Ink, Sweat, and Paint
More than 40 years in the making, an illustrated field guide for bird-rich Peru finally hits the shelves, adding to the world of masterful ornithological manuals.
Some years ago I was walking alone one afternoon in Peru when a hummingbird zipped straight toward me at eye level, stopped two feet from my face, and hovered there for several seconds, apparently looking me over. When he turned and sped away, I wondered what I’d seen. What hummingbirds would I likely find in lowland rainforest east of the Ucayali River? Were some species particularly brazen? I wanted to reach for a field guide, but at the time there was none. And if any place needed a field guide, it was Peru, second only to Colombia as the most bird-rich country in the world. (In fact, Peru’s roughly 1,800 species account for nearly 20 percent of the planet’s avifauna, yet even today much of the country remains unexplored.)
Too many birds, not enough information—that was the problem. Back at camp was the solution: John O’Neill, leader of the ornithological expedition I was accompanying. The force behind Louisiana State University’s neotropical bird studies program until his retirement three years ago, O’Neill began thinking about a field guide for the birds of Peru not long after he first set foot in the country, in 1961. He has been laboring on the book, from planning through execution, in the years since. The work has included everything from collecting information on birdlife to coordinating the involvement of the other scientists and artists whose help he enlisted over time. The expedition I accompanied to an uncharted region near the Peru–Brazil border was part of the fact-gathering fieldwork on which all field guides are based.
O’Neill, with a neatly trimmed mustache and a haircut that hasn’t changed much since the 1950s, does not look like someone who has spent much of his life trekking through the wilds of Peru, but his spirit of adventure harks back to the 19th century’s great explorer-naturalists. He first went to Peru as a college student with the encouragement and support of his mentor at the University of Oklahoma, George “Doc” Sutton, a well-known ornithologist of the mid-20th century. Later Sutton recommended him to George Lowery of Louisiana State, where O’Neill completed a Ph.D. O’Neill stayed on at LSU, eventually becoming director of field studies for the university’s Museum of Natural Science. Along the way he taught himself to paint, and has long been considered one of our country’s best bird artists.
Now, 40 years after he first envisioned a field guide, O’Neill and his principal co-authors, Tom Schulenberg and Doug Stotz, have finally completed the guide against which all others for the New World tropics will be judged. Available from Princeton University Press this November, The Birds of Peru’s ($49.50) nearly 4,000 color illustrations alone—more than double that of any other single-country neotropics guide—set it apart. The paintings by O’Neill, Dan Lane, Larry McQueen, John Schmitt, Dale Dwyer, and others, a collection of some of the best avian artists in the country, are too good to be thought of as only illustrations. The book may spend as much time on the coffee table as in the field.
In a small, cluttered room at the back of his home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, I watched as O’Neill painted one of the book’s final plates. Wearing blue jeans and a white T-shirt, he sat down at a drawing table, took off his glasses, put on another pair for close-up work, then squeezed a dab of yellow acrylic from a tube onto his palette—a styrofoam tray from the supermarket. He leaned over a large sheet of heavy watercolor paper, dipped a fine-tipped brush in the pigment, and began filling in the upper bill of an emerald toucanet. Although O’Neill has seen more than 1,400 species in Peru during his four decades of fieldwork, he was not painting from memory. In his left hand he held a specimen of an emerald toucanet from the LSU collection. As he added color to a penciled outline of the bird—first the bill, then the head, then the eye—it was as if the animal’s reflection slowly emerged in a mirror.
This emerald toucanet is a lowland subspecies, distinguished from its mountain-dwelling kin by its size and habitat and by the color of its upper bill (yellow), eye patch (gray), and throat (black). As green as its name implies, the bird is not much larger than a blue jay but imposing with its toucan bill. O’Neill’s decision to include only the bird’s head and shoulders to illustrate these differences was part of a lengthy process that preceded the actual painting. With 1,800 species to illustrate, one of the most difficult tasks for O’Neill was making choices such as which species to group together and whether to include subspecies, both males and females, and immature as well as mature birds—keeping in mind all the while that it is helpful to have species that might be confused for one another on the same page.
