General Blog Posts
Build it and they will come
Hello World! That’s what your first WordPress blog post starts with when you get your first blank WordPress site (technically an ‘install’). You then delete or edit that post and away you go. I am keeping that text in the spirit of this post as saying ‘hello’ is exactly what I’m doing.
My name is Gavin Ailes and I have a hobbyist interest in birds. My interest has slowly grown over my life to where I am now and I am still far from the fanatical level some birders reach. Birding doesn’t necessarily start with a casual interest and end with fanaticism. Personally, I never want to be at that level for a number of reasons. At worst I’d probably get divorced but also I wouldn’t want birding to take over my other hobbies like website stuff, photography and even music.
My own interest began with my parents and family who always had a general interest in nature. Knowing the garden birds is not something I remember having to learn. Like learning a mother tongue it was just knowledge that you gained. Growing up, I was always amazed when school friends and later on, adult friends, had no clue what the most common of birds might be called.
Outside of nature, one of the next family interests could be said to be books and reference books in particular. When I was 8 years old, my Dad’s job took us to America where we lived for three years. My parents said that we would get no books and no pets. Not that long after arriving we had a dog ‘Rags’, a rat, ‘Stanley’, numerous hamsters and a 50 gallon fish tank in which my brother was breeding cichlids. In addition we had one set of Encyclopedia Britannica (1957) which then increased to two full sets before we left. In this day of the internet, it is amazing to think that we would often go and get a volume of Britannica to resolve an argument at the dinner table.
That all may sound like a chapter out of Gerald Durrell’s ‘My family and Other Animals’ but it really wasn’t. I wasn’t really into birds then beyond the normal garden birds. I wish I had been though. When looking through old family albums I found this photo which must have been a rarity for our bird table but I have no recollection of it at all. That photo was taken in the early eighties. Now I see that the bird is listed as vulnerable but I’m not sure how common it might have been then.
Evening Grosbeak – Coccothraustes vespertinus
I owe the spark of my interest in birding as it is now to Africa and Namibia in particular. This was my first trip to Africa (2002) which was at the time a lifelong dream. My then wife and I spent a week or so in the Caprivi Strip and then another few days in Etosha National Park. I’m not even sure I bought a bird book for the trip although it might have been my first one. On my shelf now I have three bird books of southern Afric and one of East Africa. As anyone knows who has been to Africa, it is one of the best places in the world to actually see birds. Unlike large parts of Asia and South America, the terrain in Africa is much more open. This makes the birds much easier to spot and photograph. This trip was the first time I actually wrote down the birds I saw in a list. When I got home and did a photograph album I wrote down the names of the birds next to the photos. In 2002 there were no affordable digital cameras. I had a point and shoot pocket camera with maybe a bit of zoom.
I lived in Vienna, Austria, from 1998 until 2004 and I distinctly remember at least once going birding with the Collins European Bird guide. I know this because a kid of maybe 11 years old had the same guide in German with the page numbers all the same so he was easily able to point out to me the page with the Greater and Lesser Black-backed Gulls and confidently told me that we needed to wait until the bird stood up so we could properly identify it by its leg colour! Despite this, to this day I have no birds in Austria on my E-bird account and must wait for my next visit to properly get some on there.
I moved back to London in 2004 and would often visit the public parks and some of the bird sanctuaries like the Wetland Centre in Barnes. Public parks in the UK often have areas for ducks but these species are mostly not native to the UK. For someone interested in birds this presents somewhat of a problem. How do you identify ducks that won’t be in your bird books because they are not normally found there? Eventually, I became quite familiar with duck species and wondered if I could make a website all about ducks to help people like me trying to identify non-native species. This led to my first bird website (the name for which I sadly gave up) worldwildfowl.com. I created it using what is now a prehistoric version of Microsoft Front-end and it was extremely basic but I did enjoy putting it together and very occasionally someone would stumble across it and email me a question.
