Five Facts on Feathered Friends

It’s hard to say when exactly my interest in birds crystallized. There were many influences throughout my childhood. My grandma was a bit of a birder, my family always had bird feeders and many of the most memorable TV/cartoon characters from my childhood were birds: Darkwing Duck, Howard the Duck, Woodstock, Foghorn Leghorn, Huey, Dewey and Louie, and yes, even Tweety Bird. I vividly remember watching with fascination a Jack Hanna special on the near extinction of the dinosaur-looking California condor and the now successful efforts to revive the wild population. As a kid I always found seagulls to be quite handsome, quirky and almost charming. As an adult, I am stopped in my tracks at the sight of a sandhill crane or a great blue heron. When I hear the hoo of an owl or the sound of a wood pecker, I always look up. I consider a bald eagle sighting to be among the most special treats of being outdoors. 

The Genius of BirdsWhile I don’t consider myself a birder, (as I don’t formerly track what I see or go outside with the specific intention of spotting birds) my interest continues to grow. When I discovered a book called The Genius of Birds, by science and nature writer, Jennifer Ackerman, reading it was a no-brainer. Following its release in April 2016, it became a New York Times bestseller.

As the title would hint, this book is about how smart birds truly are. Traditionally, birds have gotten a bum rap when it comes to intelligence. I will be the first to admit I assumed small brain meant not very smart. However, with years of extensive bird research piling up, Ackerman reveals that it’s more clear than ever that many species of birds including corvids (crows, jays, ravens, magpies) rank right up there with humans, apes and dolphins in intelligence/learning/resilience.

Here are five of my favorite bird facts and takeaways from The Genius of Birds. [I attribute all the facts and figures below to Ackerman’s book and her sources.]

1. Birds split off in evolution from mammals more than 300 million years ago. Birds evolved from dinosaurs, and while humans evolved to get bigger and be mobile, birds got smaller for flight. While bird brains are much smaller than humans, they have an entirely different neural architecture than humans and mammals, and a much denser system of neurons. That is why we can’t compare intelligence simply based on brain size. 

An Andean condor soaring in Peru.

An Andean condor soaring in Peru. Modern condors may have lived alongside prehistoric condors. (Image source: Emily Wilson)

2. Not only have birds joined humans and apes in the rare art of toolmaking, by using, bending and manipulating sticks to get at tasty grubs, snacks, and other treats, they learn to wisely adapt to their environment. You may have seen this (viral) video of wicked smart crows in Japan that learned to crack nuts by taking advantage of the crosswalk system and passing cars. 

3. While humans are considered to be the most successful species, the world today is home to more the 300-400 billion individual birds. From the coasts, to the desert and jungle, to the mountains above, and everything in between, birds have evolved to live on all continents, across nearly every climate type and habitat.

A puffin off the coast off Norway. They can swim underwater and often live in cold climates. (Source: Emily Wilson)

An Atlantic puffin off the coast of Norway. Puffins can fly/swim underwater and typically live in colder climates. They are also quite handsome (Image source: Emily Wilson)

4. Songbirds are special. Learning to sing is like learning to speak (which African grey parrots have learned to do), with even more precision. While we have a larynx, birds have a syrinx, made up of two chambers deep in the bird chest. Mockingbirds and canaries can contract and relax the muscles of the syrinx with sub-millisecond precision (a hundred times faster than the blink of an eye — try to comprehend that). A winter wren can sing thirty six notes per second (!!!). A mockingbird can nearly exactly imitate more than 40 other bird calls and songs. 

A young mockingbird on the Galapagos Islands

A young mockingbird on the Galapagos Islands. (Image source: Emily Wilson)

5. Birds have an insane ability to mind map their immediate surroundings and perhaps vast sections of the world. Some birds migrate 40,000 miles every year from Greenland to Antartica, without ever getting lost. During one experiment, migrating birds were plucked from their path and placed 2,000 miles off course. They almost immediately figured out how to get back on path. There were 54,000 pigeons used by the United States in World World II as messengers (and perhaps triple that used by the UK). Pigeons are still used in Cuba to deliver election results from remote parts of the country. Some species of birds can hide (cache) up to 5,000 seeds, in unique locations, and remember where each are. 

