Bird Fact Friday– the American robin, a wood thrush & their song

Adapted from pages 2-4 of Listening to a Continent Sing:

Use this QR code to hear the American robin’s song.

A robin begins to sing, 5:34 a.m., about half an hour before sunrise. His low, sweet carols drop from above one by one, cheerily, cheer- up, cheerio, cheerily. He accelerates now, adding a single high screechy note, a hisselly, after each caroled series, but soon there will be two or more such high, exclamatory notes. He combines sequences of different caroled and hisselly notes to express all that is on his mind, sometimes even singing the two contrasting notes simultaneously with a low carol from his left voice box and a high hisselly from his right, but for now the effort of deep listening is too much like work. 

A wood thrush joins in. He awakes with sharp whit whit calls, as if a bit peeved, then gradually calms to softer bup bup notes, and soon he’s in full song. Emerging are five different half- second masterpieces of rising and falling, rich, pure notes. And the flourishes— what a pity that I cannot slow them down now and hear the pure magic in the way the thrush must hear it, with his precision breathing  through his two voice boxes producing the most extraordinary harmonies imaginable.

Use this QR code to listen to the wood thrush’s song.

The robin and thrush now travel back in time together in search of their roots, meeting up with me some hundreds of millions of years ago, when we all had the same ancestor, when we were one. We belong to an extended family, each of us an extraordinary success story, each of us with an unbroken string of successful ancestors dating back to the beginning of time. The robin, the thrush, and I are equals: “Mitakuye oyasin,” the Sioux would say as they end a prayer, “all my relations.”

The robin, the wood thrush . . . Yes, I know why I’m here. Disjointed thoughts surface with jumbled words that do no justice to the certainty of purpose . . . to celebrate life, and the lives of other creatures along the way . . . to hear this continent sing, not only the birds but also the people, flowers and trees, rocks and rivers, mountains and prairies, clouds and sky, all that is . . . to discover America all over again, from the seat of a bicycle . . .to embrace reality, leaving behind the insanity of a workplace gone amuck . . . to simply be, to strip life to its bare essentials and discover what emerges . . . and in the process, perhaps find my future . . . by listening to birds!

KroodsmaListening to a Continent Sing
Birdsong by Bicycle from the Atlantic to the Pacific
By Donald Kroodsma

Join birdsong expert Donald Kroodsma on a ten-week, ten-state bicycle journey as he travels with his son from the Atlantic to the Pacific, lingering and listening to our continent sing as no one has before. On remote country roads, over terrain vast and spectacular, from dawn to dusk and sometimes through the night, you will gain a deep appreciation for the natural symphony of birdsong many of us take for granted. Come along and marvel at how expressive these creatures are as Kroodsma leads you west across nearly five thousand miles—at a leisurely pace that enables a deep listen.

Listening to a Continent Sing is also a guided tour through the history of a young nation and the geology of an ancient landscape, and an invitation to set aside the bustle of everyday life to follow one’s dreams. It is a celebration of flowers and trees, rocks and rivers, mountains and prairies, clouds and sky, headwinds and calm, and of local voices and the people you will meet along the way. It is also the story of a father and son deepening their bond as they travel the slow road together from coast to coast.

Beautifully illustrated throughout with drawings of birds and scenes and featuring QR codes that link to audio birdsong, this poignant and insightful book takes you on a travel adventure unlike any other—accompanied on every leg of your journey by birdsong.

 

Bird Fact Friday— “Tropical Chickens”

Adapted from pages 264-265 of The New Neotropical Companion:

The 56 species of chachalacas, guans, and curassows are similar in appearance to chickens and turkeys, and are in the same order, Galliformes, but are in their own family, Cracidae. They are found in dense jungle, mature forest, montane forest, and cloud forest. Though individuals and sometimes pairs or small flocks are often observed on the forest floor, small flocks are often seen perched in trees.

The 15 chachalaca species are all slender, brownish olive in color, and have long tails. Each species is about 51 cm (20 in) from beak to tail tip. A chachalaca has a chicken-like head, with a bare red throat, usually visible only at close range. Most species form flocks of up to 20 or more birds. Chachalacas are highly vocal. The Plain Chachalaca (Ortalis vetula) is among the noisiest of tropical birds. Dawn along a rain forest edge is often greeted by a host of chachalaca males, each enthusiastically calling its harsh and monotonous cha-cha- lac! The birds often remain in thick cover, even when vocalizing, but an individual may call from a bare limb, affording easy views.

A female Bare-faced Curassow (Crax fasciolata) perched in a tree. This is an example of a “Tropical Chicken.” Photo credit: John Kricher.

Twenty-five species of guans and 16 species of curassows occur in Neotropical lowland and montane forests. Larger than chachalacas—most are the size of a small, slender turkey—they have glossy, black plumage set off by varying amounts of white or rufous. Some, like the Horned Guan (Oreophasis derbianus) and the Helmeted Curassow (Pauxi pauxi), have bright red “horns” or wattles on the head and/or beak. The Blue-throated Piping-Guan (Pipile cumanensis) and the Red-throated Piping-Guan (P. cujubi) have much white about the head and wings and a patch of colorful skin on the throat. 

Guans and curassows, though quite large, can be difficult to observe well. Small flocks move within the canopy, defying you to get a satisfactory binocular view of them. Like chachalacas, guans and curassows are often vocal, especially in the early morning hours.

There are 23 species of New World quail (family Odontophoridae) in the Neotropics, but seeing them requires a lot of searching and good luck. They are generally a secretive, cryptic group, rarely giving observers a good close look, as they scurry quietly along the shaded forest interior. Most of these species have narrow ranges but a few are more widely ranging.

