Birding through troubled times

In the past six years, since I was 12, both of my maternal grandparents died, my paternal grandfather has had a stroke and moved into a nursing home, and my father was diagnosed with cancer. It was only this summer, after the stroke and my father’s cancer surgery, that I realized just how much birds and birding have helped me through very difficult times. Birding has been a distraction and a comfort for me, something that has both calmed and energized me.

In September 2009, several months after I started birding, my maternal grandfather was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and given 12 to 18 months to live. It was hard to believe at the time, because I knew only happy times with my grandparents, either here in Alberta, or visiting them at their homes in New York and the Caribbean island of Nevis. My grandfather, who was a keen photographer and loved the outdoors and gardening, gave me my first pair of binoculars, which I’m still using, and also a copy of of Les Beletsky’s Bird Songs, with its digital audio player that was a tremendous help for me when I was so young and curious about birds. After my grandfather started radiation treatments, my mother flew from our farm in Alberta, Canada, to New York in November to help him.

Unfortunately, the radiation didn’t work and the doctors told my mother and grandfather that his prognosis would be even shorter. When it became apparent that it would be his last Christmas, my mother had my father, my brothers, and me travel to NYC to spend Christmas together with my grandparents one last time (he would die several weeks later, in early January). As a distraction from a very sad situation — my grandfather’s illness, his changed personality, my grandmother’s sadness — in a very small New York apartment with seven people, my father (who isn’t at all a birder) took me to Central Park for a bird walk. Although it was snowing quite heavily, we saw some good birds, many of which were lifers for me. We even walked over to the Fifth Avenue apartment building where the celebrated Pale Male lives, but swirling snow prevented us from seeing the nest.

Several months after my grandfather died, my family flew down to Nevis in October to help my grandmother sort through my his things at their retirement house, and to prepare the house for sale. Although our days were very full with clearing out, cleaning, and painting the house, I still had time to go birding every morning. While on Nevis, I added lots of species to my life list, including three new species of hummingbirds — Antillean Crested Hummingbird, Green-throated Carib, and Purple-throated Carib. I showed my grandmother many of the photos I took, and her favourite was a backlit photo I took of a Purple-throated Carib. One of the highlights of that trip was finding a female Antillean Crested Hummingbird on her nest, and also photographing it. For a 12-year-old birder, this was certainly something special.

The female Antillean Crested Hummingbird on her nest (2010),

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Nevis is also the place I started this blog. Because I was taking lots of photos, and seeing so many new species, I thought a blog would be the perfect medium for chronicling my adventures. But partway through our stay, my grandmother became very sick, and then died several day later, very suddenly and unexpectedly. What had already been a difficult and sad trip, so different from our previous family visits, was even harder. Being able to go birding every morning gave some sense of normalcy to my days, and also gave me something to look forward to, especially after we found out that our return home would have to be delayed for several weeks while my parents made all the necessary arrangements. And while I started the blog at a difficult time, it has brought me so many friends and opportunities. It’s another reminder that good things can come out of terrible circumstances.

This year has been particularly hard. In April, my paternal grandfather, who lives nearby and with whom I’ve always been very close, suffered a severe stroke and nearly died. He was in the hospital for five months and recently moved into a nursing home. He is no longer the man he was — he is confined to bed or a wheelchair, and his memory and speech are almost gone. He doesn’t know me anymore, and there have been days when he’s been so agitated that it’s upsetting to see. And his stroke has changed my grandmother too, from the calm and always smiling glue of the family to someone who is now almost always sad, anxious, and distracted. It’s rather like finding out that two rocks you have been able to count on your entire life have suddenly crumbled.

Our family spent much of my grandfather’s first few weeks in the hospital with him, and after long hours of being cooped up, it was wonderful to be able to go birding in, to escape to, the nearby Provincial Park, a short walk away. The hospital had its own little oasis, too,  a central courtyard with a garden, and from the window in my grandfather’s room, I could watch the Blue Jays, Black-billed Magpies, and House Sparrows that came every day. The species weren’t particularly exciting, but I realized that for patients and visitors, even a House Sparrow can bring some cheer after days and weeks spent in the same room. Keeping my grandmother company, I would sometimes bring my ABA field notebook to work on, and show her my sketches in progress.