Solider pigeons of World War II. (Source: America in WWII)

I highly recommend this book to anyone with a fascination for our flying friends. 

Many of the images used in this post are complements of my dear friend Emily Wilson. Enjoy more of her bird pictures.

Other times I blogged about birds:

Bridges, beaches and beauty of Busan

KOREA PENINSULAThroughout my first month in South Korea, friends and colleagues recommended getting out of Seoul at some point. While the country is relatively small (roughly 20 percent the size of California or about the size of Maine), there is plenty to explore: big cities, quaint villages, lots of mountains and as a peninsula, lots of coastline. For my first solo trip out of Seoul, I targeted the city of Busan for a 24 hour weekend adventure. It sits on the southeastern-most tip of the country and is easily accessible via the KTX (one of four high speed rail systems in the world).

Here are a few fun facts about Busan:

  • With a population of 3.6 million, it is South Korea’s second largest city.
  • It is the world’s fifth largest container handling port in the world.
  • The city intended to bid for the 2020 Olympics before Pyeonchang to the north was awarded the 2018 Winter Olympics. (Not to be confused with Pyongyang in the actual North.)
  • It is home to one of the most influential film festivals in Asia.
  • In 2009, the Shinsegae Mall surpassed Macy’s flagship store in New York City as the world’s largest shopping mall with a whopping 3 million square feet of retail space. (1 square mile of shopping space per resident?!)
  • During the start of the Korean War, Busan was one of only two cities in South Korea not captured by the North Korean army.

While I traveled to Busan without any expectations on what I would see or experience that would impress, I left with an admiration for the city’s beautiful beaches and impressive bridges. A little more on that here:

The 4 mile long Gwangan Bridge stretches in the distance across one of Busan’s most beautiful beaches, Gwangalli. It bridge is Korea’s first double decker suspension and its design was inspired by the flapping wings of a seagull. In 2014, a colorful nightly light show began after more than 10,000 LEDs were installed.

A guidebook stated that Gwangalli Beach is less attractive because of the bars, restaurants and shops lining the waterfront. I didn’t expect to find serenity in the middle of a city of 3+ million and found the stretch to be entertaining, striking on the eyes and thirst-quenching.

Haeundae is Korea’s largest and most famous beach. It can draw up to 100,000 people during a sweltering summer day. Most Koreans that I talked to described it as chaotic and unappealing. For me, it was a pleasant place for local people watching. 😉

The 2.5 year old Bukhang (Busan Harbor) Bridge is the 2nd longest cable-stayed bridge in Korea. At first glance, cable-stayed bridges look a lot like suspension bridges. However, they are quite different. While a suspension bridge has main cables strung between towers with support cables hanging down below, cable-stayed bridges feature cables running directly from the tower to the deck. The Brooklyn Bridge is the most famous cable-stayed bridge in the world.

Billed as more tranquil than Haeundae and Gwangalli, Songjeong Beach was equally as jam packed with parasols on a 90 degree day.

An ambitious 45 minute trip north of Haeundae Beach via a bus (or two, by accident) reveals beautiful Haedong Yonggungsa Temple clinging to a cliff-side. It offers a bit of respite from the hustle and bustle of the big city.

While there’s more to Busan, including an art museum seemingly obsessed with bosoms, and an art village with uniquely colorful panoramas, I’ll always remember it as Korea’s city of beaches and bridges.

Five reasons I loved Train to Busan

Back at home I go to the cinema on a regular basis and that’s one interest I knew I wouldn’t lose in Seoul. Not long after I arrived, I started exploring what my movie-going options would be here…

I learned that Hollywood blockbusters are shown in English, with Korean subtitles, while animated movies are dubbed in Korean (to make it easier for kids to enjoy).