New Neotropical Companion CoverThe New Neotropical Companion
John Kricher
Chapter One

The New Neotropical Companion is the completely revised and expanded edition of a book that has helped thousands of people to understand the complex ecology and natural history of the most species-rich area on Earth, the American tropics. Featuring stunning color photos throughout, it is a sweeping and cutting-edge account of tropical ecology that includes not only tropical rain forests but also other ecosystems such as cloud forests, rivers, savannas, and mountains. This is the only guide to the American tropics that is all-inclusive, encompassing the entire region’s ecology and the amazing relationships among species rather than focusing just on species identification.

The New Neotropical Companion is a book unlike any other. Here, you will learn how to recognize distinctive ecological patterns of rain forests and other habitats and to interpret how these remarkable ecosystems function—everything is explained in clear and engaging prose free of jargon. You will also be introduced to the region’s astonishing plant and animal life.

 

Bird Fact Friday: Gulpers & Mashers

Adapted from page 163 of The New Neotropical Companion:

Birds are selective about the size of the fruits they eat and how they consume them. Species such as toucans, aracaris, and toucanets pluck fruit, juggle it in the bill, and then often reject it by dropping it. Large fruits are particularly at risk of rejection and may be found scarred by bill marks. Nathaniel Wheelwright hypothesized that plants are under strong selection pressure to produce small to medium-size fruits, as larger ones are rejected by most bird species except those with the widest gapes. Thus large fruits will tend to be selected by large birds such as curassows and guans. Large fruits permit more energy to be stored in the seeds, an advantage once dispersal and germination have occurred.

This Grayish Saltator (Saltator coerulescens) is an obvious example of a masher. Photo by John Kricher.

Studies by various researchers in Costa Rica indicated two basic methods by which birds devour fruit. Anyone can observe these methods in the field. Some birds (mashers) mash up the fruit, dropping the seeds as they do, while others (gulpers) gulp the fruit whole, subsequently either regurgitating or defecating seeds. Mashers are mostly finches and tanagers, and gulpers are toucans, trogons, and manakins. Mashers appear more sensitive to taste than gulpers, showing a distinct preference for fruits rich in sugars. Gulpers swallow fruit whole and appear taste insensitive.

New Neotropical Companion CoverThe New Neotropical Companion
John Kricher
Chapter One

The New Neotropical Companion is the completely revised and expanded edition of a book that has helped thousands of people to understand the complex ecology and natural history of the most species-rich area on Earth, the American tropics. Featuring stunning color photos throughout, it is a sweeping and cutting-edge account of tropical ecology that includes not only tropical rain forests but also other ecosystems such as cloud forests, rivers, savannas, and mountains. This is the only guide to the American tropics that is all-inclusive, encompassing the entire region’s ecology and the amazing relationships among species rather than focusing just on species identification.

The New Neotropical Companion is a book unlike any other. Here, you will learn how to recognize distinctive ecological patterns of rain forests and other habitats and to interpret how these remarkable ecosystems function—everything is explained in clear and engaging prose free of jargon. You will also be introduced to the region’s astonishing plant and animal life.

 

 

 

Bird Fact Friday – The Short-eared Owl

Adapted from pages 184-185 of Wildlife of the Arctic:

While breeding, male Short-eared owls have buff and white facial discs, with a black bill and yellow eyes. Their underparts are pale buff, paler still on the belly, the whole streaked with dark brown, the streaking heavier on the breast and throat. Their upperparts are tawny-buff, heavily streaked dark brown. Breeding females are similar, but deeper buff and, in general, are more heavily marked.  

In studies of the owl’s diet mammals constituted around 95% of the biomass, with rodents and shrews providing the bulk of that percentage, though the owls also take stoats and weasels. Birds, amphibians, reptiles and insects provide the remaining 5%. Arctic breeding Short-eareds are invariably ground nesters, Short-eareds being one of few owls that makes a ‘proper’ nest. In it the female lays 2-13 eggs, the species reacting in a similar fashion to Snowy Owls in lemming years.

This photo illustrates how the Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus) can turn its head through 180° to look directly over its back.

Short-eared Owl breeds on Iceland, in northern Fennoscandia and across Russia to Kamchatka, though rarely to the north coast. Breeds in Alaska, the Yukon and North-West Territories, around Hudson Bay, in Labrador and on southern Baffin Island. At all times the actual distribution of the owls is dependent on prey density, but northern owls do move south to north-west Europe, central Asia and continental United States.

Wildlife of the Arctic
By Richard Sale & Per Michelsen

Wildlife of the Arctic is an accessible and richly illustrated pocket-sized photographic field guide to the birds, land and sea mammals, and plants and lichens of the northern polar region–including Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Scandinavia, and Russia. Written and illustrated by naturalists with extensive Arctic experience, this handy book features detailed facing-page descriptions of each species, including information about identification, range, distribution, and breeding and wintering grounds. A substantial introduction explains the area covered, with information on the poles, geology, snow and ice, auroras, and the influence of global warming. This portable, user-friendly guide is the perfect companion for birders, ecotourists, and cruise-line passengers visiting the Arctic Circle and other areas of the far north.

  • An accessible and richly illustrated pocket-sized photographic field guide to Artic wildlife
  • Features more than 800 color photos illustrating more than 250 bird species, 60 land mammals, and 30 seals and whales
  • Includes extensive facing-page species descriptions and identification information
  • Provides an overview of the Arctic region, with information on the poles, geology, snow and ice, auroras, and the influence of global warming
  • Explores each family of birds and mammals, and has sections covering fish, insects, plants, and lichens

 

Bird Fact Friday – the Bald Eagle

Adapted from pages 94-95 of Wildlife of the Arctic

The Bald Eagle is a magnificent bird, the Nearctic equivalent of the White-tailed Eagle. Adults have a white head (the origin of the name) and white tail, but are otherwise dark brown, with a pattern of scalloping from pale feather tips. Sexes are similar. Juvenile eagles do not acquire the adult coloring until they are 3-5 years old. In early young immatures there is a significant amount of white in the plumage which aids distinguishing the birds from adult Golden Eagles. Northern birds are larger than their cousins of the souther US states, the two being considered sub-species.