A sketch of a Hermit Thrush I finished while in the hospital,

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I’ve thought often that one of the things my grandfather and I liked to talk about, one of the things we’ve had in common, are a love of animals in general and birds in particular, and it’s painful to know that we won’t be able to talk about this and share it any more. Spring migration was in full force during much of his stay at the hospital. I’d bring my iPad to the hospital room and show my grandfather my photos. Sometimes he would laugh and smile when looking at the photos, other times he would cry and look very sad. My grandfather always loved nature and he loved to share his knowledge and experiences with his grandchildren. Now that he’s in the nursing home, unable to stand, to remember his family, or to express himself clearly most of the time, it’s hard to accept that he will never again be the person I once knew — a person who enjoyed nature, who could spend an entire afternoon watching the birds through his kitchen window. I can also appreciate how miserable he must be, unable to get around on his own and confined to a facility, unable to be outdoors where he was always happiest. Birding, and photographing birds, is a way of remembering and honouring both of my grandfathers.

Shortly after my grandfather’s stroke, my father was diagnosed with prostate cancer. It was a frightening time for my family, especially waiting to find out whether the cancer had spread. His surgery was in Edmonton, a three-hour drive from our house, and my mother was with him for the four days they were in the city; she kept in touch by telephone, but for a family used to spending so much time together because of home schooling and farming, the distance was difficult. It was rather disconcerting to be so far away from my parents at such an important time, and we didn’t have any family staying with us because my grandmother, aunts, and uncles were all looking after my grandfather. I did go birding a few times while my parents were gone, which was a helpful release and a chance to forget about everything happening. Even when I didn’t have time for dedicated birding, I was always observing birds. On my way to work every day, I would see everything from hawks, gulls, and a pair Guinea Hens crossing the road (escapees from a neighbouring farm), to a large group of pelicans flying north from the river. Almost every morning I would see an American Kestrel siting on the power line or fence post often with prey in its talons. This is one of the beauties of birding — birds are everywhere and can help distract your thoughts from times of hardship.

A Killdeer from one of my bird walks this summer,

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During the difficult times my family has had to face, birding has helped to keep me strong. I’ve learned to go birding as often as I could, to make the time even when I was busy with my summer job and farm chores, because it helped me relieve stress and remind me of happier times. Especially because birding around our farm or the Provincial Park nearby means going for very long walks, I was able to lose myself whenever I went birding. Most birders know Emily Dickinson’s famous line, “Hope is the thing with feathers”. I’ve found that birds do indeed give me hope, especially at times when life seems to be rather hopeless, whether it’s the anticipation of migrants returning in the spring, or that tomorrow might bring a new species for my year list or life list or even just the sighting of an old favourite. Being out in the woods or on the prairie surrounded by birds — surrounded, as I wrote this the other month, by tens of thousands of Canada Geese and Snow Geese — I was reminded at this harvest time of the generosity and abundance of nature. That no matter how hard or ugly life can be, there is always beauty, grace, and strength in this world. That just as as winter always comes, with witherings and departures, so to does spring, with returns and rebirth.

A male Mountain Bluebird at the local Provincial Park. My paternal grandparents are particularly fond of Mountain Bluebirds,

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Rediscovering Virginia Eifert

When I was researching my 4H speeches last year on endangered/nearly extinct birds, I came across the writings of American nature writer, naturalist, and artist Virginia Eifert (1911-1966). She was an amazingly prolific writer, an early conservationist, and a strong believer in outdoor education, but it seems that few people — even passionate outdoors types — know about her nowadays.

I love the opportunity to rediscover amazing naturalists, because it’s like finding hidden treasure. And these are people who have blazed a path for the rest of us. And because Mrs. Eifert was a writer, an artist, and a photographer — three things I’m working hard on besides my birding — she is a great example for me. If you want to see what I mean, just look at this example from one of Virginia’s journals when she was 16,

A page from Virginia's 1927 journal, when she was 16; reproduced with permission from Larry Eifert

A page from Virginia’s 1927 journal, when she was 16; reproduced with permission from Larry Eifert

And I thought it would be fun to share this special treasure, and help remember someone who in her lifetime was “one of the more well-known nature writers in America”, according to her biography by John E. Hallwas of Western Illinois University. You can find the biography, as well as some of her essays, and some of her books which are now available as Kindle editions after being out-of-print for a long time, at a website maintained by Mrs. Eifert’s son Larry Eifert, an artist.

