Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Auction action: Roger Tory Peterson

From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn writes:  It's August 28, 2012.  Roger Tory Peterson would have been 104 years old today.  If he were still alive, I suspect he would have spent at least part of the day painting birds ... as he did on the last day of his life, in July 1996, when he was almost 88. 

Recently I've been thinking about Peterson's artwork a lot ... mostly because some of it is going to be auctioned off soon.  On September 8, Guernsey's Auctioneers in New York will be offering 500 lots of material from the Petersons' estates.  Basic information on the auction is available here.

Although the writeup says that it's an auction "consisting entirely of the work of Roger Tory Peterson," the online catalog tells a slightly different story.  A number of original Audubon prints are also included, presumably from Roger's private collection.  Quite a few matted photographic prints are being offered, and a few other odd items, including older binoculars and camera gear. But the auction does include hundreds of pieces of original artwork from Peterson's hand. 

Of course, Peterson produced a prodigious amount of artwork - much of it in the form of field guide illustrations - during his long and productive life.  Much of his best artwork is housed at the Roger Tory Peterson Institute in Jamestown, New York.  I was on the board of trustees of RTPI for several years, so Kimberly and I made repeated trips to the Institute, and we had the opportunity to admire many pieces of Roger's original art.  As a lifelong fan of Peterson and his work, I believe that his finest artwork ever would have to be the brilliant ink drawings that he did to illustrate Wild America, the wonderful travel book that he coauthored with James Fisher.  Fortunately, the drawings from Wild America are housed at the Peterson Institute.  So are many other examples of his finest work, including the drawings from the Bird Watcher's Anthology and many of his larger studio paintings.  Incidentally, the Roger Tory Peterson Institute is far more than just a museum of RTP's work - it's a dynamic organization that actively promotes nature education.  RTPI deserves the support of the birding community; see their website here for more information.

Following Roger Peterson's death in 1996 and Virginia Peterson's death in 2001, there was a certain amount of disagreement over their estates.  Roger's sons, Tory and Lee, wanted to have all of his artwork donated to the Peterson Institute.  Virginia's daughters had other ideas, and after quite a bit of legal wrangling, the artwork was divided up.  The material that is going on auction now is from Virginia's side of the family.  It may not include Roger's very best work, but there are some major gems included, and all of it has great cultural and historic value.

A perusal of the online catalog (available at this link) reveals some odd misidentifications.  Lot 25, "Wheatear, early work," shows a male Common Yellowthroat feeding a fledgling.  Lot 2, "Eagle, head detail," is an illustration of Snail Kites.  Strangest of all is Lot 74A, "Unknown, possibly various titmice."  This shows several species of yuhinas, small songbirds from Asia.  It probably wasn't done by Peterson at all, since it doesn't appear to be in his style and he never did anything formal with Asian birds, so its inclusion here represents an intriguing mystery.

At any rate, I'll be discussing all the material in the catalog tomorrow, because I'm meeting with one of the curators at the Toledo Museum of Art to discuss the merits of various pieces included in the auction.  This year, Kimberly and I have had the pleasure of getting to know some of the staff at the museum.  The dynamic director of the TMA, Brian Kennedy, is keenly interested in outreach to the community, and it was his idea to do a major exhibition on birds in art this year, reflecting interest in The Biggest Week In American Birding!  This link between a bird festival and an art museum has been one of the most gratifying things to come out of our efforts in this region.

I don't know whether the Toledo Museum of Art will wind up bidding on any of the Peterson artwork, but I imagine that most of it will wind up being sold.  If anyone reading this post happens to bid successfully on items in the auction, I have a suggestion: please take the artwork seriously and please think about where it will wind up after you're gone.  Bequeathing it to the Roger Tory Peterson Institute would be a fabulous idea.  Better yet, buy something in the auction, donate it to the Peterson Institute, and then go to visit your artwork once a year.  Roger Tory Peterson holds a unique place in the worlds of birding, natural history, and art, and his work should be preserved for future generations to study and appreciate. 

For an official statement from the Roger Tory Peterson Institute about the upcoming auction, please follow this link.

And if you have a serious interest in any aspect of nature, anywhere in the world, it's likely that you have benefited somehow from the work of the late Dr. Peterson, reason enough to raise a glass to his memory on this day.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Sharing the Joy of Birding: It's easy!

For a first-time birder, something like a male Baltimore Oriole, shining in the sun, can be worth its weight in golden feathers.
From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn and Kimberly write:  Quick quiz.  When you go birding, what is one of the best things you can do to ensure a bright future for birds?  Answer:  Take someone with you, someone who has never tried it before, and introduce them to the fascination of birds and birding.  Building up the birding community is one of the best ways to build support for conservation.

