An Interview with ABA Big Year Birder Neil Hayward: Part 2

(Here is Part 1 of my interview with Big Year birder Neil Hayward).

PB: What sort of preparations did you do to make the most of your time?

Neil: I spent a lot of time on eBird earlier in the year trying to optimize which sites to visit to pick up the most species. It’s important to know which species to ignore, knowing you can find them later, as it is knowing which ones to focus on. I had a rough schedule of what I’d be doing in each month, and which birds I’d be getting when and where. As I got closer to each month I’d refine my strategy. The first part of the year — getting all the regular birds — requires a lot of planning and strategizing so that by the second half of the year you have enough time to suddenly abandon trips and chase rarities. You’re always thinking in terms of time — getting a bird early can save you time later in the year (time not spent at home, but out chasing something else!).

PB: Which field guide(s) did you use? Printed books or field guide apps?

Neil: I always had the National Geographic [Field Guide to the Birds of North America] with me. I love the 6th Edition (link here). I’ve never really used the Nat Geo before — mainly as I haven’t liked the illustrations. The 6th edition has much better images, the subspecies range maps are fantastic, and the text is very educational (at least for me — I always learn something new whenever I leaf through it).

I usually have a Sibley with me. I think the illustrations are better, but there are many species (the rarer ones, as well as some of the recent splits, like Cackling Goose) that aren’t in Sibley. In order to keep it concise and clear, there’s also no real discussion (or naming) of subspecies, which I think is a shame.

As for apps, I really prefer having a book (even though that takes up packing space), although I do have and use the iBird app [link here]. I find the calls on there very helpful.

A Red-necked Stint, Massachusetts (photo by Neil Hayward)

A Red-necked Stint, Massachusetts (photo by Neil Hayward)

PB: What did you pack, and what gear do you recommend? Is there anything you packed in 2013 that you would not bring along on another Big Year? Is there anything you did not pack that you wish you had?

Neil: I never checked luggage. I couldn’t afford the extra time waiting to collect it, or the possibility of it being delayed or lost. (And — these days you often have to pay for checked luggage.) I had a large enough sports bag that I could pack my tripod, scope, camera together with a minimum of clothes (including full thermal underwear). I took my scope with me everywhere — since almost all my photos were digiscoped, it doubled as my main camera too. My other bag had bins, laptop and books (bird and fiction). I got pretty good at packing the bare essentials. By the middle of the year, I was toting a neck pillow, which was wonderful on flights as well as doubling as a pillow when sleeping in rental cars! If I could pack anything else, it would have been some books on tape or more NPR podcasts. Somehow I never seemed to have enough time to plan that!

PB: Were your non-birding family and friends understanding about the demands on your time?

Neil: Yes! My girlfriend especially so. She was very supportive and understood that we often couldn’t make plans for even the following day, as I could be on a plane chasing something. It would be hard to imagine doing the year without having her support and help.

PB: What were some of the bird highlights of your year?

Neil: All of them were special! But seeing Red-necked Stint in my home state was pretty special (I’d chased this bird several times, here and in the UK, and it was turning into a bit of a nemesis bird!). Also — Mountain Quail, which seemed to take forever before I eventually tracked them down.

Adak was [such] a big risk in terms of time (being away from the rest of the US with the possibility of being stranded there) that coming over a rise on the second day, and seeing those three Whooper Swans made it all worthwhile. That was a great moment.

I spent almost eight hours sitting in front of Kubo Lodge in Madera Canyon, AZ waiting for Berylline Hummingbird. Despite (or because of) the wait, it was a wonderful day — watching the other hummers come in to feed while chatting with visiting birders. And when the Berylline finally appeared around 6 pm, it was one of the most stunning birds I’d seen all year.

Also — all the wonderful breeding bird colors in Nome. The Red-throated Loons were spectacular, as were the Steller’s Eider, Bluethroats, and Long-tailed Jaegers.

One of my favorite birds was Emperor Goose. They’re so delicately patterned with such an interesting reversal of light and dark on their necks, and such silly bright legs. I had some great views of them on Adak. We always stopped the vehicle for Emperor Geese!

A Kirtland's Warbler, Michigan  (photo by Neil Hayward)

A Kirtland’s Warbler, Michigan (photo by Neil Hayward)

PB: What were some of the highlights of your year, in terms of experiences rather than birds?

Neil: One of the real highlights was making lots of new friends. One of my favorite trips was in Nome in June where I met Hans de Grys [link here]. We were similar in age and birding experience. He was ending his (mid-year to mid-year big year) as I was less than half way through mine. We got on immediately, and had a lot of fun.

I also became good friends with Jay Lehman — the other calendar year Big Year birder in 2013 [link here]. We ended up meeting in lots of places, chasing the same birds and sharing lots of information. It was a real joy spending time with Jay. While some may think that Big Years are competitive, they’re anything but. Only those doing a Big Year are aware of the exhaustion and stress involved, and as such, we spent a lot of time trying to make it easier for each other. I’m still in touch with Hans and Jay, as I am with many other birders I met during the year.

PB: Aside from busy times chasing after birds, a Big Year means lots of down time while traveling and waiting around for that rarity. What did you think about besides the next bird(s), and what did you learn about yourself from doing a Big Year?

Neil: I spent a lot of time thinking about the next birds! There wasn’t as much down time as you might imagine. Often, I’d be driving all day, and in the only time I had free I had to eat, plan the next day or two, and then think about pelagics and Alaska trips later in the year. Oh — and download and edit photos and write an interesting blog post. But… when I wasn’t doing any of that, I read a lot of fiction.

