Like many birders, I was first introduced to the name Sophie Webb as the illustrator of A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America. I’ll admit to open-mouthed staring at the illustrations that I still love to leaf through. A few years ago, Ms. Webb also became a judge for the Young Birder of the Year Illustration Module and gave me some good suggestions, which I have tried to follow. I was interested in interviewing her and so Jennie [Duberstein] introduced us. Now, I am envious of the life she leads (travel, research, and birds!)
Could you tell us about the research project you are currently working on?
For the past 10 or so years I have been working as either a contractor for several non-profits and the US Fish and Wildlife Service or as a NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) term employee on research cruises, where I usually census seabirds and, at times, marine mammals. I just returned from working for a month for the Farallon Institute on the NOAA Spring Rockfish Survey along the central and southern coast of California.
You’ve spent a few seasons in the Antarctic; what do you find most fascinating about it?
I worked mostly at a small Adélie Penguin colony at Cape Royds located on Ross Island, in McMurdo Sound in the southern portion of the Ross Sea. Before I worked on the project I thought, having spent most of my time working with or looking at birds in tropical and temperate regions, that one season in the Antarctic would be plenty. At Cape Royds, there were only two species of breeding birds: the Adélies we were studying and South Polar Skuas. But I was wrong; I ended up returning to Ross Island four more times after that first visit. The Adélies were endlessly fascinating and entertaining, and the landscape vast and dramatic, always changing with the weather and the moving ice. It was an incredible place to have the opportunity to work.
What have been some other studies you have worked on?
After college, I was fortunate to have no debt so I pretty much hopped from job to job. My first project, oddly, was a short cruise for Manomet Bird Observatory on a spring ground-fish survey, and then I headed to New Mexico and studied Flammulated Owls for a summer, slowly making my way west to PRBO Conservation Science (now Point Blue Conservation Science) in California. Over the years, I worked in most of their programs, including landbirds at their Palomarin Field Station and seabirds and landbirds on Southeast Farallon Island. I worked at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania, on a Japanese stern trawler in Alaska, studied Barn Swallows for a project in the Adirondacks, studied the ecology of mockingbirds in the Galapagos, worked on a variety studies in Australia, spent a spring banding at Long Point Bird Observatory in Canada, spent some months in the Bolivian Amazon, and worked with shorebirds for a couple seasons in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. I have a travel bug.
Looking back, do you have a favorite study?
They were all so different and at such different times in my life that it is hard to choose a favorite. Certainly the Galapagos, the Antarctic, Bolivia, and Prudhoe Bay were some of my favorites, but then I think about how much I enjoyed my summer spent with those lovely Flammulated Owls in the Zuni Mountains of New Mexico…
Could you tell us more about your organization, Oikonos, and its mission?
Oikonos is a non-profit organization that works locally and internationally to improve biodiversity conservation on imperiled islands and increase understanding of human impacts on marine ecosystems. We accomplish this by leading community-based conservation, conducting rigorous science, engaging communities and stakeholders in stewardship, and sharing knowledge through creative, alternative, and traditional means.
We have a variety of on-going projects in different parts of the Pacific. An important part of what we do is including either a community, art, or education component with each project. Here are a few examples:
- Art. Año Nuevo restoration project: Oikonos partnered with Rebar, an arts group, which helped to design and build a habitat ridge on the island. A ceramics class at the California College of the Arts designed prototype nest boxes for Rhinoceros Auklets. They were tested, one design chosen, and then over 80 were installed on the Island during the last couple of years. The thinking being that the ceramic will thermoregulate better than the traditional wooden boxes. This project also used a large number of volunteers and partnered with a local nursery, Grow Native, which provided advice, seed, and plants for the island.
- Community. Juan Fernandez Island Conservancy (JFIC) has been working with the communities on the Juan Fernandez Islands in Chile for the past 10-12 years, getting them involved in the study and conservation of their endemic seabirds (Pink-footed Shearwater, Juan Fernandez, Stejneger’s and DeFilipe’s petrels) and landbirds (Mas Afuera Rayadito and Juan Fernandez Firecrown).
- Outreach. Oikonos partnered with NOAA to make lesson plans using data and methodology from our research on Black-footed Albatross and plastics: Winged Ambassadors. There are free downloads for teachers at our website.