Getting more people to care about birds and nature is vitally important.  Over the years we have taken many hundreds of people out on their very first bird walks, so we've had a chance to see what works and what doesn't, and we wanted to share some results of our experience. 

How do you make sure that someone will catch the spark and develop a lasting interest?  We sometimes use the analogy of teaching people how to swim.  One approach is to just throw everyone into the deep end of the pool; some will drown, but others will adapt quickly and will learn to swim quite well.  The latter approach might be okay if we were just trying to create a few champion swimmers (or birders).  But for the sake of conservation, we need to inspire just as many new birders as possible - including those who will only have a casual interest, dabbling in the shallow end of the pool.  Their casual interest is perfectly valid and worth celebrating, and their support for conservation is crucial.  So if you're taking people out birding for the first time, you should think about the experience from their viewpoint, and make it as rewarding as you can.

To try and encourage more people to reach out and introduce birding to someone new, we've developed a set of pointers on "First-Time Birding: How to take someone on their first bird walk."  

1.  You don’t have to be an expert.  To take someone birding for the first time, do you have to know every bird you see and hear?  Absolutely not.  If you’ve been birding for at least a few weeks, then you already know more than someone who’s never tried it.  It’s okay if you see something that you can’t name; just admit it up front with some brief explanation (like, “I don’t do flycatchers yet”) and go on to the next bird. 

2. Choose your place and time carefully. In some situations, birds are tough to find. In others, birds are out in the open, easy to see. When you’re deciding where and when to take someone birding for the first time, it’s important to go for the latter kind of scene.

        Big waterbirds offer good possibilities: big herons and egrets close to a road, terns and big shorebirds on a beach, or a good variety of wild ducks on a pond, for example. Birds often become easier to approach in city parks or public beaches than they are in wilderness areas, but you need to scout the area to make sure the birds haven’t been crowded out. If no big waterbirds are available, you might find a good variety of birds coming to feeders at a nature center. Or you might walk a trail along the edge of a meadow that has bluebirds, buntings, and others. The important thing is to have some nice-looking birds that are easy to see.
Buffleheads are not rare birds, but an obliging pair on a park pond just might spark someone's interest in birds of all kinds.
        Whatever you do, don’t take them out in a really tough situation: trying to spot drab fall warblers among the dense foliage of late summer, trying to kick elusive sparrows out of thickets. Those are fine challenges for seasoned birders, but they’re likely to discourage newcomers.

3. Don’t get hung up on looking for something “good.” Years ago, Kenn took a group of business managers out birding in New York’s Central Park. It was the end of spring migration, and Kenn was worried that he wouldn’t be able to show them much. He needn’t have worried: these managers were captivated by the glossy colors of grackles, by the flashy behavior of Red-winged Blackbirds, by the intricate patterns of starlings. Don’t underestimate the power of common birds to fascinate the first-timers. When you’re trying to get someone new excited about birds, a rare (but drab) species of sparrow isn’t worth nearly as much as a common (but flashy) oriole or goldfinch.
Red-winged Blackbirds may not be exciting to longtime birders, but for a person looking at them for the first time, they can be pretty impressive.
4. Be prepared to slow down. If your focus is on inspiring a new birder, you probably won’t cover as much territory as usual. You can’t rush past that flicker or cardinal or jay just because it’s a common bird: If your friend has never looked at one before, he or she may want to spend half an hour admiring this bird. When that happens, you’re halfway to success already. A birdwalk that produces really good looks at half a dozen common birds may be enough to inspire someone to take a lifelong interest in birding.

5. Don’t worry about running up a big list. Most people new to birding will be amazed if you can show them twenty species of birds—even if you’re in a place where you know you could find a hundred. It’s okay to point out distant flying birds, or the voices of hidden birds, just to indicate that there are more things around. But the focus should be on the birds that the first-timer can see or hear very clearly, even if those add up to only a fraction of the total possibilities.
When you're just starting out, a really good view of a cardinal beats a distant, sketchy look at any rare bird.
6. Make sure your first-time birders understand their optics. Whether your friends have their own binoculars or are borrowing yours, you need to be certain that they know how to use them. Start by reviewing how to adjust the individual eyepieces, how to focus, how to find something in the binoculars. You can practice with stationary objects before the first bird shows up. A printed sign makes a good “practice target,” since it’s easy for anyone to tell whether or not they have it in sharp focus. Remember to give them this pointer on locating things: don't put the bins to your eyes and then try to find the bird; instead, keep your eye on the "target" as you bring the binoculars up to your eyes.  If you’ve got a spotting scope, that can be wonderful for giving people good looks without the struggle.

