Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Many Joys of Book Authorship

I've never been so proud to be the author of a book as I was when I saw my friend Bart carrying a copy of The Young Birder's Guide in hands-free mode.

In the booth where it was being sold at The Space Coast Birding & Wildlife Festival, dozens of copies of the book were purchased by blushing female customers following Bart's appearance.

Steven King, John Grisham, Oprah, and that mom that writes lusty vampire books can just eat their collective hearts out.

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Saturday, December 13, 2008

This Birding Life: New Episode!

Episode #18 of my podcast, This Birding Life, is now available for your listening and viewing pleasure. The new episode is titled "Phoebe and the Young Birder's Guide." As with most episodes of TBL, this one comes in both enhanced audio M4a format (with images) and in regular MP3 (audio only) format. You can listen/watch on your computer, on your MP3 player, iPod, iPhone, or anything else that plays digital files. This does not include that new Close N'Play record player that Santa is bringing you in a few days.

In this latest episode, I interview Phoebe Thompson, age 12, my primary co-author (with her 20 or so classmates) on The Young Birder's Guide to Birds of Eastern North America. Phoebe and I talk about how the book came to be, about the perception of bird watchers among her peers, and about her life in a family of birders. I happen to think Phoebe did a great job in the interview, but then again, I might be biased since Phoebe is also my daughter.

Phoebe digs birds.

I'm hoping listeners will forgive this bit of nepotism. And I'm also hoping that all of us bird people will do what we can to "pay it forward" by sharing the world of birds with a young person. I've written before about Nature Deficit Disorder here in Bill of the Birds. It's a very real concern. Why not ask an interested youngster along on your next field trip, Christmas Bird Count, or to a bird club meeting? We all need to contribute to get kids interested in some aspect of the natural world. I happen to think that birds are the very best way to accomplish this.

For young birders surfing the Web, the newly redesigned "Young Birders" section of the Bird Watcher's Digest website has some great content, a bird quiz, tips for better bird watching, and more. The section also includes information about the new booklet we've just created Bird Watching For Kids! I'll write more about this booklet in a future post here at BOTB.

Special thanks to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company for their sponsorship of This Birding Life.

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Young Birders in Texas

I was glad to have my spotting scope along. I kept it set on midget and the kids dug the great bird looks. Photo by Liz Gordon.

During the recently completed Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, I gave a presentation my most recent book, The Young Birder's Guide and discussed how we adults can help to get more kids into birds and nature. And that was fun and seemed to be well-received.

What was even better was getting to take two groups of local kids out birding in the park across the street from the festival headquarters. All told we took out about 35 youngsters and a dozen or so accompanying adults. The bird list was not exceptionally long, but we had big fun. Helping me herd the kids, spot birds, and impersonate sun-bathing Inca doves was Liz Gordon. Liz is a natural with kids, due in large measure to her own forever-young outlook on life. (Thanks again Liz of the Cosmos!)

We gathered 'round the field guide after each new species was sighted. Photo by Liz Gordon.

Susan Hoehne was the festival's coordinator for kids activities and she graciously arranged for us to borrow 15 pairs of compact Brunton binoculars from the Valley Nature Center. These came in very handy (as did the binocs loaned to us by our friends at Eagle Optics)—each kid got to have his or her own pair to use on the field trip.
Small binoculars work best for small hands and close-set eyes. Photo by Liz Gordon.

After a few quick lessons on using the binocs we crossed the street to Lon C. Hill Park seeking birds. The afternoon prior I had scouted around the auditorium and park to see if there were any stake-out species I could rely on. There were no birds in the afternoon heat. ¡Campo sin pajaros!

I felt better on Saturday morning when I showed up an hour before the first kids bird walk and found lots of bird activity. A pair of red-crowned parrots low in one of the park's trees were the best of the early birds. Alas they did not stay around for the kids to see.

Our total bird list was as follows:
  1. great-tailed grackle
  2. Brewer's blackbird
  3. golden-fronted woodpecker
  4. yellow-bellied sapsucker
  5. house sparrow
  6. rock pigeon
  7. Inca dove
  8. Eurasian collared dove
  9. European starling
  10. Couch's kingbird
  11. turkey vulture
  12. Lincoln's sparrow
  13. northern mockingbird
  14. laughing gull
  15. orange-crowned warbler
I gave away copies of the Young Birder's Guide to a few very interested youngsters and sold a few others to their thoughtful and generous adults.