I also learned that a more local experience, featuring a Korean produced film, would be more challenging to find. Most Korean movies do not offer English subtitles. The exception, however, is when a movie is intended for international release. As luck would have it, Korea’s first zombie movie, Train to Busan, which premiered earlier this year with a midnight screening at the Cannes Film Festival, was produced with wider distribution in mind. One of my fellow movie-loving colleagues offered to accompany me for a viewing, so I eagerly jumped at the opportunity to see a local blockbuster. Here are five things I loved about Train to Busan, which opened on July 22:

Korea's first zombie movie

  1. It introduced me to some top Korean actors and actresses, including the incredibly sexy Gong Yoo, the talented up-and-coming child star Kim Su-an, and the entertaining Ma Dong‑Seok, who I’ve since seen on local TV.
  2. Amidst digesting English subtitles, I got to hear some words and phrases I’ve learned in my short time here. Sure, it was only numbers (1, 2, 3) and common words like hello, thank you, please and beer, but it made me feel a little more connected.
  3. It was a totally entertaining zombie apocalypse flick. While I haven’t seen too many zombie movies, I loved World War Z and have a growing interest and appreciation for the genre. As I get older, I find horror movies less enjoyable and thrillers more so, so zombie flicks are perfect. I laughed, I cringed, I jumped out of my seat, and I even teared up a little. It was hokey at times, but what zombie movie isn’t? Overall it was totally entertaining.
  4. The movie chronicles a fast-paced, viral outbreak on a KTX (bullet train) ride from Seoul to South Korea’s second largest city, Busan (a trip I want to take). It’s a great setting to rethink a zombie thriller. Imagine Speed meets The Walking Dead.
  5. It’s playing in the United States, so my friends can (and should) go see it! I’m not sure what the appetite will be for an Asian zombie movie in the U.S., but I’d recommend it to friends living in cities big enough for distribution. It opened in 27 theaters including the AMC Van Ness in San Francisco.


What were the noticeable differences in the movie-going experience in Seoul vs. the U.S.? For one, fried squid was served at the concession stand. Also, all big movie theaters here (Lotte, CGV, Megabox) book reserved seating, in advance. You’ll rarely find first-come, first-serve seating here, which I still feel dominates the U.S. cinema landscape.

Seoul: First Five

I started this blog nearly eight years ago as a way to chronicle a two week cross-country American road trip with my friend Meagan. Over the years I’ve used it erratically to review movies, document hikes, and share music and musings. As I embarked on a 3 month work assignment in Seoul this summer, it seemed appropriate to document my adventures in some way shape or form, here.

As I cap off my first week residing in, working in, and exploring Seoul, here are five of my first impressions, in no particular order:

1: Baseball is tops.

Koreans love baseball and their 10-team national league, and they know and love the Major League Baseball teams with South Korean players on their roster. This includes the Pittsburgh Pirates, Texas Rangers, and especially the LA Dodgers, home of starting pitcher Hyun-jin Ryu. In fact, Koreans love the Dodgers so much that they tried to buy a stake in the team last year.

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I met Joe and Song during one of my first nights at the hotel bar and they quickly insisted the bartender to turn on baseball. When they learned I was a San Francisco Giants fan, their Dodgers love created a friendly riff.

2: Like many other large Asian cities, Seoul’s subway is incomparable to American subways.

There are more than 2.6 billion rides taken on Seoul’s massive, efficient, and insanely clean subway system each year. That’s 1 billion more rides than in New York, which serves around the same population (both city and metro). In Seoul, you can get anywhere easily and on time, you don’t see rats running around tracks, and you can’t fall on to the tracks in most stations because of platform screen doors. The city-center stations are massive underground developments with shops and restaurants, and you can actually use the bathrooms because they’re so clean.