The long road distances did mean I had plenty of time to think though. When I wasn’t listening to the radio (mostly NPR), I’d think a lot about what the whole Big Year thing meant. It’s not something to enter into lightly. It’s a huge time and money commitment. I often asked myself why I was doing it. What I wanted to achieve.

A Red-throated Loon, Alaska (photo by Neil Hayward)

A Red-throated Loon, Alaska (photo by Neil Hayward)

PB: I know you have only just finished your Big Year, but do you think you might write a book about your year, as Sandy Komito did?

Neil: One of the things I enjoyed most about my Big Year was keeping a blog. At first, I thought it would be a hassle, having to document everything, and something essentially I’d be doing for other people. But as the year progressed, I looked forward to each post. How would I tell the same story differently? What angle should I take? How do I make it interesting and engaging for a non-birder? Writing forces you to do some research and understand your subject better. I learned a lot more about birds, geography, and culture by writing about it. Without my blog, I’d have missed a lot of the other things that were going on in the year. While I was always thinking about the reader, it became something I wrote primarily for myself.

A lot of people have asked about a book. Of course, I’d love to be a published author and have a book. Who wouldn’t?! Unfortunately, that means writing it! It’s a completely different format from a blog, and requires a different way of structuring the material and presenting it. I’m guessing it would also take another year. In terms of getting a publisher interested, I’d have to demonstrate that there’s a market for this type of book. I’m writing a couple of articles for publication now, which should tell me whether I like sitting at home all day and writing!

An Interview with ABA Big Year Birder Neil Hayward: Part 1

Seeing over 700 species of birds in North America in one year is no small feat. In fact, only 13 people have ever seen more than 700 species in the ABA region in a single calendar year. Now one of those birders is Neil Hayward.

Sandy Komito and Neil Hayward, Halfmoon Bay CA. Photo taken by Debi Shearwater and supplied by Neil Hayward

Neil Hayward (at right) with Sandy Komito, Half Moon Bay, California; photo by Debi Shearwater and graciously provided by Neil Hayward

Neil had quit his job in 2012, and spent the beginning of 2013 traveling and birding. He started blogging about his sightings on January 18, 2013 at Accidental Big Year.

By the end of December, Neil made headlines when he broke the standing ABA Big Year record of 748 species set by Sandy Komito in 1998. A sighting of a Great Skua on December 28th put Neil’s final total at 747 species +3 provisionals, the three provisionals being a Rufous-necked Wood-rail, Common Redstart, and Eurasian Sparrowhawk, since these have never been seen in the United States before and have to be accepted by the ABA. The acceptance of one species would tie the record and the acceptance of two would beat it.

Through 2013, Neil birded through 28 states and seven provinces, flew 193,758 miles, drove 51,758 miles, spent 147 hours at sea, and lived195 nights away from home.

In the last few weeks while reading Neil’s blog and also reading articles about his Big Year in The Boston Globe, USA Today, and The Homer (AK) News, I thought it would be fun to interview him here to learn more about his year.

Even though Neil has a lot on his plate, he took time out of his very busy schedule to be interviewed for this blog. I’m very excited to have the chance to interview Neil and learn a little more about his year. here’s part one of the interview, with some of Neil’s photographs (part two will be up tomorrow).

PB: First, please tell us a little about yourself.

Neil: I grew up in the UK. I was born in Oxford, which is pretty much in the middle of the country and about as far from the sea as you can get on what is a relatively small island. I studied Biochemistry at Oxford University and then did a PhD in fruitfly genetics at Cambridge University. I took a year out after my PhD to travel through Russia and Central Asia (I was interested in the Silk Road and had learned some Russian before going). When I returned in 2001, I joined a start-up biotech company, called Abcam, which became very successful. I moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to head up the US office for the company. I grew the company here, setting up offices in San Francisco as well as an Asian office in Tokyo. After 11 years in the company, I decided to leave in 2012 to become a consultant.

PB: How and when did you first become interested in birding?

Neil: When I was a kid, probably seven years old. I was fascinated by the birds coming into our yard feeders — Greenfinches, Great and Blue Tits, Dunnocks, Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Nuthatches, etc. I really remember being impressed with the Green Woodpecker. I wondered what they did when they weren’t coming to the feeders — where they lived, what their social structures were, what they thought about. My parents had field guides at home as well as binoculars which helped me learn about birds. And when I started high school (11 years old) I made friends with a couple of other birders, and we started exploring local habitats — by far the best of which was the reservoir (Farmoor Reservoir) which saw a good number of migrant species, and birds very different from those I saw in the yard at home.

A Bluethroat, Alaska (photo by Neil Hayward)

A Bluethroat, Alaska (photo by Neil Hayward)

PB: How long have you been birding in North America? Are there any differences between birding in North America and in the UK or Europe?

Neil: I actually birded in the US before I moved here. I had a summer job as an undergrad in a microbiology lab at Texas A&M University. When I wasn’t in the lab I was out birding. Texas was a great place to start here — I saw so many new species that year. Also, on business trips here, I’d take some time out and try to squeeze some birding in too. But it wasn’t until I moved here in 2005 that I really started birding here more regularly. Although I’d birded in many states, most of my birding time has been spent in my home state of Massachusetts.

Yes — there are differences between the UK and here. Birding is more popular over there (as a percentage of the population engaged in it). It’s also a lot more competitive! It’s not uncommon for birders to suppress sightings so that they can get ahead of others. I’ve not seen that behavior here. I also think it’s more male-dominated (which might account for the competitiveness!). Since it’s possible to drive the whole country in a day or so, it’s common for most birders to have a UK list as well as their county list. Birding the whole country is a lot easier (and cheaper) over there than it is here. So you could say that most of the year listers there are also doing a country-wide Big Year.