This bird is piscivorous but an opportunistic feeder, taking both terrestrial and aquatic mammals (e.g. hares and muskrats) as well as birds (primarily waterfowl and gulls). They also feed on carrion and are not infrequent visitors to garbage dumps in Alaska. They hunt both by flying slowly over probable prey sites and from perches, and will pirate food from other Bald Eagles, as well as from Osprey and herons, both of which are, in general, better at fishing but cannot defend themselves against the eagles. They also makes piratical attacks on Peregrines and even on Sea Otters and Coyotes.

Bald eagles nest primarily in trees, and often re-uses nests which may actually be refurbished prior to the birds migrating as well as when they return to the breeding site. One nest known to have been used continuously over several decades grew to be almost 3m in diameter and over 3m high and weighed an estimated 2t: the tree then blew down in a storm. In areas where trees are absent, they will nest on cliffs or even on the ground provided the site is elevated to give the incubating bird good visibility. 1-3, but usually 2, eggs are laid. Asynchronous hatching means first chick hatched usually outcompetes later hatchlings which may die of starvation. 

An adult Bald Eagle at nest. Photo credit: Richard Sale & Per Michelsen.

The Bald Eagle is the emblem of the United States, which made it even sadder when numbers declined sharply as a result of subsidised shooting and the widespread use of organochlorines in the continental US. In Alaska the use of pesticides was minimal, but a bounty on eagles set in 1917 – the result of lobbying by fishermen and fox trappers – was not lifted until 1953. Although the bounty led to ill-advised slaughter, the state remained a stronghold of the species and continues to do so. Once hunting and DDT were banned the population recovered quickly: in Alaska the population increased by about 70% between the late 1960s and the late 1990s. Alaska and the Canadian province of British Columbia are the strongholds of the species with the population now probably close to the carrying capacity of the environment.

Bald Eagles breed in central and southern Alaska, including the Aleutians, and across North America, but rarely north of the timberline. In winter the birds move to the continental United States, though birds in southern Alaska are resident.

Wildlife of the Arctic
By Richard Sale & Per Michelsen

Wildlife of the Arctic is an accessible and richly illustrated pocket-sized photographic field guide to the birds, land and sea mammals, and plants and lichens of the northern polar region–including Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Scandinavia, and Russia. Written and illustrated by naturalists with extensive Arctic experience, this handy book features detailed facing-page descriptions of each species, including information about identification, range, distribution, and breeding and wintering grounds. A substantial introduction explains the area covered, with information on the poles, geology, snow and ice, auroras, and the influence of global warming. This portable, user-friendly guide is the perfect companion for birders, ecotourists, and cruise-line passengers visiting the Arctic Circle and other areas of the far north.

  • An accessible and richly illustrated pocket-sized photographic field guide to Artic wildlife
  • Features more than 800 color photos illustrating more than 250 bird species, 60 land mammals, and 30 seals and whales
  • Includes extensive facing-page species descriptions and identification information
  • Provides an overview of the Arctic region, with information on the poles, geology, snow and ice, auroras, and the influence of global warming
  • Explores each family of birds and mammals, and has sections covering fish, insects, plants, and lichens

Bird Fact Friday – the Black Scoter

Adapted from pages 84-85 of Wildlife of the Arctic:

Formerly considered conspecific with the Common Scoter, the American Ornithologists’ Union divided the two into separate species on the basis of the drake’s bill pattern and shape, and also on differences in the mating calls (each produces a single note, that of the Black Scoter being longer). The plumage of male Black Scoters is essentially identical to that of male Commons, but the bill differs markedly. The base protuberance of breeding adults is entirely yellow-orange and is much less knob-like, being significantly flatter. The coloration of the remaining bill is similar in extent. The bill of Black Scoters (male and female) is slightly more hooked than that of Common Scoters. Female plumage is essentially identical to that of female Common Scoters.

A male Black Scoter (Melanitta americana). Photo credit: Richard Sale & Per Michelsen.

Black Scoters breed in Asiatic Russia east of the Lena delta (but not to the north coast) and on Kamchatka. They also breed in west and south Alaska, and in southern Quebec and Labrador. Both species are found in the lower Lena valley but there appears to be no overlap of ranges and no evidence of hybridisation. In winter the birds move to the Bering Sea and coasts of Japan. According to the IUCN, their status is nearly threatened, due to a decline in their population. 

Wildlife of the Arctic
By Richard Sale & Per Michelsen

Wildlife of the Arctic is an accessible and richly illustrated pocket-sized photographic field guide to the birds, land and sea mammals, and plants and lichens of the northern polar region–including Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Scandinavia, and Russia. Written and illustrated by naturalists with extensive Arctic experience, this handy book features detailed facing-page descriptions of each species, including information about identification, range, distribution, and breeding and wintering grounds. A substantial introduction explains the area covered, with information on the poles, geology, snow and ice, auroras, and the influence of global warming. This portable, user-friendly guide is the perfect companion for birders, ecotourists, and cruise-line passengers visiting the Arctic Circle and other areas of the far north.

  • An accessible and richly illustrated pocket-sized photographic field guide to Artic wildlife
  • Features more than 800 color photos illustrating more than 250 bird species, 60 land mammals, and 30 seals and whales
  • Includes extensive facing-page species descriptions and identification information
  • Provides an overview of the Arctic region, with information on the poles, geology, snow and ice, auroras, and the influence of global warming
  • Explores each family of birds and mammals, and has sections covering fish, insects, plants, and lichens

 

Bird Fact Friday: the Red-necked Grebe

Adapted from pages 42-43 of Wildlife of the Arctic

Though superficially similar to divers, grebes have some distinctly different characteristics, suggesting a very different evolutionary path.

