I have been interested in dinosaurs for as long as I can remember. Inhabitants of a time so far from our own and yet a fundamental part of its history made an impression on my mind from a young age and continue to be a source of interest, wonder, and study for me today.
Since the nineteenth century, paleontologists have recognized the connection between modern birds and the extinct dinosaurs. The discovery of the famous Archaeopteryx in the limestone quarries of Germany first brought this connection to light, illustrating the similarities in anatomy between modern birds and other, extinct, dinosaurs. Since then, an incredible number of fossil discoveries of feathered and birdlike dinosaurs have brought even more similarities and evolutionary connections to the attention of paleontologists and ornithologists in recent years.
The fossil record and a vast array of evidence from bird and extinct dinosaur anatomy make a compelling case for the classification of all birds as theropod dinosaurs, meaning that, contrary to popular belief, the dinosaurs did not go extinct at the end of the Cretaceous period. This fact of taxonomy now adds a new dimension to my passion for birds; the continued legacy of the dinosaurs lives on in the spectacularly successful and diverse lineages of birds today.
My life with birds, however, started independently of my interest in other dinosaurs. It began when I was around 9 years old. My mother had taken me to a local bookstore –Vroman’s — that we often visited together. I noticed at the front near the register a display exhibiting a newly arrived book, small and orange with a Western Bluebird on the cover and a compact speaker attached, and decided to purchase a copy. I didn’t know it then, but Donald Kroodsma’s The Backyard Birdsong Guide would become the catalyst for my interest in birds. I was immediately fascinated by the audio component of the field guide, and spent hours with the book reading about the birds and listening to their songs.
Eventually, I began to recognize the songs of birds I heard around me and started to make sketches and illustrations of birds that I saw as well as birds from around the world that I found interesting. My library of bird books grew, as did my knowledge and passion and drive for learning about the subject of ornithology. Only later in my life did I make the connection between the dinosaurs I had always been fascinated with and the Northern Mockingbirds and Mourning Doves I saw around my house every day. Over the years I began to focus on learning about birds through a scientific and global perspective. I finally took on the challenge and excitement of birding in the field after several years of armchair enthusiasm, and in the process grew my skills and knowledge of birds immensely. I can credit the Pasadena Audubon Society with first giving me the opportunity to get out into the field with experienced birders and providing mentorship and advice through its network of members, things that were invaluable to me as a nascent birder and still are.
Ever since I became interested in birds, and especially since the beginning of my birding career, I have always taken special effort to draw birds both accurately and artistically. Having been a “serious” (in whatever connotation of skill level the word carries) birder now for about three years, I am constantly trying to improve upon my experience and learn more about birds and ornithology. Part of this process I’ve found to be exceptionally rewarding and effective as a learning tool is the practice of field sketching and its similar relative, bird illustration.
Art for me is invaluable as a way of both learning about bird identification and anatomy as well as a way to express the more intangible experiences and ideas that birding and the study of dinosaurs in general bring. The confluence of art, science and appreciation for the natural world and earth’s history is where my interest in dinosaurs, including birds, lies. My birding efforts and attention have primarily focused on western North America, as I live in southern California and get to spend most of my time birding in the surrounding areas. I am lucky to have had my formative years of birding in a region with such a diversity of species and habitat.
There have been several moments in my experience as a birder that I feel have helped me to grow in not only practical elements such as identification techniques but in my appreciation of birds and the natural world as well. One such instance occurred on a recent trip I took in late July of this year to the mountains of Estes Park, Colorado with the American Birding Association for Camp Colorado. Prior to this trip I had been using a pair of $30 Lobo binoculars that I acquired at an outdoor market in Mexico City, and unbeknownst to me they had exceedingly poor optics and overall quality in comparison to other specialized, higher quality binoculars.
I had been blissfully unaware of this fact by way of never having been exposed to better optics, and for over a year I had been birding with the Lobo binoculars before I went to Colorado. So when, on the second day of our trip, camp leader and Leica birding product specialist Raymond VanBuskirk brought out a pair of Leica Trinovid HD binoculars I was eager to see what differences between these high-end binoculars and my own trusty pair I would notice. I had been looking at a Mountain Bluebird perched on the top of a post, and through my own pair of binoculars I saw what I had expected to see – a blueish bird with gray-tipped wings and uniform coloration.
When I trained the Leicas on the same bird however, my entire view of birding changed. Where once before I had seen a uniform dull blue, I then saw a brilliantly vibrant sky-blue breast, a faint violet-purple sheen on the bird’s sides, and crisp details of feather arrangement and body structure that had been obscured to me though my old pair of binoculars. I felt then that I had discovered a completely new world, full of birds that appeared to my eyes in stunning detail that I had never thought possible before. The rest of the week at camp with the Trinovid HD binoculars became a new kind of birding for me – one enhanced so greatly by something as simple as quality optics – and an experience with birds that remains one of the most beautiful and educational I have had.
Birds are very telling indicators of the quality of an environment – the health of their populations is often the health of the ecosystem they inhabit. So in this way, studying birds can give a view into the complex workings of natural ecosystems and the incredibly fascinating array of life that such ecosystems are composed of. Birding offers a way not only to connect to the nature of the present, but to the history of life on Earth, stretching on through deep time.