Professor Hallwas also wrote “The Achievement of Virginia E. Seifert” in 1978, which includes some more information. Mrs. Eifert lived and wrote in Illinois and became an expert on nature and wildlife in the state. She was born in Springfield on January 23, 1911, the oldest of three children. Her mother “had a lively interest in nature” and they spent lots of time outdoors, enjoying picnics and excursions. Virginia learned at an early age that nature could be found nearby — some of their favorite destinations were nearby city parks. In fact, according to her sister, Virginia “practically grew up in Washington Park”. Until her last year of high school, Virginia spent a great deal of her time outdoors, and at school, where her favorite subjects were nature study, writing, and art. Her favorite books were nature titles by such authors as Henry David Thoreau, Ernest Thompson Seton, and Gene Stratton Porter.

But in her senior year, she contracted an illness which was probably rheumatic fever, though it wasn’t accurately diagnosed at the time. She was confined to her room, where the only nature available to her was what she could see from her window. And she never finished high school. However, according to Professor Hallwas, with information from her younger sister,

The time of her confinement may actually have accelerated her learning, however, for the number of library books on nature that she read during that period was enormous. Writing and drawing helped to fill the long hours of physical inactivity. She slowly regained her strength, but the disease left her with a legacy of heart damage that eventually shortened her life.

Virginia in the woods, at age 18; photo reproduced with permission from Larry Eifert

Virginia in the woods, at age 18; photo reproduced with permission from Larry Eifert

After Virginia recovered, around the age of 19, she became very busy with a number of writing projects. The family’s neighbor, the editor of The Illinois State Journal, invited Virginia to write an unpaid nature column, which she did on a number of subjects — “Beautiful Springfield”, “The Christmas Stars”, “The Laws of Nature”, “Wild Goose Chase”. She also began a paid project, writing and illustrating her mimeographed weekly “Nature News”, which she distributed to regular subscribers for five cents an issue.

Virginia attended Eastern Illinois University for one semester, in 1934-35, taking courses in botany and zoology. Without a high school diploma, she couldn’t enroll in the degree program. But it didn’t matter, because as Prof. Hallwas wrote, “she evidently did not care for a rigorously scientific (non-humanistic, non-artistic) approach to nature.” He added that a fellow student remembered her saying, “I’ll never let science ruin my love of nature.” Prof. Hallwas wrote that while “Virginia gradually developed an enormous understanding of the scientific principles relating to the natural world…. [it] was nature for the sake of a broader general understanding of the world and a more intense appreciation of life that became her central commitment.”

In the early 1930s, Virginia joined the new Springfield Nature League (which would later become the Springfield Audubon Society). She was a contributing editor for the Nature League’s bulletin, conducted hikes, and directed a bird group. And it was through the Nature League that Virginia would meet her husband, Herman Eifert, in 1934. He was a college student then who would become a high school teacher of English, biology, and physiology. They were married two years later, at the summit of Starved Rock, Illinois, at sunrise.

In 1939, Virginia was hired by the Illinois State Museum to write, edit, and illustrate a new promotional publication, The Living Museum. It was a job she would hold until her death in 1966. What began as a four-page, mimeographed leaflet would become a printed, multi-page journal with a circulation of 25,000. Prof. Hallwas wrote that

Virginia was essentially free, for twenty-seven years, to write the kind of essays she wanted to write. Much of her very best writing is within the pages of the 326 issues that she produced, and those essays provide a remarkable record of her interests and development after 1939.

The earliest essays are very short and sometimes end by referring to exhibits in the museum. But Virginia gradually moved away from that format towards lyrical essays that re-created the sights, sounds, and smells of the outdoors. …

The best of her lyrical essays are very poetic indeed, and they are among the finest pieces of descriptive nature writing in American literature.

Prof. Hallwas wrote that Virginia’s writing may have benefitted indirectly from the tenor of the times — “Many of her essays recommended the balm of nature to war-weary readers.” For example, in the 1942 essay “Inevitably, Spring”, Virginia wrote,

The man-made world may seem all wrong, but the natural world is still, reassuringly, comfortingly, the same as it always has been. In spite of headlines, there will soon be meadowlarks and robins, bluebirds and doves. In spite of priorities, the raccoon soon will be dabbling for crawfish in the creek.

From her essays, Virginia branched out to writing and illustrating guidebooks for the museum — Birds in Your Backyard (1941), The Story of Illinois (1943), Flowers That Bloom in the Spring (1947) and so on. From there she moved to full-length books.

