Featured Blog: Bell Tower Birding

Jochen Roeder is our featured blogger this week. Although Jochen is a trained biologist specializing in field zoology, he describes himself as “an ordinary German despite blogging in English, as bird blogging in German would be a lonesome business.”

I’ll let Jochen tell you more about himself.

I have always been interested in animals and that certainly is a genetic trait, as I am descended from a long, long line of foresters (my dad’s side, I would have been the 9th generation in a row, but turned out to be the black sheep) and shepherds (mom’s side, speaking of black sheep, ey? – going back to the late middle ages).

My interest in birds specifically developed when I was around 10 or 11 and went on a young birders trip organized by the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU – then called DBV) to the Camargue region in southern France. This was the first time I met people who kept track of the number of species they had seen, and was pleasantly surprised by this side of watching birds. I immediately flipped through my field guide in the tent and got to somewhere around 160 species (I really can’t recall the precise number), well short of the record holder within our group who had just over 200 and had actually seen a Spotted Sandpiper in Germany, my first introduction to the concept of bird vagrancy. I must confess though that I found this completely confusing and weird and not very attractive until I discovered my own first vagrant many years later, a Red-rumped Swallow on the Varanger peninsular of northern Norway in 1990.

I spent a year in Canada when I was 16, in the small yet lovely town of Belleville, Ontario, where I learned most of my English. Later, I went to southern Africa (mostly Namibia) for my MSc thesis and to travel, a total of roughly 2 years between 1990 and 1999. I spent a year in Ann Arbor in 2006/07 following my wife who did a postdoc there at the University of Michigan.

My birding changed considerably after the birth of our son in December 2007 and is currently conducted mostly from behind his stroller on our weekend walks from the bus station (he loves buses) to the chicken pens (he loves chickens) to the pony stables (he loves horses) to the farm (he loves tractors – well, he loves all things big and moving) and through the fields (dad tries to love the fields as much as he can because they are his only chance of encountering migrants) to his favourite playground. There, dad has no chance whatsoever of looking for birds as he is busy running after his offspring, who’s happy to finally get out of his freaking stroller and run, run, run. Actually, my son also loves looking at the birds, particularly the Eurasian Blackbirds kicking up leaves beside the road (they are moving) and the many Carrion Crows flying around (they are big and moving – see?).

The best birding moment in a long time was when sonnyboy had me stop the stroller by excitedly pointing up into a tree where a Blackbird was singing. I could clearly see he was advertently listening to the song, likely the first moment he realized the black hop-arounds also had music in them. This made me very proud.

My favourite bird species is the Bearded Vulture, then there is a short moment of silence after which comes the New Zealand Fantail, and then there is a huge, huge gap, a vacuum, after which come the other roughly 9,998 bird species. I am notorious for being very fond of small brown birds, particularly pipits, larks of southern Africa, and New World sparrows. To give myself a semblance of normality, I always state I am also fond of North American wood-warblers in spring, but will shift from a Blackburnian to a White-throated Sparrow whenever possible. Well, I might actually really be fond of the spring warblers.

I am not aware of any other bird blogs in Germany or the German-speaking part of Switzerland or Austria. The only Austrian bird blogger I know is Dale of Discovering Alpine Birds fame, who is also blogging in English


Jochen, why do you blog?

What got me started were the kind and persistent words of encouragement by my blog-father, Charlie Moores (a constant drop will hollow the stone, as the saying goes in German). Back then, I was in frequent contact with his brother Nial in Korea because Nial helped me sort out some identification issues. In the course of this email exchange, I wrote a small bit on hybrid shrikes in eastern Kazakhstan, which Charlie edited for the Birds Korea site (the bit, not the shrikes).

This is how Charlie and I met, and his pre-10,000 Birds blog, “Charlie’s Bird Blog,” was my introduction to the concept and existence of web logs.

I remember quite well that I was skeptical at first and wondered what the use of such a thing was – all part of my typical German desire for efficiency and usefulness. After all, it wasn’t an extensive online resource, nor the home page of a major birding think tank (look, those were Charlie’s early days, before he evolved wonderfully into one of our most powerful pieces of conservation artillery). The blog seemed not useful for anything, except for getting to know great birds in great places through great pictures and great accompanying texts. Still, the magnitude of Charlie’s greatness had some effect on me, and as much as I was confused about the rational right or justification of blogs’ existence, I tremendously enjoyed reading this particular blog.