Another difference is the type of birds seen. I’d say that, although the number of species on the UK list may be less (currently just less than 600), there’s a lot more variety and potential for rarities. The UK is at the crossroads of a whole bunch of migratory pathways — with birds frequently overshooting from Asia and Africa as well as American birds in the fall. (The direction of the gulf stream and winds means the UK gets a lot of American vagrants, but we [in the US] don’t get the reverse.) That means you’re probably exposed to a wider geographical range of birds.

PB: Why did you start your Big Year?

Neil: I’d had a great start to the year — birding in Arizona, Florida, Texas, Washington State, as well as Canada. I’d seen a number of really good rarities, and, after looking at the eBird Top 100 list realized I was doing quite well (at least, compared to other birders). Since I’d quit my job last year [2012] I had more free time this year [2013], and given the great start figured that if there were a year to do a Big Year, this would be it.

PB: At what point in your year did you think you might possibly beat the standing record of 748 species?

Neil: Way later than everyone else! There was a lot of excitement towards the end of my Big Year, and a lot of people starting telling me that I could break the record. But I had a list of all the probable birds I could still get, and it never looked enough. In the last two months, I knew I’d have to push really hard if I were to have a chance. I went to the Canadian Maritimes which I really hadn’t planned on doing (to Nova Scotia for Tundra-Bean Goose and for Pink-footed Goose, which I’d missed in the spring), and then to Newfoundland for Yellow-legged Gull. It was my first time there, and, being based in Boston, it really wasn’t as far/difficult as I’d imagined. And then I surprised myself and went to Adak, Alaska. I’d long said I wouldn’t do that — it was way too far, I wouldn’t be able to chase anything else while I was there, there were only two flights a week, and at the end of the year there was a good chance of being stranded (I was — albeit for one day). I was well aware of John Vanderpoel’s trip there, which was a bust [link here]. I lucked out with Whooper Swan there and getting the Whiskered Auklet. And who knows — maybe the Sparrowhawk if it’s accepted.

But returning from a very successful trip to Adak, I still needed a lot of luck. And I got it — in one week Little Bunting, La Sagra’s Flycatcher, and Rustic Bunting all turned up, and I got to each in time to see them. There’s only so much you can do — if there birds don’t pop up, you can only wait. I was incredibly lucky with those last few weeks. And even on board Brian’s boat, several hours into the trip, I wasn’t feeling confident about the Skua.

A Great Skua, North Carolina (photo by Neil Hayward)

A Great Skua, North Carolina (photo by Neil Hayward)

PB: In his recent ABA blog article, Greg Neise wrote, “While the logistics and expense of getting around the ABA area have certainly become more difficult and costly, one thing has certainly changed the way we bird, and has had a huge positive impact on Neil’s effort is he Internet and cell phones. Okay, two things.” How did you use the internet and your cell phone to keep up with rarities and plan your travels? Did you rely on various state listservs, or did you have a network of contact people texting you, or was it something else?

Neil: My cell phone was probably my most important tool. It was invaluable for receiving info about birds. I was getting hourly alerts from eBird for rarities and birds that I needed. And by the end of the year the folks at North American Rare Bird Alert [NARBA] were very helpfully texting me with updates. I was also signed up to all the listervs that I thought might be productive for rarities (Texas, Florida, Arizona, Massachusetts, Washington State and all the California counties). That meant sifting through hundreds of emails every day! I was also receiving texts from other birders who knew which species I still needed.

In terms of logistics, it’s hard to imagine booking flights, accommodation, rental cars, and getting around with GPS without my phone. Having mobile internet access was certainly a huge help in trying to co-ordinate all the planning and logistical aspects of a Big Year.

PB: Advances in technology — smartphones, listservs, Facebook, etc. — have made chasing rarities much easier than in Sandy Komito’s time. But how much does a Big Year birder still depend on the kindness and generosity of others in person, including birders and non-birders?

Neil: That’s a great question! I was incredibly indebted to others — for posting sightings, allowing me access to private properties, giving me rides, and making helpful suggestions. While I spent a lot of my Big Year alone, there were a lot of people involved. I certainly could not have done it alone.

PB: Of all the locations where you birded in 2013, which would you like to return for a more in-depth visit, and more birding?

Neil: Alaska. I loved the rugged scenery and wilderness. This year was my first time to the state, and after eight trips, and almost two months there, I really felt like it was becoming familiar. I felt very comfortable in Anchorage, getting to know the city, coffee shops and restaurants. (And one of the best used bookstores — Title Wave Books — in the US!)

As for the birding locations in Alaska — the potential for rarities is high, which always adds to the anticipation. And although I liked chasing birds, they were always other people’s birds. In Alaska, there was a much better chance of finding your own birds. (And in places like St. Paul, Minnesota, there’s no-one else out there birding, so you’re always part of a group that finds birds.)

Stay tuned for Part 2 tomorrow!

Interview with writer and illustrator Annette LeBlanc Cate: Part 2

(Here is part 1 of my interview with author/illustrator Annette Cate, whose new book is the children’s picture book  Look Up!: Bird-Watching in Your Own Backyard [Candlewick, March 2013] — great for new, young birders! Some great thoughts from Annette about her own birding, and also her thoughts on children and nature, and seeing things from a kid’s point of view, as well as a couple of her original doodles! Thank you, Annette, for giving us the chance to get to know you better.)

