As I inch towards a big project that marries birding to writing, something I’ve toyed with for years, it’s time to retool. Most birders keep lists – it doesn’t make sense (at least to most birders I know) to watch the bird life around you and then consign the experience to fickle memory. We’ve been using purchased software, a program called Birders Diary, for a number of years. It’s comprehensive, allows for different taxonomies (official bird lists), and has good reporting. But it’s clunky and fully private without any sharing.
On impulse a few years ago, I did a course on shorebird identification (it didn’t take, I still can’t ID them!) at the Broome Bird Observatory. I remember being blown away by the dedication and professionalism of the staff there. They constantly logged their sightings using eBird, an app and immense database managed by Cornell University. I recall they recommended using eBird, if only because all my observations would go into a worldwide pool and contribute to knowledge.
So … let’s grab eBird. How impressive it is! The website is stunning and motivating. The homepage doesn’t need to sell much because these are the numbers: eBird has data on 10,423 bird species (which is about the official total, are there are any species eBird hasn’t captured?) gathered by half a million birders who have submitted 37 million sessional checklists.
In the late morning, on the wonderful Mangrove Boardwalk at East Point in Darwin, I christen eBird with 17 observed species. A small step…
A flurry of activity. I take facts and dates and accounts of those facts and dates, and I restate them in my own untutored words, then I assemble little plot segments, then I draft up crap, then I reassess, then I rewrite for effect, then I… and so on and so on. I’m now in Sydney, in Marrickville, and it’s time to look at nuclear accidents again. Thoughts and words tumble and swirl.
I’m amazed at the scope and power of Cornell University’s eBird, an app and a huge global database and much, much more. I’m starting to plan a road trip up north to find the Sarus Crane. Well, with eBird I can look up dated sightings at hundreds of locations, telling me where I’m most likely to get good results. Interestingly, some bird species are classified as sensitive, their locations not to be revealed. These are birds that the world needs to keep private because of very low numbers, or systematic hunting, or rapacious land developers, etc. Of my fifteen Crane species, only three are shielded by eBird: the Whooping Crane (but only in Wisconsin), the Common Crane (but only in the United Kingdom), and the Sarus Crane (but not our Australian race, instead one in an Indian location).
Never underestimate the power of regular, indeed obsessive, tasking. Do something every day and sure enough, one day, something big happens and you have liftoff! I am a little over halfway through the year of doing daily thinking and researching towards some kind of big birding/environmental project, and in the last few days, ideas have poured in and information has coalesced and… I have liftoff! I’ll start a new major writing/birding project with a separate blog site and Twitter identity, and I’m going to have fun!
A couple of days ago, I plucked out five ideas from the 131 in Rob Walker’s “The Art of Noticing.” One of them is “Don’t photograph, draw,” and the consequent Big Year notion is simplicity itself: every day, draw “an appealing or interesting scene.” Now, anyone who has ever played Pictionary with me knows my drawing gene is missing. But here’s the good news from Walker: “Be heartened that you don’t need to show your drawing to anyone.” And the benefit of such a Big Year? Walker: “You’ll find that drawing helps you slow down and enriches what you see.”
Rob Walker’s wonderful “The Art of Noticing: Rediscover What Really Matters to You” really fires up hope for creativity. His 131 different ideas to stimulate attention, freshness, and deepness, really call to me. Of the 131, I’m drawn to 5. Any one of them would make for a fun Big Year:
- Spot something new every day
- Don’t photograph, draw
- Follow the quiet
- Take a photo walk, with no camera
- Interview a friend, loved one, stranger – or even an ideological nemesis
The last seven days have been a flurry of pretty good work across so many different projects. But right now I’m drafting part of Chapter 7 and my prose seems limp. Limp as wilted broccolini. Well, I’ve been reading the inimitable Steven Pressfield (check out his “Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t: Why That Is And What You Can Do About It“), more specifically a series of short booklets he calls JABs, and in one of them, he exhorts us writers to write as if we are indeed J.K. Rowling or Stephen King or Barak Obama. Well, in my case, one of the gold standards is Robert A. Caro, historian extraordinaire (and author of the LBJ bio-in-progress, four volumes so far).
So I give myself a good talking to: “Write as if I’m Robert Caro!”
It seems to work. Not so limp anymore.
I’ve kept burrowing away, daily, at the complexities of birds and my birding and how everything fits in, and some decisions are nearing. Cranes will be the focus of both my birding and my attempts to make sense of humans in the Anthropocene era in which we’re remodelling our Earth (for the worse). One of the items I came across today cheered me up. Led by amazing George Archibald, the International Crane Foundation has set up a network of 270 dedicated scientists in 55 countries, piecing together the global facts needed to defend the family of cranes. Presumably most of them are professionals employed in various capacities, with some of them only part time on this work, but still, the knowledge of this effort buoys me. What I need to do is figure out what this group knows, how they present it, and just what I need to extract from all that.
This morning I rose on time and dashed outside with iPhone to photograph blackness, the dark of the night, just to prove to myself that I’d virtuously hauled myself out of sleep before the laziness of first light. Well, many attempts taught me a fundamental lesson: smartphones don’t photograph the dark. So the image for today is a stock one, called, wonderfully, “close-up view of empty black grunge background.”
Anyway, the other lesson I learnt today is that talking to myself, as in “posting” in this core adventuring blog, is good in itself. The morning held a couple of diversions but I worked well at plotting Reactor over 1959. A scare with a twinging hamstring shocked me but the first part of the afternoon had me back in paradise, Finders Keepers, engrossed in nuclear comings and goings. I wrote a couple of reviews. I composed a couple of Nuclear Power History blog posts, of a more reflective nature than is usual, and that step in itself made my heart swell with pride. I even had time to take inspiration from sage advice from Steven Pressfield, which I’ll share when I’ve had time to absorb. By the time I close up shop at 5 PM, I’ll have 7½ hours, much of it real meat.
A fine day. (And how beneficial it feels to announce just that!)
It’s a bad sign if I can see the dawn upon rising. It means I’ve slept in. Sometimes that seems the only way to go, especially when I have a cold, but if I can get back to rising in the dark, the hours flow again. The last four weeks have been a mix of steady, successful routine, and interrupted chaos. I’ve been able to stick to six and a half hours each day, with over four hours being “proper-like” drafting work, so I’m happy.