The making of a field guide in Ecuador: an interview with Nick Athanas and Paul Greenfield

birds of western ecuador athanas jacketIn Birds of Western Ecuador: A Photographic Guide, Nick Athanas and Paul Greenfield provide a practical field guide for birders wanting to explore the region. Filled with bright and beautiful photographs, their extensively researched and photographed volume is a striking guide for the area’s birds, with nearly every species in Western Ecuador included. Recently, both authors agreed to answer some questions about their personal passions for the project.

Why did you want to write Birds of Western Ecuador?

NA: I had been photographing birds in South America for about ten years, and had built up a sizable collection of nice images. I wanted to do something useful with them. Since I am also a birder and a birding tour guide based in Ecuador, a field guide to the region was an obvious project to think about. Iain Campbell, longtime friend and business partner, was working on a photographic guide for Australia, and encouraged us to do it; he put us in contact with Robert Kirk at Princeton University Press.

PG: Ecuador is a huge country in terms of bird species diversity, and with the advent of digital photography, actually capturing nice images of much of its avifauna made doing such a project a viable possibility. When the project was first presented to me by Nick and Iain, I hesitated a bit, only because I had already spent over 20 years working on the painted illustrations of the Birds of Ecuador, but after looking over some of the proposed shots, the idea of presenting a photographic testimonial to the Ecuador’s rich birdlife instantly became very attractive.

What is your target audience?

NA & PG: Our book targets English-speaking birders visiting western Ecuador, either on their own or on an organized tour. We assumed no previous birding experience in the Neotropics. However, the guide will be useful and inspiring for anyone with an interest in the birds of the region, even those with a lot of experience birding the Neotropicals. We excluded photos of some species that are very rare visitors to the region in order make the book smaller and more user-friendly, but it will have everything most visiting birders will see on a typical trip to western Ecuador. The excluded species are also usually mentioned in the text so that readers are aware of them. While not specifically designed for it, the guide also covers the vast majority of birds occurring in southwestern Colombia and northwestern Peru.

So this is a real field guide, and not just a collection of pretty bird photos?

NA & PG: Absolutely, this is a field guide. It was designed to help identify birds. The photos were chosen to show the relevant field marks, the text is extensive and helps to distinguish between similar species, and the range maps are completely new and based on up to date sighting information. Text, species accounts, and maps are all laid out side-by-side and everything is indexed.

Do you believe photographs can be as effective as paintings in a field guide?

NA: With good photos and clear text, I really do believe that. It would have been impossible even just five years ago. With the amazing recent technological advances in digital cameras, it is now possible to get great shots of shy rainforest species in natural light that were impossible before. The better gear also has led to an explosion in interest in wildlife photography, so there are a lot more people out there shooting bird photos. There are now good images available of the vast majority of the world’s bird species. A clear, sharp photo can show a bird’s important field marks at least as well as a good painting, and can even reveal features that other field guides might overlook.

PG: Having experience with both bird photography and painting, I believe that each presents effective, but slightly different strengths for illustrating field guides. Bird painting, with its respective pros and cons, can be quite effective—through hardly noticeable distortions—in presenting field marks from above and below a bird at the same time, as well as creating a sense of wondrous anticipation in the viewer. Bird photography presents the ‘real’ image of the actual species—it brings in the element of reality with ‘real-time’ accuracy when it comes to field-marks, ‘attitude’ and expression.

Were you able to get all the photos you needed?

NA & PG: All but a few. There were two species that we could not find any photos which were of high enough quality to publish: Berlepsh’s Tinamou and Colombian Crake. There were a few species where we could not find photos of one of the sexes. There are also a few of marginal quality, but in general we are extremely happy with the selection of photos. About half the photos are Nick’s, but we also invested a huge amount of time looking for other photos and contacting dozens of talented photographers. In the end, over 70 photographers contributed shots to Birds of Western Ecuador. It includes images of nearly 950 species. To put that in perspective, that’s more bird species than are found in all of the continental US.

This guide only covers half of Ecuador. Why?

NA & PG: We did not think we had the photos to do the entire country, nor did I we think we would be able to get them in the few years we had to write this book. Eastern Ecuador has significantly more species, and many of them are rainforest birds that are extremely hard to find and see, never mind photograph. Western Ecuador was a manageable starting place, and even still it was a far larger project than we anticipated.

Will you write a companion volume?

NA & PG: If this book is well-received, and if PUP is interested, we’d like to write another volume. It could be for eastern Ecuador, or possibly for the whole country. Most of Ecuador’s birds are in the East, so including everything won’t make the book proportionally that much larger. I think that in the years that have passed since we started Birds of Western Ecuador, many more species have been photographed, so that we should be able to obtain nice shots of almost all of Ecuador’s birds by the time a companion volume is finished.

Some people may see all these photos of amazingly colorful birds and be inspired to visit. When is the best time of year?

NA & PG: Come any time! We go out birding any month of the year and always find great birds. June-September are usually the driest months, and January to May are usually the wettest months. A lot of people like to visit the Northwest in the intermediate months of October-November since some rain is good for activity but it usually isn’t too much. January in the Southwest is usually great because the rains are just starting, the birds are singing, but the trees still haven’t leafed out much so the birds are easier to spot and enjoy. But really, if you can only come at a certain time, by all means do so.

Do you have a favorite bird?

NA: I have many! Hard to pick favorites when there are so many amazing choices. One of them, however, is definitely the Velvet-purple Coronet that went on the cover. It’s such a uniquely-colored hummer and its shimmering hues change depending on the angle and the lighting conditions.

PG: I have always said that my favorite bird is the one I am looking at ‘right now’, and I believe that’s really true. I especially get a kick out of remembering the circumstances when I first saw a species, each time I see it again; but how can you not go nuts with tanagers, hummingbirds, trogons, cotingas, antbirds, toucans… well all of them!

Nick Athanas is cofounder of the tour company Tropical Birding. He leads bird tours throughout the Neotropics and has photographed more than 2,500 bird species. Paul J. Greenfield is a longtime resident of Ecuador, where he leads bird tours and is active in bird conservation. He is the coauthor and illustrator of The Birds of Ecuador. Together they have written Birds of Western Ecuador: A Photographic Guide.