Friday, August 29, 2008

Peterson Video Podcasts

A frame from the species profile video podcast of the Atlantic puffin.

Every new bird field guide that comes out claims to have something unique to offer the discerning birder/consumer. It is, after all, a competitive market, with at least 10 different guide brands currently vying for our book-buying dollars.

We're lucky as bird watchers to have so many excellent choices among the field guides. Some of us have a single favorite that we always use, but I suspect most of use buy and use more than one. I have every field guide I've been able to get my hands on. I'd do that even if I weren't the editor of a birding magazine. I have to admit that getting new field guides (and other nature books for that matter) given to me for review is one of the perks I really like about this job.

When pullUin Software launched its Handheld Birds field guide (branded by the National Geographic Society) for use on handheld digital devices like the Palm Pilot, the bird world took great interest in it. Was this going to be the future of field guides? Were printed field guide books going to become as obsolete as the typewriter?

No.

Digital field guides are way cool. They are multi-media creatures with sound and often video! They are incredibly portable and, did I mention how cool they are? But they also have some limitations or drawbacks. They require power to operate. They are expensive. Only a single small window can be viewed at once and this can be difficult in bright sunlight.

The western tanager entry in the National Geographic field guide shown on the Handheld Birds and in the print field guide. Photo by Jeff Gordon.

Just as we have traded pay phones (and in some cases home land-line phones) for cell phones, and record players for MP3 players, we may one day trade our printed-on-paper books for digital "readers." But it ain't happening this week or next, Mr. Roboto.

Book publishers in general—including some field guide publishers—have begun to create electronic elements for their books. My Young Birder's Guide to Eastern Birds has an add-on download of 160 species and photos from birdJam for use on an iPod. Ted Floyd's new Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America comes with a DVD of bird sounds of 138 species. So the trend is clear: even print guides are becoming more multi-media.

In early 2007, Jeffrey A. Gordon and I were asked by Houghton Mifflin to create a digital component for the new Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America. Our very first recommendation was to NOT try to jam this Peterson field guide in its entirety into an iPod or other handheld digital device. Instead, we decided to create multi-media content that would augment the field guide's content and that would be viewable to anyone with a computer, an iPod, or a digital video player.

It took us 16 months to create the 33 video podcasts that accompany the Peterson Field Guide. Along the way we learned a lot about script writing, about content creation and delivery, about video production software, about upload and download rates, about emulating the Ken Burns effect, about proper pan speeds, and, of course, about Roger Tory Peterson.

The cover of the new Peterson guide has a promotional star burst about the video podcasts.


I was fortunate to be working with an experienced partner. Jeff shared a lot of his knowledge about video production, having already created a couple of interesting nature video projects on his own.
Jeff Gordon fixes the carburetor on my Canon 30D as I look on, befuddled. Photo by Lisa A. White.


For visuals we relied heavily upon the artwork in the Peterson guide and on several of our talented photographer friends—Thank you Bill Schmoker, Robert McCaw, Kim Steininger, Mike McDowell, Garth McElroy, Jeff Bouton, John Riutta, Jason Husband, Martin Dollenkamp, Julie Zickefoose, and Liz DeLuna Gordon.

We really got a lot of help, too, from the good people (especially Jim Berry and Marlene Mudge) at The Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History.
It was hard to record voice-overs when we were laughing, which was often. Photo by Liz Gordon.


Although we shot a lot of video of people for this project, we did not include a lot of video footage of birds. We were fortunate enough to get video clips from Roger Peterson's son Lee Peterson, and from former President Jimmy Carter. Portions of our video work are featured on the Amazon.com website.

These video podcasts were a lot of work but I found that I enjoyed this new (for me) mode of creating content. Good content is good content no matter the medium. Once I got the hang of the software we were using, and once we figured out the most efficient way to get from a script draft to a finished episode, I really liked the creative nature of the work.

The videos are free for anyone to download or simply to watch, streamed to your computer. They are divided into four categories: Family Overviews, Species Profiles, Tutorials, and Biography.
The Family Overviews window on the podcast page.

The Family Overviews take a very general look at the members of specific bird families: Ducks, Geese, & Swans, Hummingbirds, Owls, etc.

The Species Profiles window.

The Species Profiles are—you guessed it—profiles of individual, well-known North American species: Greater Roadrunner, Northern Cardinal, Peregrine Falcon, etc.


The Tutorials cover bird topography, bird ID, sounds, and range maps.


