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Did I ever tell you about my book?  

Okay, not exactly mine.  It's Peter Pyle's "Identification Guide to North American Birds, Part 2".  But I did most of the illustrations and I have to say, it was a pretty cool experience.

The first step in a five-year project - Common Loon

If you're a regular Dawn Chorus reader, you know I'm a serious plumage geek. That's how I got involved in the project, and the project definitely reinforced the geekitude.  Going through the process was a real education.

I'm currently in Yosemite, so you won't see much of me today.  This is a repeat from way back in 2008 when the book first came out.  See you live next week, hopefully with lots of fun pix to share from this trip.

I first got involved in the book in 2003.  The original idea had been to have a number of illustrators do different sections of the book, based on their specialties.  I was going to do the raptors, but after talking with Peter a few times, we decided that I could try doing everything (except gulls - the author of that section, Steve Howell, did those drawings).

Rhinoceros Auklets - from skins to final

To clarify, this isn't a field guide.  The book is primarily designed for researchers, but is also useful for birders and bird photographers who want more detailed information about aging and sexing birds, and for identifying subspecies.

American White Pelican, adult and two young

In the beginning, I was working directly from specimens in the collection at the California Academy of Sciences in San Franciso.  I have to say, it was pretty cool - I usually worked at night and on weekends, and had a key to all of the specimen cabinets.  Peter provided me with a list of specimens to pull for a given species, with notes on the feature to draw.  Sometimes there'd only be one bird, but sometimes I would look at dozens to find the one that showed the feature best.

Working with the specimens was fascinating.  Many of them were over a century old; few had been collected within the past few decades.  100 years ago, scientists and ornithologists would just go shoot whatever they thought they needed for their collections.  The collections provide an ongoing record of subtle changes in the populations, so they continue to add specimens.  However, the majority of specimens added these days are "found" birds - road and window kills, washed up on shore, received from re-habbers, etc.  I preferred working with the newer specimens because fleshy parts were in better shape - and the older specimens were preserved with arsenic.  (BTW, if you're not squeamish and come across a fresh dead bird, pick it up and freeze it for your local museum or college.)

Working from the specimens was a slow process.  I'd make sketches in the museum and worked at home to make finished drawings in ink.  I had a limited  amount of time to spend at the museum, it was time consuming to get set up and it wasn't the best work area for drawing.  One additional complication was that Cal Academy was closing down in 2004 and moving to a temporary location while a new museum was built on the site, so we'd have no access to specimens for about 4 months during the move.  

From photographs of specimens...

I'd been taking photos while sketching to jog my memory for the finish drawings.  During the museum shut down Peter began photographing specimens in other collections, and we worked out a system where I worked primarily from his photos.  It allowed me to work when I had small bits of free time, rather than having to make an expedition to the collections.  I missed the hands-on experience, but was able to work much faster.  For many of the simpler drawings, it was possible to go straight to a finished  drawing without working up a sketch first.

... on to drawings, then to the computer for cleanup and adjustment...

The "finished" drawings weren't quite finished.  They needed to be cleaned up so they could be labelled, and tweaked to make sure the salient points showed clearly.  All of the drawings were scanned, cleaned and then emailed to Peter.  Often as not, they'd come back for another round or two of tweaking, cleaning and other modifications before they were really and truly final.  (I never thought I'd get through the ducks.)  Here are a few samples from the shorebird section, showing specimen photos, a rough drawing and the final version - no labelled versions though, since I won't actually have a copy of the book until later today.

... and finally a drawing ready for arrows and labels.

I'll have a few more drawings in the comments, but want to close with this one from the intro.  This duck's leg will be labelled to show how leg measurements should be taken.  What's unique about this one is that it's the only one drawn from life (more or less).  The specimens were really dry and hard to photograph, and I'd been trying to get photos of ducks at local ponds holding their legs just so.  My husband was working at a radio site at the edge of the bay and said "it looks like something got a duck here last night, and there is a fresh pair of legs sitting here... should I put them in the cooler and bring them to you?"  That night, I sat down and drew this from fresh bufflehead legs.  Brought me right back to the tradition of Audubon.

Books can be purchased directly from Slate Creek Press.

Originally posted to lineatus on Sun Jun 08, 2014 at 06:00 AM PDT.

Also republished by Birds and Birdwatching.

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