Why do you enjoy seabirds so much? Is there a particular species that especially appeals to you?
I have always loved the ocean. At times in my life I have worked away from the ocean for a while, but am always drawn back to it. Seabirds are remarkable, spending their life on the ocean, dealing with winds, sun, and lack of fresh water, and nothing flies quite like an albatross or Pterodroma petrel. To humans, the ocean looks superficially like one big open space, but to the birds, it is a complex mosaic of habitats. I really like, of all things, storm-petrels; they are perhaps my favorite group of seabirds, but hands down, the most beautiful is the Light-mantled Sooty Albatross.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced as an ornithologist/artist? As a female, have you encountered any special ones?
Well, I don’t have a degree beyond a Bachelor’s, so the most basic thing is simply making a living. I also chose not to have a family (although I recently got a dog, which may curb my travel, some). The sciences are better; there used to be a bit of chauvinism in them, but now at least in the life sciences I see more and more female professors and women in other high-level positions. I think the same has been true of the birding world, but that, too, is changing as there are more and more good young female birders making their mark.
Certainly when I started working on the Mexico guide (mid 1980s) there was some latent chauvinism, which from the comments of other women on a recent ABA blog post, still pervades the birding world. When I was first working on the Mexico guide, there were many assumptions about my ability to paint birds, or lack thereof. I was simply Steve Howell’s girlfriend. (Granted when I look back at some of my early plates, I cringe). But I was quite serious and dedicated to doing good work. I received numerous back handed compliments such as one fellow who said that he knew that the text of the Mexico guide would be good, but was worried when he heard that a woman was painting the plates, although he could now see that it was okay (after seeing my art work). Another time an ornithologist who I had spent several weekends birding with when I was with Steve didn’t recognize me when we ran into each other later when I was on my own; I had been invisible. Yet another birder once made the assertion to me that no woman could paint birds as well as a man. These are a few examples of many such occurrences; all are a bit demeaning. For me, all they did was make me want to prove everyone wrong in my own way. I am generally shy and not much of a shouter so I decided whatever I did, if it was good enough, it would stand the test of time. Only once was I not hired for a job because I was female, but the reasons were about my personal safety (New Guinea in the 1980s) rather than my ability. That all being said, I would also like to say there were those men who were also incredibly helpful and encouraging, such as the bird artist Guy Tudor, who became both a good friend and mentor.
Shortly after I seriously started birding, I remember opening A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America and being awed (and inspired) by the illustrations. Could you give us some details about illustrating the guide?
When Steve and I started working on the guide, for some crazy reason I thought it would take about 3 years; then I would go to graduate school. Ten years later…
The book was done on a shoestring, with no funding outside of a couple benefactors, and a lot of support from friends and family. We lived for free at PRBO in a tiny caretakers cottage when not either in Mexico or New York. Three to seven months a year were spent in the field, usually targeting one area on each trip. I remember one year we spent six weeks on a sailboat going to the Revillagigedos to see the endemics and seabirds on those islands, followed by five months spent driving our old VW Rabbit to Honduras.
On each trip I would do hundreds of field sketches, concentrating on face patterns, GIZZ and soft part colors, things you couldn’t get easily from museum specimens and most photos (although things have changed with the digital age). Then I would come home, photocopy my sketches, and glue them into notebooks in taxonomic order. We took some photos, but I also borrowed hundreds from Guy Tudor, who would generously spend hours picking them out, labeling them and sending them to me (I still borrow photos from his large collection). I spent many months at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, painting in their collection, and was able to make an arrangement that they would loan me some of the smaller species so I could work on those illustrations at home in California. So, to make a long story short, for the plates I would use my field sketches, photos, descriptions and museum specimens, as much information as I could gather. It was quite an undertaking. I have never done anything quite like it since.
Do you have any advice for young birders who wish to work in the field of ornithology?
Well, times have changed so I would say pursue a higher degree beyond a Bachelor’s, but if you can do it, get experience first in the field. And remember, you may never make much money but you will always love what you do.
About the author: Alexandria Simpson is an avid, seventeen-year-old birder from Santa Anna, Texas. While she wishes she could say she has been birding all of her life, instead she has spent the last four years making up for lost time. She wants to become an ornithologist and someday read scientific papers without falling asleep. Her photography, illustrations, and writings have won awards at local, state, and national levels.