The Tutorials are designed to help readers get more out of the field guide and cover topics such as bird identification, bird topography, bird songs and sounds, and so on.

RTP biography podcasts.


The Biography category has two biographical profiles of Roger Peterson, one covering his life before and up to the publication of his landmark field guide in 1934, and one about his post-field-guide life.

Magazines (like Bird Watcher's Digest) are not much different than printed field guides when it comes to searching for new modes of content delivery. At BWD, we've always tried to look ahead to the new opportunities that technology provides us. And that's one of the reasons I jumped at the chance to work on these video podcasts.
Jeff videotaping me while Lisa White tries to deflect the sun. Photo by Phoebe L. Thompson.


I hope you'll check out the video podcasts (hey! they're free!). If you like them (or don't) let me know.
Bill of the Birds (left) and Jeffrey A. Gordon, happy podcasters. Photo by Lisa A. White.


By the way, speaking of technology and how it's changing our communication, in September I'll celebrate my third blog-iversary. Time she surely do fly.

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Happy 100th Birthday Roger Tory Peterson!

Today is the centennial of the birth of Roger Tory Peterson. He was born in Jamestown, New York in 1908 and lived there until he finished high school. If you go to Jamestown today, you can visit the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History (RTPI) which houses most of Dr. Peterson's most important work, as well as all of his photography and much of the equipment he used, such as cameras, binoculars, and so on.

I've had the pleasure of visiting RTPI numerous times and I always discover something new there. Among the most interesting things in the archives at RTPI are pages from Roger Peterson's earliest field notebooks showing sightings, dates of arrival and departure for migrants, as well as his very first field sketches. It's quite an experience to read the actual handwritten notes and look over the doodles and sketches of the man who would do so much for bird watching and conservation in his lifetime.
Early notes written by Roger Tory Peterson from a Jamestown field trip.

In late 2006 I was asked to be a part of the team that was being assembled to create the first-ever Peterson Field Guide to Birds covering all of North America. There was a lot of work involved in this project and a relatively small window of time in which to complete it if we were to meet the goal of having the guide available for TODAY, August 28, 2008, the centennial of Roger Tory Peterson's birth.

The members of the new RTP guide team, assembled by Lisa A. White, director of guidebooks at Houghton Mifflin (now Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company), and their responsibilities, were:

Bird ID expert, author, and artist Michael O'Brien sifted through all of RTP's plates and chose the best artwork for each species. He also put the species together on each page. AND he painted about 40 new figures, blending his own artistic style with that of Roger Peterson so the new figures looked like they belonged with the existing ones.

Paul Lehman, a professional birding tour guide and the former editor of Birding magazine, who may know more about the fine details of bird distribution than anyone, gathered together all the latest range/occurence information and worked with map designer Larry Rosche to create all new range maps. Paul also contributed a great deal to editing the text.

I did the first round of editing to combine the eastern and western text into a single account for each species. Paul Lehman and Lisa White polished up what I created.
Michael DiGiorgio, a fine bird artist in his own right, handled all of the digital "tweaking" of the original Peterson art. Imagine the pressure Mike D. was under, working on the artwork of the man many consider to be the world's most famous bird artist!

Birding content raconteur and consultant Jeffrey A. Gordon and I worked together to create a series of video podcasts to accompany the new field guide. I'll tell you more about them in tomorrow's post.

And there was a team of talented editors, designers, fact-checkers, and bird experts who took what we put together and made it better.
Earlier editions of the eastern and western Petersons.

At first glance, combining two field guides created by the same original author into one field guide might not seem like such a big deal. But it was. Let's start off by acknowledging that the author, the aforementioned Roger Tory Peterson, was no longer alive. So there would be no new work coming from the original source.

Bird distribution and taxonomy are fluid things. This meant we would need to create new maps and new artwork for species that did not exist in 1986 when Roger Peterson was working on the fifth edition (his final one) of the Birds of Eastern and Central North America. In fact, on the day that he died, Roger Tory Peterson had been working on finishing a plate of accidental flycatchers for the fifth edition. Others would step in to finish the fifth edition, but it would take until 2002 to do so.

Peterson's last field guide plate, of accidental flycatchers, was left unfinished when he died in 1996.

Looking over the existing Peterson field guide plates, Michael O'Brien realized that some birds were missing altogether. Lisa explained to us that Peterson often cut birds out of completed plates for use in plates for other guides. Or sometimes he simply painted over one species to add in another. Michael chose the individual species artwork from four primary sources: The eastern and western guides, the European guide and the Birds of Mexico.

