Birding author David Sibley to speak at DPNC

When it was published in 2000, David Allen Sibley's "The Sibley Guide to Birds" became a birder's bible.

The author and illustrator just released a second edition of the guide, boasting a whole range of updated and enhanced material.

For instance, the illustrations now run 15 to 20 percent larger than they did before and thus show better detail. About 7,000 paintings have been digitally remastered. The second edition features more than 600 new paintings and 700 updated maps, and the text has been bolstered, too.

Sibley, who lives in Concord, Mass., is coming to the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center on Friday for a reception and Q&A session. The events are presented by the nature center and Bank Square Books.

Sibley - whose other books include 2002's "Sibley's Birding Basics" and 2009's "The Sibley Guide to Trees" - was given the Roger Tory Peterson Award for Lifetime Achievement from the American Birding Association in 2002.

Sibley spoke recently by phone about the new edition of "The Sibley Guide to Birds," his years growing up in Guilford, and the joys of birding.

Sibley has added new species to this edition:

"To bird watchers, of course, rare species are always exciting. The highlight of birding is finding something that's unusual or that's unexpected in your area. Having a chance to study and paint a lot of those species was really fun for me. One species in particular - the pink-footed goose - wasn't included in the first book. At the time the first edition came out, there had only been a few records of that species in North America. It was just about the time that the first edition came out in 2000 that pink-footed goose started to be seen more regularly. It's been seen essentially every winter since then. ... So that was a species that went from being so rare that it wasn't even included in the first edition to now seeing them almost every winter somewhere in New England. Obviously, it needed to be added and given the full treatment, since it's a species a lot of people will hear about every year."

There have been lots of other shifts in migratory patterns over the years:

"I started bird watching when I was a kid and I lived in Guilford, Connecticut, in the '70s. Comparing what I saw then to what you can see now, it's dramatically different. Some species have increased. Some have decreased. There has been a general trend of southern species moving north and birds arriving earlier in the spring and staying later in the fall. The easy answer is to point to climate change. There are probably a lot of other factors involved also, but climate change is certainly part of that.

"Some of the species that are very common in people's backyards now in Connecticut - like red-bellied woodpecker, Carolina wren, those two species were pretty scarce in the '70s. Red-bellied woodpecker was just arriving in Connecticut in the 1970s. Those are both southern species that have extended their range to the north. Red-bellied woodpecker in Connecticut in the early '70s was a very big deal, a really rare bird. People would drive a long way to see them. Now, they're found throughout the state. ... Probably everyone who keeps a bird feeder in Connecticut in any sort of wooded setting, they'll have red-bellied woodpecker visiting the feeder."

Being the son of an ornithologist, Sibley had a natural entry into that world and started birding when he was in second grade:

"When we moved to Connecticut when I was in fourth grade, I was really an avid birder and interested in drawing. Watching birds and drawing always went together for me. I really, for as long as I can remember, have been interested in birds and wanting to learn as much as I could about them, to be able to draw them and to be able to do something with all of my drawings.

"Probably when I was 12 or 13 years old and birding around Guilford and with the New Haven Bird Club, lots of people were encouraging me. I had some good mentors in the club. It was probably around then that I started thinking a field guide to birds was something I was interested in doing and I would like to do. And, hanging around with that group of people, it seemed like a perfectly reasonable career path to choose."

Sibley loves the excitement of birding - of not knowing what's around the next bend:

"There's a real predictability to it but also a mystery, and the unexpected happens. As you learn more about birds, you go out looking for birds in specific places at specific times. They're predictable in the habitat that they choose, the weather, the time of year. You can maximize your chances of seeing a species, but whether you actually find them or not is always up to a certain amount of chance. With the rare species, it's 1 in 100, or 1 in 1,000, or 1 in 10,000 chance that you'll find species on any given day. When you find one of those 1 in 10,000 kind of birds, it's a really big thrill."

Sibley says that Cape May, New Jersey, gets his vote for the best bird-watching spot in North America:

"It's just a huge migration stopover or bottleneck. The birds are constantly changing. Every day is different. That's really a place where birders wear their binoculars out to dinner and into the supermarket, because, carrying a bag of groceries from the supermarket back to your car, there's a reasonable chance that something really unusual will fly by."