Grebes are poor fliers in comparison to divers, the wings beating so fast the birds appear panic-stricken. As a a consequence, they are rarely seen in flight at their breeding territories. Nevertheless, the two Arctic breeding grebes are migratory, moving to southern coastal waters in winter. On migration they frequently fly at night. This has led to instances where in the early morning light, exhausted birds have mistaken wet roads for streams and landed. THey are then stranded, being unable to take off from the land.

A Red-necked grebe (Podiceps grisegena). Photo credit: Richard Sale & Per Michelsen.

The Red-necked Grebe is less handsome than their horned cousins, but attractive birds with black crowns, white or pale grey faces and a red neck in breeding plumage. The upperparts are grey-brown, while the underparts are paler, and both sexes are similar. In winter the birds lose the bright colouration, being dull brown and white. They are highly territorial and very aggressive during the breeding season. Red-necked Grebes have even been known to kill intruding ducks. If several chicks hatch, the parents may split the brood when carrying them around.

Wildlife of the Arctic
By Richard Sale & Per Michelsen

Wildlife of the Arctic is an accessible and richly illustrated pocket-sized photographic field guide to the birds, land and sea mammals, and plants and lichens of the northern polar region–including Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Scandinavia, and Russia. Written and illustrated by naturalists with extensive Arctic experience, this handy book features detailed facing-page descriptions of each species, including information about identification, range, distribution, and breeding and wintering grounds. A substantial introduction explains the area covered, with information on the poles, geology, snow and ice, auroras, and the influence of global warming. This portable, user-friendly guide is the perfect companion for birders, ecotourists, and cruise-line passengers visiting the Arctic Circle and other areas of the far north.

  • An accessible and richly illustrated pocket-sized photographic field guide to Artic wildlife
  • Features more than 800 color photos illustrating more than 250 bird species, 60 land mammals, and 30 seals and whales
  • Includes extensive facing-page species descriptions and identification information
  • Provides an overview of the Arctic region, with information on the poles, geology, snow and ice, auroras, and the influence of global warming
  • Explores each family of birds and mammals, and has sections covering fish, insects, plants, and lichens

Katrina van Grouw on the difficulty of answering a simple question

Artist/scientist/author/illustrator… To me, names are important, and it’s vital to be described by one that fits. Ironically it seems to be my lot in life to evade classification.

Throughout Women’s History Month, join Princeton University Press as we celebrate scholarship by and about women.

“What do you do for a living?”

It’s a harmless enough question; one that ideally requires a short answer, like “astronaut” or “driving instructor”. And yet, the closest thing to a concise answer that emerges from my ensuing stream of incoherent mumbling are the words: “I produce books.”

I produce books; beautiful books that communicate beautiful science to everyday people. (I’m actually a very good communicator, both in writing and in front of an audience, but the reason why this particular question always throws me off balance will hopefully become clear as you read on.) Each book takes multiple years to create. I work on them full-time, seven days a week; think about them every minute of every day, and dream about them at night. They’re my obsession, my passion, my entire reason to live.

You might be wondering how a single book can take so long, but these are rather original, large, illustrated books with around 400 drawings in each. I am author, illustrator, conceiver and designer. For the anatomical illustrations, the mounted skeletons are invariably drawn from skeletons that we’ve cleaned and articulated at home (Husband does all the preparation work, though we’re both adept at it) as very few museum specimens are sufficiently accurate, or mounted in the required posture. So we need to obtain the specimens and do months of preparation before the illustration work can even begin.

Cattle lined up in a stall, in various stages of undress, seemed the best way to illustrate the result of “double muscling”, most obvious in the hindquarters of beef cattle. Images like this are only of real use as illustrations in a book, with the sole function of clarifying the text.

Although the drawings are, to many people, the main selling point, there’s a difference between “art books”—collections of an artist’s work on a loose theme—and illustrated books that are created to communicate a message, Mine are not art books, despite being very beautiful. My newest book, Unnatural Selection, in particular, is text-led with the illustrations serving purely to elucidate the writing.

The sorts of images necessary to illustrate a book might also be very different from the pictures an artist will produce for their own sake. Many people assume that I produce tightly detailed anatomical drawings out of choice, as works of art in their own right, and some even assume I’m some sort of arty Goth chick who’s “into skeletons”. I’ll never forget the reaction of a lady at an art demonstration (I was using the opportunity to produce illustrations for The Unfeathered Bird) who stormed out in obvious disgust muttering, “The things people draw!”

I’ve only ever produced anatomical drawings as a means to an end—as a way of communicating (though my books’ illustrations), or investigating the underlying structure of animals that I picture, alive, in my personal artwork. In my previous incarnation, as a fine artist, my creations were very, very different—loose and dark and expressive—though also concerned with the underlying structure of things and inspired by similar subjects to my books. I was deeply engrossed in large drawings of towering sea cliffs and geological formations when Princeton University Press offered to publish The Unfeathered Bird, an idea I’d been incubating for nearly 20 years. The book was supposed to be a temporary diversion, but when the time came to return to my previous artwork I found that the moment had passed. I’d moved on.

There’s a difference between artwork produced for its own sake to hang on the wall, and drawings made exclusively as book illustrations to supplement text. My anatomical drawings were only ever intended for illustration, or as a way of understanding the structure of living animals.

People have mourned this departure from the picture-making art world without appreciating that it’s impossible to move backward, even if I’d wanted to. I’ve evolved in a new direction and discovered something that ticks all the boxes for me creatively and intellectually: books.

