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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