Sibley met the late Roger Tory Peterson, who was a famed ornithologist, author, artist - and Old Lyme resident:

"There was a friend of my father named Noble Proctor who was a really well-known birder from New Haven. He was friends with Peterson. It was through him that I got to meet Roger Peterson a couple of times in the '70s. They were brief meetings, but I was sort of awestruck. He looked at a couple of my sketches and complimented them and encouraged me. ...

"I got to spend a day with him in New Jersey in the early 1980s. By then, I was 23 years old or so and doing a lot more sketching and getting some of my work published. What really impressed me then - he was near 80, I think, and still, it was obvious the thing he enjoyed most was just getting up early in the morning and going out and hearing birds sing and identifying birds, just the basic day of birding in New Jersey. He was excited about everything that we saw. It didn't matter after a whole lifetime of birding and publishing books and all of the awards and accolades he had gotten, his real passion was just putting on a pair of binoculars and going birding."

Sibley agrees there's been an increase in the popularity of birding, and he reflects on what the reason behind it might be:

"I'm speculating, of course, but I think, as a society, we've gotten more insolated from nature, so we live our daily lives in houses, apartments, offices and cars. (We) don't have as much incidental contact with nature as our parents or grandparents — a lot of them lived on farms, they lived every day by the sunrise and sunset and heard the bird songs and watched the weather. I think that sort of integral appreciation of nature ... is part of all of our backgrounds. We all came from nature. It's part of who we are. I think people crave some contact, some connection with it. ...

"Birdwatching offers a sort of formalized way, an excuse to just get out and stand in the wind and walk through the forest in the spring and to be in touch with the change of seasons and the cycles of the trees flowering and leafing out and the leaves falling, all these fundamental cycles of nature. It just feels good to be a part of that and keep track of that. Birdwatching offers a sort of a format, an approved (he laughs) and very social way to do that."

To Sibley, one of the most significant changes in the new edition of "The Sibley Guide to Birds" is how the text was rearranged on each page:

"It took away one whole block of text that was at the top of the page, which allowed a little more room to add a little more information on each species. We added another bit of text next to the map that talks about the status and habitat of each species. I thought those changes made a lot of sense. It made it easier for me to write some new information and add the new information, so I would say that's one of the changes I'm most excited about. ... Of course, I always enjoy painting, so not to diminish all the fun I had painting all the new species I added to the book."

Sibley talks about the rarest bird he's seen:

"That partly depends on your definition of rare. I saw a California condor when I first started birding, when we lived in southern California. My father was studying California condor. So I saw some in the late '60s, when were about 60 condors left in the wild. The numbers continued to drop. I saw California condor again when there were only about five left in the wild in the mid-1980s. Not long after that, those few birds that were left in the wild were trapped and brought into captivity, and the captive breeding program has now produced enough young condors, they've been released back into he wild. The total population now is several hundred. ...

"Then, in the early 1980s in New Jersey, I was part of the finding of the first record for the Atlantic Ocean for a bird called the Buller's shearwater that nests in New Zealand and migrates to the North Pacific during the southern summer. But the only record in the Atlantic — there hasn't been once since — we saw one from a boat off the coast of New Jersey. The only Buller's shearwater ever seen in the Atlantic — that's probably my most far-flung rare bird."


What: “A Conversation with David Sibley”

Where: Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center, 109 Pequotsepos Road, Mystic

When: Friday, March 21

Includes: Reception, which will feature Sibley doing live drawing, from 5 to 6 p.m.; “A Conversation with David Sibley and Maggie Jones” at 6:30 p.m., followed by a booksigning. Jones is the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center's executive director.

Cost: The 6:30 p.m. program is free. The reception costs $75 per person and includes a copy of “The Sibley Guide to Birds Second Edition,” which has a $40 value; a $30 tax-deductible donation to the Nature Center; and hors d'oeuvres and drinks. The reception benefits the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center's programs.

Hosted by: Bank Square Books and the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center

Contact: (860) 536-1216


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