I had the impression that Charlie also enjoyed my reading his blog, as we gradually got to know each other more and more and generally enjoyed each other’s online company. Charlie once wrote me an email, stating that he though I was just about the only one reading his blog. Hard to believe nowadays, but those were ancient, ancient days of old when students would still walk to school ten miles in the snow, barefoot and uphill, both ways.

Eventually I came to the realization that blogging was about socializing and getting to know more birders in more places – and as birders are a greedy bunch when it comes to “more” (more birds, in greater numbers, at more and more places, with more and more magnifying optics), I was suddenly presented with a rational justification for the existence of blogs. That was good because it not only satisfied the German in me but also paved the way to what would be the next logical step: my own blog.

In the fall of 2006, I moved to Ann Arbor, in southeastern Michigan. My wife was to work at a local lab while I would continue to work for my employer in Germany online. This meant long, lonely days at the laptop in a cold downtown apartment, where the heating was mostly not functioning well and the windows were so old they were frequently covered with ice in the morning – on the inside. I needed something to brighten up my days and get me in contact again with the outside world. Thus, extending the logic that justified blogs in general, I started my own blog in November 2006. The first “real” post was on December 1st.

To my utmost amazement, I found out there were far more bird blogs around than just Charlie’s and mine, and I started linking to and getting linked to, leaving comments and getting comments, and doing all the other good stuff of blogging which finally connected me with the real world again.

The social component of blogging was overwhelming and I sometimes felt I was caught up in an avalanche or a chain letter. I was in contact with birders from all around the world and liked that a lot. Depending on my morning mood, I could either beat the inside ice with a quick dash to Australia or visit to the High Arctic. I could check if bloggers in the southern part of North America were starting to report returning migrants and draw inspiration on where to go birding next, or I could just hang out with a few blogging pals at one of our respective blogs, sit at the blog’s bar, and enjoy some cold blog brew. Good times.

This social component is what got me blogging and is what will very likely keep me blogging for a long time.

What’s the best thing about blogging?

The best thing about blogging to me is the process itself. I enjoy developing – or accidentally stumbling across – an idea for a post, crafting a concept, writing, and then reading the reactions of my online friends. It’s just about the only means my creativity has to live out its joy of nature, and it currently is my most important social environment outside my little family as well – oh, the sad stereotype fulfilled! Ha!

No, it’s really a big piece of fun and I get a good laugh out of living this stereotype nerdy internet-based social existence. When you move three times within 3 years and are in your late 30s, making new friends again and again isn’t all that spontaneous anymore and a trusty community of bloggers helps a great deal!

What I like least about blogging is the impoliteness of the North American bird bloggers on whose blogs I leave a comment. I am roughly 6 hours ahead of them here in Germany, which means I usually comment on their posts sometime between 2 and 4 a.m. North American time. You’d think they would know that by now and set their alarm clocks accordingly to respond to my comments in timely fashion, but – can you believe it? – that’s not the case. I have to wait until the next morning (German time) to get a response to my comments. This really ought to change. I’ll write a letter to the US congress suggesting all of North America run on Greenwich +1 time. [editor's note: Jochen, despite what he says, wouldn't want to read anything I had to say if the alarm woke me between 2 & 4 in the morning. His son might learn a few new English words, however.]

I also find it frustrating that blogging tends to clog up my external hard drives. On my many stroller-pushing walks, I frequently develop a new idea for a post and then take a bazillion bad, bad bird photos to support it, but ultimately never find the time to actually write the post or sort through the pictures (nice wording for ultimate deletion of the majority!).

You see: bigger hard drives and a global shift to Greenwich + 1 time is all it takes for blogging to be perfect. I don’t think I am asking for too much if I demand perfection.

How has blogging changed how you think about nature? or how you write?

I’d like to think that a quarter century’s birding and nature observation have made me stable and consistent enough in my hobby and avocation to deny any recent influence of blogging, but honestly, blogging has changed how I think about nature, at least when I am outside in the thick of it – nature, not thinking. I moved from a lovely birding hot spot along the Baltic coast to a crappy cold spot south of Heidelberg and the birding quality has decreased at a more alarming rate than the Rusty Blackbird population. It simply sucks around here.

Therefore, I gain enormous joy out of walking the boring flats south of my home village of Leimen, looking at all the nothing that abounds around me, and making up blog posts I’d write about the emptiness. Of course, once back home I hardly ever manage to find the time to write these posts, but the mere thought of ridiculing my sorry birding situation offers consolation and a certain degree of comfort, as does the hijacking of interviews to wallow in self-pity.

