Jim Williams has been watching birds and writing about their antics since before "Gilligan's Island" went into reruns. Join him for his unique insights, his everyday adventures and an open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond.

Posts about Bird personalities

Ben Franklin and the Bald Eagle

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: December 6, 2011 - 10:27 PM

 Ben Franklin wasn't happy when the Bald Eagle was chosen as our national bird. He had a low opinion of the species. I thought of Ben a few days ago. On a scouting trip, looking for Snowy Owls (what else?), I came upon a pair of eagles in a plowed field beside a road. They were waiting for traffic to clear before returning to the deer carcass in the ditch, flattened and coming apart. I stopped to watch them return to their lunch, pulling and tugging to rip pieces of meat from the roadkill. This is part of what Franklin wrote to a daughter about these birds: "For my own part I wish the Eagle had not been chosen the representative of our country. He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his Living honestly." Yes, it's dirty work, but you know what people say about that -- somebody etc. etc.



"The Big Year"

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: October 17, 2011 - 8:58 AM

 The new movie "The Big Year" is an entertaining two hours, perhaps not as good as two hours in the midst of heavy bird migration, but worth a look. It certainly is as entertaining as many movies released this fall. Roger Ebert liked it. StarTribune film critic Colin Colvert hated it, but he probably needs to spend more time outdoors, less time in theaters. The concensus among email posters on the two birding networks I subscribe to is, see it. See it soon, however, one viewer writes, because the movie is likely to have a short shelf life. Birders will like it, but it's not going to be a box-office hit.

Movie "The Big Year"

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: October 11, 2011 - 4:21 PM

 The movie "The Big Year" opens here Friday. It's a movie about extreme birding. The Big Year is an individual effort to see as many species of birds as possible in a calendar year, usually in North America. The movie follows three men who made this effort in the same year. This actually happened, and a book (same title as the movie) was written about it. The movie more or less follows the book, with the usual liberties taken when translating actual event to a feature film. The movie is about people birding rather than about birds. I was pessimistic when I learned of the movie, assuming it would be a joke not on but about birders. After watching preview clips and reading the comments of other birders, I'm optimistic now, and certainly will be in the audience Friday. I'll go to be entertained. I'm not expecting a documentary. 

One of the characters in the movie is based on a New Jersey resident named Sandy Komito. He was one of the three men involved in the Big Year on which the movie is based. You can find a set of audio interviews with him at


If for some reason that doesn't work go to www.nabirding.com. The interviews are easy to find. They're a good introduction to this seldom-seen part of the birding world, and to the movie. Listen to Sandy before you go to the theater. There also are interviews with one of the other Big Year guys, Greg Miller, and with a man who contributed video of some of the birds seen in the movie.

If you would like to share the movie experience with other birders, Betsy Beneke, public affairs director at Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge, is organizing an event at the Elk River theater Friday for the 1 p.m. showing of the movie. Arrive at 12:45, she says, and dress like a birder. She's offering a prize for the best birding "outfit."

Jude and I will watch the movie Friday afternoon at the Icon theaters in St. Louis Park. You will not recognize us as birders.






I did not die

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: September 15, 2011 - 7:30 PM

 I'm not dead or in jail. I didn't move away without saying goodbye. It was a software glitch of some kind down at Blog Headquarters. Somebody finally fixed it. I'm back on the job!


The movie "The Big Year" opens soon. A big year for birders is a January 1 to December 31 effort to see as many species of birds as you can within a defined geographic area. North America is the setting for the movie. In the movie as in life, it's a competition. There are other competitions for birders, one of them being life lists: all the species of birds you've seen within that defined area -- county, state, nation, continent, world. Big-league birders play with a world list. The woman who for several years had the longest list of birds seen got her start in Minnesota. She' the subject of an interesting and well-written book.

A Minnesota beginning to a birding world record

A biography of Phoebe Snetsinger

The name Phoebe Snetsinger probably is unknown to you. If, however, you are a birder with a big B, Phoebe would linger in your memory. She was a 34-year-old New Brighton, Minnesota, housewife in 1965, busy with a husband and four little kids, but lacking direction in her life. She was bored. One day a neighbor handed her a pair of binoculars and pointed to a male Blackburnian Warbler. In her biography Phoebe wrote, “I had never seen anything like it. It nearly knocked me over.”s

Phoebe’s life, indeed, the lives of her children and husband, were never the same.