At that time I did a job that required a lot of spreadsheets and while being no super expert I do like them. This was in digital marketing and was a lot to do with how you get Google to rank your site highly in search engine results (search engine optimisation or SEO). My first ever lists were certainly in excel but were all from holidays only. I then came up with a challenge for myself to see if I could come up with a database for my bird lists in the Microsoft product ‘Access’. What followed was an extremely steep and pretty painful learning curve but eventually I got there and ‘Birdbase’ was born. I downloaded a list of the birds of the world from one of the main bird organizations and away I went. Initially, I only had ‘holiday’ birds on there but in 2013 I started actually recording birds I would see locally. I used my database until 2016 but found that I couldn’t keep up with all the name and taxonomy changes that happen all the time in the birdworld. In 2016 I created my E-bird account and struggled with it at first due to the requirement to enter the number of birds of a given species you have seen. I am fine with that now and totally see why this is important but it annoyed me at first.
Remember I said I also have a hobby in music. Well I play (very badly) the cello. I played in this quartet for a while just for fun but wanted help with some of the sheet music. I discovered this website and software where you can transcribe music (and compose it) called Musescore. I only wanted to input the music to see how I was supposed to play and where I fit into the other three parts. I published some of the parts and saw that people on there were viewing my scores and downloading them which was pretty surprising. I ended up getting really into this for a short period of time and transcribing a load of out of copyright cello pieces. I was into it for a year and half and my last piece I uploaded was in March of 2016. Eventually, Musescore started adding a rating system and I started to see that my scores were starting to get rated. As I write this in 2022 having not published a single additional score since 2016, I am getting around 50 views a day on scores and maybe 30 plays. I find that staggering – build it and they will come – (maybe).
From a spreadsheet heavy job I went to work as a project manager for a website design and build company specialising in WordPress. Up until that point I had no idea what WordPress was but I soon learned the ropes. The company I worked for built websites in WordPress from scratch and often very complicated ones at that but this isn’t the only route with WordPress. There are thousands of developers out there creating ‘themes’ for WordPress. These have all the design elements you could want and you simply put in the content and the layouts you like. One such theme is called ‘Divi’ and is very versatile and popular. Once I moved to my next job working in communications and marketing at an international school in, of all places, Yangon in Myanmar, I used the Divi theme to build the school’s website. My wife and I also created a travel blog using a different WordPress theme.
Once we got to Yangon I was enamoured with all the new bird species. Pretty soon, people realised that I was a bit of a bird nerd and often asked me to help identify a bird they had seen (spoiler alert – it’s a White-throated Kingfisher). This led me to create a blog post called ‘The Birds of Yangon’ so that I had somewhere to direct people to when I got questions about birds. After a while I realised that that post was actually getting attention from non-readers of our blog who were looking for help identifying a bird in Yangon. Build it and they will come…
White-throated Kingfisher – Halcyon smyrnensis
Occasionally, I would take a video of a bird ideally making its call so that I could remember what it sounded like to help me identify it later on. I would post these to my personal YouTube channel (along with videos of my dog) and I had a few on there. At some point I happened to glance at the stats on my YouTube channel and saw that I had several thousand views. I thought to myself that that looked quite high but maybe for the lifetime of my rather pathetic channel that was normal. I then realized that what I was looking at was the stats for a month!! At first I thought there must be some malpractice here and that I was the victim of some kind of spam. I dug into it and discovered that one of my videos was being ‘recommended’ by YouTube.
Red-whiskered Bulbul – Pycnonotus jocosus
This was strange to me as the video wasn’t very good by any means but for whatever reason, was getting a good click through rate. A click-through rate is the percentage of times a video is seen (impressions) AND then clicked on (clicks). High click-through rate is good for YouTube (Google owns YouTube by the way) as they have more opportunities to place video ads. I mentioned this to younger and more informed friends who told me I was becoming a birding ‘influencer’. An ‘influencer’ is simply someone who has a significant following on YouTube to the extent they might be able to ‘influence’ their followers. I know that YouTube will actually pay channel owners after they reach a certain size so:
A birder with an interest in reference, experience in WordPress and Search Engine Optimisation and oddly seeing some things get some attention – Audubird.com. In case you’re wondering, ‘Build it and they will come’ is a line from the movie ‘Field of Dreams’ and what he built is a baseball field hence the image on the blog page. I don’t know if I build this people will come but I am going to give it a try – let’s see.