Charlotte: Tell us a little bit about yourself, please. IMG_0162

Annette: I am originally from Waltham, Massachusetts, which is very close to Boston, just a few short bus rides away (which is why I went to the Art Institute of Boston, a very small art school, which luckily turned out to be quite a nice fit). I grew up with four sisters and two brothers, and lots of kids on the street to play with, though I was mostly pretty quiet and shy and spent much of my time reading and drawing and thinking about all my secret plans, like all the books I would write someday.

I still live in Massachusetts, now in a very small town, with my husband and my two sons, Dave and James. Our house is on a woodsy hill. There are lots birds and all sorts of other critters, too — we’ve had black bears come right up to the house!

In my spare time (which, like with all mothers I suspect, is not terribly abundant) I like to cook, work in my garden, volunteer at school, travel with my family, watch movies, read the newspaper, write letters, ride my bike, go for walks, regular everyday stuff like that.

Original doodle by Annette LeBlanc Cate

Original doodle by Annette LeBlanc Cate

Charlotte: Are you more of a birdwatcher or a birder?

Annette: I looked up the difference just to make sure, and I guess I probably come out more on the side of the plain ol’ everyday backyard birdwatchers here. Maybe if I had more time I would go on more birding adventures, but I just don’t have very much of that in my life right now. And even if I did, probably my number one obstacle to being a true birder is the fact that i’m just not very good at getting up early in the morning. And even if i do get up early, it’s almost impossible to get myself out of the house. And that’s especially true when I go anywhere interesting on vacation! ( I generally don’t get up until my husband goes out and finds me coffee, I know, terrible for a bird-watching person!)

Still, the thing I’m most excited about when I think about my family’s upcoming trip to the southwest this summer? The chance to see new birds, of course! (So there may be hope for me yet.) But really, like I said in my book, I am no expert bird-watcher, not even close! I am not very good with binoculars, and I have never gone on any sort of organized bird-watching walk. I admit I am too self-conscious to do that sort of thing with other people, because I’m afraid I’m not doing it right (which is very silly of me, I know!). I am very content to watch the birds in my yard, and to sit quietly on a rock somewhere and sketch the birds I can see with as little effort as possible, when I go on a trip. So I guess that really only makes me a casual bird-watcher. But still, that brings me great happiness.

Original doodle by Annette LeBlanc Cate

Original doodle by Annette LeBlanc Cate

Charlotte: How old are your sons, and do you go birding with them?

Annette: My sons are almost 10, and 12, and the last time I actually took them birding proper was when they were very young (around ages two and four) and we were on the southern coast of Texas, one of those famous birdwatching meccas, and I absolutely could not bear the thought of not looking for those fabulous Texas birds I might not ever get the chance to see again. So I would drag them out into all the marshy birdwatching places with me. I would be carrying James (the littler one) and he would be fussing and chatting and carrying on, and Dave and I would fight over the binoculars (he would use them backwards, of course), and they would get bored and want to run around, and we would annoy all the serious birdwatchers (though I must say really every single person in Texas was unbelievably nice to us at all times, no-one ever actually acted annoyed). And we did see many wonderful birds, which I guess the boys do not remember.

Nowadays when we go for walks and hikes and bike rides as a family (and we do try to do this as much as we can) I try to point out birds and ask questions about them in a casual way, since I already foist so much on them as it is (like piano lessons), and I want looking at birds to be fun and happy, not just me being a pain as usual. Our new favorite bike-riding spot is the Cape Cod Canal bike path, where there are always lots of sea birds just hanging out, and a pair of cormorants on every telephone pole. This is such a great place to really see birds. On the canal they can be quite close, you can easily see lots of fun details (like those crazy big Common Eider heads), you can see birds dive and swim. I ask the boys if they can see what makes birds different from one another, if they can tell the boys birds from the girl birds, if they can tell which are the younger ones. And the cormorants are close enough to see the little breeding plumes, these are really fun things to point out.

I try to be outside with my sons as much as possible, and I try to point out birds when I see them, and I try to keep them looking, too, in new places and even just in our own yard. I do think kids are very naturally curious, and so naturally observant, so I really do try to go with that. And they are so open and unjaded about what is a “good” bird to see. To a kid, a robin hopping and getting a worm is very cool, and I always try and remember that, you know, that really is a very cool thing to see. I try to see things from a kid’s point of view, when I remember to! Just this morning while we were outside in the yard waiting for the school bus, James and I followed a catbird around. We watched it jump from branch to branch in a big pine tree, we heard it making its “meowing” sound, and even saw its bill move while it did that, which he found really funny. Now he feels he knows the catbird a little better, he will know it when he sees it next time, he’ll know that “meow”, he knows how it moves and what tree it likes, and I think that’s really wonderful. Little discoveries, in one’s own yard, are such a great way for kids to learn about the natural world!

Charlotte: Are there any species you would really like to see?

Annette: Yes, absolutely! I think I would love to see any kind of albatross, or shearwater, but I would mostly want to see one in its natural habitat, far, far away from land, way out in the middle of the ocean, I think that would be amazing. I would also love to see a puffin. We almost went on a little cruise once when we were in Acadia National Park, where we may have been able to see puffins, but it was just too cloudy that day for the boats to go out. I’ve always been a little sad about that, that I missed my chance to see a puffin. Maybe another day it will happen.

As for birds that are right under my nose but I’ve never quite managed to see, I would absolutely love to see a whip-poor-will — any sort of bird of that kind, they seem so mysteriously creepy! I’ve don’t think I’ve seen a Great Horned Owl in real life (maybe I’ve seen one at a nature center or something), I would love to see one. Or any kind of owl, really. The only owls I see regularly are Barred Owls, we have lots around my house — any other owl would be good. And the Roadrunner! I have been to the southwest a few times, and I’ve never seen a Roadrunner, maybe this summer I will. And speaking of the Roadrunner, why haven’t I ever seen any of his other cuckoo relatives? I’d really like to see a

Charlotte: Do you have any plans to write more children’s books about birds?

