Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving

Male wild turkey ready to do what male wild turkeys were born to do.

In bright sunlight, an adult turkey's feathers show beautiful iridescence.

I wonder if any of the Pilgrims or First Peoples at the original Thanksgiving took the time to consider what a cool bird the turkey is. Or did they simply add it to their life list before shooting it with the blunderbuss and dropping it in the big black cauldron? Most ponderable, that.

If you're into learning more about the wild turkey, check out the Peterson Field Guide's video podcast about the species here. Click on the yellow Species Profile tab, then the wild turkey icon.

Wishing you and yours a wonderful Thanksgiving Day with lots of reasons to be both happy and thankful. Beware the tryptophan.

—Bill of the Birds

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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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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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