’s auklet
  • Short-eared owl
  • Black-chinned hummingbird
  • Anna’s hummingbird
  • Acorn woodpecker
  • Nuttall’s woodpecker
  • Black phoebe
  • Say’s phoebe
  • Northern shrike
  • Hutton’s vireo
  • Oak titmouse
  • Mountain chickadee
  • Bushtit
  • House wren
  • Bewick’s wren
  • Western bluebird
  • Hermit thrush
  • Townsend’s warbler
  • California towhee
  • Spotted towhee
  • Rufous-crowned sparrow
  • Common grackle
  • Great-tailed grackle
  • Brewer’s blackbird 

  • Chukar
  • Clark’s grebe
  • Sharp-shinned hawk
  • Swainson’s hawk
  • Wilson’s phalarope
  • Lesser black-backed gull
  • Forster’s tern
  • Great horned owl
  • Burrowing owl
  • Rufous hummingbird
  • Western kingbird
  • Eastern kingbird
  • Loggerhead shrike
  • Purple martin
  • California thrasher
  • Chipping sparrow
  • Brown-headed cowbird
  • Bullock’s oriole
  • Cassin’s finch
  • American goldfinch

It's been a fun time. I hope to continue adding to the list--it'll be interesting--to me, anyhow--to see how the yearly additions ebb and flow numbers-wise. Presumably at some point I'll only be able to add one (or none) in a year. And I'm starting to affect the people around me, though with varying results. My brother will now text me from a vacation to describe a LBJ. I'm not sure he really cares what the answer is, but he is paying more attention. My parents, who find this a very weird hobby for me to have, are paying more attention too. My mom has a similar reaction to my brother--she'll describe for me to identify--but my dad is less interested in identifications. He continues--and probably always will--to respond to every duck he sees that isn't a mallard with the statement "Oh, we used to have those at the pond on the farm. We called them mud hens." He once described a male hooded merganser in full mating plumage as a mud hen! Oh well, as long as on the occasions I'm in their vicinity, they tolerate the occasional quick stop to see something little flitting in the bushes, I'm okay with the whole mud hen thing. Honestly, I find it kind of amusing.

Emperor geese. My dad would probably call them mud geese.
*Of course, one other decent reason for not admitting to being a birder is the stereotype expressed best (and in NSFW language) by Luke Dempsey in A Supremely Bad Idea when he writes what he'd like to say to people when they ask him what he's doing: "Seriously, folks, I'm wearing khaki, I have binoculars strapped to my chest, and I am clearly unfuckable. What does it look like I'm doing?"

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

In memoriam

I found out yesterday that Bert Rhoads had passed away. Many people might know Bert as the AOTUS (Archivist of the US) during the Nixon administration, but to me and a number of people he was also our first archival educator, guide, and mentor.

If I'm a decent archivist, a huge percentage of that is due to Bert Rhoads. (If I'm not, that's on me.) I am enough of an archivist to know that the snapshot of two years spent taking classes and meeting with him is hardly representative of his life as a whole, but the man I first met in the summer of '91 was a kind, positive, encouraging, funny, and highly intelligent educator, archivist, and gentleman.

One of my favorite class memories was the day he was lecturing about forms management. Now this is not normally an entrancing subject, none of us were gripped, and Bert was clearly in "read only" mode as he went through his lecture notes. All of us were madly taking down notes (or possibly daydreaming) when Bert read a sentence that began "It goes without saying." And he stopped there. It took a few seconds for us to figure out he had stopped speaking and once all eyes were upon him, he looked up at us, back down at his script, back up at us and said "Well, I guess it doesn't." Followed by much laughter and much more engagement--from all of us--with the topic. And while I don't remember details of a lot of the daily classes, the forms management one stuck with me. I use it a lot more than I ever thought I would in my daily work life. And the whole incident taught me a little bit about using cliched phrases in writing and speaking, too.

One of my best memories of Bert and his wife Angela comes not from a professional interaction, but a social one. My second year of grad school, I was sharing an apartment with another grad student in the cohort just after mine. We lived next door to another grad student from my cohort and his wife. We decided to host a Halloween party for fellow grad students in the archives program and invited Bert and Angela. They came and spent several hours with us that evening. We were hanging out in the apartment next door, all the food was in mine, and people just wandered back and forth as they wanted to retrieve munchies. I'd made snickerdoodles mostly because I had all the ingredients for them and didn't have to go shopping on my very limited budget.

After a while a pattern became evident. Every 15 minutes or so, Bert would get up, wander next door, and come back with a snickerdoodle or two in his hand. Eventually Angela noticed and said [I paraphrase here] "What is up with you and those cookies?" Bert replied: "I love snickerdoodles." While she just stared at him he added: "They're my favorite cookie and you never make them." As the discussion ensued (I use the gentlest possible term for the conversation) it came out that Angela had never made Bert snickerdoodles because he'd never mentioned to her how much he loved them. Keep in mind that they'd been married over 45 years at that point.

I have no idea if Angela started making snickerdoodles for Bert (I couldn't blame her if she never did) but after that, every time I had a class presentation I made a point of bringing them in. I'm pretty sure it didn't affect my grades.

I didn't have a lot of interaction with Bert after I finished up my coursework at Western. He retired, actually retired, a couple of years later. I struggled, a lot, post-school with writing a thesis while juggling 2-3 jobs, none of which had anything much in the way of leave benefits. Several times I thought about just chucking the whole degree thing. At some point I must have said something about that to someone who was in a position to tattle to Bert. And he wrote me one of the most encouraging letters I've ever received. I didn't have the wherewithal to pull it out last night and re-read it, but the short version is that he told me that while he understood my frustration, my potential was such that it would be a pity if I didn't finish the degree. It was enough. I couldn't bear to disappoint him (though he certainly never phrased it that way) and I figured if this guy, this man who had withstood everything Richard M. Nixon had done to recordkeeping, thought I had something, I should probably trust his instincts.

I only had one interaction with Bert after that. A number of years later, after I'd finished my thesis and gotten an actual professional rank job, I had the occasion to call him as a member of a search committee to obtain a reference for a job candidate who had taken classes with him. It all started out as a standard, uniformative pro forma type of reference check, when Bert got honest. I won't tell you what Bert said about our candidate, but in one sentence he dissected the candidate's entire personality vis a vis professional maturity. It wasn't judgmental, it wasn't damning, it was just a clear statement of who this person was at this time and made it clear to us that this individual wouldn't be a good fit right now. I still wonder if Bert would have said that if it was anybody but me on the other end of the line. I guess I'll never know, now, but that doesn't matter. All I know is that every time I conduct a reference check, I pray I'll be talking to somebody with his vision, his understanding, his thoughtfulness, his clarity, his honesty, and his caring, both for me and for the candidate.

We've lost what I can only regard as one of the pillars of our profession and an all around great guy. I grieve with my fellow Western grads, I grieve with his family.

And yes, I made a batch of snickerdoodles last night and brought them into work today (at least one other of Bert's grads can indulge.) It seemed a good way to remember him.

Rest in peace, Bert. I miss you.