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Thoughts on the September 2011 Birding: Part 1 of 3

If you’re an ABA member, you’ve presumably received the September 2011 issue (vol. 43, no. 5) of Birding by now. Well, okay, our members on South Georgia Island may have to wait a little longer for the container ship to pull into port. And there’s the eternal mystery of the state of Florida. The best we at the ABA can come up with is that mail carriers in the Sunshine State must really like Birding—so much so that they hang on to the magazines for a few weeks before delivering them.

In the immortal words of Jon Dunn, “I digress.”

Back on topic now, I’d like to share a few thoughts—in the form of several posts to The ABA Blog—about what went into the production of the September 2011 issue of Birding.

I’ll devote this post to the first of three full-length feature articles in the September issue.

02 Martin This first of the three feature articles is by Martin Collinson (photo at right), a name known to any British birder and indeed to many an American birder. Collinson is chairman of the British Ornithologists’ Union Records Committee, and he serves on the editorial board of British Birds. His Birding feature article is all about scapulars and wing coverts, even precise measurements of tibiae and wingtip projections.

So far, so good.

Sounds like a good ole fashion Birding article that pushes the frontiers of field identification.

Except for one thing: Collinson’s article is on the Eskimo Curlew, considered by most field ornithologists to be extinct.

Which raises the obvious question. Why? Why publish an article on the field identification of an extinct bird?

One reason is simple enough: for the sake of “pure” knowledge. It’s good to have knowledge of such matters as black holes and Woodrow Wilson—even if they have nothing to do with our everyday living.

03 Curlew And there’s another reason. It’s deeper. It’s more important. It is relevant to our everyday affairs as bird lovers. At the end of his article, Collinson defends the legacy of one Donald Bleitz, who was the first—and as far as we know the only—person to publish photos of Eskimo Curlews in the wild. The authenticity of Bleitz’s work has been questioned, but Collinson “dispel[s] any lingering rumors that the birds were mounts and not the original birds observed in 1962,” And then Collinson gets around to the heart of his message: “These images reveal the living bird in its spectacular migration, a tangible reminder of what we appear to have lost.” (Left: Eskimo Curlew, by Donald Bleitz.)

Collinson’s article affirms the premise of an article by Will R. Turner that appears in the March/April 2007 issue of Birding: “Loss of Extinct Species from Popular Field Guide: A Preventable Shifting Baseline?” Turner’s thesis is disturbing: Modern field guides, by declining to depict extinct species, contribute to birders’ complacency—worse, their outright ignorance—about extinction. Out of sight, out of mind. Literally.

(There are exceptions. Turner praises All the Birds, an all-but-forgotten field guide put out in 1997 by Jack Griggs and collaborators. My copy of All the Birds has disappeared, and so have most of my memories of that guide. But one things stands out for me: I remember the shock, and the sadness, of opening up that bird book and seeing the plate with extinct species. And I feel compelled to point out that the current edition of “Nat Geo” contains illustrations, written descriptions, and natural history notes for all ABA Area species that have gone extinct since the European colonization.)

Turner’s thesis appears to receive considerably more extensive—and considerably darker—treatment in Spencer Shaffner’s new book, Binocular Vision. I haven’t read Schaffner’s book, but I intend to. For sure, Rick Wright’s review of the book, which appeared two weeks ago on The ABA Blog, convinces me that Binocular Vision is an important treatise on bird books and the birders who read them. I suspect—but, again, I should read the book!—that Binocular Vision builds on ideas articulated a while back, in a Spencer Shaffner article in the January/February 2005 issue of Birding: “Birding with the First American Field Guides to Birds.”

There is more to birding than getting the bird. That’s what Will Turner is saying, and that’s what Spencer Shaffner is saying.

And that’s an important reason behind our decision at Birding to publish Martin Collinson’s fine article on Eskimo Curlews.

Most people would agree that nobody’s ever going to “get” the Eskimo Curlew again. If it’s not on your life list already, it’s never going to be. But an article on the Eskimo Curlew—even an article that explores the seemingly irrelevant matter of Eskimo Curlew ID—is well worth our consideration. Collinson’s words deserve to be heard again: “[Donald Bleitz’s] images reveal the living bird in its spectacular migration, a tangible reminder of what we appear to have lost.”

In Part 2 of this blog post, we’ll explore another feature article in the September 2011 Birding that would appear, at first blush, to be “guilty” of the sin of irrelevance. But it’s not. Oh, not at all. Stay tuned. Part 2 will appear tomorrow morning.

One more thing.

I’d like to close with a few words about the “nuts and bolts,” if you will, of producing an article like Collinson’s. Needless to say, the author deserves a lot of credit. So do the many folks who reviewed the article at various stages in production. So does the designer. So do a lot of other folks.

Bryan And so does Bryan Patrick (photo at right), the ABA’s Director of Publications. Ever wondered who secured permission from the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology to publish all those photos? Do you know who tracked down the Henry Eeles Dresser lithograph on p. 27, and the scenic photo spanning pp. 26–27? Who do you suppose dealt with the designer and printer on last-minute fixes to the article? And a lot more. Yep, Bryan Patrick is the answer to all those questions. He does a thousand and one “little things” for each and every issue of Birding—and that’s on top of all the “big picture” stuff like managing a mini-empire of regularly published periodical publications and frequent, sundry, “occasional” books, guides, checklists, catalogs, and whatnot.

He’s one of the many heroes of Birding magazine. We’ll be hearing about more heroes in Parts 2 and 3 of this blog post.

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