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I love the paintings of John James Audubon. I’ve long thrilled to see his works in various books, and have even been fortunate enough to gaze upon a selection of plates from the first editions. But never did it occur to me that his original watercolors could still exist. That is, until about three years ago, when the New-York Historical Society announced an exhibition of Audubon’s original works. It turns out that the society purchased the paintings from Audubon’s widow. The exhibit, Audubon’s Aviary, would display all of the paintings in the society’s possession. But it would do so over three years, with roughly a third of them exhibited at a time for just a few months during each of those years. 2015 marks the third, and final, exhibit.

I desperately wanted to see them. I wasn’t able to make the exhibits in 2013 or 2014, but finally got a chance this year. Being in a room surrounded by 130 of Audubon’s original watercolor paintings was awe-inspiring. I couldn’t get over the fact that I was inches away, separated only by thin glass, from paintings produced by Audubon’s own hand. It was unreal.

Audubon's Aviary exhibit at New-York Historical Society

Audubon's Aviary exhibit at New-York Historical Society

Audubon's Aviary exhibit at New-York Historical Society

From reading the book produced about this exhibit – Audubon’s Aviary: The Original Watercolors for The Birds of America (a review will be coming soon) – I discovered that many of Audubon’s paintings are actually collages. He would sometimes cut out a figure and adhere it to another painting. His Green Heron is a good example of this. Except, you can’t tell it from any print. You can see evidence of it in Audubon’s Aviary, as the images in that book are taken directly from the original paintings, but even then it’s not very clear unless you know what you’re looking for. But it’s glaringly obvious when looking at the original. The adult Green Heron was painted separately and then attached to this sheet, with the overlapping leaf cut out in such a way that the bird could be slid beneath it. It looks great as a print, but really pops in person.

Detail from Audubon's Green Heron

I’m sure there are many other details that you can discern from viewing these paintings in person, especially if you have any training in art. But to me, the best thing was the overall, subjective experience. Being surrounded by, and that close to, such greatness was overwhelming.

If you want to experience it for yourself you need to hurry, as this exhibit closes on May 10, 2015. After that, we’ll have to wait at least 10 years before being able to see these paintings again (according to the exhibit’s flyer, anyway). For more information see http://audubon.nyhistory.org/

University Press Week 2014 logoThis week (November 9-15, 2014) is University Press Week. You may not be very familiar with them, but birders ought to be thankful for university presses, for without them many of the bird books that we use and love would have never been published. I did a quick survey of the bird books published in 2014 alone and found that at least 18 of them are from university presses. And for North American birders, if you’ve ever birded anywhere else in the world, chances are very good that the field guide you used was published by a university press.

So, as a birder who loves his bird books, I say, “Long live university presses!”

Have you ever wondered what we’ve actually learned from all the decades of bird banding? Or how all the cool, new findings from satellite-tracked birds fit in? I certainly have, which is why I was excited to learn about The Migratory Connectivity Project. You can check out some initial work on the website, but there will also be a book – The Atlas of Migratory Connectivity for the Birds of North America – that will be published by Princeton University Press in 2016. The authors are currently looking for data. If you have anything that could be of use, they are collecting contributions through the end of 2014.

As you may have heard, the new second edition of The Sibley Guide was published recently. Want a free copy? It’s easy, you just have to guess how many birds I saw on a recent trip to Peru. Enter your guess as a comment on this post, and the closest guess wins.

If you’d like to make a more educated guess, these are the the tours that we went on with Kolibri Expeditions:

This contest ends at 11:59pm eastern on Sunday, April 6 Wednesday, April 9. (I’ll need at least that long to figure out how many birds I actually saw!). I’ll take care of shipping if the winner is in the US or Canada. Those elsewhere are still eligible, but I may ask that you chip in some for shipping (via Paypal).

I have extensively revamped/updated my iPhone Bird App Comparison. It now has full coverage for the five main North American apps – Audubon, iBird, National Geographic, Peterson, and Sibley.

Looking for something to get for the bird-lover in your life? You can never go wrong with a good bird book. Here are a few suggestions.

    The Bluebird Effect: Uncommon Bonds with Common BirdsThe Bluebird Effect: Uncommon Bonds with Common Birds
    by Julie Zickefoose

    One of the most beautiful books – both in terms of prose and art – that you’ll ever read. Actually, I think this is a book that would appeal to anyone, not just birdwatchers. (Full review)

  • Save the Last Dance: A Story of North American Grassland GrouseSave the Last Dance: A Story of North American Grassland Grouse
    by Noppadol Paothong and Joel Vance

    Easily one of the finest books of the year. The extraordinary photographs make it a pleasure to look through, and the fact that it’s a book that will actually help out the birds it features makes it a great gift for anyone who cares about birds (a portion of each purchase goes to grouse conservation). (Full review)

  • Birds of Paradise: Revealing the World's Most Extraordinary BirdsBirds of Paradise: Revealing the World’s Most Extraordinary Birds
    by Tim Laman and Edwin Scholes

    You probably know Birds of Paradise from the unbelievable footage of their courtship display from Planet Earth. The photographs here are just as impressive, and you get some great insight into these birds (and what it takes to document them).

  • National Geographic Bird-watcher's Bible: A Complete TreasuryNational Geographic Bird-watcher’s Bible: A Complete Treasury
    edited by Jonathan Alderfer

    This enjoyable introduction to the world of birds and how we relate to them would be a great gift for newer birdwatchers, or even those just somewhat interested in birds. (Full review)

  • Hawks in Flight: Second EditionHawks in Flight: Second Edition
    by Pete Dunne, David Sibley, and Clay Sutton

    The classic gets updated, expanded, and otherwise improved. New, color photographs + Sibley’s drawings + Dunne’s text = must have.

  • The Laws Guide to Drawing BirdsThe Laws Guide to Drawing Birds
    by John Muir Laws

    Anyone who’s ever picked up pen or brush to draw birds, or even thought about doing so, will appreciate this book.

  • The Unfeathered BirdThe Unfeathered Bird
    by Katrina van Grouw

    The perfect gift for the birder who has everything, because I guarantee they don’t have anything like this! This is a bird-art book like none other, as it shows birds as they look like without feathers and even as skeletons. Yes, it sounds a little weird, but it’s oddly beautiful. And educational too, as the author goes into bird anatomy and physiology in a very readable manner. (Note: this book may not be available until just after Christmas. But it’ll be worth the wait.)

And remember, you can’t go wrong with giving a birder a field guide or identification book. Even if we already have a guide for a particular place or group of birds, we always like more!

Steve N.G. Howell is posting a series on how to write a bird book. Lots here for anyone who loves bird books, not just prospective authors. I’m really looking forward to the rest of the series.

John Mazluff and Tony Angell, the authors of Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans, will be holding a live video chat run through uStream on July 10, 12 PM PST. Tweet your questions with #chatSS before AND during the event.

To access the uStream – http://www.ustream.tv/simonandschuster

For a limited time, the Peterson Birds of North America iPhone app is only $4.99!

One of the great things about bird books is their propensity to inspire kids to take an interest in birds and nature. Nate, of The Drinking Bird Blog, takes a great look at one of the books that influenced him as a child.

I don’t remember the exact titles, but I loved looking through some books that my grandparents and first teacher had. They definitely helped nurture a love for nature in me. Were there any such books that influenced you as a child?