Annette: Hmmm, I haven’t thought at all about what might be next but we shall see!

Original doodle by Annette LeBlanc Cate

Original doodle by Annette LeBlanc Cate

*  *  *

I have an extra follow-up to Part 1 of my interview. I asked Annette about the birds in her yard at home in Massachusetts, and she didn’t have it ready at the time, but she does now, and here it is!

First, the usual suspects, I see these guys year-round: American Robin, Blue Jay, House Finch, House Sparrow, American Crow, Common Grackle, Dark-eyed Junco, White-breasted Nuthatch, Northern Cardinal, Mourning Doves, Tufted Titmouse, Black-capped Chickadee, and a European Starling.

These a little less often, but still all year: White-throated Sparrow, Red-tailed Hawk, Wild Turkey, Hairy Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, American Goldfinch, and a Carolina Wren

I see these a lot,  just not in winter: Chipping Sparrow, House Wren, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Red-winged Blackbird, Baltimore Oriole, Northern Flicker, Song Sparrow, Brown-headed Cowbird ,Gray Catbird, Northern Mockingbird, Eastern Phoebe

These birds I have seen only a few times, probably just because I’m not paying attention: Brown Creeper, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Red-Bellied Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Great Crested Flycatcher, Blue-winged Warbler, MagnoliaWarbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Nashville Warbler, Winter Wren, American Tree Sparrow, Red-eyed Vireo, Eastern Bluebird, Eastern Wood PeWee, Wood Thrush, Hermit Thrush, Veery, Rufous-sided Towhee, Cedar Waxwing, Barred Owl, Broad-winged Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, and a Sharp-shinned Hawk.

Birds seen flying overhead: Turkey Vulture, Great Blue Heron, Green Heron, Osprey, Canada Goose, Herring Gull, Northern Harrier, Common Nighthawk, Chimney Swift, and a Belted Kingfisher.

Birds I’ve seen in my yard exactly once: Indigo Bunting, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Wood Duck, Ruffed Grouse, American Kestrel, Golden-winged Warbler, Tennessee Warbler, Orange-crowned Warbler, Bay-breasted Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, American Redstart, Fox Sparrow, Scarlet Tanager, and a Pine Grosbeak

Birds I think I have seen in my yard, but probably didn’t: Peregrine Falcon, Common Raven, Black-backed Woodpecker, and Common Redpoll.

Mark Cullen and the Baillie Birdathon

As you might already know, Canadian gardening expert Mark Cullen is this year’s celebrity guest birder for the Baillie Birdathon. And today is the day he’s doing his Birdathon, at Tommy Thompson Park in Toronto — more information on this below.

So I was very excited back in February or March when I found that Mr. Cullen was going to be the special guest speaker for our local Spring house and garden show — I thought it would be great to meet him and talk to him. And then I found out that it was going to be on the same day as the Snow Goose Chase (Saturday, April 27th), so I wouldn’t even be around!

My mother helped me brainstorm, and I ended up writing to Mr. Cullen to see if I could meet him a bit earlier, maybe the evening before, and interview him for my blog. As it happened, he was going to do another event for our town the day before, and so we planned to meet on Friday at 5 pm. But then in mid-April I got the bad news that the Friday event was cancelled and Mr. Cullen wasn’t sure what time on Friday he would be arriving. And we had to leave home around 8 am on Saturday morning to get to Tofield in time. Drat!

Mr. Cullen was so wonderful and accommodating, agreeing to meet me at 7:30 in the morning on Saturday, and we had a nice talk; my parents were there too. He gave me some bookmarks to hand out at the Snow Goose Chase, and gave my mother some vegetable seeds for the garden! I followed up by sending him my interview questions by email. Of course, this is his very busy speaking and gardening season, but I will have that interview on my blog as soon as he’s able to send his reply.

Here we are on the deck of Lakeland College’s Alumni House, holding my Baillie Birdathon 2013 t-shirt*,Charlotte&MarkCullen

I did get a chance to ask Mr. Cullen how he came to be this year’s Baillie Birdathon guest birder, and he said he was convinced by his friend, David Love, who is executive director of the Conservation Foundation of Greater Toronto and is on the board of Bird Studies Canada. He also said he is more of a gardener who appreciates birds, than a hardcore birder, which I completely understand because that’s what my mother is too. (And it was my mother’s idea to put up bird feeders in the garden, and all the goldfinches they attracted, that started me on my path to birding several years ago.) As Mr. Cullen says on his Baillie Birdathon page,

As a third-generation career gardener, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a hobby gardener in this country who does not consider themselves an amateur birder too. Merely observing the activity around my 12 garden feeders convinces me that birds are as essential to the outdoor human experience as trees, water, and fresh air. And as you know, the presence of diverse and abundant birdlife is one of the most visible signs of a healthy environment.

Mr. Cullen is doing his Birdathon today, May 14th, at Tommy Thompson Park in Toronto, which was selected as a globally Important Bird Area (IBA) by BirdLife International in 2001. He’ll be birding with Mr. Love and my friend Jody Allair from BSC, whom I got to know last year at the Young Ornithologists’ Workshop (Jody is a huge supporter of the Baillie Birdathon and also contributed to my own Birdathon — thank you again, Jody!). So far Mr. Cullen has raised $3,055 and the first $5,000 raised will be matched by a generous anonymous donor. Here is his recent blog post on the Birdathon.

