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Better Know a Commenter: pro_birdwatcher

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Acquainting the community with the man behind the factually accurate username.

Looking for birds in Jasper
Looking for birds in Jasper

While we're all much more than just being Royals fans, it is the tie that binds us. What brought you to the Royals' front stoop knocking on the door to be let in? Perhaps more importantly, why did you stay?

I've told my origin story a few times in comment threads, but hopefully it bears repeating. My dad was a shy farm boy, my mom was a sly city girl. They met at college in August of '77. My mom soon noticed that the one topic that would get my dad to string more than two sentences together was the previous night's Royals game. So she began listening to Denny and Fred every night and talking baseball every day. They were married the following offseason.

Without the Royals, I might never have been born. It's only slight hyperbole to say that I owe my very existence to this team.

I was seven years old when the Royals won the Series. Much to my chagrin, Game 7 was on a school night, and I was sent to bed without getting to stay up and see Brett and Sabes embrace.

As the team's fortunes declined, my fandom only deepened. I got serious about collecting baseball cards (during that lucrative period for cardboard investment of 1986-'91), and I received a Christmas gift of the Avalon Hill game Statis Pro Baseball. The game included instructions for making your own player cards from historic statistics. That led me to learning more about baseball stats and reading everything I could find by Bill James.

I was the kid who kept wearing my Royals gear all through the '90s, and when I started traveling the country for work in this century, I made sure to always have an online radio subscription or satellite radio so that I could listen to the Royals games. Denny Matthews's voice has traveled with me from the Yukon to the Everglades.

Taking in BP in the bad old days

Taking in BP in the bad old days

All through the lean years I would start the season full of optimism, confident that this was the year we got back to the playoffs.

It never occurred to me to stop rooting for the Royals.

Standard dating profile questions: Age? Sex? Height? Hair color? Marital status? Kids?

38 in my head but 37 in reality, male, 5'9", brown hair--still thick!, married for 15 years, 4 kids.

While many choose not to define themselves by their job, what do you do to make ends meet? For how long have you been plying that trade?

Well I defined my RR username by my job at least! My job title is "avian biologist," but I prefer to think of myself as a birdwatcher. I'm currently working for an environmental consulting company, doing various projects, mostly for the energy industry. A big focus of my work right now is siting wind farms in places where they will do the least possible harm to wildlife, particularly eagles.

I've been doing this for 16+ years and have worked for nonprofits, government agencies, academic institutions, and companies large and small. I mostly do monitoring work, collecting data, and I let others interpret it. Yesterday was actually my first day working on a project in Kansas, which is the 16th state where I have gotten paid to watch (and listen to) birds, something I would do for free. And often do.

I have to apologize for the slew of work-related questions to come, but I think it's fair to say that you have one of the most unique jobs of any Royals Reviewer. With Kansas being the 16th state you've worked in, how do these jobs work? When they plop you down in Kansas or wherever, how long are you typically there for?

If I didn't want questions about my job, I would have chosen a different username. :) These jobs are typically seasonal and short-term. If anyone is really interested, I have gotten 95% of my work either by referrals or on these two websites: http://wfscjobs.tamu.edu/job-board/ and Conservation Job Board.

I enjoy having a job where I don't have to worry about getting downsized or losing funding. Most of these positions are funded by a grant or based around a specific project, so there's money dedicated to paying me before I'm hired, and I go in knowing when the job will end. I have plenty of friends and former coworkers who do similar work but are in so-called permanent positions where they really don't know if they'll have a job in a month.

My philosophy is that all jobs are temporary, save parenthood.

A few years ago, I would apply for more than a hundred jobs in a year and interview for 20-30. Lately though, I've gotten a lot more selective. I'm hoping my current job, based out of an office in Overland Park and doing bird surveys throughout the Midwest, will be more long-term. It's project-based, but there's plenty of projects.

Many people get their bachelor's degree in wildlife management or natural resources and then go do seasonal field work for a year or two before going back to graduate school. I have never been interested in the jobs that require a master's degree, so I have just stuck with doing the field jobs. I collect data and let the M.S.'s and Ph.D.'s analyze the data. I know a few people who have continued doing field work for many years like me. I even know a few married couples. But I've never met anyone else who does this kind of work and brings their kids around the country with them.

Where all have you worked?