The thing I was most pleased about was that Liz and I opened the eyes of these three dozen or so young south Texans to the avian wonders of their part of the world. They knew about the local parrots and chachalacas, but the mockingbird, golden-fronted woodpecker, Inca doves, and Couch's kingbird had them saying "Awesome!" and "Cool!" and "Oh WOW!"
Watching two very active golden-fronted woodpeckers. Photo by Liz Gordon.

I have to say, I am pretty sure that's why I was put here on Earth—to show people (of all ages, but especially kids) awesome and cool birds!

The second field trip of the morning. That's me in the green shirt with the littlest birder. At far left: Liz Gordon, my co-leader.

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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Phoebe & The Young Birder's Guide

Phoebe with her copy of the Young Birder's Guide at the New River Birding Festival.

The thing I'm most proud of in my career as a bird content guy is the Young Birder's Guide which I wrote with the help of my daughter Phoebe's elementary school class. The book has gotten quite a bit of notice from the media and seems to be doing a good job connecting with its target audience (8- to 12-year-olds). Working with Phoebe and her schoolmates was the best.

Phoebs and I recently were interviewed by Mark Lynch, host of the excellent radio show Inquiry on public radio station WICN-FM in Boston. The interview is now available on WICN's website. To give us a listen, go here.

Clearly, during the interview, I talk way too much and Phoebe—not enough. Phoebster, next time I promise to give you more airtime, babe.

The "Inquiry" page on the WICN website.

Share the joy of birds with a young person with the YBG.

If you live anywhere near western Maryland, south-central Pennsylvania, or eastern West Virginia, and are looking for something birdy to do this weekend, come watch birds with us at The Berkeley Springs Fall Birding Festival. This is the first year of what is planned to be an annual event. I am leading a bird walk for kids on Saturday morning and giving my "Perils & Pitfalls of Birding" talk on Saturday night.

Hope to see you there (or somewhere) soon!

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Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Those Days Are Gone

It used to be when I needed a set-up photograph of kids birding for use in a slide show, I'd ask my very own kids and they'd grab binocs and pose for the camera without batting an eye. Then they started asking for an appearance fee. Now I have to go through their agent to book them for a shoot.

I took this photo of Phoebe at the New River Birding Festival about 30 minutes before I used this very image in a presentation about kids and birds. It cost me a $2 and the use of my laptop for the afternoon.

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Thursday, June 19, 2008


Phoebe looking at a phoebe.

Hey! I was on NPR's All Things Considered today in a story about kids and birds by Melissa Block. I took Melissa and her family birding at Huntley Meadows in northern Virginia on Memorial Day weekend. What fun!

I listened to the piece on the radio with about 25 other people as we sat in the dining room of the Hog Island Audubon Camp in Maine. It was surreal to hear my voice coming out of the radio right next to all of those familiar NPR voices.

After the piece aired, we finished dinner and then we walked over to The Fish House where I gave a talk about The Young Birder's Guide to the folks here at Hog Island.

If you missed the story's airing, you can listen to it here.

What a day....

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Friday, May 30, 2008

Feeding the Lorikeets

Feeding the lorikeets at The National Aviary.

Last week I was one of the chaperones for Phoebe's 6th grade class trip to Pittsburgh, PA. We had a wonderful time in the city and saw lots of amazing things. The highlight for me was our visit to The National Aviary. And the highlight of our visit to The National Aviary was getting to feed their captive flock of rainbow lorikeets.

The "lories" are parrot relatives native to Australia and from their brilliant colors you might be able to guess why they are called rainbow lorikeets. At the aviary you can buy a small cup of nectar for $3 and hold it firmly while several lorikeets clamber along you arm to lap at the sweet liquid.

Most of the kids in Phoebe's class got to have a lorikeet on their arm during our feeding session. I took loads of images and some video (which won't upload for me today).

The class also joined me in signing and donating a copy of The Young Birder's Guide to the aviary. This was a cool culmination of our years of working on the book together to be able to donate a copy to a place that's dedicated to birds and conservation.

