With the distinctively witty, anecdotal, and disarming voice readers first came to love in his book The Armchair Birder, John Yow now journeys to the shore and shares his encounters with some of the most familiar and beloved coastal birds in his new book The Armchair Birder Goes Coastal: The Secret Lives of Birds of the Southeastern Shore, which is published today in hardcover and e-book. In this interview he discusses leaving his backyard to explore coastal birds and explains how, even after writing two birding books, he still considers himself an amateur birder.
Q: The Armchair Birder has returned! How is this book different from its predecessor, The Armchair Birder?
A: The big difference between this book and its predecessor is that The Armchair Birder Goes Coastal deals not just with different birds but with whole different kinds of birds. The Armchair Birder was about songbirds, the birds of backyard and woodland, whereas the new book is about birds of shore and marsh—wonderful, often strange, birds that you’re not going to see hanging around the feeder outside your window.
Q: Why did you choose to focus on the coastal birds?
A: Coastal birds are incredible. Who hasn’t watched a brown pelican dive headfirst into the surf from twenty feet high, or been amazed by the beauty and grace of a snowy egret? And the more you find out about these birds, the more fascinating they become. Besides, there are worse things in the world than having to go to the beach to do research.
Q: This time around, you traveled to the birds, journeying from North Carolina’s Outer Banks, down the Atlantic coast, and westward along the Gulf of Mexico. In your experience, which place was best for bird watching?
A: Shore and marsh are lovely places, and I was never disappointed. But for diversity of species concentrated in one spot at a particular time, two places stand out: Cat Island, off of Dauphin Island in the Mississippi Sound, and Cedar Key, off Florida’s west coast.
Q: With all this traveling, have you graduated from being an Armchair Birder? Are you now a serious birder?
A: Sneakers, polo shirt, cheap nocs—my field marks are easy to spot. Serious birders would quickly identify me as an inferior species.
Q: You cover 28 familiar species that populate the coast, including ubiquitous beach birds like sanderlings and laughing gulls, to wonders of nature like roseate spoonbills and the American avocets. Do you have a favorite bird?
A: In the book I own up to a special fondness for the little blue heron, but many of the birds I write about are just spectacular. Right up there with the spoonbills and avocets are the black-necked stilts, the wood storks, the snowy and great egrets, the anhingas—and the list goes on. Of course, I’m perfectly willing to confess that my favorite birds tend to be those I can actually pick out from the rest.
Q: You give these birds such colorful personalities and describe their behavior in a humorous, somehow relatable way. What’s your favorite bird anecdote?
A: The courtship, nesting, and parenting behavior of birds (as of humans) supplies plenty of great material. One of my favorites comes from a least tern colony on the gulf coast. Under attack from an approaching phalanx of cattle egrets, the terns defended their nest by swooping down on the egrets and pooping in their faces.
Q: Please tell me about another species you talk about in your book—the birder.
A: Ah! Homo sapiens birderis! Well, the first thing that must be said is that without the help of a number of fine birders, this book couldn’t have been written, and I’m eternally grateful. But birders, too, have their characteristic field marks: their plumage inevitably runs to tan and olive drab, for example, often heavily layered, and they favor wide-brimmed headgear. They tend to be gregarious; you can find them clustered around the chief implement of their trade (the spotting scope), emitting odd chatter intelligible only to them. Most remarkable, when alone or in small groups, they often travel long distances at the least provocation. Sui generis, I believe, is the appropriate term.
Q: Like The Armchair Birder, this book is organized by seasons. Do you have a preferred season for bird watching?
A: Every season has its charms, but springtime brings spectacular breeding plumage to many species (often a huge help in identification, by the way), and then comes actual breeding season, with all of its comedy and strife. So I’d say spring and summer offer up the big show.
Q: You reference some of America’s finest naturalists throughout your book, including John James Audubon, Arthur Cleveland Bent, Rachel Carson, and Peter Matthiessen. How do these fellow birders help you in your own birding?
A: In two ways: The obvious one is that they’ve done the grueling field work that I’m probably just not up for and yet have given me full access to the treasure. Less obvious but equally important is that the best naturalists remind me that the writing matters as much as the watching. Because if you’re going to be dull, why bother?
Q: What is your ideal way to watch birds? In your own backyard or exploring new terrain?
A: Tough question since I’ve enjoyed the best of both worlds. It’s hard to beat sitting on the porch on a spring evening when the wood thrush is singing, but seeing a snowy egret lift off of a marsh pond at sunset is pretty special, too.
Q: You’ve covered backyards and woodlands, and now shores and marshes. Which environment do you want to explore next?
A: Hmmmm. How about paradise? I hear the birding is mighty fine in Costa Rica.
Q: Speaking of environments, The Armchair Birder had a decided environmental slant. Can the same be said about the new book?
A: From the draining of the Everglades to the overharvesting of horseshoe crabs whose eggs feed millions of migrating birds in Delaware Bay, the environmental and ecological perils faced by these birds are numerous and complex. So, yes, environmental awareness is very much a part of this book.
Q: Overall, what have you learned about birding since your last book? And how many species of birds have you seen now?
A: Birding must be one of these inverse whatchamacallits. After the first book, I thought I knew how little I knew. After the second book I began to realize that I had no idea how little I knew. As for how many species I’ve seen at this point, well, I don’t know that either, but the guy at the Chattanooga Ornithological Society who told me he’d seen 615 doesn’t need to worry about me chasing him down.
John Yow is a freelance writer based in Acworth, Georgia, and former senior editor at Longstreet Press. He is author of The Armchair Birder: Discovering the Secret Lives of Familiar Birds and, most recently, The Armchair Birder Goes Coastal: The Secret Lives of Birds of the Southeastern Shore.