Blogging has had a tremendous influence on how I write. English is not my first language, it is a language I learned at school (and was awful at) here in Germany and then on prolonged stays abroad, specifically to Ontario, southern Africa and – as mentioned above – Michigan. I would like to think that blogging has gotten me to a point where I not only understand what others write but where others tend to get a basic idea of what I want to say in my posts (after they’ve read it a few times, granted). The content seems to come across at least in vague shapes and diluted colours, and this is something I do find satisfying to my soul.

Before I started blogging myself, I used to practice my English by reading books, specifically Poe’s works. However, reading only advances your passive vocabulary and knowledge. It was not until I started blogging that my passive vocabulary transferred to my active brain parts. This has come in handy on quite a few occasions.

The most influential birds bloggers – and I really owe these people a beer or ten – were of course Charlie as my blog-dad with his dry humour and lately beautiful style, Mike for the smoothness of his sentences that seem to roll like a wheel downhill, all by themselves, Nate for his precise wording, Clare for his beautiful narrative style that often reminds me of the great authors of the late 19th century, and Carrie for her sheer ingenuity and subtle humour.

Of course, I also tremendously enjoy other blogs, but these are the ones who strongly emphasize the language aspects in their posts and frequently challenge me to advance further and not be satisfied with what I have achieved so far. I sometimes even have to dig out my dictionary when I read Carrie’s blog, which is great.

Reflecting on what I just wrote (always a bad idea, but here we go), I guess the learning experience beyond the birding content, the language aspect, is something I enjoy quite as much about blogging as the birds and the pictures and the company. I only once wrote a blog post in German and it felt particularly alien. Rather remarkable, I think.

How do you promote your blog and attract readers?

Er, Wren, you know that you are talking to the guy who’s been at 15 to 20 hits a day for the last two years or so? Promoting?

Well, if I was promoting my blog, I’d be doing such a bad job of it that writing about how I do it would only serve for others to learn what method to avoid!

Okay, on a more serious note (now, seriously!): I used to promote my blog by commenting on other blogs and joining the bird blog carnival “I and the Bird.” There was never any other approach. I don’t use any social networking tools as I still am not connected to any online social networks except the blog. Germans of my generation (very early 1970s) seem to be horribly conservative about posting personal information online. I didn’t even give you my precise year of birth. Ridiculous, really. It’s 1971 – there you have it.

Nowadays, I don’t promote my blog at all beyond keeping it updated once in a while. I simply do not have the time to blog consistently, and therefore promoting it does not make much sense. I’d hate to get to a point where I’d finally draw more than my average 15 to 20 readers a day and then announce another hiatus of uncertain length. I have come to the point where I have made online friends I stay in frequent contact with, who will visit my blog (me) regularly – or so I hope, and who I really value. That’s all I ask from blogging right now, so I don’t feel the imminent need for further promotion (although I fully acknowledge that many more friends would be many more nice).

I ever get to blog more seriously again, I’ll promote my blog by blogging. To me, it’s all about the content. If my blog is interesting to people who visit accidentally (for example by following a comment I leave on another blog), they’ll keep coming back. If my writing bores most accidental visitors, I won’t see them again and my reader stats won’t increase. I am still of the naïve conviction that quality rules the blog market and that good blogs will float while bad ones won’t. My blog currently is more in the submarine category (not quite ocean floor detritus, ey?), but as I said, I am fine with that and actually very happy with the readers I have.

Is there a story behind the name of your blog?

Oh, in an act of unabashed self-promotion, the story can be found here on my first ever real post on Belltowerbirding. It’s all about the Burton Memorial Bell Tower in Ann Arbor and the Peregrines residing thereupon.

My blog had to endure two moves, from Ann Arbor to Stralsund, and finally to Leimen near Heidelberg. Neither of the latter locations have Peregrines on a Burton Memorial Bell Tower. However, Stralsund has beautiful bell towers of its own with Common Kestrels breeding on them (which I thought was a good enough reason for keeping the name) and Leimen does not have nice bell towers but a breeding pair of Peregrines at a local factory – so again, the name remains the same.

Do you feel you’re part of a community with other nature bloggers?

Well, that depends on how you define “community.” There certainly is not an “organized” community, something that could be described as a nature/bird blogger unity. Each and every nature blogger does their own thing, we speak with as many tongues and fly as many colours as there are nature bloggers and we are not represented anywhere outside our digital, virtual world.

This may change one day.