Books offer the potential to be far more than the sum of their parts. For me it’s the entire book —the interaction of text with images, the design, the way I choose to express myself, and most of all the concept —that’s the final work of art. I love the challenge of making decisions about the best arrangement of content, or the angle of approach, confident that the answer exists but having to reach it through months of independent thought. Producing books encompasses not just my drawing skills, but writing, research, communication and my intellect most of all, and tests me to my limits. I can think of nothing finer.

The line between art and illustration is a fine one. Many works of fine art can function superbly well as illustrations, and many illustrations are sublime works of art in their own right. The distinction is not in the creations but in the professions. Being an illustrator usually involves working to someone else’s brief and taking instructions from a non-illustrator about how the illustration should be done. Just the thought of it fills me with contempt! I have no imagination when it comes to commissioned work, no passion for other people’s projects, and no inclination to subject myself to other people’s will. The purpose of illustration is to illuminate text, so it’s something of an oxymoron to describe someone primarily as an illustrator when it’s their own text they’re illustrating. For these reasons, and because I’m exceedingly proud of my written work, I dislike being described as a natural history illustrator, preferring to think of myself as an author or as an author/illustrator.

One of the challenges I enjoy most is clarifying a scientific idea through cleverly conceived illustrations. These four Budgerigars (or is it just one?) are showing how pigment layers combine to produce colors.

Even this invites preconceptions, however. When people hear the word “author” they immediately think of fiction. And when the author is a woman, and also illustrates her own books, people think of children’s fiction. After that, explaining that you actually produce books about evolution and morphology for adults is just a confirmation of their automatic expectation that your books are dull, super-specialised, and only of interest to a very limited niche market. Their response is always the same, and if I had a pound for every time someone said this, I’d be very rich indeed:

“You’re not exactly J K Rowling, then.”

To be honest, there are actually very few full time non-fiction authors. Most other authors of evolution books are university professors or researchers who would definitely describe themselves as biologists first and foremost. For many, writing books is something that’s expected of them, as part of their job.

I’d dearly love to have been able to call myself a biologist. I am, however, entirely self-taught so don’t believe I deserve that title (and certainly not the title “anatomist” which I have been called on occasion). Ironically, there are plenty of self-taught artists who claim the title “artist” as their own almost as readily as they pick up a pencil, but anyone without a relevant university degree is considered a fraud if they call themselves a scientist. Names are important, and it’s vital to be described by one that fits, although ironically it seems to be my lot in life to evade classification.

My desire for an academic education was held back – not by any lack of ability, but by a prodigious talent for drawing. The school I attended was a veritable nest of sirens – mesmerising, charismatic teachers who would lure talented and unsuspecting children into their inner sanctum and set about re-creating them in their own image. I’ll never forget the intoxicating evenings at the home of my art teacher, a particularly alluring and manipulative siren named Jill; mesmerized by her beauty, the way her long hair, released from its schoolroom bun, caught the glow of the firelight as we sat listening to Bob Dylan; enraptured by the music of her voice as she languidly spoke of art and poetry and literature, of all the things I must learn to love, and all the things I mustn’t waste my time on. When I finally awoke from the dream and remembered my passion for biology it was too late. It was only after every attempt to scrape in to an academic science education had failed that I at last, very reluctantly, committed myself to a future as a fine artist.

Being self-taught isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however. It’s by having to read and reason alone that you learn to question and think, and to draw conclusions from first hand observation. Also, by struggling to learn scientific concepts for yourself you appreciate the parts that are difficult to grasp so you become naturally better able to communicate them to other people. I’m very proud of what I’ve achieved on my own and have absolutely no doubt that my books contain a far better scientific message as a result of taking this difficult path than they ever would have otherwise.

So much for “What do you do…” but now we get on to the second part of the question— “for a living?”

Most people judge success purely in terms of whether not you make enough money to live on and, if so, how affluently you manage to live. Producing books is more of a life than a living. It’s not about making money; it’s about bringing something into the world that deserves to exist. Realistically, no-one can honestly claim to earn a sustained income from projects that take so long to complete, so you’re faced with the dilemma of whether to do other paid work—in which case the task will take even longer—or to accept the lack of income and all the feelings of worthlessness that come with it, for the sake of devoting yourself exclusively to that project. I now do the latter, though it wasn’t out of choice.

In fact my personal preference is to have a day job with nice people who say good morning and ask how my weekend was. I’ve endured my share of poverty over the years; I’ve burned the furniture to keep warm and once even masqueraded as a waitress in a busy pub so that I could eat the leftovers from people’s plates. However, it’s not for the money that I like to have a job; it’s mostly because I find I need the company and routine. Neither option is better or more worthy than the other; it’s simply a question of how you prefer to live.

I’ve tried various day jobs. At first I purposely selected the most menial jobs I could in a deliberate effort to keep “job” and “career” separate. The first was plucking chickens on an assembly line at an abattoir. This was followed by a succession of soul-destroying occupations: as a bird bander on a nature reserve for £90/week (that one even came with accommodation: a rat-infested caravan); data entry; photocopying; and, worst of all, being forgotten about altogether and paid to do nothing. Trust me—it’s not as good as it sounds.

Eventually my skills as a self-taught ornithologist and specimen preparator came to my rescue when a job arose as curator of the bird research collections at the British Natural History Museum. At the interview I talked enthusiastically about The Unfeathered Bird (still in its embryonic form) and showed photographs of skins and skeletons I’d prepared. Getting that job made me feel like the Ugly Duckling when it discovered it was a swan. You never saw anyone so happy. The job, I considered, was worth moving back south for, where properties are more expensive; worth downsizing to a tiny house and sacrificing my art studio and etching press. A few years later bad news followed good news on the same day like two barrels of a shotgun. I was invited to write a book (independently from the museum) about the history of bird art. And I was forbidden, by the head of department, from ever producing books in my spare time.