And here’s a link to his great recent Toronto Star article, Citizen Scientists and the Birds We Watch, and an excerpt:

As I write this column from my home office, I am keenly aware of dozens of visitors in my backyard. My nine bird feeding stations are in clear view and they are very popular today. Juncos, chickadees, downy woodpeckers, a European grackle, and a mom and dad cardinal are all gorging themselves like they have not seen food all winter. From time to time, a blue jay arrives to scoop up an unshelled peanut, cawing an announcement to his buddies that there is a feast to be had at the Cullens’ place this morning.

There is barely a hobby gardener in this country who does not consider themselves an amateur birder, too. That is not to say that all gardeners feed the birds intentionally, but we do have an inherent appreciation for the qualities that they bring to the outdoor experience.

Birds find the work of the gardener helpful even when that is not our primary intent. Plants provide protection, nesting areas, and, of course, natural sources of food for native birds. A garden pond provides a drink, a bath, and for some bird species, another source of food.

Condo and apartment dwellers should not feel left out. A balcony garden can provide all the aforementioned benefits regardless of how high up you reside.

Mr. Cullen encourages readers to “consider raising funds for BSC by participating in the Birdathon yourself. By doing so, you will not only benefit Canada’s native bird population, but you will no doubt learn a few things about birds that will illuminate your outdoor experience.”

And that’s really what it’s all about — making sure we preserve Canada’s birds to illuminate our outdoor experience. Thank you, Mr. Cullen!

*  *  *  *

* The artwork for this year’s Baillie Birdathon t-shirt was created by artist and naturalist Barry Kent MacKay, who is Bird Studies Canada’s artist of the year for 2013. From Barry’s website, where you can see more of his wonderful art:

Barry’s interest in wildlife dates to his earliest memories.   His late mother was a pioneer in wildlife rehabilitation, and Barry grew up in a house that was filled with wildlife. He also assisted his mother and other adults in banding many thousands of birds, and learned to become a skilled preparator of preserved bird specimens of value to science and necessary in much of his artwork, since art was of equal interest and importance to him, also for as long as he can remember. He devoted his life and career to the study of natural history, and the protection of birds and other wildlife. …

Barry has participated in numerous activities related to bird and nature study and conservation. As a fast sketch artist he promoted interest in wildlife during 16 years of appearances on a nationally syndicated children’s television show. He did field work for the Royal Ontario Museum and for the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology in Costa Rica; illustrated the reptiles and amphibians of the Toronto Zoo; illustrates various scientific covers and papers in various technical journals. He was well known and respected for his Nature Trail column, published weekly in The Toronto Star for a period of 25 years.  His writings and articles have appeared in numerous magazines such as Birds of the Wild; Defenders; BirdWatchers’ Digest; Seasons; Mainstream; and Animal Issues;and as feature articles in The Toronto Star and various other publications, large and small.  …

He has also illustrated several books such as Wrens, Mockingbirds and Dippers of the World (by A. D. Brewer, Pica Press, U.K., 2001), A Field Guide to the Birds of the Galapagos (by M.P. Harris, Collins, 1974) and Songbirds: Celebrating Nature’s Voices (by Ronald I. Orenstein, Key Porter, 1997) …

Interview with writer and illustrator Annette LeBlanc Cate: Part 1

LookUpCoverWhen I found out about the new kids’ book, Look Up!: Bird-Watching in Your Own Backyard by Annette LeBlanc Cate (Candlewick, March 2013), I thought it would be perfect for kids and especially for the Young Naturalists’ Corner at the Snow Goose Chase at the end of April. I was so lucky that Annette agreed with me, because she sent me not just three autographed copies of the book to give away to lucky winners, but also sent a copy just for me (I am planning a review as soon as I can). I can’t tell you what it would have meant to have this book when I was eight or nine years old — I’m sure I would have become a serious birder even sooner.

Even before Annette and I became email friends last month, I thought it would be fun to interview her, and let more people learn about her and her wonderful new book. When you stop to think about, there really aren’t any good books for kids on learning how to watch, and listen to, birds. There are lots of junior field guides (such as Bill Thompson’s Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of North America, from Peterson), and story books about birds (such as The Burgess Bird Book for Children), and nature books about birds in the wild (such as Mel Boring’s Birds, Nests and Eggs), but really nothing to help kids, especially those who live in cities and might think there is nothing to watch, learn about the hobby of birding.

Annette studied at the Art Institute of Boston and has written and illustrated two books, Look Up! and also the picture book The Magic Rabbit, new in paperback. She was also the art director for the animated television series, “Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist” on Comedy Central, which won Emmy and Peabody awards. Annette is also an illustrator for the Cobblestone Group of children’s magazine, including Appleseeds, Cobblestone, Cricket, and Spider. Annette lives, draws, writes, and birds in Massachusetts with her husband and two kids.

Charlotte: When did you start watching birds?

Annette: Well, I guess I didn’t officially start watching birds until I my late twenties, when I was the art director for an animated TV show, “Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist”. It was the kind of job where one worked morning til night, and it was really stressful. Really stressful, killer deadlines, some ridiculous crisis or another every week. I was practically having panic attacks. I was working very long hours and the only time I was ever outside practically was when I trudged back to my car, usually in the dark. Everything in my life was seriously out of whack. …

One day I was home sick, and I must have been really sick, because I’m never out sick! And when I was lying there on the couch, I heard a big ruckus on the roof. I crawled outside — the roof was covered with birds! What was going on? I had no idea what they were, or if they came everyday to cover my roof. Was this sort of thing happening every day? Clearly I was missing a lot in life. My house was being eaten by birds everyday, and I had no idea!

