In recent years, birding has become increasingly more connected to the internet and social media, from sites to ask for help identifying birds, to the massive rabbit hole that is eBird data, there's even many state associated listservs, Facebook groups, Discord servers, a site you can ask for the input of hundreds of birders on a subject other than ID, even a game that allows you to bird without ever leaving your house! And this is just naming a few, not counting the countless books, handful of movies, and even games about birding (yes, actual games and not a prank cover like the one that is floating around the internet). Surprisingly, documentaries about birding are actually rare, with the most notable examples being Birders: The Central Park Effect and The Birders; both of which I need to see. I will get to those after I've seen them, so for now, I'm talking about birding shows with a presenter with a naturalist background as the main human presence; just like in the many nature shows I grew up with like The Jeff Corwin Experience, Zaboomafoo!, and The Crocodile Hunter, to name a few. To see what birding series there actually are online, I'm looking to YouTube to see what they have to contribute to the wealth of internet birding knowledge. This is SmewTube!
There are lots of videos of birds on YouTube, but as I said earlier, actual shows presented by a host like Nigel Marven or David Attenborough are rare, but I have managed to locate at least three for the sake of this post: Nikon's Birding Adventures, Rolling Stone's Birding With Charles, and Topic's Birds of North America, the latter of which I have heard many, many good things about. Before we start, I should mention Cornell's Inside Birding mini-series, which can be viewed in the media library of the Bird Academy website.
Hosted by Jessie Barry and Chris Wood, Inside Birding consists of four videos outlining key steps used to identify birds that were crucial : size and shape, color pattern, behavior, and habitat; plus a warbler video that is not officially part of this series, but it's part of the playlist and acts as a good recap. Also, keep this quote in mind for later in the post: "I know what you're thinking - American Robin, they're too easy, they're too common. But here's the thing: it makes sense to practice your birding skills with a bird you can locate, and most importantly, really spend time watching it." Guess how Merlin worked (or tried to work) before photo ID and explore birds were added. If you guessed using the same steps Jessie and Chris outline in this series, then good job, you clearly know what you're doing.
Nikon's Birding Adventures is hosted by South African native James Currie, and yes, I have to specify that it's presented by Nikon because I typically do not approve of obvious product placement in documentaries; it worked for Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom because it wasn't as blatant, but here the favoritism for Nikon is a little annoying, especially in the comments (whenever you ask for recommendations about optics, it can be either a godsend or a nightmare). For this and future commentaries, I will post the video below and type out my thoughts. If there is a certain thing I will talk about, I will start the sentence with the time code I want you to pause at in parentheses. Let's begin
Already in the first episode, the amount of hand gestures he uses is a bit off-putting for me, plus some of the footage in the intro and the tracking shot through a mangrove tunnel at (1:36) is a little shaky and jumpy. Were the cameramen really afraid of getting their equipment wet? After telling us about what Nayarit has to offer and a rather bold claim that it has some of the best birding in North and Central America, Currie goes on to tell us that a birder can see up to 30 endemics within a half hour's drive of San Blas and introduces us to several local birders. The first species Currie looks for is, drumroll please, a Wood Stork colony only accessible by boat. Dude, just go to Wakodahatchee Wetlands, they practically own the place. (4:23) Again, Wakodahatchee. The curse of non-eBirders (#notmyhost). (4:53) Thanks for reminding me, it's not like that's your channel icon. I'm not going to comment too much because it enters a pattern: crappy tracking shots followed by beautiful digiscope segments of birds and annoying commercial breaks. (10:00) Can you zoom out just a little there? (11:22) Playback? You're ruining the moment with the Elegant Quails, Stackhouse. (18:20 - 20:04) I'm just saying, eBird could use some of these beautiful snippets of Mexican endemics, plus it could bring publicity to your series. And that was Birding Adventures, and it was okay, but it's just that. I like how informative the series is, and the footage of the birds with Currie's digiscope setup is the standard a nature show should have. However, the jumpy camera action and constant Nikon ads make it a little hard to enjoy it. If you can tolerate that, his constant hand gestures, and extremely uncanny closeups, I recommend this series; and if you already follow this show, enjoy. P.S. I want that digiscoping setup.
While the idea behind Birding With Charles that anyone can get into birding is good, the execution was not. It's so cringeworthy, I even have to go through their description sentence by sentence. Just look at this excerpt from an article about the first episode:
Yeah, birding always needs more attention, but to say it lacks popular attention would be incorrect. With books, movies, websites, a board game, and a video game that is in development, I would say birding is received well in the public eye. "While climbing through the wilderness in search of the rarest winged beasts our world has to offer is a thrilling pursuit," (until the weather turns nasty) "widespread assumption held that change would never come to the rigorous world of recreational fowl watching." I don't know, the birding world has come a long way since the 19th century Christmas side hunts.
Hold up there guys. Hold. The f**k. Up: "elusive Mandarin Duck?" ELUSIVE? I have a lot of things to say about that Mandarin Duck, but "elusive" (it took me five seconds to find it), "feathered zeitgeist of the moment" (don't even know what a zeitgeist is), "New York's Most Eligible Bachelor" (duck sex is not glamorous), and "Hot" (as in "Hot Garbage" LMAO. Hey, does anyone think of Chinese food when they hear "Hot Mandarin Duck?") are far from anything I would use to describe the Mandarin Duck, which fall along the lines of this: "it was honestly not worth all the trouble... To me this didn’t feel like rarity chasing, this didn’t even feel like birding. It was birdwatching. I had succumbed to the hot duck craze and I felt ashamed that I had subjected myself to a level of birding lower than stringing." - from Chapter 25: Zono of optimal birding. Anyway, let's see what kind of first impression he gives.