Having said that, I certainly feel I am part of a community of other nature bloggers in that I frequently associate with the same people. When it comes to the blogs I read, I find my community mostly resides in the northeast of the USA, with a few exotics in South Africa, Canada, Austria, and the UK. I am sure there are many other blogs I’d enjoy reading, many other online friends I could make by wandering far and wide, but I guess blogging in this respect is a lot like living in a big city: the opportunities are huge and seemingly endless, yet we mostly stick around our own borough where we tread on familiar ground and meet people we know.

Any words of wisdom for new nature bloggers?

Wisdom, Wren?  From me?

You sure you read Belltowerbirding?

When I started blogging, I noticed one peculiar thing: it is the opposite of social life. In social life, in interactions with the people or world around you, it’s not why you do something but what you do, while in blogging (to me) it’s not what you do but why you do it. It really helps to know why you have decided to blog, the precise content, the “what” that makes your blog unique amongst the blogs.

All I wanted from my blog was to open a window to the world and find a few online friends to communicate with about birds and birding and all things nature conservation. I succeeded brilliantly in this daunting task and am therefore a very happy and satisfied blogger who doesn’t care too much about blog stats. If you have other plans with your blog, that’s brilliant – just stick with your intentions and shape your blog and blogging accordingly.

Anything else you’d like me to ask you, or that you’d like to volunteer without being asked?

Yes, I’d like to say that it is my firm conviction that each and every birder – or bird blogger for that matter – ought to see a Bearded Vulture. Not in a zoo but in their natural and wild realm. You can’t seriously call yourself a birder without having seen one and it will also tremendously advance your writing skills.
Well, the latter sentence may be debatable (not really, I’m just saying that to appear open-minded) but I genuinely feel each and everyone should have the privilege of seeing this most majestic of all bird species. I haven’t seen one since the late 1990s, and it hurts.

And of course, I’d like to thank the NBN for the opportunity of a little fling away from my own blog.

Thank you, Jochen.

16 Comments

  1. April 12, 2010 at 3:52 AM | Permalink

    An interesting story Jochen but let us not loose sight of the fact that this beautifully written and interesting piece does not get you out of trouble with your fellow bloggers. LOL!! It is also NO excuse for you deserting us!! :)

  2. April 12, 2010 at 7:14 AM | Permalink

    I love Jochen’s sense of humor, and the fact that he never takes himself too seriously. And you’d never guess that English wasn’t his first language.

  3. April 12, 2010 at 7:39 AM | Permalink

    Jochen, first of all your photo: You’re really handsome!! and I am glad to count myself among your followers. You reputation as blogger is far flung. I got to this post by following a tweet by Kolibrix – Gunnar Engblom. Anyway you produce one of the most intelligent and readable blogs in the bird blogging world. So here you have it.

  4. April 12, 2010 at 7:49 AM | Permalink

    Nice post. I did not know Jochen’s career started in the south of France (my country)! Jochen was also the guy who taught me most of my birding knowledge, as the first time we met in “the arb” of Ann Arbor, my life list was basically made of a winter yard list in michigan. He was a great birding teacher for me, the kind of guy who has the capacity to point out your mistakes without you feel humiliated.

  5. April 12, 2010 at 1:07 PM | Permalink

    I always enjoy reading Jochen’s comments on my posts, even if he makes them in the dead of night.

  6. April 12, 2010 at 3:24 PM | Permalink

    John hints at it, but not only is Jochen a great blogger, but he’s a world class commenter of other people’s blogs. He starts conversations, makes insightful comments, and generally makes the nature blogosphere a friendlier and more comfortable place.

    If there was some sort of prize for blog commenting, Jochen would be the hands down world champion.

  7. April 12, 2010 at 6:39 PM | Permalink

    I count myself lucky to have followed Jochen since the early days of his blog. His is always entertaining. I look forward to the day that we can actually do some birding together.

  8. April 12, 2010 at 7:14 PM | Permalink

    That would be fun, Clare. I’m sure Jochen won’t mind if we show up on his doorstep with bins some day.

  9. April 13, 2010 at 8:53 AM | Permalink

    Jochen is a perfect pick for featured blogger, although as some of my friends suggest in the comments, his greatest contributions are as a commenter. His skills at expanding an introduced topic, riffing on a theme, or simply turning a post into a smart, satisfying community conversation are unparalleled. With a hundred readers like Jochen, any nature blogger could rule the world!

  10. Charlie
    April 14, 2010 at 2:44 PM | Permalink

    Jochen flipping well rocks! He’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, speaks better english than most english people, loves his family, and is not that bad a birder. If only he would blog occasionally he’d be quite the package.

