Tuesday, September 16, 2008

My Spark Bird

Snowy owl, but not THE snowy owl.

On my recent trip to Iowa, I took a detour to spend the night in my hometown of Pella, southeast of Des Moines. While there I visited with my awesome niece Annalea and Thompson family friend Barb Butler. And I also visited the exact site where I saw my spark bird (the bird that "sparked" my interest in birds) as a young man in November of 1969. I told my spark bird story back in January of this year here in Bill of the Birds.

Here's the briefest of re-tellings:

I was out in the front yard of my family's home on Monroe Street on the edge of town. It was Thanksgiving break from school and we were raking leaves in the front yard, under the giant oak trees. I seem to remember a slight dusting of snow on the ground. A flash of movement caught my eye and I looked up into the heavy, spreading branches of one of the old oaks to see a large white bird swooping to a landing. It sat there looking around, oblivious to the gawking humans on the ground 40 feet below.

What happened next is a blur. I remember running to fetch the Chester Reed Field Guide and the ancient WWI binoculars on our kitchen windowsill. We identified the bird as a snowy owl. WOW! I was pretty excited. This was a cool bird.

My family was not into birds at the time, but we'd managed to see a bird that we knew was fairly unusual. For me, however, this was the bird that started me on my lifelong path of watching and seeking out birds. It did not happen all at once, of course. I paged through the Reed Guide and tried to find some of the other birds. For some I had great success (northern cardinal, bobwhite, "purple" grackle) but for others I was to find no joy (painted bunting).

The snowy owl is still a special bird to me and I try to see them whenever winter brings them southward.

The morning after my arrival in Pella, it was already time to leave to head north for a speaking engagement. But first, I wanted to revisit the site of my spark bird encounter.
The Rickety House in Pella Iowa.

My family left Pella, Iowa to move to Marietta, Ohio in 1971. The house in Pella (which we kids called "The Rickety House") passed through a variety of owners, with the associated changes in landscaping, painting, and remodeling. The woodlot to the side of the house was sold of for a building lot. The old tree nursery and scrubby fields where I rambled in the 1960s looking for birds and animals are now a subdivision of perfectly kept houses.
The oak tree that the snowy owl landed in.

But the oak trees are still there. And the tree that hosted my snowy owl is still there, too. I stopped the car out in front and took several photos.

I was standing there and the owl landed up there....

The heavy rain on this morning did nothing to dampen my remembering of the day I met my spark bird.

Bird Watcher's Digest is creating a venue for sharing spark bird stories. We'd love to hear yours, and we'll share the best of them in a blog called, appropriately enough: Spark Bird Stories.

To share your spark bird tale, send an e-mail with the story to [email protected]


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Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Young Birder's Guide

That's me in the yellow shirt in April of 1970 only a few months after seeing my spark bird.
Dad (BT, jr.) is in the middle and brother Andy is on the right.


I saw my spark bird in November of 1969, when I was 7 years old. It was a snowy owl that flew into a tree in our front yard in Pella, Iowa. I keyed the bird out in my mom's Chester A. Reed Bird Guide.
Until the mid-1930s, millions of households relied upon the Reed Guide for bird identification. In 1934, Roger Peterson changed all that with the publication of his revolutionary Field Guide to The Birds of Eastern North America.

The Reed Guide was basic by today's field guide standards, but it served my purpose. I keyed out the snowy owl—there was no doubt about it.

The snowy owl page from the Chester A. Reed Guide.

Then I noticed all the other birds in the guide! And I set out in the woods behind our house to find some of the other species depicted in the Reed Guide. Little did I know that all the bobolinks and painted buntings and indigo buntings and eastern kingbirds were far to the south of Iowa in November. So I set about identifying the cardinals and tufted titmice and dark-eyed juncos in the evergreen windbreak and the house sparrows in our barn.

We moved to Ohio in 1971, and my mom once again gave my interest in birds a boost. She joined a local bird club made up mostly of women, who were happy to have my brother Andy and me along one Friday a month. These gals went birding somewhere every week! And the leader Pat Murphy, wrote about their trips and sightings in our local newspaper, The Marietta Times. Every club member had a nickname (perhaps to avoid putting their real names in the paper—birding was not yet socially acceptable). My mom was The Catbird—a name which fits her chatty, high-energy nature, and which has stuck to her to this day.

During these early years of bird watching, the seeds of what would eventually become Bird Watcher's Digest were planted. It would be another seven years before we'd start the magazine in our living room, but during each of those years we became more interested in birds.

As a kid, I would have LOVED to have had a basic field guide that was somewhere between the Reed Guide and the Peterson or Golden Guides. Those latter guides were wonderful, but they were far too all-inclusive for me. I was constantly identifying birds only to find out that they were nowhere near our area. Of course this was in my youth, when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth.

Fast forward to a couple of years ago, when I started working on the concept of a field guide for young birders. I wanted it to be welcome mat for all those 8 to 12 year olds out there who are sort of interested in birds, but who are not yet bitten by the bird watching bug. My goal was to create a guide that would be a starting place for them. A book they'd LIKE READING as well as using to ID birds. So we knew we'd need to include some puke, some guts, some screaming, a few gross-outs, and so on, and, baby this book's got 'em!

I made some initial notes and started talking to the kids in Phoebe's elementary school class about it. The kids and their teachers and I worked on the guide for almost three years! We studied how books are created from idea to proposal to manuscript to layouts to final galleys. In a eureka moment, we realized with that in being written, printed, shipped, and distributed, the book would actually travel around the world!

The kids helped me with the design of The Young Birder's Guide, they helped me write some of the text. We chose many photographs together. We selected page layout preferences. We worked on tweaking the cover design. I must have gone in to Phoebe's fourth, fifth, and sixth grade classes more than a dozen times in all to work with her classmates on the book.

Now it's all done and being printed and we CAN'T WAIT to see it. I've seen a bound galley and it looks and feels just like I hoped it would. It's narrow and tall—easy to use for smaller hands and easily stuffed in a pocket or backpack. The pages are packed with color—one species per page with photographs as illustrations.

The publisher, Houghton Mifflin is debuting the book at this weekend's birding industry trade show, BirdWatch America in Atlanta. I'm heading down to give a talk about getting kids into birding and, I have to admit, I'm completely excited about the launch of this book.

The kids at Phoebe and Liam's school are excited, too. Anytime they see me they ask about the book and when it's going to be here. It does seem like a long time coming. But that's publishing for you.

Of all the books I've been involved in as author, editor, project manager, or idea-monger, this is the one that is closest to my heart. Why? Because I want my own kids (fingers crossed) to know the joy of watching birds.
Our kids are good sports about their crazy birding parents. Photo by Julie Zickefoose.

And because I believe that the future of this planet is in their hands. We need them to know about birds and nature so they understand the value of the natural world. And the Playstation or the Wii is not going to teach them the difference between the song of an American robin and a rose-breasted grosbeak.

But this book just might accomplish that. The good folks at birdJam have created a playlist of 160 of the 200 species in the book. Kids can augment their copy of The Young Birder's Guide with the songs and images on this optional digital download.

Too bad it's going to be several weeks yet before we see actual copies, shipped express from the printer overseas.

I won't really feel the book is real until I walk into Phoebe's class with a box full of copies for all the kids who helped with the project. THAT'S going to be awesome!

Phoebe's fourth-grade class outside, posing with imaginary binoculars.

And here is a glimpse at the cover. I've got more to say about this book, but will save that for later. Right now I've got to finish writing my talk about getting kids interested in birds!


In case you're curious about it, the on-sale date for this book is sometime in mid-to-late April. I'll certainly keep y'all posted on that.

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