An Interview with Kristen Marini on her new Birding Game

Kirsten Marini, in her second year of the Master of Environmental Science program at Thompson Rivers University (TRU) in Kamloops, B.C., has developed a game to help train birders doing “point count” surveys on birds, and is looking for volunteers to test the training program.

The game consists of an initial challenge, then a set of smaller challenges of increasing difficulty, and a final challenge to see how much the birder has improved by the end. The birding game involves listening to a variety of bird songs during a five minute period, so you’ll need a media player such as a smartphone, laptop, or tablet.

If you want to play the game, email Kristen at kristen-marini AT mytru DOT ca and she’ll send you the full instructions on October 30th. The game officially starts on November 2nd and runs until mid-December.

I’m happy to have been able to interview Kristen for this post, and I hope you enjoy the opportunity to learn more about the game. Hopefully readers will be interested in helping Kristen by taking part in her study!

Prairie Birder: Tell me a little bit about yourself, please, including your studies.

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With my dads’ tame pigeon, this one is a couple years old but is a favourite of mine.

Kristen: I’m in my second year of the Master of Environmental Science program at Thompson Rivers University (TRU) in Kamloops, B.C., studying how urbanization affects the reproductive success and song of Mountain Chickadees. For that, I spend the spring and early summer monitoring breeding chickadees in both urban and rural habitats, and measuring how well their offspring grow and survive. I also record males while they are singing during the dawn chorus to see how song changes in urban environments. I’ve only just started the analysis of my data, so I don’t quite know yet if chickadees are affected by urbanization.

At the same time I am working in partnership with Golder Associates to develop a distance estimation training program that they can use to improve both the species identification accuracy and distance estimation abilities of their employees who are doing bird point count surveys. This is what the bird game is ultimately for!

When I’m not at school working on one of these projects, I like going out hiking with my dachshunds, kayaking, and trying to learn how to rock climb!

These are some 6 day old mountain chickadee nestlings. We band them with a unique CWS band, then weigh and measure them every 3 days until they are 12 days old.

“These are some six-day old mountain chickadee nestlings. We band them with a unique CWS band, then weigh and measure them every three days until they are 12 days old.” (Photo courtesy Kristen Marini)

A 9 day old mountain chickadee nestling. By 9 days they are starting to look more like birds, their flight feathers are starting to erupt, and most of their body feathers are filling in. This little guy has a silver CWS band on his right leg so that we can re-identify him, and a PIT tag on his left leg so that we can track his movements.

“A nine-day old Mountain Chickadee nestling. By nine days, they are starting to look more like birds, their flight feathers are starting to erupt, and most of their body feathers are filling in. This little guy has a silver CWS band on his right leg so that we can re-identify him, and a PIT tag on his left leg so that we can track his movements.” (Photo courtesy Kristen Marini)

PB: How and when did you first become interested in birding?

Kristen: I’ve always been interested in nature and animals, doing lots of camping and hiking when I was growing up, but I only really became seriously interested in birding about four or five years ago. I started a research project with a really amazing professor at TRU, Dr. Matt Reudink, looking at how habitat influences colour in American Redstart feathers. Matt loves birds, and is so knowledgeable and enthusiastic about them, it really got me interested in learning more about birds. The first time I held a bird, probably a little Mountain Chickadee, I was hooked and I knew I wanted to keep studying birds.

PB: For your current M.Sc. research project, you’ve developed a birding game to help birders sharpen their identification skills. How did you come up with this idea? How does the game fit into your research project?

Kristen: I created this birding game as part of a project I am working on for Golder Associates [a civil/geotechnical and environmental consulting corporation]. They were looking for ways to improve the distance estimation accuracy and species identification skills of their employees, so that when they are out doing point count surveys, they can be as accurate as possible. Initially, I came up with a training program consisting of two tests set up to simulate what a real point count would be like, and a training tape for volunteers to listen to. The results show that people did improve and become more accurate after training, but many volunteers had a hard time completing the training because it wasn’t very interactive or engaging.

So we came up with a game! There are still two tests, an initial test (to assess the baseline volunteers’ skills) and a final test at the end (to see how much they’ve improved by), but the training now consists of a set of small, themed challenges, that start off easy and become increasingly more difficult. As volunteers complete these challenges they will get personalized feedback, and maybe a few cheesy bird puns.