(0:21) Nothing exemplifies "trying to become the most preeminent birdwatcher" like chasing birds around even though you have binoculars to observe with! Now imagine the backlash (more on that later) Rolling Stone would've gotten if that was a Piping Plover. Even Kenny Bostick knew better, and he pulled some devious tricks. (0:41) Ah, two newbies, how reassuring. (1:10) I guess this quote from Birders: The Central Park Effect is obsolete:
If you ignore the common birds, then what is even the point?"
No seriously, as thrilling as it is to see a mega rarity, the common birds I also see are just as enjoyable. (1:30) Most birders I know could care less. (1:50) Guess I could've removed it from my checklist sooner than I thought. Back in November, when the duck's popularity had gone through the roof, I was getting eBird alerts for it on the hour and it was driving me crazy when I was anticipating something better. What I did was I added it so I would stop getting alerts for it to focus more on what I could count. (1:55) Possibly dead? Oh no, we can't let the hot duck die! (2:18) Yes, 240 species have been recorded in Central Park in spring, but they're all "distractions" compared to a bird we're not even sure is still alive. (2:41) Did he just seriously call that male cardinal a female? He even said the female is duller than the male in the very next scene! HOW DO YOU NOT NOTICE THAT THE BIRD YOU CALLED A FEMALE IS RED? Fun fact: the intensity of the red on a male Northern Cardinal is an indicator of the quality of their diet and physical health. Females select for brighter males because they would be able to provide more food for their offspring. (2:57) Stop calling everything basic! When have you ever heard a birder say "basic?" (3:45) I bet Valee was more interested in finding a time to light that blunt than he was in finding Hot Crispy. I'm going to skip to the end because small talk is boring. (7:37) Or they could forget about this duck and go home. (8:07) That's all you idiots saw? Sure, if seeing a total of six species makes you the best birdwatchers in Central Park, then yeah, the Northern Cardinal you were looking at was a goddamn female. (8:20) I want to feel sad for these two, but I can't because that's how uncaring I am. Good riddance to New York's Most Eligible Bachelor! Birding With Charles is a good example of how not to portray birders in the media. The host clearly doesn't know what he's doing, the plot is about a dead meme, and it should go without saying that harassing wildlife in a nature show is unacceptable. Additionally, the fact that the hosts are of color has led to speculation that Birding With Charles is a ripoff of Birds of North America, which wrapped up just as the former premiered. In an interview and on The New York Times article about the two series, Anna Holmes from topic said it was mocking the very idea of what they are trying to do. According to Rolling Stone, it’s all a coincidence, and the show is instead based on Fishing With John. "If this series is meant as a joke," Jason said, "Rolling Stone should've made it much clearer." The only legitimate reason I can think this exists is because people will only watch nature shows if they have celebrity hosts; if that gets you to watch nature shows, just watch Shark Week because you have a smaller margin for error. Speaking of dead memes, forget Area 51 and the Ark Encounter, we need to storm Rolling Stone to make them cancel Birding With Charles. Or we could go birding instead.
I have high hopes for Birds of North America. Not only in terms of informativeness, but also how passionate Jason is. Just watch the first four seconds before the intro segment.
I should note a couple things about the intro. The first is the artwork itself, which is by Jane Kim, who also drew the literally gigantic Wall of Birds mural at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The other is just a little more about how Jason Ward got started: An animal lover since childhood, Jason's family could not afford cable TV, so he fueled his interest at the library. Jason officially started birding after moving to Atlanta; becoming a major presence in the birding community both locally and on the internet (especially Twitter and What's This Bird?). (0:27) Jamaica Bay and Prospect Park come close, but the birding community for Central Park is one of the strongest, sometimes hinging on dysfunctional. I don't think I need to comment too much, but one thing I should comment on is that I like how not only is the bird we're focusing on labeled, but there is a circular spotlight on the bird with the circle in natural lighting and the rest is tinted like a pair of sunglasses (which I recommend not wearing if you plan to use binoculars or a scope). Also, the environmental footage is much better than in Birding Adventures, it feels like you're actually following Jason around Central Park (Birding With Charles also had better film quality, but I was too busy complaining to mention this). (1:32) I find the grosbeak call more pleasing to listen to than shoes on a high school gym floor. (2:07) Those tattoos look nice, I've never heard anyone describe it as a unicorn effect, but I like the comparison. (3:40) Don't worry Jason, I missed that one too, the difference an hour could've made. We then follow Jason around the park, providing with more spotlights on Blackpoll Warbler, Northern Cardinal (which he correctly identified as a male), Common Nighthawk, Swainson's Thrush, and Warbling Vireo. The first episode ends with Jason saying "it's almost like meditation... and sometimes I need to remind myself stop, slow down, just let it all come around you." and I couldn't agree more. And that was Birds of North America, and it looks genuinely promising. Here's a recap of the strengths of this show, and some notes that other people should follow
The YB Odyssey Facebook Page
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Leica Nature Observation Blog
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The Birding Place (Aidan Place)
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