In college, I volunteered on projects in the north woods of Wisconsin.
On our honeymoon, my wife and I worked on a wildlife refuge in North Dakota.
I did prairie bird surveys in western Missouri one summer.
I worked for a nonprofit in western Nebraska for two years.
I did ground-truthing for a NEXRAD study of migratory bird flocks on an air force base in Florida, off and on for three years.
I did owl surveys one summer in northern Idaho.
I worked on a long-term study of the endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler, which only nests in central Texas. I also did wintering sparrow research at the same location, an army post.
I studied a large nesting colony of grebes on a lake in northern California. I really enjoyed kayaking to work on that job.
I have done bird surveys for wind farm projects in Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, and now Kansas.
I have also done consulting work on powerline projects in southern California and Nevada. These jobs paid really well but were less bird-centric. I am not planning to do one of those again soon. Too much bulldozer-watching.
I ran a bird banding program at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. The Department of Defense cancelled the funding after one summer, sadly.
I did shorebird surveys along the gulf coast in Louisiana and Florida following the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
I worked in interior Alaska on a ground-nesting songbird study.
I worked at a bird banding laboratory in western Pennsylvania.
And the job previous to my current position was documenting golden eagle activity at a wind farm in Wyoming. Part of my job was turning off wind turbines when eagles got too close to them. That's the closest I've come to having stress at work.

Was the Deepwater Horizon job as depressing as I'd imagine it would have been?

Yes and no. It was my first time working in Louisiana, so I really didn't have a frame of reference. (Is that the normal refinery smell or is that Corexit that's giving me a headache? Was this town like this before?) Our training with the Coast Guard and US Fish & Wildlife was in a big command center in Houma, Louisiana. That place was depressing. But going out to the barrier islands off the Louisiana coast was one of the greatest wildlife experiences I've ever had. We got to take a skiff out to these sandbars which are wildlife refuges, closed to the public, home to thousands of nesting seabirds and shorebirds. Sure, there were tarballs on the beach, and who knows what the birds might be ingesting, but it was really cool to see such fecundity amid the pollution. As Ian Malcolm said, "Life finds a way."

My NDA expired a couple of years ago, so I'm pretty eager to share stories from that job.

Commentariat, ask away. What does your typical work day look like? How does one go about monitoring these avian patterns?

I am not a morning person. I hate getting up in the morning. But most days, I do it anyway.

My typical day involves a lot of driving, so I have invested in satellite radio for entertainment. I like to listen to soccer in the mornings and baseball the rest of the day. Some of my work is road-based, some of it involves hiking out to survey points or walking transect lines. I pack a thermos, plenty of snacks, and usually am taking lots of photos and notes. I usually have a pair of binoculars hanging from my neck during all daylight hours, although I use my ears as much or more than my eyes. I check the weather obsessively, and will bring extra gear just to be comfortable. For some projects, I would work 4-5 hours a day, seven days a week. For others, it has been 15-16 hours a day, seven days a week. Some projects pay overtime, most don't.

Given the amount of traveling in your job, is it tough being away from the family, or is this just something to which you've grown accustomed?

My wife and I agreed before we were married that we weren't going to let work take precedence over family. So we've only taken jobs where it was feasible to bring the kids along. When I worked in Alaska, my boss was willing to let my family share the remote campsite with the rest of the biologists on the project. We all shared meals and chores, and my kids got to experience 2 months of camping in Alaska. There have been a few projects (Idaho, Texas, California) where we lived on our own in a tent for the duration of the job. We also lived in an RV for a few years, and there have been a few projects where it was possible to rent a house. We mostly homeschool the kids, except for a couple of years when my wife and I were both working full time and the kids went to public school.

Where do you live now, and where did you grow up?

My family and I currently live in a small house in the woods in Hickory County, Missouri, between Truman Lake and Pomme de Terre Lake. It's a horrible place, and I sincerely hope that none of you (or anyone else) ever move there.

I was born in north Missouri, but we moved back to the thousand-acre family farm in 1983, and I grew up there in northeast Jackson County.

Is your home life as much like Thoreau's Walden as I'm imagining?

I don't go back to my parents' house as often as Henry David did.

I'll presume that your youth couldn't have drawn comparison to King Lear and thus will refrain from asking any Jane Smiley themed questions. What was childhood on the farm like? What did y'all raise and/or grow? Were you up at the crack of dawn doing chores?

I had to google Jane Smiley. I never read A Thousand Acres.