O’Neill chose the artists to do the plates he wasn’t going to paint himself in part based on their knowledge of a particular group of species, and he remained closely involved from initial sketch through the finished illustrations. But because illustrating the book has taken decades and fieldwork is ongoing, plates painted years ago sometimes didn’t include recently discovered species, making it necessary to digitally rearrange some illustrations as the book entered its final stages.
To some, four decades might seem too long to have spent on a field guide, but O’Neill sees it differently. “For a long time people asked, ‘When are you going to get the book done?’ Boy, am I glad we didn’t get it done back then,” he says. “We know so much more now.” When O’Neill made his first trip to Peru, during which he stayed with friends of George Sutton, there were 1,300 species known to occur in the country. He returned in subsequent summers with the support of Louisiana State, traveling with LSU graduate students, on his own, or with friends he had made along the way. On his third trip, not yet a college graduate, O’Neill returned from Peru with a large, brightly colored tanager no scientist had seen before—not only a new species but a new genus. O’Neill’s discovery, named the orange-throated tanager, helped renew interest in the kind of basic, old-fashioned exploration that few people were doing anymore. Year after year O’Neill went back to Peru, eventually leading graduate students of his own into uncharted wilderness to document its birdlife.
On one expedition in 1978, Tom Schulenberg, an LSU graduate student, spotted an ocellated tapaculo in a dense stand of bamboo on a narrow mountain ridge. The tapaculo, a raillike bird of the forest undergrowth, was not known to occur in Peru. Schulenberg sat for a moment enjoying his discovery. Moments later he heard something moving behind him, in a more open stand of bamboo. He looked over his shoulder and was surprised to see an antpitta only a few feet away. Antpittas are secretive birds that usually remain hidden in dense undergrowth, but this bird was at eye level, silhouetted against the sky. In many ways it looked like a typical antpitta—a plump, short-tailed, stout-billed thrush that stands upright on sturdy legs—but Schulenberg couldn’t place it among Peru’s known antpittas. Its charcoal-grey underparts contrasted beautifully with a black face and red eye, and it had an ivory-colored bill. Schulenberg, in fact, couldn’t place it among any known antpittas anywhere. It was, it turned out, a new species, later named the pale-billed antpitta.
Schulenberg reminisced about this remarkable morning when we met in his book-lined office at the Field Museum of Natural History, where he is a conservation ecologist with its Environmental and Conservation Program. Years earlier I had spent some time with Schulenberg in northern Peru, but when he came down to the museum’s ground floor to meet me, I almost didn’t recognize him. Gone were the scraggly long hair and beard he’d had for years, although his smile and easygoing manner gave him away. Schulenberg and his Field Museum colleague Doug Stotz, both experts on neotropical birds, are responsible for all of the text and range maps in The Birds of Peru.
At the time of my visit, Schulenberg had been working steadily on the text for three years, putting in six days a week for the past several months. “None of us knew what we were getting into when we started,” he laughed. Schulenberg had a clear idea in mind for the text: informative but elegantly simple and succinct. Pulling a field guide off a shelf over his head, he opened it and read aloud its description of a house wren—a long-winded passage mired in minutiae and jargon. He shook his head in dismay, then read from a Peterson field guide: “A small energetic gray-brown wren distinguished from the others by a light eye-ring and lack of facial striping.”
“That says it all in a single sentence,” he said. “We want to avoid excessive detail and eliminate abbreviations and acronyms as much as possible. I don’t even want to use ‘NE’ for Northeast.” Schulenberg and Stotz also broke from tradition in the text’s organization. “If you’re birding in Kansas,” Schulenberg explained, “you subconsciously think of what birds you’d expect to find there, and if they’re rare or common, before you consider what species to look at in a field guide. But in Peru there are almost 2,000 species and many more kinds of habitat. We are putting the distribution, habitat, and status information first. You can compare this information with where you are and know right away if the bird is one you might find in, say, lowland forest that is seasonally flooded.”