7. Make sure they know what to expect. Establish ahead of time how long you’ll be out: usually a couple of hours will be plenty for a first birdwalk. (If everyone is having fun at the end of that time, you can always decide to keep going.) Tell them how far they might have to walk, over what kind of terrain. Let them know about anything like the need for insect repellant (or better yet, avoid places where such would be necessary). Think about the availability of restroom facilities, shelter from weather, and so on. People who are comfortable will be better able to appreciate the experience of birding.

8. Have fun! Remember, birding is something that we do for enjoyment; anyone who enjoys it is a good birder. The important thing is for your first-time birder friends to have a good time!

Here's Kimberly with some brand-new friends at a National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. They saw some birds, but more importantly, they had a good time.
No matter what you do, not everyone is going to take up birding. Even people who enjoy it a lot may become only casual, occasional birders. But if you get them that far, you should consider that a major success. Ultimately, if people are made even a little more aware of birds and nature, they are more likely to be in favor of conservation. In today’s world, birds and their habitats need all the support they can get. So if you introduce friends to birding, not only are you making their lives more exciting, you are also helping to ensure the future survival of bird populations!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Ode to Shorebirds

This time of year, in many parts of the country, birders are out watching shorebirds. Identifying shorebirds can be more than a bit challenging. Some birders love it. Some...not so much! ;-) On the Birding Ohio Facebook group recently there's been a lot of discussion of shorebird identification, and my friend Susan Williams threw down a challenge. If we all loved shorebirds so much, why didn't we just write a poem about them? Several of us took her up on her challenge. I thought you might enjoy reading a few of these Odes to Shorebirds.

Shorebirds are travelers
From fields far flung
With lovely names like "plover" 
that roll right off the tongue
~kimberly kaufman

I seen this little bird, 
it wasn't out too deep, 
I double checked my field guide, 
and thought it was a peep. 
~jeff loughman

If a Dunlin doesn't know 
whether a Willet will not show 
how a Turnstone tosses stones 
while leaving Solitaries alone 
to watch the Plovers on the shore 
whose antics make the Stilts snore 
then the Knots do not care 
to follow the Curlews through the air 
and the Avocets are averse 
to hearing birders curse 
waking Godwits from their sleep 
with a cry of "It's a peep!" 
~katie Andersen 

I thought I heard a shorebird, 
Calling overhead. 
My mind said, "Sure, bird" 
And I fell back into bed.” 
~kathi hutton 

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The birds, the butterflies, and The Gage

From back home in Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn writes:  West Texas is big country.  As a teenaged birder, hitch-hiking across the southern tier of states, I crossed Texas many times, and in the western part of the state I always looked around in fascination at the rugged, beautiful Chihuahuan desert and at the angular hills ringing the horizon.  I always appreciated the fact that Western Kingbirds, which had been my favorite birds in my early teens, were common along the highways out there.  But it seemed I was always in a hurry to go somewhere else (if hitch-hikers could be said to be hurrying), so I never really spent the time necessary to explore this region.

Western Kingbird: a classic roadside bird of western Texas.
Because of my long-standing curiosity about this region, I was especially pleased when two sharp young naturalists, Matthew York and Heidi Trudell, moved to the town of Marathon in west Texas and starting blogging about it.  Their regular posts in Big Bend - Texas Nature were certainly enticing. So when Kimberly and I were invited to come out for a brand-new nature festival based in Marathon, no one had to twist our arms.

As it turned out, we were incredibly busy in July, moving to a new house in the midst of our usual hectic schedule. Even so, we took an extra day on either side of the festival to have more time to look around in west Texas.  The festival was wonderful, and so were the birds and butterflies that we saw in the area. 

This male Painted Bunting was a roadside bird just south of Marathon, Texas.
A Greater Roadrunner attempts to hide in a yucca plant near Marathon.
A Fiery Skipper pauses for nectar at the Gage Gardens
Closeup of a Sleepy Orange at the Gage Gardens (with a couple more in the background)
A delightful surprise for us was the center of the event, the Gage Hotel and Gage Gardens.  The hotel is a building with true southwestern elegance and a remarkable history.  Its owner, J.P. Bryan, is an individual with a deep interest in history; he bought the hotel after it had fallen on hard times, and made a project of restoring it.  Some information on its history is here.

The courtyard at The Gage

In the lobby of The Gage: birding and butterflying info was featured

J.P. Bryan, the owner of The Gage, also established the Gage Gardens in Marathon, a beautiful spot where we found a great diversity of butterflies on one of the festival field trips, and the Las Maravillas Ranch, a remote and beautiful area where we saw Peregrine Falcons, Wild Turkeys, Zone-tailed Hawks, Vermilion Flycatchers, Summer Tanagers, and many other birds. 