Combining the existing text for the eastern and western guides was also a challenge. While some species entries were virtually identical, others were vastly different. The constant questions were what to leave in, what to leave out, what to add, and how to combine it all so it worked as field guide text, yet retained the poetic brevity for which Peterson guides are known? I spent a lot of time asking myself "How would Roger say this?" I hope I got it mostly right.

When I got my advance copy of the new guide, I was really pleased with the results. While some criticize Peterson's illustration style as basic or his birds as stiff and mostly depicted only in profile, I was immediately impressed with how nice the plates looked at their new, larger size. Many of these birds were painted by Peterson in the 1970s, and birders and artists have learned a lot since then. I imagine Roger would be the first to call a mulligan on a few of his least favorite plates. And yet, as a full set, they really stand tall—as worthy of a spot on the coffee table as it is deserving of a spot in your birding backpack.

A plate from the new guide depicting trogons and swifts.

The opportunity to work on a new Peterson field guide was something I could not pass up. I love a challenge. But more than that, I was honored to be a part of the team that would be helping to carry on the legacy of one of the greatest Americans of the 20th century. Roger Peterson could do it all: Paint, write, lecture, teach, inspire. And he had both a sense of higher purpose and incredible timing. There are many among us today who possess one or two of these talents and traits, but few, if any, who possess them all.

I am thrilled to have played a small part in the creation of this new Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America. I want to thank Lisa White and all at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for asking me to be a part of it.

The cover of the new Peterson.

Most of all I owe a debt of gratitude to the man himself. I've been passionate about birds since I was a small boy and that passion has given me the wonderful life I have today. But that passion was only possible because of the bright and enchanting path blazed—for all of us—by Roger Tory Peterson.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Foremost Naturalist

Roger Tory Peterson was an avid photographer for his entire life.

Roger Tory Peterson’s life was never the same again after the publication of his Field Guide to Eastern Birds in 1934. He might have known this when the first printing of the guide sold out in less than a month.

Soon after the publication of the guide, Peterson was hired by The Audubon Society to assist with publications and outreach. His bird watching pamphlets for the Junior Audubon Club were instrumental in increasing membership from 100,000 to 400,000.

Nearly every project Peterson became involved in seemed to benefit from his Midas touch. His columns in Bird Lore magazine (predecessor to Audubon) and illustrated articles in Life Magazine helped establish a national audience of bird watchers.

During his service in World War II he put his field guide talents to use creating plane-spotting manuals. He also worked with Rachel Carson (eventual author of Silent Spring) during the war, studying the effects of DDT on birds and animals.

Peterson's nature films were among the most popular in the traveling Audubon Film Series.


This was a Renaissance man. Roger Peterson made nature films. He helped to form conservation organizations and supported conservation causes large and small. He mentored young naturalists and artists. And he traveled the world looking at birds and nature with fellow bird watchers and naturalists.


Along the way he received every major natural history award, dozens of honorary degrees, and The Presidential Medal of Freedom, which he received in 1980, from President Jimmy Carter.

Some of the titles in the Peterson Field Guide series.

Over the decades, the Peterson field guide series was expanded to include other subjects, eventually comprising more than 45 titles.


With his own painting of a pair of peregrine falcons.

He also wrote and edited numerous other bird and nature books. One of them was the first bird book I ever owned, The Time-Life book Birds. Man I loved that book! I pored over the illustrations (done by RTP and other famous illustrators) and nearly memorized the text.

My first Peterson book.

Inside the front cover of the book is written, in my mom's handwriting: "For Billy Thompson, Christmas 1969."
The inscription inside the book, written by my mom. The book was a gift from my grandmother Margaret Thompson.


Just 16 years after receiving that book for Christmas, I would meet Roger Peterson in person at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania. And a few years later, in 1988, I would work directly with him as he wrote a regular column for a relatively new magazine called Bird Watcher's Digest.

His lifetime of teaching people, directly and indirectly, about birds and nature, and his continuous desire for more knowledge earned Roger Tory Peterson the unofficial title of "the foremost naturalist in the world.

For a video overview of the life of Roger Tory Peterson, please follow this link to the Peterson Field Guides site. Click on "Biography."


Hard at work in his Old Lyme, Connecticut studio. RTP worked until the day he died in 1996.

