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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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
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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Friday, August 22, 2008

Unheavy Friday!

Hey, it's Unheavy Friday again!

Here are some images from Brazil to chill you out for the weekend:

Moon over old church, Ubatuba, Brazil.

Sunset over the Atlantic Ocean south of Ubatuba.

A spiderweb that looked just like an old LP record, floating above the forest floor.

An orchid growing on the edge of the forest at Folha Seca.

Have a good weekend, amigos! Catch you on the other side!—BOTB

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Birding in Brazil: Free as a Bird!

The nests and a distant look at a pair of firewood gatherers.

Driving from Itatiaia National Park to Ubatuba during our Brazil birding adventure, our group made a stop at a small farm. Although the habitat was heavily agricultural, there were a lot of birds there. We saw several excellent new species, including the firewood gatherer, which builds its nest very carefully out of sticks it collects.

Among the more colorful of the new species spotted at this farm was the saffron finch. The male saffron finch is a bright yellow bird with a blush of orange on the top of the head. We first heard this male singing from a large flowering tree in the farm yard.

Wild saffron finch, male.

I heard the same song coming from nearer to the farm house and, peeking around the corner of the building, found an adult male saffron finch singing from a small cage. The caged bird seemed to be healthy, but I felt a bit sorry for it being confined, so near to its flock mates.

Captive male saffron finch.

Why DOES the caged bird sing?

We did not see a lot of wild birds in cages in Brazil, which was good. I've stumbled upon caged birds in Latin American marketplaces before, and it never fails to depress me.

Brazil is not yet a nation of bird watchers, but I was surprised by the numbers of bird feeders we encountered—especially hummingbird feeders. While we did not encounter any Brazilian bird watchers while afield, we did run into an Australian couple who were birding Brazil for several months. Lucky dingoes.

Violet-capped woodnymph at the Hotel Ypé feeders.

I spent some time watching the action at the bird feeders and talking with a couple of Brazilian families at the Hotel Ypé in Itatiaia. The families loved watching the birds, but really didn't care what the species names of the birds were. It was enough that the birds were beautiful and easy to watch as they flew to and from the feeders, almost within arm's reach. In fact the Brazilians, young and old, got a big kick out of the fact that I knew the names of all the birds. They would point and say "Which one is that?"

I did fairly well at identifying the birds for them.

The patriarch of the larger family asked me, through his English-speaking son:
"How is it you know all of these birds when you are from so far away? Are you sure you're not part bird, my friend? Maybe you understand their secret language"

I just smiled.

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Coneflowers Predawn

Tossed, an afterthought
can of wildflower seeds
now, pink explosion

Petals whirling out
'round bulbous orange nose cone
goldfinches' delight

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The David Bowie of Dogs

Outside of Ubatuba, Brazil, while birding along a rural road, our group encountered this perro, which came up to check us out. His eyes reminded me of David Bowie—the Thin White Duke.

I wonder if they are related? When was the last time Bowie toured Brazil? Hmmm...

Anyway, back on that dusty Ubatuba road, my mind began sifting through old Bowie songs, changing the lyrics...

He came on so loaded man
dog breath and snow-white tan


Pound control to Major Tom

You get the idea.

Any other Bowie fans want to chime in here with canine-infused lyrics?


Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Botany of Brazil

In the tropics, plants grow almost everywhere. This epiphyte is growing on an electric line.

My birding trip to Brazil yielded more than just birds. The vegetation in that part of South America is lush and dense forests, rich farmland, and lots of edge habitat with viney tangles, giant palm fronds, epiphytes and bromeliads, and every kind of fruit and flower you can imagine.

When the birding got slow in Brazil (which was not often) I enjoyed looking around for interesting plants to photograph. Here are a few of the images I kept, after weeding.
Cecropia frond against the afternoon sky.

The morning dew makes the grasses bow their heads.

The fronds of this vine-like fern were more than 10 feet long.

We ate papayas from this very tree at a restaurant on the Praia da Almada.

A vine's long tendrils reaching for something, anything.

My plan is to share one more brief post about Brazil and then move on to other subjects. If you're interested in reading the full account of my birding trip to Brazil, it will be in a future issue of Bird Watcher's Digest.

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Monday, August 18, 2008

Upcoming Event: The Big Sit!

Q:What's better than watching birds all day?

