7. Which do you enjoy more, the field research or the writing itself? Why?
I love the field research. The research also involves a lot of reading, much of it in scientific journals, a lot of which I do before I talk to or travel with the biologists I’m writing about. But getting to travel with some of the best field biologists in the world and see things I’d otherwise never get a chance to see is what I most enjoy. Having the chance to spend time with Ted Parker and John O’Neill in Peru . . . I don’t really know how to explain how exciting and rewarding that was. It was work too. I’ve always got my notebook in hand and am scribbling notes, and at the end of a day I spend time writing more notes so I won’t forget things. But the travel is definitely exciting. I remember one day in northern Peru walking with Ted and a local guide through lowland rainforest when Ted suddenly held his hand up, making a motion for us to stop and be still. “Black-banded crakes,” he whispered. “Crouch down and don’t move.” A moment later he scolded our guide for swatting at mosquitoes, which were swarming us. “Don’t move,” he whispered again. A few minutes later the two crakes walked out into an open area about ten feet in front of us. They looked around, and then moved slowly into the underbrush again. When he was gone, Ted stood up and smiled. “Only two or three people have ever seen that bird before.”
I enjoy the writing too, though usually not the initial part of it. Working on the early drafts are the hardest part for me. Revising is what I enjoy the most, trying to get the words just right, sharpening the sentences, and so forth. It’s rewarding when it all comes together finally. But it’s so completely different from the research. When I’m writing, I’m spending a lot of hours by myself in a room day after day. When I begin a book, I can usually work for only 4 or 5 hours each day at first, but then I work my way up to 6 or 7 hours, and in the end I’m doing more than that. It’s like training for a marathon. And finally, I find myself living in the world of the book, not able to get it out of my head if I wanted to.
8. Can you relate your favorite or a humorous experience from your time working on either book?
There are a lot of favorite moments, and plenty of humorous ones too. I’ll tell you one that is not in Birdsong. I remember going out with Don Kroodsma one morning in a Florida pine woods to record Bachman’s sparrows. We got up at 2:30 a.m. and got to the site at 3:30, well before first light, because Kroodsma wanted to record the very first Bachman sparrow song of the day. We spent the first hour looking at the stars and trying to identify constellations. When the Bachman sparrows began singing, it was worth getting up that early (I’m not a morning person—but I guess 2:30 a.m. isn’t “morning” either to anyone except Kroodsma). Their songs are beautiful. But the area we were in was about a mile past a target practice range, and to our surprise some people were out shooting very early that morning. We got in the car and drove a little farther off to record, but moments later some other birders came by and said a bullet had just whizzed over their heads and they were getting out of there. Kroodsma—crazy man that he is when it comes to recording birdsongs—suggested we just get behind the car and stay low as he continued to record.