My husband now has “my” job. We’d job-shared in my final year, before I sacrificed the museum for my right to produce books, and fortunately he was able to take over my hours, so as a couple we suffered no loss of earnings. After the head of department had retired, I tried, and failed to get another post at the museum, and had similar fortune elsewhere too, leaving me utterly broken.

By now you might be starting to understand why “What do you do for a living?” is such a difficult question for me. Book royalties come but once a year and as a modern hard-working woman there’s a stigma to having to admit that our household income is virtually all provided by my husband’s job. No-one’s interested in hearing that that job used to be my own. They fill in the gaps with preconceptions: “successful scientist husband (he must be a scientist as he works at the Natural History Museum) generously supporting his (artist) wife’s hobby.”

Many people mourn the fact that I no longer do pictures like this large seascape. But artistic development is a one way trip. For me now, producing books ticks all the creative and intellectual boxes.

I love writing for an audience, so when Princeton University Press asked me to write a blog post for International Women’s Day I agreed instantly, even though I didn’t know what on Earth I’d have to say. I’ve never had a proper career, and never had a family, so I wasn’t able to talk about equal pay, or maternity leave, or sexual harassment at work. So I started writing about myself instead, and discovered that I do have something to say.

Labels, judgements, and stereotypes; pink/blue; dolls/action men; art/science; it’s one thing to loathe preconceptions from others, but how many of us are aware of them in our own behaviour? Equality isn’t just in the hands of employers; it’s the responsibility of every single one of us—women as much as men. Once we start to accept that each and every one of us has a very unique story to tell, we might be less inclined to make generalisations. And finally, what about the prejudices we level at ourselves? As a perfectly-balanced author/illustrator with a matching chip on each shoulder, I can see that change won’t happen overnight. But by challenging my own discomfort about gender expectations, what we do, and who earns the wages, I hope to someday manage to proudly look someone in the eye and say, “I produce books.”

 Katrina van Grouw, author of The Unfeathered Bird (Princeton), inhabits that no-man’s-land midway between art and science. She holds degrees in fine art and natural history illustration and is a former curator of ornithological collections at a major national museum. She’s a self-taught scientist with a passion for evolutionary biology and its history.

Michael Brooke on Far From Land: The Mysterious Lives of Seabirds

Seabirds evoke the spirit of the earth’s wildest places. They spend large portions of their lives at sea, often far from land, and nest on beautiful and remote islands that humans rarely visit. Thanks to the development of increasingly sophisticated and miniaturized devices that can track their every movement and behavior, it is now possible to observe the mysterious lives of these remarkable creatures as never before. Far From Land takes you on a breathtaking journey around the globe to reveal where these birds actually go when they roam the sea, the tactics they employ to traverse vast tracts of ocean, the strategies they use to evade threats, and more.

What inspired you to write this book?

I like nothing more than being at a seabird colony under a sky full of whirring wings, hearing the raucous clamour of thousands of birds while the pungent smell of guano (the polite term!) oozes into my nostrils. For sure, research at such colonies, coupled with observations of seabirds from ships, has taught us much about seabirds’ lives. But the truth is that, once the birds dipped over the horizon, our knowledge of where they were and what they were doing also dipped, even plunged. This began to change around 1990 when results from the first satellite-tracking of Wandering Albatrosses was published. Then, in the last 15-20 years, knowledge of what seabirds are doing at sea has expanded amazingly thanks to solid-state electronic devices. The transformation of our knowledge of their habits has arguably been more profound than for any other group of birds. It is now possible to document where a seabird is when far from land, whether it is flying or sitting on the water. If it is on the sea, it is possible to register whether it is on the surface or underwater, and not just underwater but at what depth at what moment. It is possible to record when it opens its mouth – I should say beak – to take in food, and how big that food item is. A seabird one thousand kilometres from land can be monitored almost as intensively as a patient in hospital. My hope is to bring this astounding knowledge revolution to many, many readers who, like me, enjoy the salty tang of sea air.

Can you give us some stand-out findings that have emerged?

  • i) Murphy’s petrels, mid-sized oceanic birds nesting on South Pacific atolls, go for 20-day journeys covering up to 15,000 km, before returning to the colony to relieve the mate sitting on the egg at home.
  • ii) Male Brunnich’s Guillemots (Thick-billed Murres) may swim southward from Greenland for 3,000 km accompanied by their chick at the end of the breeding season.
  • iii) Arctic Terns, migrating south from Alaska, enjoy feeding stopovers off Oregon and Ecuador before crossing the Andes and Patagonia to reach the South Atlantic for the (northern) winter.
  • iv) Atlantic Puffins nesting in the UK use many different parts of the North Atlantic in winter, but each individual tends to have its own consistently-used ‘patch’ that is repeatedly visited year after year.
  • v) Wandering Albatrosses nesting on the Kerguelen Islands in the Southern Ocean adopt different strategies when not breeding. Some linger in that region, while others repeatedly circumnavigate the globe at high latitudes. Once a bird has adopted one habit, it sticks with it for the rest of its long life, perhaps 30 or more years.
  • vi) Penguins, leaping out of the water onto sea ice, start their ascent at a greater depth, and accelerate to a faster exit speed, the higher the ice ‘cliff’ they need to clear.

I realise the book is not really about the electronic devices that have yielded so much information, but can you give us a sketch of some of the devices researchers deploy?

Yes, positional information comes from three main categories. There are devices which transmit the bird’s position to satellites overhead, devices that use the global GPS array, and light-sensitive devices called geolocators that detect the time of local sunrise and sunset. This geolocator data can be translated into a somewhat imprecise estimate of the bird’s position, an estimate that is good enough for plotting migration routes but inadequate for plotting, say, 5-hour feeding journeys from the colony.