Virginia spent much time travelling around the country. In her twenties, she accompanied her younger brother through a number of states in his Model T Ford. From 1957 until her death in 1966, she taught many classes in Wisconsin at The Clearing, an outdoor school for adults in Ellison Bay founded by Jens Jensen in 1935. She also travelled more than 5,000 miles along rivers, on towboats and steamboats. She wrote several books that clearly show her love of America’s rivers: Mississippi Calling (1957), River World: Wild Life of the Mississippi River (1959), Delta Queen: The Story of a Steamboat (1960), and Of Men and Rivers: Adventures and Discoveries along American Waterways (1966). Rivers also feature in some of her biographies for young readers: Three Rivers South: The Story of Young Abe Lincoln (illustrated by Thomas Hart Benton), and Louis Jolliet: Explorer of Rivers (1964). In his biography, Prof. Hallwas writes, “For Virginia the exploration of North America was a vast chronicle of discoveries by travelers in the wild who were not really explorers, but writers, artists, and naturalists.”

Over the course of her 55 years, she wrote 18 volumes of nature writing, cultural history, and biography, along with hundreds of articles on natural history subjects for publication such as Audubon Magazine, Nature Magazine, Natural History, and Canadian Nature. I am sure her photographs and illustrations are countless. Almost as if she knew that her life would not be that long, she wrote in River World, six years before she died,

I stand on the shore and know that it was here yesterday, and will be here tomorrow, and that, therefore, since I am a part of its pattern today, I also belong to all its yesterdays and will be part of all its tomorrows. This is a kind of earthly immortality, a kinship with rivers and hills and rocks, with all things and all creatures that have ever lived or have their being on earth. It is my assurance of an orderly continuity in the great design of the universe.

One of my favorite essays by Mrs. Eifert is “These Birds Are America”, on the importance of bird conservation, which was first published in Audubon magazine in 1945 and then reprinted in January 1973 for the publication’s 75th anniversary. It would have been a very powerful article in 1945, even more so in 1973 during the height of the ecology movement, and now, more than 60 years after Mrs. Eifert first wrote it, we more than realize why the work must continue. Just a few months ago, at BirdLife International’s World Congress in Ottawa, “The State of the Birds” report said that declining bird populations around the world provide evidence of a “rapid deterioration in the global environment” that affects all life on earth.

I’ll share that article, “These Birds Are America”, tomorrow, now that you know a little bit about Virginia Eifert and her life.

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
cuckoo.

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.

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)

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Here is the page the Annette inscribed for me,

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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!

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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!

Snow Goose Chase 2013


Last year was my first time to attend the Tofield Snow Goose Chase, organized by the Edmonton Nature Club, and I had a wonderful time! Not too long after the Chase I had an email from Mr. Parsons, the ENC’s  Special Events Co-ordinator, who had invited me to the Chase in the first place, and who does so much of its organization. He had an idea for this year, to include a Young Naturalists’ Corner, and asked if I could help with the organization beforehand, and then working at the table. I thought it was a wonderful idea and started planning for the table last May.

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At this year’s Snow Goose Chase — this past Saturday, April 27th — there were some terrific displays at the Tofield Community Centre, including four live raptors from the Edmonton Valley Zoo; Alberta’s own John Acorn, the celebrated naturalist and entomologist whose enthusiasm on Saturday was infectious; a Bugs & Beetles wetland display; an incredible variety of touchable animal pelts from trapper Bill Abercrombie of Alberta Trapline Adventures; Royal Alberta Museum ornithology curator Jocelyn Hudon with the always fascinating mounted bird specimens (including a beautiful Scarlet Ibis); a table from the Beaverhill Bird Observatory; a display of various live and preserved reptiles and amphibians (including some of the preserved ones in water for the kids to touch), and a display of bird and animal carvings from the Boag Lake Carving Studio.

Considering it was our first year, the Young Naturalists’ Corner seemed to be very popular with all the kids and their families. In fact, there were nine buses of kids and their families, so it was almost overwhelming at times with so many people. Bob arranged for Andrea, a student, to help out, and our mothers were there as well, and also Petra Rowell, the executive director of Nature Alberta, with whom we shared the space.