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I thought maybe it was an anomaly that the Anguk Station featured art all along the subway station walls, and have been delighted to find art in other stations.

3: During the last 60 years, South Korea has shined.

Following Japanese colonization and World War II, Korea was one of the poorest developing countries in the world. Seoul was heavily destroyed in the Korean War. Once established, the South had to create a government and economy more or less from scratch. Not only has South Korea leveraged an intense work ethic and resilience to become one of the most important global economies, it’s joined the world stage by hosting the Summer Olympics in 1988 and the World Cup in 2002, and will host the Winter Olympics in 2018.

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Seoul is about to open its first supertall skyscraper, Lotte World Tower (555 m) and construction will soon begin on the next: the Hyundai Global Business Center (553 m).

4: Conglomerates rule the roost.

While the U.S. has powerful multi-national companies like Comcast, General Electric, and Berkshire Hathaway, none seem as visible and dominate in our culture like chaebols, as they call them, in South Korea. Korea’s top chaebols include Samsung, Hyundai, LG, SK, and Lotte. Samsung makes TVs and mobile phones, right? Subsidiaries with Samsung in the name also build ships and power plants, offer auto and life insurance, operate a hospital and cancer center, and supply credit as the country’s #1 credit card company, among dozens of other operations. You can’t watch baseball in South Korea without being reminded of the reach of the chaebols. Teams aren’t named after their home city, they’re named after sponsors, such as the Samsung Lions, LG Twins, and Kia Tigers.

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LG is the fourth-largest chaebol in South Korea and has subsidiaries in electronics, chemicals, and telecoms.

5: It’s true what they say about Korean drinking culture, and

The two most common comments I received when I told people I was going to spend my summer in Seoul was that it’s going to be hot and humid, and that I better be prepare my liver. While I can already confirm that soju, makkori, and beer are ways of life in Korea, I’d add that I think the drinking culture is positively tied to a broader culture of being social. Koreans like spending time with friends and colleagues. Drinking is one of the most obvious and popular ways to do that. Is that really much different than in the U.S.?

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Learning how to order a beer became one of my first learned phrases… maekju, juseyo!

As seen in Sunset Magazine…

I’ve been seen in the background of live nationally televised shows like The View, The Today Show and Survivor’s live finale and reunion. I’ve had an op ed piece published in defense of Survivor, my TV favorite show. I’ve been quoted in USA Today commenting on H1N1. And now I’ve had photos published in Sunset Magazine!

Two of my photos from last year’s Yosemite trip to Vogelsang High Sierra Camp, appear in the July 2015 issue of Sunset Magazine. They are part of a story on Yosemite’s High Sierra Camps which I’ve become a big fan of since visiting last year.

It was a fun process to be randomly contacted through LinkedIn by a Sunset travel photo editor with a request for two of my photos found on Flickr. In exchange for a small payment, I handed over high resolution versions of the photos, happily, to a publication I’ve enjoyed since moving here. (It’s a West coast-centric magazine focused on traveling, the outdoors, cooking and gardening.)

The Boys in the Boat: Derek’s Three Favorite Things

When I like a book I tend to rave about it. The Boys in the Boat was released in 2013 and as of June 2015, still sits on the NY Times non-fiction bestseller list. It will appeal to those that read Unbroken in awe and everyone else that enjoys well written accounts of amazing achievements and interesting times in history. The Boys in the Boat tells the true story of Joe Rantz and eight other unprivileged, hardworking boys from the University of Washington. They would eventually represent the United States in the eight man rowing competition at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin (where Unbroken subject Louis Zamperini ran the 5,000 meter race).

The 1936 United States 8 man Olympic rowing team. They ended their 4 year University of Washington collegiate career undefeated as national champions.