I’m hoping that by creating more game-like training, volunteers will be more engaged and motivated to compete against themselves and finish the game.

Kristen and a Cedar Waxwing that the volunteers at the Iona Beach banding station let me hold a couple weeks ago.

“With a Cedar Waxwing that the volunteers at the Iona Beach [BC] banding station let me hold a couple weeks ago.” (Photo courtesy Kristen Marini)

PB: Can anyone participate in the game, and how long should it take to play? Are there levels available for beginning birders, intermediate birders, and advanced birders?

Kristen: Anyone who is interested is welcome to participate! It is a bit of a challenge, I initially geared the overall difficulty level toward people who are fairly experienced birders doing point count surveys as part of their job, but I have had fairly inexperienced birders successfully complete the training. Because each birder is competing against themselves, there is no minimum experience requirement, I just ask that volunteers self-assess their skills before beginning and rank themselves as either a beginner, intermediate, or expert birder. The total time required to complete the game will vary with each birder, as each volunteer is instructed to train until they feel ready to move on. It could be from as little as 1.5 hours for someone who is already very comfortable with identifying birds by song, up to around six or eight hours for someone who is less experienced.

PB: You’re targeting boreal forest species, and Canada Warbler and Olive-sided Flycatcher, in the game. Can you tell us why you’re focusing on these species?

Kristen: Many of the point counts are being conducted by Golder are in the boreal forests of northern Alberta, so these species were chosen to be representative of what their employees would encounter while out conducting a point count survey.

A mountain chickadee that we just finished banding.

A Mountain Chickadee that we just finished banding. (Photo courtesy Kristen Marini)

PB: How will you analyze the results at the end of the study period?

Kristen: At the end of the study, I will basically be looking at two main things: how did species identification accuracy change and how did distance estimation accuracy change? By comparing each volunteer’s score before and after training, I will be able to assess how the skills of each volunteer changed, as well as how each skill class (beginner, intermediate, or expert) changed overall.

Based on the results from the first time I tried this, what I’m expecting to see is that after training birders will be able to correctly identify more species as well as estimate the distances to these species more accurately.

PB: Do you think you might turn the game into an app or computer program?

Kristen: This is something that we talked about doing, but with the time line and budget for my project, turning it into an app or online game just wasn’t feasible.

Thank you, Kristen, for telling us more about your project. As a reminder, for anyone interested in helping Kristen test the program, please contact her by Friday, October 30th at kristen-marini AT mytru DOT ca

Interview with Mya-Rose Craig

I’m pleased to present this interview with Mya-Rose Craig, a young British birder. I emailed May-Rose my questions, and she graciously sent her replies, which I hope you enjoy reading.

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Prairie Birder: Tell me a little bit about yourself, please.

all photographs copyright Oliver Edwards mail@oliveredwardsphotography.com

All photographs copyright Oliver Edwards
mail@oliveredwardsphotography.com

Mya-Rose: My name is Mya-Rose Craig, I am 13 years old and live in Somerset, UK. I love birding and banding and feel strongly about conservation and environmental issues. I go birding locally around my local patch, Chew Valley Lake, where I also go banding. I have been banding for 4 years. I also love world birding and love getting to know the birds in a new country. I write a blog called birdgirl, write articles (I have a column in my local paper), give talks about my birding and conservation, and most of all want to be an activist.

PB: How and when did you first become interested in birding?

Mya-Rose: I have been birding all my life. My parents are birders and by the time I was born, my older sister Ayesha was 12 years old and was a birder too. I just got taken along everywhere they went and as I got a bit older, I loved doing everything that my cool teenage sister liked. Then when I was old enough to decide for myself, at about four or five years old, I decided that nature and birding were what I wanted to do too.

PB: You often go twitching with your family. What is twitching for anyone not familiar with it? And what was your first twitch?

Mya-Rose: I think people sometimes make the difference between twitching and birding into a really big one. At times, one merges into another. Birding is when you go out a place just to see what you see there, which might include knowing that it is good for a certain type of bird at that time of year, which you might see.

