It’s not every day you get a call from a Los Angeles television producer. In fact, I don’t recall it ever happening to me before.
Then a month ago, I got a call from Fred Greenlee. Greenlee is a producer who does a lot of advance work on reality shows. It turns out there is quite a market for cable shows about normal people doing abnormal things. Greenlee’s work includes “Swamp People,” a reality show about Louisiana Cajuns hunting alligators.
It appeared for three seasons on the History Channel. “Mudcats” also aired on the History Channel and featured five Oklahoma men competing to see who was the best at catching fish by hand. No, seriously. Greenlee’s boss was also involved in producing “Deadliest Catch” for the Discovery Channel, a popular reality show about king crab fishermen in Alaska.
I learned that these shows are well-liked among men because — spoiler alert — guys really aren’t that into “Dancing With The Stars.” The National Geographic Channel is particularly interested in male-friendly programming, with current shows like “American Chainsaw,” “Rocket City Rednecks,” “Wild Justice,” and “Wicked Tuna.” Naturally, a show about birding would fit right into that kind of schedule, especially with a few explosions.
The truth is, birding can be quite competitive. If my birdathon teams were any more aggressive, we’d have to wear helmets. I led an Audubon trip to the Everglades a decade ago. A friend tagged along for the week, and after just one day she declared that birders were the most competitive people she’d ever met — striving to be the first to find a cool bird or make a difficult identification at a distance.
Even during our day with Greenlee, things almost got out of hand. An expert in our group spotted a distant diving duck in Bar Harbor. He called out horned grebe just as I identified it as a red-necked grebe. Are you ready to rumble?
I was correct, of course. If he wants to dispute that, let him get his own column.
And, to some extent, that’s what Greenlee was looking for: real people in unusual places pursuing their passion intensely. It helps if these real-life characters have real-life accents — which we didn’t. Altogether, about 50 people answered the invitation to go birding with Greenlee. Almost none of them were born in Maine, which isn’t surprising because the gatherings were held in places like Freeport, Bangor and Bar Harbor. Next time, try Jonesport.
I suspect we disappointed Greenlee in other ways, too. Not only do few Mainers sound like Tim Sample, but we’re also wicked polite. Those who were curious about participating in the program were encouraged to spend a few minutes being interviewed on camera. It was easy and very low key — just a few questions about yourself and your interest in birding. Greenlee probed whether I had anything negative to say about any of the other birding guides in the state. I declined the offer to talk trash. His questions tried to test the extremes to which I will go to find a rare bird, but I’m not someone who chases a lot of rarities, not even nearby. Strike two.
Then Greenlee asked me if I kept a life list — a list of birds that I have seen in my lifetime — and could I tell him how many? Without batting an eye, I replied “551 in North America, 313 in Maine, and 131 around my house.” Pay dirt. Apparently, I’m weirdly compulsive after all. Ultimately, I don’t expect to get chosen.
It turns out that in order to be a personality, you first must have a personality. I’m so boring, even I wouldn’t watch me go birding.
The whole exercise revealed a lot about Maine birders, though. It was like looking in a mirror. Mainers rank among the highest states for the percentage of population that watches birds. We are among the most likely to enjoy backyard bird feeding. Statistically, we know that these enthusiasts include fifth-generation Mainers.
Yet it does seem like those who actively chase birds around the state are often transplants from away, and it’s probably because they were attracted to Maine’s outdoor lifestyle in the first place. We are friendly and polite, which is typical of small town America. For those of us who have been around for awhile, our idea of reality TV was Dick Stacey’s “Country Jamboree.”
Still, Maine should appeal to National Geographic’s audience. Even our grebes are red-necked.
Bob Duchesne serves as a Maine Audubon trustee and vice president of its Penobscot Valley Chapter. Bob developed the Maine Birding Trail, with info at www.mainebirdingtrail. Reach Bob at firstname.lastname@example.org.