Today is the kids' last day of 6th grade. These same 20 kids, more or less, have been together in school, in the same class, since kindergarten. Next year they'll be mixed in with other 7th graders from other schools at the larger middle school. I'm hoping they'll take away some fond memories of their elementary years and of our time working together on the YBG. Not many 6th graders can say they helped write a book. And not many parents are prouder than I am right now of Phoebe and her classmates.

Phoebe feeding a rainbow lorikeet.

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Sunday, May 18, 2008

A New York Day

Somewhere near Times Square, NYC.

After enjoying the birds of Central Park for the morning, it was time to hit the streets and subways to make my various appointments. First stop was the Hearst Tower for an interview with The Daily Green an new environmental e-newsletter. Dan, the editor who interviewed me, told me a lot of interesting stuff about the tower, an example of green building. For example, much of the steel used was recycled, the glass in the walls was designed to be both passive solar and more resistant to window strikes from birds.

The Hearst Building, New York City.

Cooling water cascade inside the Hearst Building.

In the giant lobby there was a water cascade coming down the center wall. This, Dan explained, was rain water collected from the roof and it was moved through the building to offer both cooling and added humidity. Cool idea.
Sirius Radio offices in midtown Manhattan.

After The Daily Green and a lunch at The Algonquin Hotel, I bolted over to The Avenue of the Americas for a radio interview on The Martha Stewart Living Today show. Sirius Radio is the broadcaster of the show, which is produced at their offices on the 40th floor. Inside the office doors the walls are covered with Plexiglas and the Plexiglas is covered with autographs and graffiti from the various famous folks who've been on one of the Sirius Radio programs. I did not want to be a gherkin and stand at the wall looking for artists I knew. So I sat across the room and scanned the walls with my binoculars. This might have been worse. The hipsters sitting and hanging around the office stared at me pretty hard. Oh well. Sometimes you just gotta be a gherkin.
The Sirius autograph wall had some great bands on it, including Bell XI and A Fine Frenzy.

The interview went well. Host Mario Bosquez is a pro who knows that enthusiasm beats all, so he fed me underhand questions that I could easily crush. It was fun. We took listener calls from all over the U.S. mostly with bird questions which I did my best to answer.

Best question: "I'm in Wisconsin and I've got a bird at my feeder that's black and white with a pink throat."
The throat part almost fooled me. It was a rose-breasted grosbeak.

BOTB and Mario Bosquez, host of the Living Today Show on the Martha Stewart Radio channel on Sirius.

After my "Martha" interview I headed downtown for a meeting with a fellow blogger, The Grrl Scientist who blogs at Scientist Interrupted. We met at the NY office of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, publishers of The Young Birder's Guide. Walking in the door, it was a thrill to see my book there on the "brag" shelf with some other recent books from HMH. Not sure if they removed it after I left, still it was neat to see it there—a tiny window on Nature amidst all the novels and narratives.

The YBG on parade inside the Houghton Mifflin (NOT Dunder Mifflin) Harcourt offices on Park Avenue South.

Indiana Jones sat in on my meeting with The Grrl Scientist.

Time had gotten away from me. I was way downtown and needed to get on up to Midtown to clean up in time for the swanky dinner I was invited to that night. There needed to be a shower in there somewhere, too. So I hopped on the 7 train at 14th Street then took the S-shuttle from Grand Central to Times Square and hoofed it back to my hotel.

Me in my monkey suit, ready to take on Gotham.

It being rush hour there was no way I'd make good time in a taxi trying to go crosstown. So the hoofing continued from W 44th and 6th to E 52 and Park. Destination: The Four Seasons. Ever try NOT sweating while walking briskly on a warm evening wearing fancy clothes. We it's dang impossible. I made it to my dinner (graciously thrown by a publisher I've written for in the past) and had a fine old time. The food was sublime and the company compelling.
The first course at The Four Seasons.

The walk home from the dinner was cooler and more relaxing. I ended the day having a beer with my pal Sean who now lives in NYC and bikes everywhere he goes (brave soul). We compared notes on our respective NYC experiences (I lived in the city in the late 1980s) and we agreed that it was not the place in which to live forever, but it was fun to visit. Of course there was plenty of evidence that, through the powers of Botox, plenty of people were TRYING to live forever. Not us. We had a toast and said our goodbyes. Sean pedaled off into the New York night and I padded upstairs to my small yet expensive room, the hotel employees each wishing me a good night, which it was.