Twitching is when you travel (sometimes a very long way) to see a specific bird that is lost and out of its range. So for example, in the UK that might be a bird from America or from Russia. Three American birds that I have seen this spring, that were new on my British list, were Great Blue Heron, Hudsonian Godwit, and Hudsonian Whimbrel. Twitching is very exciting as you do not know if the bird will still be there when you got there. I am very lucky because my parents will take me to see a bird that is new for me even if they have already seen one in Britain. My British list is now 499! Because of the size of my British list, we only go twitching about once a month.

My first twitch was to the Isles of Scilly (islands off the southwest tip of England) for a Lesser Kestrel when I was only nine days old. That was when I was introduced to all of Britain’s top twitchers, as they like to remind me whenever they see me. Obviously, I can’t count that. Mum had a Caesarean and had only been out of hospital three days when we did the trip. She couldn’t even walk and had to get a cab to the bird.

Then when I was just over one [year old], we went to see a Black Lark in North Wales. It was the first time one had been seen in the UK but when we got there the bird was quite tame. This is usually because the bird is from somewhere so remote it doesn’t know to be scared of humans. As the bird came close to my pram, I pointed at it and shouted, a little bit too loudly, “Birdie!” That was my fourth ever word.

All photographs copyright Oliver Edwards mail@oliveredwardsphotography.com

All photographs copyright Oliver Edwards
mail@oliveredwardsphotography.com

PB: What have some of your birding highlights been?

Mya-Rose: In 2009, when I was only six years old, I decided to join my mum and dad in doing a Big Year in the UK. I had a brilliant year, seeing 324 bird species and most of all, my birding skills really improved just from being out in the field every weekend.

The most amazing birding event of that year and probably of my life was when in the summer we decided to go to a coastal headland to look for seabirds flying past. We were hoping for a Cory’s Shearwater (which I still need). It was pouring with rain and was a miserable morning. Then suddenly, someone called “Albatross”. He said it so calmly, he could have been calling “gull”. I don’t know about in Canada and North America, but here Albatrosses are incredibly rare and seeing one fly past is a one in a million event. After a few seconds, we realised that it wasn’t a joke and we all tried to find the bird. Luckily, it did a circle giving me great views through my telescope. There were only 14 of us who saw the bird then and it is a day I will never forget, even though I was only seven years old.

I had my year list on a website called Surfbirds but someone had it taken down as they didn’t believe that a seven-year-old could have seen an albatross. That’s the kind of thing that happens when you are a young birder in Britain.

Then the BBC wanted to include me in a programme, so they followed us about for 10 days and made Twitchers: A Very British Obsession. I really enjoyed being filmed for the programme but was a little silly sometimes, as you can’t be good all the time when you are seven years old.

PB: Have you found some advantages and disadvantages to being a young birder?

Mya-Rose: The downside first, I have been subject to cyberbullying from British birders (adults and people in their late teens/early twenties). This is really upsetting and has had an impact on me.

After I was in the 2010 BBC documentary, a large number of birders made judgments about me based on adult behaviour rather than that of a seven-year-old child. There were lots of comments posted on a website called “Birdforum”. People think it’s ok to be mean about you on the internet and don’t see you as a real person.

One big female Norfolk UK blogger thought it was ok for her to be mean and take the p*** out of a seven-year-old which had nothing to do with Norfolk birding. I found the comments last year, but when Mum told her how upset I was, and asked her to post that she was wrong about me not being interested in birds (because I was still birding five years later), she refused.

The advantages of being a young birder is that you have time to do lots of birding and get lots of experience before other people have even started. Also, your eyesight and hearing are much better than an adult’s. I pick birds up really quickly. I think that as you get older, you have more and more facts jammed into your head. Without that, there is lots of space for birding information. There are always some birders who are interested in you and want a chat.

PB: Out of all the species on your very impressive Life List, do you have a favourite?

Mya-Rose: My favourite bird in the world is the Southern Cassowary, which you get in Queensland, Australia and which I saw in 2013. It grows to about six feet tall and is closely related to a dinosaur. The male looks after the chicks. One kick from one and you are dead.