A: Well, I would say sitting on your "behindal region" and watching birds all day might be the answer.

And that, mi amigo, is where The Big Sit! comes into your life. The Big Sit is birding's most sedentary event.

But why do we need another birding event? I hear you say...

The Big Sit has many advantages of other birding events. Here are just a few:

1. Unlike most birding competitions, The Big Sit is non-competitive. Most Big Sit circles compete with themselves to beat last year's total or the circle's best-ever total of species.

2. You can do The Big Sit wherever you want to do it, as long as you stay inside of a single 17-foot diameter circle during the 24 hours of the second Sunday in October.

3. This is a worldwide event. Big Sits have been held in more than 20 countries.

4. You might be surprised how many people and how much gear and food you can fit inside a 17-foot diameter circle.

5. Oh yeah. The Big Sit is a FREE event.

Big Sitters in the Indigo Hill birding tower in 2006.

Just past the stroke of midnight on Sunday, October 12, 2008, The Big Sit will begin and during that day, more than 1,000 bird watchers will participate. Some circles will be run for all of the 24 hours—some for just a few. Birds will be tallied from Big Sit circles in backyards, in birding hotspots and even in some National Wildlife Refuges. Friends and birding colleagues will converge for the birds, the conversation, and the simple joys of being outside on a beautiful (we all hope) autumn day (in the northern hemisphere).

I'll be doing the Big Sit in the birding tower at my farm in southeastern Ohio. During the day we'll have a couple of dozen friends show up. The kitchen table will groan under the weight of the potluck food. Snacks ending in "os" (Doritos, Cheetos, Fritos) will be consumed by the pound. All manner of beverages will be consumed and the ensuing bathroom breaks will be carefully choreographed so as to maintain constant coverage in the Big Sit circle.
Scanning the afternoon skies for just one more species.

I've done Big-Sit-type birding in other places—as part of The Great Texas Birding Classic (which features a Big Sit category) and as part of The World Series of Birding (which uses The Big Sit rules and format but changed the name, for some reason, to The Big Stay). Those other events are very enjoyable, but nothing compares to the actual, real McCoy Big Sit which is held each October.

It's my favorite birding event of the year. And if we don't beat our all-time high score of 65 species this year, I'm going to try some performance-enhancing drugs in 2009.

YOU should do a Big Sit! It's easy. Just pick a birdy spot, gather some friends, register your circle on the official Big Sit website, and get ready for a great day of bird watching on October 12.

The official Big Sit website has past results, answers to frequently asked questions, places to upload your results (and photos), and lots of other info. The Big Sit! is a registered trademark of The New Haven (CT) Bird Club, the organization that formalized the Big Sit into an annual event.

The 2008 Big Sit is made possible with major technical assistance from its host, Bird Watcher's Digest, and through the generosity of The Big Sit's sponsors: Swarovski Optik NA, Wild Bird Centers of America, and Alpen Optics.

Happy Sitting!

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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Happy 30th to Bird Watcher's Digest!

The very first issue of Bird Watcher's Digest.

This month is the 30th anniversary of the first issue of Bird Watcher's Digest. My parents started the magazine in our living room after a family meeting at which all five of us Thompsons agreed we'd sink every cent of our money into this magazine idea. I was heading into 10th grade which meant that all my college savings was going to be spent on this new venture. I was already enough of a bird watcher to know that this was a really cool thing my parents were trying.

Things evolved quickly thereafter.

My dad quit his job as director of development at Marietta College. We turned the front parlor of our house on Warren Street in Marietta into the magazine's office. We subscribed to a newspaper clipping service to help us find out who was writing about birds. Every time we'd find a regular newspaper column about birds and nature, we'd put a pin in the wall map in the office to indicate it. Within three months we'd found 500 regular bird and nature columnists and we knew there was enough interest and enough content out there that this magazine just might fly.
Elsa Thompson and Bill Thompson, Jr., founding publishers of Bird Watcher's Digest.

For the launch, we mailed out sample issues to possible subscribers and to the newspaper columnists and got a surprisingly encouraging return. Going through the reader mail a few months later, my dad was astonished to find a three-page, single spaced letter from Roger Tory Peterson in Old Lyme, Connecticut offering compliments about the magazine's content and advice about its direction. Also enclosed was his check for $7 for a year's subscription.

You can't imagine how this bit of good fortune buoyed our spirits.