For Kimberly and me, half the fun was getting to connect with lots of old friends and new friends from all over Texas and beyond.  Heidi Trudell and Matt York helped to organize the festival, and because they are so widely respected, they were able to bring in an impressive roster of bird experts from around the state.  Steve Gross, president of the Texas Ornithological Society, came out from Houston.  So did Gary Clark, who writes a very popular nature column for the Houston and San Antonio newspapers, and his wife Kathy Adams Clark, a leading nature photographer. Hummingbird expert Kelly Bryan came to do a banding demonstration, sharp young birder Cameron Carver came down from Lubbock to lead field trips, and veteran Big Bend naturalist Mark Flippo was there to share his extensive knowledge.  Our good friend Clay Taylor came to the festival to demonstrate a brand-new Swarovski telescope (more on that in another blog post!). And many other birders and naturalists, from beginners to experts, were there as well. 

The staff at The Gage is now assessing this year's event and discussing plans for next year.  We hope we can return for the festival next year, but in the meantime, here's a recommendation: if you're traveling through west Texas, plan your trip so that you can stay overnight at The Gage.  It's a beautiful hotel and a bird-friendly place; every morning there we walked out of our room to see Western Kingbirds, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, White-winged Doves, Cave Swallows, and many other birds right on the grounds and on the main street of Marathon.  We'll leave you with a photo from inside the courtyard at The Gage, with nestling Western Kingbirds waiting for their parents to come back to their nest on a cottonwood branch right over the path.
In the courtyard at The Gage Hotel in Marathon, Texas, baby Western Kingbirds wait in the nest for their parents to come and feed them. Photo by Kenn Kaufman.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

If I could be like Mike

Remember when Michael Jordan was at his peak and there were commercials featuring him dunking the ball in some of the most insane moves ever perpetrated on a basketball court? There was a catchy jingle that accompanied those commercials. The chorus was a sing-song phrase that said, "Like Mike -- If I could be like Mike."


I'm not all that into sports these days, but I have immense respect for anyone who has a passion for something and strives to be the best at it that they can possibly be. I live with a man who has dedicated nearly his entire life to his passion, so I recognize the beauty and honor in it.

Michael Jordan's been retired for several years now, yet he still has legions of fans. But he's not the Mike I would choose to be like. In my world, I'd much rather be like this Mike.

This is Mike Fitts. Mike isn't a superstar sports hero. He's not some hotshot, expert birder. In fact, he's just your average "Joe," working hard to make a living, and doing everything he can to be the best person and the best father he can possibly be. He has good incentive.

This is his son, Josh. Cute kid, isn't he?! Josh is great. He's a normal kid who likes video games and all the other things kids his age are into these days. And, thanks to his Dad, he also likes nature.

Mike has worked incredibly hard to explore opportunities for Josh to experience birds and nature. He's been bringing Josh to Black Swamp Bird Observatory's songbird banding station for the last few years, even though Josh isn't always as thrilled as Mike is about the experience. (It does kind of stink when you have to get up at the crack of dawn!). I've been in awe of Mike's skills as a parent as I watched him strike the perfect balance between encouraging Josh to come, and respecting his need for independence, allowing him stay home when he really doesn't feel like it.

They make a great team, don't they! 
And Mike's wife Tammy is very supportive, too. 

I haven't known Mike all that long: only three or four years, I guess. But I've known him long enough to have become a huge fan. I really admire his approach to life. He wrote to me privately several months ago to tell me that he had a secret passion for writing poetry. I was deeply honored that he trusted me enough to share a few of his poems with me, and once I read them, I urged him to take a risk and share them with others. He started sharing some on his Facebook page and everyone loved them! Mike doesn't exactly look like your average poet (if there is such a thing), which only makes his gift all that much more worthy of appreciating. The fact that he was willing to launch himself outside his comfort zone and share these gems is one of the many reasons I admire him so much.

The Simple Things
by Mike Fitts

Ah, the simple things in life
To me, the most joyous
Yet the hardest to obtain
Having mucked up the lines
That define my existence
Makes what is easy so hard
Yet I will conquer
And return to simply living
For the here and the now
Love, Laugh, Live, Bird...

by Mike Fitts

Wake up, wake up
Ice melt away
Equinox comes on
Green spring forth
New life becomes
Forward time rolls
Stops for nothing 

Today is Mike's birthday. A blog post in your honor isn't much of a gift, really, but I wanted him to know that I admire him. And if I could, I'd be more like Mike -- Mike Fitts, that is.