Phoebe came to mind a couple of weeks ago when, while scanning one of our bookshelves, looking for an emergency read because I had bollixed my library want list, I found Olivia Gentile’s biography of Phoebe, “Life List.” Phoebe wrote an autobiography, but she was a better birder than writer. So, I reread Gentile’s book, enjoying it one more time.

Phoebe became hooked on birds that day in her neighbor’s yard. Hooked changed to enthusiastic, and that to highly focused, and that to obsessed. She began birding locally while in New Brighton, recording those sightings on her life list. There are all sorts of birding lists. You can define your own, birds seen sitting on power lines, for instance (I knew someone who kept such a list). There are day lists, year lists, state lists, life lists, and even world lists. Phoebe eventually focused on the latter.

By the end of 1980 she had seen almost 2,000 species of birds throughout the world, her travel schedule always long. She was prepping for a trip to Panama when she was diagnosed with metastic melanoma. Following surgery, she was given three to 12 months to live. She had to make choices now. She chose no serious medical treatment. She chose to go to Alaska on a birding trip that had been planned for some time. She told her guide to be prepared, she might die on the trip.

She didn’t die. She planned more trips. She decided to wanted to see more species of birds than anyone else in the world. The leader at that time was a British fellow who had seen about half (4,300), and doubted that anyone would ever list more than 6,000. Phoebe had a target. Perhaps it was the deep pleasure she took from birding and the challenge of her world list that kept her alive, for she would survive two more cancer surgeries.

Phoebe would become so intensely focused on birds that she missed her mother’s funeral (death was imminent, and Phoebe did say goodbye before leaving town). She passed the Brit in the world-list. She was the star of that part of the birding world that kept count. She had been everywhere, with packaged tours and with guides hired to help her find a single species of bird thousands of miles from home. She had seen almost 8,400 of the 10,030 bird species recognized by ornithologists at that time.

She kept going. Over the years she endured bad accommodations, bad food, bad weather, some of the roughest terrain the world offered, plus sexual assault. Cancer hadn’t stopped her, and nothing else would either.

Phoebe’s life ended as I hope to end my life, dead before I hit the ground while doing something I truly enjoy. Phoebe was on a trip to Madagascar, with trips to New Guinea, New Zealand, Panama, Brazil, and Peru on the books for 2000. She had 20 species of birds on her Madagascar want-list on this trip. She was on a bus heading for a forest where she hoped to see Appert’s Greenbul, a tiny peach and green bird. It would have been life bird number 8,675. The driver lost control of the bus. It rolled. Phoebe died. She went with her boots on, at the top of her game.

The book is a good read. There is much story to be told: Phoebe growing up, Phoebe’s relationships with family, Phoebe and her outlook on life, plus a great deal of information about birds and bird travel. It’s a long look into another part of our world, one where most of do not go.



Hummingbird festival this weekend

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: August 17, 2011 - 10:40 AM

 If you like hummingbirds, Henderson, Minnesota, a picturesque town along the Minnesota River, hosts its third annual Hummingbird Hurrah this weekend, Aug. 20-21. It’s a neat birding festival, nearby, with a full two-day program. Drop in for a one of two events, or make a weekend of it.

There will be children’s activities, hummingbird banding, garden tours, vendors, workshops and a Saturday evening dinner with keynote speaker Al Batt.

Workshops by Jim Gilbert, Carrol Henderson, Don Mitchell, Kelly Applegate and Ron Windingstad include: Natures Happenings in Late Summer and Early Autumn; Gardening for Hummingbirds; Hummingbirds from Minnesota to Machu Picchu; Purple Martin Biology and Conservation; and Chimney Swift Conservation.

For complete information go to Web site http://hhh.hendersonmn.com/

Below, a male Ruby-throated Hummingbird perched, a juvenile feeding at geraniums, and a juvenile in hand.


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