Soon the office expanded like The Blob into the adjoining rooms and the kitchen, where my mom kept the subscription records, hand-written on 3x5 cards, next to the counter where she cooked. Early BWD subscribers were kind enough not to complain when their renewal notices arrived with a smear of butter or ketchup on them.

We've come a LONG way since then. Dad (BT2) is retired now but still stops by to rattle our cages every week. Mom (Elsa) still answers the phones and handles subscriber issues. Brother Andy is the publisher and handles much of the business end of things. My sister Laura is BWD's circulation director. And I am the edytur, a job which I've managed to keep for more than two decades now (ain't nepotism a wonderful thing?).

I'll post a bit more about BWD's history in the coming weeks. Right now I've got to go—the Marietta Chamber of Commerce is having a reception here at our offices tonight and I've got to return the rental backhoe I used to clean my office.

Tomorrow night we're hosting an open house for all BWD subscribers living within 100 miles or so. If you'd like to stop by for a chin wag and a glass of sangria, please do. Or if you can't make it, but you're nostalgic for the old days of the magazine, just say the word and I'll have Mom smear some mayo on your next renewal notice.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

New River Adventure

The delightfully lovely New River, viewed from our campsite.

Our pals the Heeters in Fayetteville, WV invited us along on a river float/camping adventure on the New River. We know Geoff and Kyle from The New River Birding Festival, of which Geoff is a co-founder. They are old hands at whitewater rafting, having both migrated to the area, famous for its wild rivers, to become rafting guides. This trip would be on relatively calm waters—two days of rafting with a night of camping thrown in. Julie was busy with an illustration project, so the kids and I loaded up the van and headed south to the hills.

We caught a minor league baseball game in Charleston on Sunday night—more about that (possibly) in a future post—and stayed overnight on the Heeters' farm after the game. The two young Heeters and the two young Thompsons (boys and girls the same age) get along famously. It's nice when you can let the village raise your children.

Monday morning, instead of heading off to work, we loaded rafts and life jackets and coolers and tents and far too much other stuff into two vehicles and headed off to the river. Along the way we picked up some other friends' kids and one other adult, Katie, and began the long, complicated process of changing from land-based to water-borne creatures.

Raft #2 in our expedition, with Katie's dog Cannonball about to re-board the craft.

The rafts are large, heavy plastic or rubber crafts, designed to float high and to withstand the rocks and beaches of a sometimes-angry river. We ran several rapids during the two days, but the New was low and clear, so we did not encounter anything that was truly scary.

In the New River Gorge you are often far from civilization—or at least civilization and its comforts are not easily within reach. No cell signals. Too wet for the laptop. If you bring a camera it needs to travel in a dry bag or in a water-tight case.

Geoff talked me out of bringing my binoculars.

"When was the last time you spent a day without binoculars?" he asked me.

I had to think. It's been a long time.

It was a big relief to have no expensive gear to worry over. I did take my pocket digital camera.
Did I miss the binocs? Only twice—when distant birds were not ID-able with the naked eye. Otherwise, I enjoyed a more "whole-istic" view of the river and the gorge.

Floating down the river was true bliss. We told stories, jokes, sang goofy songs, and also spent a fair amount of time (kids included!) just "being"—sitting in quiet contemplation. The river's motion and sounds have that effect.

Phoebe and Liam surprised me with their willingness to raft or swim through rapids, to jump off of rocks into the water, and to revert to being nature creatures, released from the grip of Webkinz and TV and e-mail.
Thompson kids ready to run the river.

We slept on a sandy beach in our tent. We ate hobo-style meals squatting around a fire. We fished (both kids loved that)!

It was a really nice change of channel. Thanks Kyle & Geoff!

Some photographic evidence:

I caught you a delicious bass.

Lunch spot on Day 2.

Shooting the rapids with Liam.

Some say Bigfoot still roams in the New River Gorge. It's the hairless race, I'm told.

The kids built a fort and defended it against all comers (adults).

Kids at play in mid-river. Phoebe relaxes on a warm rock.

Kyle and Geoff our hosts and guides.

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Monday, August 11, 2008

New River Escape

I've gone to the mountains for a few days respite. Will be back here to post by mid-week, if the New River lets me leave.

Friday, August 08, 2008

The Best of Photo Booth

This is an Unheavy Friday Post. What I mean by that is this: It's Friday. We don't need any more heaviness. It's a miracle that we made it through the work week, right? Thus, Unheavy Friday.