We had some great door prizes to give away including two new children’s birding and nature books:  Look Up!: Bird-Watching in Your Own Backyard, written and illustrated by Annette LeBlanc Cate (Candlewick, March 2013) and The Kids’ Outdoor Adventure Book: 448 Great Things to Do in Nature Before You Grow Up by Stacy Tornio and Ken Keffer, and illustrated by Rachel Riordan. Annette donated three autographed copies of Look Up!, which was an amazing gift for the Corner, and Ken sent along some promotional bookmarks for The Kids Outdoor Adventure Book — thank you Annette and Ken. Both titles were among the stars of the Young Naturalists’ Corner, with kids reading through the books and hoping to win them, and parents and grandparents writing down the titles and authors. Petra and Nature Alberta donated a number of things too, including several toy/plush Ord’s Kangaroo Rats!

We all answered questions from kids and their parents, about how to start your own local nature club for the summer, where to find nature in the city, joining Nature Alberta’s “Young Naturalist Club” program, for kids ages 5-13. They loved guessing what animal had shed the antlers (White-tail Deer) and holding them up on top of their heads. Lots of the kids asked, “What are these books for?” or “Where can we get them?” So we told them that the books, which you can find at the library or a bookstore, are great for learning more about the animals they would see, and experiences they would have, at the Chase.

Bob did a wonderful job organizing everything and also taking time to help me with the Young Naturalists’ Corner. Thank you again, Bob, for everything — especially for asking to me to be part of such a wonderful day. It’s an honor to be asked to join everyone who works so hard to put on such an amazing experience.

I saw two first-of-season species while my parents and I were driving around Tofield: a large flock of Sandhill Cranes and five Canvasbacks. I also saw one male Mountain Bluebird as we were approaching Tofield in the morning, also 10 Red-tailed Hawks, Mallards, and Ring-billed Gulls.

Below are some pictures my mother and I took last Saturday:

The Young Naturalists’ Corner’s banner, especially made for this year’s Chase,

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Here I am with John Acorn and Andrea who was helping me at the YNC,

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Mounted waterbirds from the ornithology collection at Royal Alberta Museum,

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Here is part of our table with all the prizes and pamphlets from Bird Studies Canada and Nature Alberta, and some of the books I’ve written about in the past few weeks,

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A deer skull and a pair of antlers (both from White-tail Deer) we brought from home for the table (sorry for the blurry photo, my mom didn’t have her reading glasses on at the time!),

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A beautiful carved Green-winged Teal from the Boag Lake Carving Studio,

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Kids admiring the carvings at the Boag Lake Carving display,

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The Cows, Fish, Cattledogs, and Kids display,

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An Alberta crawfish (Orconectes virilis) in the pond life display,

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A young Peregrine Falcon,

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Even though we see thousands of Snow Geese in the slough across the road from our house, what would be a Snow Goose Chase without going to see some Snow Geese around Tofield?! Because of our late Spring the geese were a little harder to find, but we saw some very large flocks and I got some very good views, thanks to my scope!

Some digiscoped photos of the geese,

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Giveaways for the Snow Goose Chase

The Young Naturalists’ Corner at the Snow Goose Chase this Saturday will have numerous books and other items to give away as door prizes!

These are some of the books my mom and I bought, but there will be others that other organizers are bringing,

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:: Look Up!: Bird-Watching in Your Own Backyard, written by Annette LeBlanc Cate (Candlewick, March 2013) is the one book I’m still waiting for to come in the mail; Annette kindly offered to send some copies — thank you, Annette!

:: The Kids’ Outdoor Adventure Book: 448 Great Things to Do in Nature Before You Grow Up by Stacy Tornio and Ken Keffer and illustrated by Rachel Riordan (FalconGuides, April 2013); I reviewed the book earlier this week here.

:: One Small Square: Backyard: One Small Square by Donald M. Silver and illustrated by Patricia J. Wynne (Learning Triangle Press, 1993); this series is one we read a lot when my brothers and I were younger.

:: The Listening Walk by Paul Showers and illustrated by Aliki (HarperCollins, 1961); another book we had when we were younger, and my mother had it too when she was little.

:: A Golden Guide to Mammals by Donald F. Hoffmeister and Herbert S. Zim, and illustrated by James Gordon Irving (St. Martin’s Press). This is a wonderful little book, just the right size to fit in your pocket to take on a nature walk. Dr. Hoffmeister (1916-2011) was a professor of zoology, and director of the Museum of Natural History at the University of Illinois. Dr. Zim (1909-1994) was a naturalist, author, educator, and the founder and editor-in-chief of the Golden Guides series of nature books.

And Ken Keffer sent me these fabulous bookmarks that he and Stacey Tornio had made as part of the release of their new book The Kids’ Outdoor Adventure Book. And there’s one just for me to keep, too! Thank you, Ken!

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