PB: You’ve traveled to many different countries for birding; where is one place you’d like to visit that you haven’t been to already? And to where would you like to return to spend more time?

Mya-Rose: I would really like to go birding in Brazil, where I haven’t been at all. We were meant to be going next summer but with the Olympics, we might have to wait a year or two. I’d love to go to the Pantanal and see Jaguar, go to the Amazon from Manaus and bird in the Atlantic rainforest.

I would really like to go back to Australia. We spent a summer camper-vanning around Queensland but I would like to go back and go to Top End (Darwin) and the rest of Australia, but I think it would take ages. It would be amazing to drive inland too. I have lots of species still to see in Australia.

PB: Do you have a “nemesis bird” that you are hoping to see this year?

Mya-Rose: Here, that’s called a bogey bird. My most common British bird that I still haven’t seen is Little Auk, which is a sea bird. The problem is that you can only see them in certain wind conditions during November on the east coast of Britain and I live on the west side of the country. I really hope to pin one down this autumn.

Mya baby photos birding

PB: Do you have any ideas for getting other young birders and naturalists interested in birding and nature conservation programs?

Mya-Rose: Yes, this is actually something that I have been working really hard on. I have written articles on tips for getting children into nature and birds, including this one.

I think that it is important for children to be taught about nature and conservation in school in Science and Geography lessons and in practical sessions outside school at Guides and Scouts.

I have done workshops in Scouts and Guides and taken Scouts out birding to see Nightjar. Young people have been really engaged in these sessions.

I think it is essential that young people learn about these issues and so I have contacted teaching unions, to see if I can speak at their Annual Conferences as well at the Annual Conferences for the main [political] parties.

In June I also organised a camp for young birders and tried to get non-birding ethnic minority teenagers to attend as well. This went really well, with six out of 14 teenagers being from an ethnic minority. I am also carrying out research into diversity in nature.

PB: Who are some of the people you look up to in the birding community?

Mya-Rose: The top birder I look up to is Phoebe Snetsinger. She raised the bar in world birding and also kept really amazing records.

Other people who inspire me are Sir Peter Scott, and David Attenborough and Steve Backshall, who both appear on nature television.

PB: Are you looking to building a career around birds in your future?

Mya-Rose: I would like to be a wildlife TV presenter. I plan to get a degree in Zoology, then go on expeditions to remote places, trying to find new species or find out more about rare species and be filmed along the way.

Interview with Steven Price, Great Canadian Birdathon celebrity guest birder

This year’s celebrity guest birder for Bird Studies Canada‘s annual Great Canadian Birdathon (formerly the Baillie Birdathon) is Steven Price, the new president of Bird Studies Canada.

Today, I’m happy to share my interview with Steven. Thank you, Steven, for agreeing to do this interview, during what I know is a very busy time of year between presidential duties and spring migration.

Please consider donating to Steven’s Birdathon as all the money raised contributes to bird conservation in Canada. You can find his Great Canadian Birdathon page here; his Birdathon goal is $10,000.

Prairie Birder: Please tell us about yourself. 

Steven: I’m a biologist who’s become a conservationist, having worked over 30 years now in the nonprofit environmental sector in Canada. Trained in ecology and evolution, I enjoy birds as a hobby. This led me to apply for the president’s job at Bird Studies Canada in the summer of 2014 – and they hired me!

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PB: What are some of the changes you’re hoping to bring to Bird Studies Canada as the new president? What are some of your plans to raise public awareness of the need for bird conservation?

Steven: Mostly, I hope to keep BSC as the productive, science-based organization that it is, working across Canada and on all groups of birds. Globally, we are part of the BirdLife network, with representatives in dozens of countries worldwide. I hope to help BSC focus on urgent and important goals for research, awareness, and conservation, which are the three elements of our mission. Regarding public awareness, we plan to grow the number of volunteers who serve as “Citizen Scientists”, helping out with various bird and natural history surveys of all kinds.

PB: What would you tell Canadian birders in 2015 who want to know what BSC can offer them? And what would you tell Canadians who are not birders? 