Loggers attached to a bird’s leg can register every few seconds whether the leg is immersed in salt water and the bird swimming, or dry and the bird flying. Coupled with information about the bird’s location this can tell us when the bird is feeding, which normally means getting the feet wet!

Depth recorders combined with accelerometers which register a bird’s acceleration along three mutually perpendicular axes can yield a detailed picture of a bird’s underwater track. For example there may be spells of steady movement interspersed with abrupt wiggles which are likely moments when prey is captured, at a known depth.

What biological messages have emerged from the studies you describe in the book?

Two messages instantly spring to mind. The first is that seabird movements across the high sea are not random wanderings. For example the routes seabirds take on long-distance migrations often take advantage of prevailing winds, and indeed mirror the routes taken by sailing ships in days of yore. And, on those journeys, there may be mid-ocean ‘pit-stops’ that are used by most individuals. The existence of such mid-ocean refuelling stations was not anticipated 20 years ago. On a smaller spatial scale, birds leaving colonies to feed frequently head directly to areas where water mixing probably enhances local marine productivity and the availability of food. The birds clearly ‘know’ the whereabouts of rich pickings.

A second finding is that individual birds often have consistent habits that may differ from those of their fellows. I mentioned earlier the consistent habits of Kerguelen Wandering Albatrosses and wintering Atlantic Puffins. This pattern tells us that there may be several ways of making a living on the high seas, ways that are pretty much equally successful.

What are the remaining unknowns? What further advances do you anticipate in the next decade?

Devices are becoming ever-smaller. Even so, there remains limited information about the smallest seabirds, for example storm petrels weighing under 100 g, for which a 5 g device would be too great a burden. I am sure smaller devices will be developed that allow more tracking of these waifs but perhaps it will transpire that their habits are not fundamentally different to those of their larger cousins.

It is also likely that greater use will be made of base stations planted at colonies that can ‘interrogate’ devices attached to the colony’s seabirds. This will eliminate the need to re-catch a bird to download the information on a device; convenient for bird and researcher alike. But the old-fashioned dinosaur in me might yearn for the old days when seabird research involved clambering over slimy boulders rather than peering at a computer screen.

Michael Brooke is the Strickland Curator of Ornithology at the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge. He is the author of Albatrosses and Petrels across the World and the coeditor of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Ornithology, and has written widely on science and travel for outlets such as the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian.

Bird Fact Friday – the Red-throated Diver

For the next month, Bird Fact Friday will be showcasing passages and photographs from Wildlife of the Arctic, a forthcoming, pocket-sized photographic field guide to Arctic birds, mammals, and other wildlife. 

Adapted from pages 36 and 37 of the text:

A red-throated diver (Gavia stellata). Photo credit: Richard Sale & Per Michelsen.

With their delicately patterned plumage – seemingly the work of a talented painter rather than comprising individual feathers – the divers are among the most attractive of all northern birds.

The smallest of the divers and, with a red throat that develops for the breeding season, one of the most attractive. The head and remainder of the neck are pale grey. The upperparts lack the chequer-boarding of the larger divers, being grey-brown with white speckling. In winter the grey neck and red throat are lost, the back and upper wings being covered in a myriad of white speckles: looking like the Milky Way, these spots explain the Latin name – stellata – stars. The calls of the Red are also distinct from the voices of the other divers, being more waterfowl-like: in the UK’s Shetland Islands the calls led to the bird being named the ‘Rain Goose’, though to be fair, given the rainfall of northern Britain most birds could be associated with its arrival. Being smaller, Red-throated Diver can nest on smaller lakes, though this often means that the local food supply is inadequate for chick-rearing, the birds having to make a large number of flights to gather food. 

Circumpolar breeders, breeding on all the Arctic islands of Canada and Russia, though apparently absent from the New Siberian Islands. In winter the birds are seen in the North Atlantic, North Sea, Bering Sea and North Pacific.

Wildlife of the Arctic
By Richard Sale & Per Michelsen

Wildlife of the Arctic is an accessible and richly illustrated pocket-sized photographic field guide to the birds, land and sea mammals, and plants and lichens of the northern polar region–including Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Scandinavia, and Russia. Written and illustrated by naturalists with extensive Arctic experience, this handy book features detailed facing-page descriptions of each species, including information about identification, range, distribution, and breeding and wintering grounds. A substantial introduction explains the area covered, with information on the poles, geology, snow and ice, auroras, and the influence of global warming. This portable, user-friendly guide is the perfect companion for birders, ecotourists, and cruise-line passengers visiting the Arctic Circle and other areas of the far north.

  • An accessible and richly illustrated pocket-sized photographic field guide to Artic wildlife
  • Features more than 800 color photos illustrating more than 250 bird species, 60 land mammals, and 30 seals and whales
  • Includes extensive facing-page species descriptions and identification information
  • Provides an overview of the Arctic region, with information on the poles, geology, snow and ice, auroras, and the influence of global warming
  • Explores each family of birds and mammals, and has sections covering fish, insects, plants, and lichens

Bird Fact Friday – Emperor Penguins

Adapted from pages 174-176 of Far From Land:

Diving to any sub-surface feast necessarily poses problems. An obvious problem is that, when underwater, the bird cannot breathe and must eke out those oxygen stores with which it submerges for as long as possible. The adaptations that help the diving bird overcome this difficulty has been most extensively studied in Emperor Penguins.

Given its size, and therefore predictable rate of oxygen consumption, an Emperor Penguin could remain underwater for about five minutes if its body processes continued to function as they do when it is breathing air. This ‘limit’ is comfortably exceeded by recorded dives lasting some 20 minutes. Just as a breathless athlete striving for the finishing line builds up lactic acid, so the underwater penguin builds up lactate, principally in the muscles. This is then flushed out when it returns eventually to the surface.