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Thursday, April 03, 2008

No Child Left Inside

If you are a member of a bird club, have you noticed the utter lack of new, young members joining up in the past decade or so? My bird club certainly has. We are as gray as a winter sky. There simply isn't a crop of young nature enthusiasts coming up, interested in belonging to a club of like-minded souls.


Because kids today have a million other things vying for their attention and a red-spotted newt or an American redstart has a hard time competing with the latest Wii game or a TV loaded with 300 channels.

To promote The Young Birder's Guide, I've been giving my "No Child Left Inside" presentation, and I'll be giving it more in the coming months. In the talk I discuss how many of today's youngsters are suffering from a "nature deficit disorder" because they spend all of their time inside, on the computer, watching TV, talking on the phone, or playing video games. The only outside time they get is during recess at school or during organized sports activities. That's hardly a connection with the natural world.

Richard Louv, in his best-selling, fascinating book Last Child in the Woods, was one of the first to identify this unsettling trend of kids growing up with no connection to the natural world. If this trend continues unabated, we as a society may face some unfortunate consequences in the future. Studies have shown that children with little or no exposure to nature can develop both emotional and physical problems. Indoor-only childhood time can result in troubled kids.

Furthermore, if today's young people don't know and love nature, whom can we rely upon to be interested in the protection of the natural world in the future? To know something is to value it. And if you value it, you are more likely to want to protect it.

I could go on talking preachily about this topic for an hour. Other adults and organizations are getting involved, too, which is reason for hope. The Boy Scouts of America has redone its bird watching merit badge. The American Birding Association and Leica Sport Optics continue to sponsor youth birding team called the Tropicbirds. Here in Ohio, the Black Swamp Bird Observatory operates the highly effective Ohio Young Birders Club.

I am no evangelist, but I DO feel strongly about giving kids an easy entry to discover the world of birds if they want to. I'm trying to do what I can by giving my talk on this subject as often as possible.

Two upcoming dates where I'll be giving the "No Child Left Inside" presentation, in case you're interested, are Saturday April 12 at Lake Erie Wing Watch in Huron, Ohio, and Sunday, April 13 at the Harvard Museum of Natural History in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

If you can come, please do, and bring a young birder with you!

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Monday, March 17, 2008

Young Birder's Guide!

Last Friday I finally got to do something I've been waiting to do for nearly three years.

I went to Salem Liberty Elementary School, to Phoebe's class and passed out copies of The Young Birder's Guide to all the kids who helped me create the book. The kids, now in sixth grade, started working with me when they were fourth graders.

Before handing out the books, we reviewed all the stuff we'd done and studied since the project started. Photo by Julie Zickefoose.

The local newspaper, The Marietta Times sent reporter Kate York and photographer Mitch Casey to cover the event, and it was the lead story on the front page of the Saturday edition!

Our local TV station, WTAP, sent Allison Rhea, a one-woman reporter/camera operator. Her very nice report, which aired on the evening news on Friday, can be viewed online here.

The biggest thrill for me was opening the box of books and handing them out to the class. The kids pored over the pages, looking for their names in the acknowledgments, pointing to the photos of the class out bird watching, checking the species they'd worked on . . .

The first gander at the new book! Photo by Julie Zickefoose.

Julie (who did a black-and-white illustration for each of the 200 species) was there and we both signed the kids' books. I then asked all the kids to sign my copy as well as the one we were placing in the school's library.

Mrs. Booth the school librarian accepted a copy of the YBG from Phoebe for the Salem-Liberty library. Photo by Julie Zickefoose.

It was a great feeling to see the kids enjoying the finished product of our collective effort over such a long time.

Phoebe at the book party. Photo by Julie Zickefoose.

Through it all Phoebe was beaming. And so was her dad.

For more information on The Young Birder's Guide, see my January 10, 2008 post here in BOTB. The publisher, Houghton Mifflin, has a description of the book here.

Interested in getting a copy of The Young Birder's Guide? Ask your local bookstore about it-- most stores should have copies of the book in stock in about a week. The online bookstores have it, too.

Bird Watcher's Digest
is taking advance orders for the book and I will happily inscribe a copy to the young birder in your life.

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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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