So I made a pledge to myself to try and get out more and take walks at lunch — I thought it would be good for me, in the stress management department.  Across the street from work was the Mount Auburn Cemetery, and that’s where I walked. It’s an amazing place, full of interesting trees and flowers, and it’s full of birds, too. (Famous for it, actually) The more I got outside and walked, the more I noticed birds. Really, had they been here all along, and I never noticed? I started thinking that there was all this wonderful stuff in nature going on, and I wasn’t paying the least bit of attention, and that bothered me. So I bought a beginners’ Peterson’s field guide and I looked up the birds eating my house, and they were Starlings. And then I saw another bird eating ants in my backyard, and i looked it up and it was a Flicker, and it was doing exactly what the book said it was supposed to do, which was eat ants, and I just thought that was so cool.

I started paying attention to birds around me on my commute to work, too — to add to my crazy long workday, I also had a really long drive. I started watching the sky, and looking into the woodsy bits when I was stopped in traffic or at really long traffic lights and stop signs. I bought some bird call tapes and listened to them sometimes, too. It felt like I was starting to let some air, and some light into my dark, basement-dwelling life (we actually did the “Dr. Katz” show in a dark basement)

*  *  *

Here is the page the Annette inscribed for me,


*  *  *

Charlotte: Did you always like to draw? When did you start drawing birds?

Annette: Oh yes! I always could. My brothers and sisters and I would always draw together. My mother would cut up brown paper bags for us to draw on, and then I think my father found a huge old blackboard at work and brought that home. We would draw on it just endlessly.

I started drawing birds for real when I started watching them, for real. When I was working on the TV show and decided I needed to start walking outdoors, I decided too that I needed to start drawing other stuff besides the cartoon people in “Dr. Katz”.

This realization came about when I had the wonderful good fortune to meet one of my comic idols, Stephen Wright — I had to draw him for the show. He asked me if I ever got up in the night to draw the characters. It hit me that no, I didn’t have to get up to draw them, I was already drawing them in my sleep, and that was when I could actually sleep, which was seldom. You can see I was a bit of a mess at this time in my life.

So I decided that I needed to feel like I was some sort of artist again. I needed to get a sketchbook and some pencils and get out and draw stuff, stuff that had nothing to do with my job whatsoever. Again, I thought it would be good for me. So on the odd weekend day I had off, I started sitting in my yard and drawing, something, anything — the bushes, the trees, the skunk cabbage in the little swamp behind the house. There was a pond nearby with a spillway, and it was the first time I ever saw Swifts, and that became my favorite place to sit and draw. There were traintacks through the woods, my husband and I walked there alot (and there was a lovely pub at the end of that walk, always a selling point). The more I walked, the more I saw that I wanted to draw. The more I drew, the more I saw birds, and that, of course, led to drawing birds, since I was voraciously reading about them at this time, too.

Charlotte: Do you have any hints for those who are learning to draw birds?

Annette: Just keep at it. Be patient, practice as much as you can, and don’t worry how good or nice your drawings are. You aren’t trying to make a pretty picture, you are merely seeking to describe. Think first about the general shape. If you can see that, and get that down, it’s really half the battle. Don’t worry about details right off (though those certainly can be fun). Practice on birds that are easy to see, that will come quite close to you. Seagulls are absolutely the best!

And don’t forget the birds’ environment, that’s important too, and if it’s too frustrating to draw a bird that’s flitting about, concentrate on something else for a while, like trees and leaves and all that. Any time spent outside really observing and drawing will help you.

Charlotte: What made you decide to write/illustrate the children’s book, Look Up!: Bird-Watching in Your Own Backyard? Which came first for the book, the illustrations or the words?

Annette: Well, I had been watching and sketching birds as much as i could, trying to identify them using my first beginners’ field guide.Then I got another, and another, and at first I was just picking through them, trying to match up the nice pictures with the birds I was seeing. But that was frustrating sometimes, because, as you well know, birds do not always look like their pictures in the books.

And there were so many bird terms i didn’t understand, like “breeding plumage” and “semipalmated”. I would just skip over all that stuff, because I wasn’t really all that into it, right? I just wanted to know what a few birds were, I just wanted to “identify”, I didn’t have the time to read all that boring stuff in the beginning of the field guides. And then I would think I was getting somewhere, and then I would go to the beach and see all these brown seagulls and I would have no idea what kinds of seagulls they were, or I would see I bird I suspected was a warbler, but how could I tell, there were so many tiny little birds who all looked almost exactly alike, it was crazy! And I would be totally confused again.

And I thought, hmmmm, clearly, I am missing something here. I suspected the key was figuring out what what “molt patterns” and “breeding plumage” meant. So I started actually reading more, and then moreand more and then it was this whole new world, and before I knew it I was a field guide freak — I was reading them cover to cover. And I discovered I loved reading and seeing and thinking and drawing about birds, and along with my nice drawings, I started drawing funny little cartoons, because that’s what i do when i really like something. And because I have long worked for educational magazines, I am actually kind of good at explaining things to kids. I like to take confusing stuff and make it simple and fun. So it just seemed a natural thing(because I knew I should probably write another book someday, anyway) — an idea for a book that wasn’t necessarily a field guide (because I knew I would be over my head there), but a funny book to explain to kids some of that daunting stuff one might read in a more grown-up field guide. (I mean, I was daunted, myself.)

So one day I when I was going to visit my editor, Andrea Tompa, at Candlewick (I am very lucky, Candlewick is quite close to me, I can go in and visit whenever I want, they are the nicest people!), I hauled along a big stack of my sketchbooks and loose sketches and drawings, and I handed this big armload of papers to her, and asked if she thought it could maybe be a book, and after shuffling through it thoughtfully, she said yes, she thought it could, and we worked on it together from there.