If you are the owner/user of a recent-vintage Apple Macintosh computer you may (or may not) be aware that there's a free program inside your computer that will make you waste hours of your time and will hog up entire gigabytes of your hard drive space.

It's called Photo Booth.

The Photo Booth window on my Mac.

Photo Booth uses the camera built into your computer to take photos of you or whatever is in the camera's field of view. Simple enough, right? Here's a photo of me, right now, working hard on this blog post at my desk.

Normal-ish photo.

Black-and-white, always classic.

But Photo Booth also comes with two sets of cool effects and that's where the Devil lives. You can morph yourself (and any body part you care to photograph) into amazingly weird shapes. My kids love to mess with Photo Booth almost as much as I do.

Here are some recent photos.
As if ONE Liam weren't enough...

Things always start off fairly mildly. Then they deteriorate from there...

Here is the second, wilder set of effects:

So many options. I'm still looking for the New Hairline effect.

The light tunnel effect.

Those are Liam's real teeth.

The kids took these images while we were stranded in the JetBlue terminal at JFK airport in June. They were laughing so hard at the photos that people started staring, then gathering around. Liam, especially, loved having the crowd. Everything was OK until his images began getting very butt-centric, then it was time to shut things down.

Phoebe has a huge brain.

Three-quarters of a family portrait.

Happy siblings.


Mamaw Phoebe.

Triclops Liam.

Alien Liam.


This is how we save money on eyeglasses.

And this, too.

Chet Baker even gets into it, too.

I hope I haven't freaked you all the way out. Happy UnHeavy Friday!

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Thursday, August 07, 2008

The Midwest Birding Symposium 2009

In 1997 and 1999 Bird Watcher's Digest hosted The Midwest Birding Symposium, a biennial (every other year) festival that moves around the Midwest and is hosted by local or regional bird clubs, companies, and tourism organizations. The MWBS has been held in Illinois (where it was founded), Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, and now it's coming back to Ohio. The dates—and you're going to want to write this down right now—are September 17 to 20, 2009.

If you attended one of the two symposia we hosted at Lakeside on Lake Erie in the late 1990s, you know what this event is all about: bird watchers coming together to see birds, to expand their birding knowledge, and most of all, to have fun!

Joining BWD in hosting the 2009 Midwest Birding Symposium are our friends and fellow birders from the Ohio Ornithological Society. We've once again chosen the charming community of Lakeside, Ohio as home base for the event. Given the enthusiasm we have as organizers and hosts, we believe the 2009 Midwest Birding Symposium is going to be the best one ever.

If you've never attended an MWBS, this is your chance. If you've been to one before and you want to come to another one, don't wait to register. Space is limited! We are already taking pre-registrations on the MWBS web pages.

We are busily lining up speakers and choosing field trip sites (and looking for corporate sponsors!). We'll share all these developments with you via the official MWBS e-updates, which will be sent to all pre-registrants. You can also watch for details in the pages of Bird Watcher's Digest.

I hope I'll see YOU at the 2009 Midwest Birding Symposium.

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Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Brazil: End of Day 2

Overgrazed hillsides outside of Itatiaia National Park.

As we left the Black Needles mountain road, heading back to Itatiaia National Park and our hotel, we made a few stops for birds and one for an interesting food item. On the paved road we left the forest behind and moved into open, heavily agricultural country. Black vultures dotted the sky in all directions—the default soaring raptor in Brazil seems to be the black vulture.

Then it was time for a snack.

Roadside food stand.

A roadside stand across the road from our morning coffee stop was serving boiled nuts. Paulo encouraged us to try them. They were shaped like orange sections—tapered at both ends. The shell outside was deep maroon and the soft meat inside was bright white. You bit the end off and squeezed the meat out of the shell. They tasted pretty good.

Boiling the nuts we ate.

Paulo told us that this nut (and I'm sorry I cannot recall its name) was the food that saved the early settlers in this part of Brazil. The plentiful nuts provided enough sustenance to help the pioneers survive until they could plant crops.

A handful of the boiled nuts.

Farther along the highway home we spied a large group of guira cuckoos basking in the late afternoon sun. We stopped and got out. The birds moved away. I wondered aloud if people shot the cuckoos because they seemed more skittish than other birds. Perhaps the farmers do not like them. For such large birds they acted very shy and wary. I managed to snap a few photos of one that came closer after Paulo played a flocking call on his iPod.

