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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Monday, August 25, 2008

Your Favorite Bird Field Guide?


All this week I will be posting about field guides and, in particular, about Roger Tory Peterson and the new Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America. I was a part of the team of people who worked on the new Peterson. More on that tomorrow...

I've asked this question before, but with all the new field guides that have appeared on the birding scene in the past year, it bears repeating.

What is YOUR favorite field guide/guides? And why?

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Twenty Years!

As she handed me my check stub on May 2, 2008, Ann Kerenyi, BWD's comptroller offered me her congratulations.

"For what?" I asked.

"Yesterday was your 20-year anniversary of working for Bird Watcher's Digest!"

Dang. That's right.

It was back in May 1988 that I left a stressful but increasingly lucrative job in the advertising/PR biz in New York City to join the family business (BWD) in a newly opened Baltimore office. BWD's editor at the time, Mary Beacom Bowers, had moved to Baltimore, Maryland a few years prior and I joined her as an associate editor. We worked out of a single room in her apartment building. It was a new career direction for me and I knew nobody in Baltimore except Mary, but I was fulfilling a longtime dream to do something involving birds. And being able to work for my parents (who were in the Marietta, Ohio office) but live in Baltimore seemed like a good compromise.

The first issue in which my name appears in the masthead is the September/October 1988 issue featuring a cover painting of a great horned owl by Roger Tory Peterson. With that issue BWD was celebrating its 1oth anniversary!

BWD's September/October 1988 issue.

Looking at the other names on the masthead, I am shocked to see how many of my colleagues have died and how few remain. My mom, Elsa, now holds the title for longest tenure among all BWD employees—she's been here since Day 1 in 1978. My dad retired from BWD in 1998. Chuck Bernstein, Lola Oberman, and Pete Dunne are still contributing editors to the magazine. Peter Holt is still one of our European editors. Steve and Dave Maslowski are still contributing photographers (their father Karl died a year ago). And Helen Neuberger still works here at the BWD offices, answering the phones as well as bird questions from our subscribers.

The S/O 88 masthead page.


In January 1995, after a few years a managing editor, I became the editor of the magazine. This coming September (2008) we'll kick off our 30th anniversary.

What a long, strange trip it's been!

* # * # * # *

While thinking about my past, I stumbled upon this old photograph of a birding trip I took out West in 1985. I was eight months out of college and freshly convinced that a career as a full-time musician was not going to work out, when a friend's mom offered me some money and a return plane ticket from anywhere to drive her daughter out to Flagstaff, Arizona.

Along the way Erika and I stopped to see one of my college friends in Albuquerque, New Mexico. On a whim we went on a birding road trip down to Bosque del Apache NWR in southern NM. Someone snapped this photo of me standing along a chain-link fence near the refuge. I remember being amazed that there would be an RV park specifically aimed at bird watchers! Remember, these were the days when birding still was mostly considered a social abnormality.
BT3 (BOTB) near Bosque del Apache NWR, January 1985.

Note the field marks of the 1980s bird watcher:

Swift 7x35 binoculars suspended from a narrow, pain-inducing neck strap.
Greek fisherman's hat with Big Hair sticking out in front
Guerilla Birding Team T-shirt from the World Series of Birding (it's a little-known fact that BWD was that event's first corporate team sponsor).
Field guide pouch with National Audubon Society patch and an Peterson Western Guide inside.

Back when there was a lot more "nesting material" on the top of my head.

I dropped Erika off in Flagstaff a few days after the Bosque trip, and hitch-hiked farther west, eventually making it out to L.A. That was a memorable, formative trip and holds some great stories for another day.

Now here we are in 2008.
Birding is not only socially acceptable, it's trendy.
There are thousands of places and events and companies catering to bird watchers.
A new bird field guide comes out every 17 hours.
And I'm lucky enough to [still] be editing a magazine on a subject I'm passionate about.


Twenty years...
Time flies, man—just like a bird.

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