Growing up, we had cattle, hogs, and my grandmother kept chickens. We had one milk cow for a few years, which I helped with. I'd help Grandma collect eggs and also plucked feathers. Sorting pigs seemed to come up every time I wanted to sleep in on a Saturday morning. As far as crops go, we raised hay, milo, wheat, corn and soybeans. As I got older, my dad sold off the livestock operation, and the crop rotation went to basically corn and soybeans.

There really weren't many farm chores that I could do, and I think this is true for a lot of farm kids of my generation. When most of the jobs require operating expensive heavy equipment or handling chemicals, it's just not worth the risk. On one of the few occasions that I was allowed to drive a tractor, I backed it into a trailer loaded with bags of soybean seed, wasting thousands of dollars worth. My general ineptitude with machinery has kept me from ever wanting to do farm work.

What is your educational background/area of study?

I did well as a student up until seventh grade or so. After that, I developed the bad habit of skipping homework and projects, but acing tests and quizzes. For a few years, I was planning a career as a baseball statistician, but in junior high, I really stopped enjoying math. Somehow I pulled a C in a college-credit Calculus class my senior year of high school, but that is the last math class I ever took.

I knew that I wanted to travel, and I enjoyed being on the debate team, so I entered college planning to major in Political Science, with a plan to pursue a career as a Foreign Service Officer. But my heart just wasn't in it, and I muddled through two semesters before withdrawing from college, sporting a Flounderesque GPA my sophomore year, and forfeiting a free-ride scholarship that I had put minimal effort into getting.

Somehow, the luckiest moment of my life happened during that ignominous college experience. I met my future wife, and she was able to motivate me to go back to school. She helped me realize that I needed to pursue an outdoor career my background as a farmboy and boy scout. I went back to school, studied nature writing, environmental education, and wildlife biology, and the last one stuck. She too is a wildlife biologist.

So despite a circuitous path, you landed on something that fit. That gives hope to those of us (read: this interviewer) who misspent our best years. In regards to the Foreign Service (something with which I'm quite familiar as my mother's two brothers were both career Foreign Service Officers), was it the coursework in political science that didn't appeal to you, or did your interest in the endeavor of the Foreign Service itself wane?

I definitely still have a strong interest in political science and would eagerly follow that career route today if I suddenly lost my birding skills. The other career I sometimes fantasize about is being a baseball umpire. In college, I umpired youth games from tee-ball up to high school level and really enjoyed it. I found I had a thick skin for taking abuse!

What turned me away from political science was the endless circular discussion in class. It led to me skipping class and inevitably flunking classes.

It sounds like your wife is also your guardian angel. Have you two been able to work together much? Does she travel as much for her work as you do for yours? Does she come from a similar background as you?

She's a city girl from St. Louis (Parkway North High School). We met at Mizzou, and I took her to a Royals-Cardinals game a few months later. She noted (and complained about) the conduct of the fans in red and was impressed by my devotion to the perennial underdogs. I soon had her converted to be a Royals fan. At that point, there was no reason not to marry her.

We have been able to work together on a few projects but not nearly enough. Compared to our family and friends, we seem to be the rare couple that really does enjoy spending all of our time together. Unfortunately, there's quite a bit of sexism in field biology, and I get hired more frequently and for higher pay. So she often gets the tougher job of taking care of the home/campsite and kids. The silver lining is that she stresses about work much more than I do; I have a better ability to compartmentalize work and home. We schedule gaps between projects to travel for a few weeks or months.

What have been your favorite places to which you've gotten to travel or work? Is there anywhere to which your travels have yet to take you that you're dying to visit?

Alaska was spectacular, despite the lousy weather and logistical difficulties. (5 hour drive to do laundry, anyone?)

I think Northern Idaho is the most underrated part of the lower 48, in terms of scenery and wildlife. We had moose walk through our campsite, heard wolves howl, saw bears, and felt like we had the place to ourselves most of the time. I love rivers, and Idaho has some great ones. I'd like to go back and paddle the Lochsa and the St. Joe someday. Maybe raft the Salmon too, it's known as the "River of No Return."

I feel most at home in the Missouri Ozarks, though, at the little house in the woods we bought a few years ago, near where I went to scout camp as a kid.