The 1936 United States eight man (+coxswain) Olympic rowing team. They ended their four year Univ. of Washington collegiate career undefeated and as national champions. (photo credit: Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 1936)

My favorite things about this book can be wrapped up into three buckets:

The Boys in the Boat1) It introduced me to rowing and piqued my interest in it as a form of exercise. Early in the book the author confirms that physiologists have calculated that rowing a 2,000 meter race — the Olympic standard — takes the same physiological toll as playing two basketball games back-to-back. I’ve  since added the rowing machine to my gym routine.

The cat and mouse dynamic of rowing races is also interesting and fun to watch. I’ve scoured YouTube for recent Olympic regattas as a form of entertainment.

2) Reading the book was a fun geography ride through the Pacific Northwest, notably Seattle and the University of Washington campus. The author describes in detail the key water ways and bodies that makes the Seattle area unique: Lake Washington, the Montlake Cut, Lake Union and Union Bay adjacent to campus. I was reading the book during a visit to the Emerald City, and I was so intrigued by the geography that I enjoyed a special trip to check out the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, a unique engineering feature on the Lake Washington Ship Canal.

Lake Union is a beautiful freshwater lake entirely within the Seattle city limits.

Lake Union: a beautiful freshwater lake within Seattle city limits (photo credit: Jelson25)

Reading the book while visiting Seattle was a fun and appreciation-filled experience.

Reading the book while visiting Seattle was a fun and appreciation-filled experience.

3) Finally, The Boys in the Boat told a beautiful story about a man that suffered at a young age and prevailed, fulfilled and proud in the end, through hard work and an unwavering will to live. Many chapters of the book take place during Joe Rantz’s tragic adolescence after he was abandoned by his family in Idaho. After working his butt off, living alone and supporting himself through his early teenage years, Joe made his way to the University of Washington and eventually and serendipitously battled his way on to the well respected rowing team, with seven similarly hardworking boys. Compared with East Coast rowing royalty from schools like Princeton and Columbia, these boys worked there way through college, barely making ends meet. Rowing was their outlet and their teamwork and determination learned through hardship growing up, led them to become the best rowing team in the world.

If you’re intrigued by this story, you’ve now got two options. Read the book, or  watch this well-made book trailer:


(And in case you’re wondering, The Weinstein Company owns the film rights to the story and intends to produce a movie.)

Derek’s Water Saving Tips for Urban Dwellers

There are no two ways about it. California’s water situation does not look good. Governor Brown recently and smartly imposed mandatory water restrictions. Government agencies are now responsible for coming up with strategies to cut water use by 25 percent. Rural dwellers carry much of the restriction burden because of the lawns they want to water and the cars they want to wash. I believe that there are small things we urban dwellers can do to easily cut back as well.

Barack_Obama_speaks_with_farmers_about_California_drought,_2014

Derek’s everyday water conservation TIPs:

  1. Get a timer for your shower and restrict yourself to 5 minutes. I randomly received a shower timer as swag at a tradeshow and my roommate and I randomly started using it. We’ve both become much more aware of our time in the shower and the water we use. We’ve realized how efficient we can be in 5 minutes. It’s easy to consider showers as relaxation time and it can also be rewarding to know you’re saving water. Get a shower timer on Amazon.
  2. Stuff your dishwasher full and experiment with settings that use less water. Dishwashers are wonderful machines of convenience. While they generally use less water than hand washing dishes, there are still opportunities to conserve. Don’t run your dishwasher unless you couldn’t possibly fit anything else in. Run out of clean spoons? Buy some more spoons. Also, test out your settings to see how low in water use you can go before you aren’t satisfied with the wash quality. Try a half load wash setting with a full load.
  3. Don’t overlook the small things. Don’t let the water run unnecessarily during hand washing and tooth brushing.

While these small habit changes will not get us out of the drought, they should at least get you thinking about water more as a precious resource and make you more mindful of your water use.

Water conservation is no joke! Do your part and encourage others.

More Easy Ways to Conserve Water from NBC LA.