So I would say, what came first, the illustrations or words? First it was organizing my cartoons (and since I have zero computer skills to speak of, there were many, many scraps of paper involved, and scissors, and glue sticks) into piles which eventually could be thought of as chapters. And then lots of thinking about what really was the focus of this book, what ages would this be for, how much information can you possibly stuff onto one page, how long can it be, mapping and reorganizing, and then much later the writing to link it all together.

I’m a terrible writer, that was absolutely the hardest part, it was unimaginably hard! Although often it was also very fun — much of this book I wrote outside in my yard, watching birds, and my young sons at the same time. I really am quite indebted to Andrea, and the designer who worked on this book, Pam Consolazio. This book was a lot of work for them, too!

* * * *

Thank you, Annette! What wonderful stories!

Just as a reminder, this is just Part 1 of my interview with author/illustrator Annette LeBlanc Cate. Stay tuned for Part 2 shortly!

An Interview with Photographer/Birder Mia McPherson

I learned about Mia McPherson when she became one of the regular bloggers for the multi-author blog Birding Is Fun last summer. I’ve been following her blog ever since and marveling at her photos. Mia is a fabulous photographer and is currently photographing wildlife in northern Utah. She writes and displays her photos on her blog, On the Wing Photography.

I really enjoy her photography and wanted to interview her for my blog. Here is that interview along with some of Mia’s wonderful pictures.

PB:  First, tell me a little about yourself. For example, where are you from, and tell us a bit about your work. 

me-flaming-gorge-9123Mia: I have traveled all of my life and because I have I don’t claim to be from any one place, I love to immerse myself in nature wherever I am and that can be found anywhere on the planet. I have worn many hats as far as work goes but my favorite profession is being a bird, wildlife, and nature photographer, it suits me perfectly.

PB: How and when did you first become interested in photography/birding?

Mia: I’ve been interested in birds as long as I can remember and while living in Florida I became addicted to photographing them.

Monarch Butterfly feeding from a Showy Milkweed, Antelope Island, Garr Ranch, Utah

Monarch Butterfly feeding from a Showy Milkweed, Antelope Island, Garr Ranch, Utah. Photograph by Mia McPherson/On The Wing Photography

PB: What photography equipment do you use?

Mia: I use Nikon gear, my primary bird and wildlife set up is a D300 with a Nikkor 200-400mm VR f4 lens with a 1.4x TC attached most of the time. I have two Nikon D200s that I use for backup bodies and they generally have a wide angle zoom lens attached so I can easily take close ups and landscape images.

Bald Eagle landing on the  Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Utah

Bald Eagle landing on the Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Utah. Photograph by Mia McPherson/On The Wing Photography

PB: Is there a bird on your wish list or a “nemesis bird” you would really love to see or photograph?

Mia: I would love to see and photograph a Snowy Owl because they are so beautiful and I have a deep fondness for owls.

PB: Any tips for new nature photographers or bird photographers?

Mia: My tips for those who are just starting out in or nature photography are:

* Get to know your gear intimately, know its strengths and weaknesses and learn which setting you need in every different situation.

* Practice, practice, and practice some more.

* Get to know your subjects, their behaviors and you’ll be able to anticipate their actions which can lead to great poses.

* And always practice strong wildlife ethics in the field so wildlife isn’t disturbed unnecessarily, this is especially true for nesting birds, chicks or other wildlife with young.

PB: What is you most memorable birding experience?

Mia: I have had so many memorable experiences while photographing birds that it is quite a challenge to pick just one! I think one of the most amazing for me though took place on Fort De Soto County Park’s north beach in Florida one morning while I was photographing a Great Blue Heron perched on a snag. In the distance I caught sight of a bird hovering over the mangroves to the east, I took some rather cruddy images of that bird which turned out to be a White-tailed Kite, a species which had not been seen in that county in 98 years!

A Great Blue Heron at Fort De Soto County Park, Pinellas County, Florida

A Great Blue Heron at Fort De Soto County Park, Pinellas County, Florida. Photograph by Mia McPherson/On The Wing Photography

PB: What new species are you hoping to photograph/see this year?

Mia: I would love to photograph Saw-whet Owls this year, they are tiny and gorgeous owls.

PB: What is your favorite to photograph, mammals or birds?

Mia: My passion has its roots in bird photography because they are a challenge to photograph and I enjoy observing them and learning more about each species habits, behaviors and the habitats that they live in.

Coyote in the Snow at  Antelope Island State Park, Utah

Coyote in the Snow at Antelope Island State Park, Utah. Photograph by Mia McPherson/On The Wing Photography

PB: Where is your favorite place to photograph wildlife?

Mia: That would have to be Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Montana. The Centennial Valley has marshes, lakes, grasslands and even sand dunes. On south side of the valley there are the Centennial Mountains with forests and alpine meadows. There is a wide variety of birds and mammals that inhabit the refuge and each day that I spend there is truly a delight.

PB:  I really enjoy your blog and the photos you post on it. What made you start On the Wing Photography? 

Mia: I started On The Wing Photography because I wanted more than just photo galleries, I wanted to be able to share my experiences and observations in nature, the stories behind my images and I also wanted help others who are interested in photography by explaining ethics, techniques and the challenges of being a bird, nature and wildlife photographer.

Juvenile Burrowing Owl stretching at Antelope Island State Park, Utah

Juvenile Burrowing Owl stretching at Antelope Island State Park, Utah. Photograph by Mia McPherson/On The Wing Photography


Thank you for the interview, Mia, as well for letting me post some of your exquisite photographs. Again, I highly recommend visiting Mia’s blog, On the Wing Photography for the excellent content and the superb photographs!