Steven: Bird Studies Canada is the country’s only national, science-based, nonprofit organization devoted entirely to understanding, appreciating, and conserving birds. We are modest in size and immodest in pride about our role in bird conservation. To those who do not call themselves birders, I suggest you join a nature walk near where you live and watch a new hobby develop right before your eyes! It’s healthy, fun, inexpensive, and inspiring.

PB: This year’s Birdathon has a name change, from the Baillie Birdathon to the Great Canadian Birdathon. What do you hope the name change will do for the Birdathon? 

Steven: I have a great attachment to the memory of James L. Baillie. BSC will maintain his memory by keeping the James L. Baillie Memorial Fund. My earliest work with birds involved charting the birds he’d seen and noted in his diaries, stored in the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto. Most of his birding was in southern Ontario. Now, under the name Great Canadian Birdathon, we are encouraging Canadians to have some fun with family and friends birding anywhere in the country!

PB: Where and when is your own Great Canadian Birdathon taking place? Will you be birding as an individual or with other birders, and if so, with whom?

Steven: I look forward to my own Birdathon on May 29 in the Greater Toronto Area. Urban areas are often close to rivers, lakes, or oceans, offering a tremendous diversity of bird habitats and birds, even amidst considerable development. I’ll be birding with keen BSC staff in the Toronto area, and I hope to attract Rick Mercer!

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PB: Do you have a target number of species you’re hoping to see during your Birdathon? 

Steven: Well, keen birders like me always hope to top 100, somewhat of an arbitrary number, but an achievable one on a good day in May in southern Ontario. More importantly, we are urging people to not be hindered by the friendly competition for high species numbers, as the Birdathon is more about getting out, enjoying yourself, learning more about birds, and raising funds to conserve them.

PB: For people who aren’t able to donate to the birdathon, what is the next best thing they can do?

Steven: Everyone can donate through the Birdathon, and thereby support the cause. They can also examine their bird-friendliness in the backyard, at the cottage, on the farm, and at work: keep domestic cats indoors, reduce or eliminate pesticide use, and treat windows to reduce collisions.

PB: Where are some of your favourite places, in Canada and outside of Canada, to go birding?

Steven: I always enjoy familiar places, like my local ravine and family cottage in southern Ontario. But travelling to Long Point and Point Pelee in Ontario, or the Riefel Refuge or Okanagan in B.C., or the Prairies, or Maritime beaches – it’s all so beautiful and exciting for a birder. Outside of Canada, I’d say Costa Rica, Mexico, and Cuba have been favourite places of mine to visit and bird.

PB: Lastly, Canadian Geographic is looking for a species to represent the country as Canada’s national bird. Out of all the candidates, which species has your vote and why? 

Steven: This is a tough choice, but I like the Gray Jay, as it’s national in distribution and a good symbol of connecting people to nature, given how it can be so fearless around cabins, cottages, and campfires. This familiarity is what gave it the nickname, “Whiskey Jack”. The Gray Jay is not, however, regularly seen in urban areas, where most Canadians now live. But perhaps it is still appropriate as a draw to encourage people to get out and see natural areas.

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Thank you, Steven, for the opportunity to interview you and good luck on your Great Canadian Birdathon!

My Interview with Birds and Words

While I was in Europe, I received an email from Julia Zarankin asking if she could interview me for her blog, Birds and Words which is part of the Coyot.es Network. Here’s Julia’s blog post with my interview if you’d like to read it.

I had lots of fun working on the answers for Julia’s questions. Thank you for the opportunity, Julia, and for all of your very kind and generous words!

A Great Crested Grebe in France,

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Birds & Blooms for the New Year

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In September, I received an email from Ken Keffer, an editor at Birds & Blooms magazine, asking if I’d like to be part of an article about young birders; I said yes and started getting my answers ready to send back to Ken. I had “met” Ken back in 2013 when my mother bought the book he wrote with Stacy Tornio, The Kids’ Outdoor Adventure Book, as a giveaway for that year’s Snow Goose Chase Young Naturalist Corner. I reviewed the book for my blog here, and Ken was kind enough to send along some bookmarks to give away, too.

Last week, the January 2015 issue of Birds & Blooms Extra arrived in our mail box with the young birders feature on page 29.