I really haven't spent much time in the northeast. While I have zero interest in the urban areas, there are some really cool birds and really cool research projects in the north woods and along the coast: Maine, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland. Southeast Arizona is high on my to-do list too. And I do plan to work outside the country when opportunities arise... Central and South America, Africa, Australia, Southeast Asia, all the great islands like the Galapagos, New Zealand, New Guinea, Madagascar, Iceland, Greenland, South Georgia... I don't plan on retiring any time soon!

Insofar as southeast Arizona is concerned, I can certainly vouch for Bisbee as an beautiful place to visit. With the understanding that obviously baseball and the Royals are an area of interest for you, what other hobbies and interests do you have?

Birding and wildlife study is more than just a hobby for me, obviously, but those things take up a lot of my free time too. I love camping, canoeing, and backpacking and have gotten to do those things with my kids in some spectacular places.

Glaciating

Glaciating

Just last year, my wife and I got into sushi making, helped by my younger brother who is a sushi chef. We also play board games every chance we get, nerdy games like Catan, Ticket to Ride, Codenames, Dominion. My oldest son has a serious interest in board game design and has become a playtester for Greater Than Games, so we get to try out homemade prototype games with him too.

Wait, your parents turned out an avian biologist and a sushi chef? Judging by the career paths of their progeny, it seems like they must have been renaissance people. Am I correct in this assumption?

The sushi chef is also an English teacher who holds a degree in agronomy. We had a lot of books in our house growing up, and if the TV was on, it was channel 19. My dad is the left-brained philosopher and history buff, my mom is the right-brained artist and nonconformist.

Did both of your parents work on the farm? Was it just your parents, your grandmother, your brother, and you on the farm?

I'm the oldest of four brothers. The two youngest are still in college--there's a big age spread. When I was very young, my dad actually farmed some of my mom's family's land in north MO and worked at Swan Lake wildlife refuge. When his dad died, we moved back to the "big farm" in Jackson County and that's where I grew up. My mom helped out with moving equipment and livestock, and she also had a few part time jobs, including working as a librarian for a few years.

I'd be remiss if I didn't ask, have you played Cones of Dunshire?

No. The kickstarter for that game was ridiculously expensive. I think it still got fully funded though, so maybe someday! We've got tickets to a board game convention in May. I wouldn't be shocked to see Ben Wyatt there.

What's the best thing you've read in recent memory?

My reading goes in spurts, and I haven't read much lately. Other than RR, I read quite a few articles on High Country News and FiveThirtyEight.

If I could recommend one book, it would be Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey. It's very thought-provoking and also very funny. Abbey was a passionate environmentalist, but he was proudly politically incorrect. I feel like it's a book that both conservatives and liberals would really enjoy. Other writers that take up a lot of space on my bookshelves are Aldo Leopold, Terry Tempest Williams, Sigurd Olson, Barry Lopez, David James Duncan, and Pete Dunne.

A completely different book series I discovered just last year was the Malazan series by Steven Erikson. Epic fantasy along the lines of Tolkien or George R.R. Martin. It's complex but very original and very funny.

The only Abbey I've read is The Monkey Wrench Gang, which I had a rough go of, but I've had multiple people recommend Desert Solitaire. Freed from the construct of writing a novel, is Desert Solitaire a more accessible book?

Desert Solitaire is creative nonfiction, with some breezy memoir-type chapters and some philosophical chapters that are more dense. I think he exercises more freedom all of his nonfiction than in his novels. Of his fiction, I prefer The Fool's Progress and Black Sun. I think the biggest difference is that Abbey let his characters do the talking in The Monkey Wrench Gang. In Desert Solitaire, Abbey does all of the talking, and he's a much more compelling character.

We all have a long list of stupid shit that we've done. What's the dumbest thing you've done?

Flunking out of college and losing my scholarships, which made me have to borrow a lot of money to go back to school. A very expensive mistake that has really limited my family's freedom ever since.

Describe yourself in three sentences or less.

A very lucky guy. Has trouble following directions.

What Royals Reviewer would you be most interested to meet in person? Why?

I think Farmhand is the guy I have the most in common with. So many people here make me laugh a lot: Luke Hanish, Gopherballs, Gross(est), Minx, averagegatsby, too many to mention.

But I'm going to go with Phil, because I really want to go back to Alaska.

I have to say, though, that I think I'm much more interesting online or in writing than in person. I'm really not a social person, more of a misanthrope, so if I ever go to a RR meetup, it's going to be awkward.