Guira cuckoo.

The guira cuckoo is a wild looking bird—something like Phyllis Diller first thing in the morning, before make-up! Another bird making an appearance at this stop along the road was the rufous hornero. Now the rufous honero certainly IS rufous. Where the 'hornero' comes from is a curious thing. It sounds to me like the name of a producer of "adult" films. And I'm sure he's got a casting couch.

Rufous hornero.

Home to the hotel we went. Once there we had time for a beer on the veranda, then a run through the checklist, dinner, and right into bed. Long days behind and ahead made me pretty tired, so it was not hard to fall asleep. I needed the blazing fire again because the night was mighty chilly.

I went to bed smiling about the 37 lifers I'd seen that day. Only wished I gotten a few more photos...

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Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Signs of Life

It's been a while since we've had a good sign posting here on BOTB. I ran across this one in front of a waterfowl hunting club near Bear River NWR in Utah. Somehow I knew instantly that this was not a birding club.

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Monday, August 04, 2008

Up High, a Diadem

Chuck Hagner, editor of Birder's World, and BOTB (pointing) near the top of Agulhas Negras.

The afternoon of Day 2 in Brazil:
We made our way to the top of the Picas das Agulhas Negras looking, for a bird known as a great pampa finch. We parked next to a military outpost, walked past the roadblock and down a rocky dirt road toward the peaks. The air was thin here above 8,000 feet and it was still cold, though we were warmed somewhat by the sun, which was approaching the mid-day position in the sky. Even so, frost lingered on the grass in shaded areas on the roadside.
Frost-covered grass.

The occasional breeze did little to carry or to conceal bird song—there was none. A few rufous-collared sparrows flitted across the road. No sight or sound of the pampa finch. Paulo suggested we head back to the military building to have our lunch. Maybe we'd have better luck on full stomachs.

As we walked back up the hill to the bus and building, I answered Nature's call and stepped off into the underbrush. As is almost always the case, I was not yet done when the shouts of the others reached my ears. Whizzing over, and much lighter on my feet, I raced to the group's location. There, teed up on a bare branch, was the great pampa finch, looking like the ill-bred spawn of a junco and a green towhee. At last a bird that wanted its pitcher took. Or is it tooken?

Great pampa finch.

I stayed on the bird for the next ten minutes of so while the others grabbed their lunches and found sunny spots on the lee side of the outpost building for eating. Cesar, our driver, grabbed my small camera to take a photo of our lunch party.
Lunching in the warm sun. Photo by Cesar.

While the others continued masticating (look it up) I took my big camera on a walk back up the road. The great pampa finch flew from under a jeep and landed in a patch of grass. Another bird followed. It was a diademed tanager! Both birds were eating the leaves of some tiny succulent plant growing there. It must have been a special food item because both birds stayed focused on eating, allowing me to approach (sliding on my behind across the rocky road) within four feet.

Diademed tanager.

The tanager's iridescent blue color, dark face, and the fact that it was often half-in and half-out of the bright sunlight made it quite a challenge to get a decent photo. But I managed to get a few.
A diadem is a crown. So you can see how this bird got its name.

Paulo shouted to me that it was time to head back down the mountain. The others were already on the bus, so I reluctantly left an incredibly stunning bird—one I'd only just added to my life list a few hours before—and we headed off in a cloud of dust.

White-tailed hawk.

On the way back down we ran into soaring white-tailed hawks. They were turning lazy circles over a massive valley that was wearing a layer of clouds. It might have been the first time I've watched a buteo soaring above me, yet we were both above the clouds.

Other things were rising into the sky, too. The full moon made a late afternoon appearance, making this barren habitat above the treeline look even more like a moonscape.

We made a few more stops on the way down adding a few more birds. Then we reached the highway. The smooth road (at last) warm sunlight coming in the windows, and the hum of the diesel engine were too much—I dozed off.

More about the adventures on the way home in my next post.

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Friday, August 01, 2008

Moment of Zen

While birding along a forest trail in Brazil's Itatiaia National Park, I encountered this waterfall. I watched it for several minutes, mesmerized. That is, until a nearby lek of male blue manakins wing-snapped into action.

In the future, I hope to share more of these natural Moments of Zen with you.

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