One of my grandmother’s favourite magazines is Birds & Blooms, and it was her late mother’s favourite as well; my family has sponsored our library’s subscription in great-grandma’s memory since she died and I think if she were still alive, she would enjoy seeing one of her great-grandchildren in the magazine and having another birder in the family!

My Christmas present to my grandmother this year was this issue of the magazine. I put a Post-It Note on the page of the article, so she could find it easily. When she opened to the marked page, she smiled and said, “Hey, I know that girl!!!”

I’m so glad she enjoyed my Christmas present, and I thought you might too.

(Click on the photos to enlarge them)

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Birding News #90

:: Scientists take a look at what the North American bird population might look like in 60 years

:: An exploration of  the new exhibition “The Singing and The Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art”, which opened last week at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, including an interview with exhibit organizer and curator of contemporary art Joanna Marsh, who says, “Birds are a vivid expression of life. I’m glad we could bring together the science world and the art world and I hope people will be inspired by these works.”

:: An interview with the men behind The Lost Bird Project — Todd McGrain, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s artist-in-residence, and Dr. Andy Stern; more on The Lost Bird Project: the art (currently at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC), the movie, the book, the free origami Passenger Pigeon so you can Fold the Flock (scroll all the way down for the PDF)

:: The shape of birds’ eggs helps to explain their evolution, and might have helped birds survive whatever killed off the dinosaurs

:: 122 waterfowl died, and most were euthanized, after landing last Tuesday on tailings ponds operated by Canadian Natural Resources Ltd, Syncrude, and Suncor in Alberta’s tar sands; the Wildlife Rehabilitation Society of Edmonton called the loss of life “unfortunate” in light of the organizaton’s “many successes in the cleaning and rehabilitation of contaminated wildlife”.

:: The Dodo had kneecaps, one fact revealed when palaeontologists used a laser scanner to create the first-ever 3D digital model of the extinct species.

:: Manitoba’s backyard and veteran birders, citizen scientists, and biologists came together last week to celebrate the fifth and final year of recording and mapping the province’s birds for the Manitoba Breeding Bird Atlas; biologist and atlas co-ordinator Dr. Christian Artuso, Manitoba Program Manager for Bird Studies Canada, expects it will take a year to compile the more than 300,000 observations logged over nearly 40,000 hours, and the results will be posted at the project’s website as a living document and a legacy for all Manitobans. The Manitoba Breeding Birds Atlas is a partnership between Bird Studies Canada, Environment Canada’s Canadian Wildlife Service, Manitoba Conservation, Nature Manitoba, The Manitoba Museum, Manitoba Hydro, and The Nature Conservancy of Canada.

:: An English gamekeeper convicted of “the worst case of bird of prey poisoning” recorded in the country has been given a 10-week suspended sentence and ordered to pay the prosecution costs; he had been found guilty of deliberately killing 10 buzzards and a sparrowhawk, and possession of pesticides and items used to prepare poison baits, in order to protect pheasants he was raising.

:: The Hermit Thrush seems to prefer singing in harmonic series, a hallmark of human music.

:: The Los Angeles Times reviews the new movie, “Pelican Dreams”

Listening to Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds Radio Show Tomorrow

Just a reminder that tomorrow morning at 9:30 eastern is the special radio broadcast celebrating the 500th show of Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds [this link isn’t working for me at the moment], live from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.  You can listen tomorrow online with live streaming or via podcast. You can also follow the show on Facebook and Twitter. One of tomorrow’s guests is  Smithsonian ornithologist Bruce Beehler. I’ll be on the show too, and I’m sure Ray and crew will have some other surprises!

Here we are earlier today, after checking out the Q?rius Theater at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History; from left to right, associate producer Emma Morgenstern, me, Ray Brown, and executive producer Mark Duffield (photo courtesy of Talkin’ Birds Instagram),

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More about Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds:

Yesterday’s interview with Ray Brown, at Nicholas Lund’s blog, The Birdist (Nick will be here tomorrow, too)

Boston Globe article by Linda Matchan

Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds website

Talkin’ Birds podcasts at iTunes

Talkin’ Birds on Facebook

Talkin’ Birds on Twitter

Talkin’ Birds on Instagram

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Ray Brown, beyond the birds