The two authors spent considerable time on the range maps, as well. Although the distribution of some species is fairly well known, much of Peru is still unexplored, and for many species Schulenberg and Stotz began with an outline map of Peru with dots on it to mark each confirmed record of a bird in a particular location. Sometimes only a few records existed, so they had to decide when to connect the dots and shade in the area between them to indicate that a species was likely to occur throughout that region. Someone looking at the range maps may see only a lifeless pattern, but to the ornithologists who make each sighting, these dots are the distillation of weeks, and sometimes months, of living in a tent far removed from the comforts of home.
Many of the sightings on which the range maps are based were made by the late Ted Parker, arguably the ultimate authority on the birds of Peru before his untimely death in a plane crash in Ecuador in 1993. “In the neotropics, Parker is supreme,” Roger Tory Peterson once told me. It was Parker who joined forces with O’Neill in the early years to get the book started. And Schulenberg and Stotz have relied greatly on the volumes of notes Parker left behind. Parker’s fieldwork in Peru, which began in the 1970s, is the stuff of legend. In an old pair of Converse high-top basketball shoes, he walked thousands of miles, a suitcase-sized Nagra reel-to-reel tape recorder hanging from a strap over his shoulder. His ear for birdsong was uncanny. He could identify 4,000 species by sound alone. Not surprisingly, Parker’s recordings of bird vocalizations (15,000 recordings of more than 1,600 species) are the basis for nearly all of the book’s notes on the voices of Peruvian birds.
The time I spent on O’Neill’s 1987 expedition taught me to never again take a field guide for granted. The Birds of Peru is the culmination of an incredible amount of fieldwork, but that doesn’t mean the exploration is finished. After I watched O’Neill put some of the final touches on his emerald toucanet, he pointed to a map of Peru spread out on the kitchen table. “There are 20 to 25 places no one knows anything about.” Already he had a trip planned to a region near Peru’s border with Ecuador.
Recently O’Neill wrote me about this journey, which took place in 2006. The expedition made a difficult ascent of a mountain ridge. It was “one of the wettest and coldest places in all my years in Peru,” he said, but he was rewarded by finding two more species—the white-breasted parakeet and jocotoco antpitta—that were previously unknown to occur in Peru. It reminded me of what O’Neill said when I asked him how many species were known to occur in Peru: “1,806, 1,807, 1,808. . . . This book isn’t the end; it’s really the beginning.”
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Peru: Making the Trip
Birders who would sample the astounding diversity in Peru should consider the general habitat regions of the country. The arid strip west of the Andes has relatively few species, but seabirds concentrate at some coastal points. Dry forests of the northwestern Tumbes region host some rare specialty birds, and this area combines well with a visit to the arid upper Maranon Valley. The three main cordilleras of the Andes and the valleys between them occupy more than one-third of the country. Within the Andes, every change in elevation brings a slightly different habitat and a change in bird species. The area of Cuzco and the Machu Picchu ruins is particularly rewarding for birding.
East of the Andes, forests of the Amazon Basin harbor more bird species per square mile than any other habitat on earth. Ecotourism lodges here are ideal destinations for birders. Several are clustered on the Amazon and its tributaries near Iquitos, in northeastern Peru. Others are located in the far southeast, accessed through Puerto Maldonado. Between these areas is the richest area of all, the Manu Biosphere Reserve, where the Amazon Basin meets the eastern edge of the Andes.
Several U.S.–based companies offer birding adventures in Peru, including Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, Field Guides, and Wings Inc. Local outfitters include Manu Expeditions, Kolibri Expeditions, and GranPeru Birding Tours.—Kenn Kaufman
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