    And if I genuinely had anything to do with unleashing the blogger caged within that mighty frame then I should a) either be a proud man, or b) apologise to all those decent bloggers who’ve woken up to find that some crazy German has been scribbling all over their comments fields…probably the former :)

    See you in Bavaria in June, Mr R?

  11. April 14, 2010 at 4:47 PM | Permalink

    I really enjoyed that Jochen.Keep the comments coming my friend!

  12. April 15, 2010 at 3:52 AM | Permalink

    @all: *sob* *sob* – am deeply touched – can barely respond to questions – keyboard slippery when soaked with tears of joy.

    @Joan: I promise, down on my knees, to write something on Belltowerbirding as soon as possible. I’ll even try to include something “African” in it, just for you. Please, please,… :-)

    @Rurality: “… and you’d never guess the amount of editing Wren had to endure”. Thanks so much! I love the lightness and brightness of your articles, they are all like a sunny day in spring, and am frequently amazed how you can easily brighten up one’s morning by highlighting the little, yet wonderful things in life. “southern views of northbound animals”? Geeeenius!

    @Hilke: ha, that picture is from 2007, post-fatherhood when I clearly resembled the perfect symbiosis between Brad Pitt and George Clooney. Nowadays, with my son being 2+ years old, I am much more like the reincarnation of Klaus Kinski’s “Nosferatu” (and shamelessly open to any financially attractive offers from Spielberg for a re-make). And Hilke, thank you so very much for these incredibly kind words.

    @Laurent: yeah, it is true, ey? Southern France! Cool, that never occured to me. Laurent, I guess I was such a good “birding teacher” as you hardly ever made any mistakes – or at least not mistakes I had noticed. Hey, it was YOU after all who suggested watching the Snowy Owl from INSIDE the bakery, you are a birding genius!

    @John: your dead of night is my time to call it a day. You’ll learn that difference once all of the US are on Greenwich + 1 time. And I have said it before: you run one of the most interesting blogs and to be featured in your “Loose Feathers” is better than a night at the Oscars.

    @Nate: geez, man, how many beers do you want me to invite you to?? Wow, thanks a million! Additionally, you are clearly the best accomplice out there for comment hijacking.

    @Clare: yes! You are also one of the first blogs I read when I started out in Ann Arbor.
    I haven’t been to the Arctic in more than a decade and I am not sure you’ve ever been to this part of Germany (you were quite near, on the former battle fields). So I guess one of us is bound to eventually visit the other, right?
    Some Solitude+1 time in nature, right?

    @Wren: my goodness, thanks a bazillion for all the wonderful editing you’ve done. I have still so much to learn. I’d be extremely bummed if you and /or Clare showed up on my doorstep with bins in hand unannnounced! If/when you come here, you must let me know in advance so I can take days off, scout whatever birds you want to see and make all sorts of arrangements. So please, do come, the sooner the merrier, but let me know!

    @Mike: Ha, so it’s world domination you’re after?! Wow, Mike, seriously, that’s a very wonderful thing to write – and wonderfully written as well, ey? Words just rolling rolling smoothly.

    @Charlie. “… and is not that bad a birder” ?? Er, well, “thanks”, I guess ? :-)
    And Charlie, as a matter of fact, I very likely still wouldn’t even know there are blogs out there, any blogs whatsoever, if it wasn’t for you. So, from me a heart-felt “thanks”. How others are going to respond, I don’t know and prefer to remain ignorant in that respect!
    I am actually considering popping up in Mittenwald in June – seriously – but doubt I will make it as my job means I am always on the road during the summer months and – yes – there’s the family whose right to my company can’t be denied. However, if the possibility materializes, I’ll be there.

    Again: thanks for all these extremely kind comments. Seems I could easily move twice each year without ever getting socially disconnected.
    That is so great.

  13. April 15, 2010 at 3:53 AM | Permalink

    Oh dang, I meant “comments”, not “questions”, in my first paragraph.

    See? That’s how much I am still in interview mode!

    :-) :-)

  14. April 15, 2010 at 8:01 AM | Permalink

    Don’t let Jochen fool you, he needed very little editing. But, like Charlie, I have to give him grief when the opportunity presents itself. :)

  15. April 15, 2010 at 7:58 PM | Permalink

    Remember, everyone, don’t tell Jochen about the field trip to Germany. He loves surprises!

  16. April 16, 2010 at 4:08 AM | Permalink

    Oh, like the surprise that Corey (yes, the ONE) had a day at Frankfurt airport on his way to Kazakhstan and completely forgot to tell me?
    Frankfurt is a 30 minute drive from where I live now.

    :-)