My mind is very much on birds right now: drawing them, watching them, and learning about the ones I hope to see in the tangled viney depths of the Amazonian jungle, sometime very soon in fact. And that brings me to the subject of field guides.
I have a goodly collection of them, mostly of the tropical bird variety. Over the years I’ve collected guides for trips taken and trips wished for, and sometimes just for the artwork alone. A friend in California sent me a box heavy with old field guides and ornithology textbooks he’d inherited from a friend who’d just passed on, an ornithologist named Thomas Howell, who’d birded just about everywhere, and retired on the Mendocino coast. His well-used guides cover the globe from the Falkland Islands to the Indian Sub-continent, and include a rare copy of Guide Des Oiseaux De La Nouvelle-Calédonie Et De Ses Dépendances, personally inscribed by the author Jean Delacour with Best Regards. Check-lists and notes flutter out when opening the pages.
I’m now working on a field guide as well (Birds of Trinidad and Tobago), and paying better attention to the ones filling my bookcase. I’m looking at them with a more carefully considered eye. It’s interesting to see how different illustrators see the same bird, how different artists produce a particular characteristic or even just draw the feet. It’s only my opinion, too, but I really feel that a good field guide should go beyond field identification- it should inspire dark cravings in the heart of a well-addicted birder. The best ones should have you checking airfares and getting yellow fever shots.
Which brings me to the new Field Guide to Birds of Peru (Princeton University Press). This is a magnificent and thorough book that just came out last year, and as for that other thing, well, let’s just say it’s been allotted nearly 3lbs of my 42 lb. baggage weight limit (I saved 6 whole ounces by peeling off the hard cover and replacing it with clear plastic). Conceived and co-authored by John O’Neill, and illustrated beautifully by O’Neill and a team of equally fantastic artists including Larry McQueen and Barry Van Dusen, it’s THE field guide to have, it’s a beautiful armchair traveler’s dream-book, and now it’s my field guide to how-to-illustrate-field-guides.