Another key adaptation to diving is a reduction in heart rate underwater, exactly as also occurs in diving seals and whales. Detected via attached electrocardiogram (ECG) recorders, the heart rate of a resting Emperor Penguin is around 70 beats/minute. This value roughly doubles immediately before the dive. If the dive is short, under five minutes, the underwater rate is about the same as when resting. If the dive is long, heart rate drops off dramatically, and may reach as low as three beats/minute. Just before the penguin surfaces, the rate accelerates. It can be around 200 beats/minute when the penguin surfaces and can breathe once more to replenish its oxygen stores.

Emperor Penguins are probably the deepest-diving of all seabirds, sometimes plumbing depths in excess of 500 m in pursuit of fish and squid. Illustration by: Bruce Pearson

Remembering that even in tropical seas, the water temperature below 200 m is probably no higher than 5°C, a further physiological problem faced by seabirds underwater is potentially that of cold. Penguins and auks have tight plumage that retains air close to the skin. This assists heat retention, albeit by creating buoyancy that hinders the downward dive. The situation is different in cormorants and shags. Their plumage is notoriously wettable. Think of the classic pose of a perched cormorant hanging out its wings to dry after a spell of swimming. If the water has reached the skin, the cormorant will have lost more heat than another seabird whose skin remains dry. How they retain heat became evident when European researchers looked at the plumage more closely. All four subspecies studied, living in sub-Arctic to subtropical climes, retained an insulating air layer in their plumage, which was, however, much thinner than for other species of diving birds. Detailed examination of the plumage showed that each cormorant body feather has a loose, instantaneously wet, outer section and a highly waterproof central portion.

Far From Land
Michael Brooke
With illustrations by Bruce Pearson

Seabirds evoke the spirit of the earth’s wildest places. They spend large portions of their lives at sea, often far from land, and nest on beautiful and remote islands that humans rarely visit. Thanks to the development of increasingly sophisticated and miniaturized devices that can track their every movement and behavior, it is now possible to observe the mysterious lives of these remarkable creatures as never before. This beautifully illustrated book takes you on a breathtaking journey around the globe to reveal where these birds actually go when they roam the sea, the tactics they employ to traverse vast tracts of ocean, the strategies they use to evade threats, and more.

Michael Brooke has visited every corner of the world in his lifelong pursuit of seabirds. Here, he draws on his own experiences and insights as well as the latest cutting-edge science to shed light on the elusive seafaring lives of albatrosses, frigatebirds, cormorants, and other ocean wanderers. Where do puffins go in the winter? How deep do penguins dive? From how far away can an albatross spot a fishing vessel worth following for its next meal? Brooke addresses these and other questions in this delightful book. Along the way, he reveals that seabirds are not the aimless wind-tossed creatures they may appear to be and explains the observational innovations that are driving this exciting area of research.

Featuring illustrations by renowned artist Bruce Pearson and packed with intriguing facts, Far from Land provides an extraordinary up-close look at the activities of seabirds.

Bird Fact Friday – Radios & the New Zealand Storm-petrel

Adapted from pages 18-19 of Far From Land:

Attaching transmitting VHF radios to animals has occupied biologists since the late 1950s. It is a powerful technique for relocating, say, a troop of chimpanzees that assuredly will not have travelled far since their last known position. It is less useful for seabirds which travel far greater distances, taking them beyond the line of sight of any scientist deploying a receiving aerial on some windy clifftop. Couple this problem with the fact that a seabird will often dip into the trough below the wave crests or, even worse, submerge underwater, and the upshot is that VHF radio-telemetry has not transformed seabird research.

Believed extinct for over a century, the New Zealand Storm-petrel (Fregetta maoriana) was re-discovered in 2003. Subsequently, radio-tracked birds led scientists to a colony near Auckland. Illustrated by Bruce Pearson.

Those disparaging words notwithstanding, radio-telemetry has had its moments. In 2003, the ornithological world was amazed when the New Zealand Storm-petrel, thought extinct for over a century, was re-discovered at sea off New Zealand’s North Island. That led immediately to the question of the whereabouts of its colonies, and the tricky task of discovering those colonies. The problem was solved when it proved possible to attract the birds close to a 3.5 m inflatable with chum, the ornithologists’ term for a smelly sludge of fish bits. Once in range, the storm-petrels were captured by a small net fired over them. Fitted with  a transmitter weighing two-thirds of a gram, the released birds then led the searchers in 2013 to nesting burrows in the rainforests of Little Barrier Island, a mere 50 km from Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city.

Far From Land
Michael Brooke
With illustrations by Bruce Pearson

Seabirds evoke the spirit of the earth’s wildest places. They spend large portions of their lives at sea, often far from land, and nest on beautiful and remote islands that humans rarely visit. Thanks to the development of increasingly sophisticated and miniaturized devices that can track their every movement and behavior, it is now possible to observe the mysterious lives of these remarkable creatures as never before. This beautifully illustrated book takes you on a breathtaking journey around the globe to reveal where these birds actually go when they roam the sea, the tactics they employ to traverse vast tracts of ocean, the strategies they use to evade threats, and more.

Michael Brooke has visited every corner of the world in his lifelong pursuit of seabirds. Here, he draws on his own experiences and insights as well as the latest cutting-edge science to shed light on the elusive seafaring lives of albatrosses, frigatebirds, cormorants, and other ocean wanderers. Where do puffins go in the winter? How deep do penguins dive? From how far away can an albatross spot a fishing vessel worth following for its next meal? Brooke addresses these and other questions in this delightful book. Along the way, he reveals that seabirds are not the aimless wind-tossed creatures they may appear to be and explains the observational innovations that are driving this exciting area of research.

Featuring illustrations by renowned artist Bruce Pearson and packed with intriguing facts, Far from Land provides an extraordinary up-close look at the activities of seabirds.