You may also be interested in reading the two recent biographies of Roger Tory Peterson:

Roger Tory Peterson: A Biography by Douglas Carlson
and
Birdwatcher: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson by Elizabeth Rosenthal


The new episode of my podcast This Birding Life features a reading of Dr. Peterson's essay "Capsized by a Rogue Wave" from "All Things Reconsidered" the book of RTP's columns from Bird Watcher's Digest.

Tomorrow: Happy Birthday and the New Guide.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A Book That Changed the World

"Shotgun" ornithologists in the field collecting birds.

Up until the early 1930s, people identified birds exclusively in the hand. That is, they shot them and looked at them up close. Lacking the powerful, crystal-clear optics we bird watchers take for granted, people looking at birds could only guarantee themselves a decisive view if they brought the bird to the ground using some weapon. The shotgun loaded with bird shot was the preferred method. This was time consuming for the bird enthusiast or ornithologist and it was quite hard on the birds themselves. From this rather consumptive pastime the phrase "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush" arose, presumably.

Looking at birds (really, dead specimens) in the hand also gave rise to some of ornithology's most asinine bird names. The ring-necked duck and red-bellied woodpecker are two of the worst examples, both being named for field marks that are readily visible in the hand but practically impossible to see on a wild bird in the field.

It's difficult to see the red on the belly of a red-bellied woodpecker.


In the western New York city of Jamestown, a young naturalist named Roger Tory Peterson had grown up absorbing every bit of information he could about birds and the natural world. His reference books for his nature study were long on descriptive text, short on illustrations, and better suited to use in a library or laboratory than in the field. His hunger for knowledge about birds and butterflies and wildflowers was not satisfied by these reference resources.

Happy circumstance was to merge with destiny, which helped Roger Tory Peterson change the way people looked at birds. His knowledge of birds (and curiosity about them) and his natural gifts as an artist would permit Roger Peterson to move the world beyond the realm of "shotgun ornithology."

Three of Roger Peterson's biggest influences were existing nature books. The first of these books was Frank M. Chapman's Handbook of Birds of Eastern North America, published in 1895. It was a scholarly tome with few illustrations, but with lengthy, minutely detailed descriptions of each bird species from bill tip to tail end. Peterson shared a copy of Chapman's book with a group of fellow birders, memorizing passages for later use in the field.

More useful in the field, but covering only some of the species, and then only briefly, was Chester A. Reed's Bird Guide to Land Birds East of the Rockies.
The Chester A. Reed bird guide.


Somewhere between these two extremes was another book, not yet created.

The third influential book for Roger Peterson was Two Little Savages by Ernest Thompson Seton, which contained a chapter titled "How Yan Knew the Birds Afar." In this chapter, the character Yan devised a simplified scheme that permitted him to identify ducks from a great distance based on basic visual clues.


Roger Tory Peterson at work on the layout of his field guide.

The concept of breaking bird identification down into easy to see and easy to remember clues lodged in Roger Peterson's brain. By the early 1930s he was gaining a reputation among his fellow birders as a careful observer in the field and a keen mind for the details of bird watching. These same friends encouraged him to incorporate his birding know-how into a book. The result was a book that changed the world forever because it gave anyone and everyone the necessary clues to identify birds at a distance.

The cover of the landmark 1934 field guide.


In 1934, A Field Guide to the Birds was published by Houghton Mifflin. It included, as the cover proclaimed: "All Species Found in Eastern North America." The initial printing of 1,000 copies sold out almost immediately.

One of the few color plates in the original Peterson guide depicted the wood warblers.


Paging through a copy of that first guide it looks incredibly crude when compared unfairly with modern day guides. This is a bit like comparing the Wright Brothers flying machine with a Boeing 777.

And yet that first Peterson guide, with its few color plates and succinct text, open the doors to nature appreciation for millions of North Americans. Eventually the Peterson system of identification would be applied to other ares of natural history, touching the lives of people all over the world.

If you'd like to learn more about the life of Roger Tory Peterson, visit the website of The Peterson Institute of Natural History. Or better yet, visit the actual institute yourself in Jamestown, New York.

I am posting about Roger Tory Peterson and his field guides all this week in honor of his birthday on August 28. Tomorrow I will discuss RTP's life after the publication of that first field guide.

If you'd like to jump ahead of the rest of the class, go to the Peterson Field Guides website and watch some of the free video podcasts created to accompany the newest Peterson Field Guide. More on these later on this week.

Roger Tory Peterson had an insatiable curiosity about birds and nature.

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