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?


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 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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At 5:56 PM, Anonymous Doug Miller said...

Dear Bill (and Jeff),
Excellent job on the Peterson video/podcasts. They are very well done!

Are you aware of anyone reporting problems with them when using Safari as the browser? If I use Firefox as my browser (I have a MacBook Pro) I have no problems. Under Safari, a click on the red Itunes button underneath the podcast icon yields a pop-up window with a lot of ASCII characters! Perhaps my Safari browser is not tuned correctly, but this would be rare for an Apple product!

At 6:16 PM, Anonymous Beverly said...

STUNNING! What fun you must have had and what a gift you give us! Why are they free? I mean, I love it and thank you very much...but it is easy to see the work, not to mention time, that went into producing them.

They are fabulous and I really appreciate that you've shared them with the world!

I am viewing them on DSL, not on an Ipod, and wish I had a way to keep them 'mine' forever! Are they likely to disappear from the website eventually?

Sincerely (greedily & appreciatively)

At 9:50 PM, Anonymous KatDoc said...


Nice blue nail polish you are wearing in the photo comparing the book and the digital device. oh, wait - maybe those aren't your hands. Could that be the BirdChick? It looks like her color.

Computers and other electronic gadgets with NEVER replace the printed word for me. It is pretty hard to read an e-book in the bathtub, for instance!

Still, I will check the video podcasts out, if only for the cool factor. Looks like you were having too much fun to call it work, though.


At 6:02 AM, Anonymous Jayne said...

How cool Bill! I can't wait to check them all out. What a labor of love.

At 11:21 AM, Anonymous Bill of the Birds said...

Hey Doug:

I see what you mean. Same things happens on my Safari. This problem is already on the list of fixes for the site's webmaster, so I hope it will be taken care of within the next week.

Thanks for flagging this issue for us.


At 2:47 PM, Anonymous NCmountainwoman said...

That is so cool. I guess I'm going to have to break down and buy a new iPod. Mine is the original, doesn't even have color much less video.

At 6:27 PM, Anonymous April said...

Thank you guys, so much, for the good guidance and advice on your podcasts. The fact that they're free is an extra bonus! Thanks again

At 4:52 PM, Anonymous Gayle said...

Dear Bill, Today my dear husband gifted me with the new Petersen Guide. When I saw on the cover that podcasts were available, I immediately went to the site. I can't tell you how thrilled I am with not only the book, but also the videos. I'm a visual learner, and these videos speak to me in a very meaningful way. Plus, they allow for education through storytelling, and you have really made great use of this medium, I must say. Quite honestly, I've spent the entire afternoon downloading the podcasts and don't know if dinner will ever get ready. Thank you so much, and personally I'd love to see more of this!!



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