The greatest mishap that photographer and writer John Shewey experienced while co-authoring the field guide “Birds of the Pacific Northwest” happened while he stood in the Middle Deschutes River. Wearing waders while fly fishing near Redmond, Shewey noticed a rare black swift flying overhead — a little-known resident of the canyon. Standing near a small island in the middle of the river, Shewey put down his rod and reached into his bag for a large lens and digital SLR camera body.
“I immediately dropped them into the water,” he said with a laugh. “Luckily the lens survived, but the camera body didn’t.”
If the perils of an avian photographer seem tame compared to more daring lines of outdoor photography, Shewey, a former central Oregon resident who has authored or co-authored nearly 20 books, mostly guides and tomes about fly fishing and fly tying, said that’s the point.
“You’re definitely not risking life and limb,” he said. “But that’s what makes bird photography really approachable for anyone with a long lens.”
And a good insurance policy for your camera.
“Birds of the Pacific Northwest” was published in March by Portland-based Timber Press. As a part of its Field Guide series, the book joins titles dedicated to the trees, mushrooms and natural history of the Pacific Northwest. Many bird books have been devoted to the West, but few to the region encapsulating Oregon, Washington, Idaho and southern British Columbia. By narrowing the focus, Shewey and co-author Tim Blount, lifelong avian photographers, were able to devote more images and information to each bird. Each species is treated to two photographs and descriptions that touch on the species’ characteristics, appearance, behaviors and habitat.
Shewey and Blount spent a year compiling more than 900 photographs of about 450 birds found in the region. Shewey snapped about 300 himself, while Blount, who also contributed images, designed the range maps. The two shared research and writing duties to come up with the detailed text. While they licensed some images from Shutter Stock, a stock photography company, Shewey and Blount scoured the internet and their Rolodexes alike for regional bird photographers who could round out their book with professional-grade imagery.
“It’s not enough to get a ‘good’ photo of those birds. It has to be diagnostic so that it shows the field marks, so readers can identify those birds,” Shewey said. “We had to go beyond good bird photos.”
As for Shewey, he shot some of his most memorable contributions during visits to central Oregon, where the Salem, Oregon, resident lived during the 1990s.
While on Black Butte, which is a popular site for black-backed woodpeckers, Shewey heard the distinctive call of the mountain quail — an elusive bird he didn’t know lived on the butte. Returning before sunrise to a spot where he’d found mountain quail tracks, Shewey concealed himself after situating the eventual sunrise at his back — an ideal lighting angle — and waited. None came. It took three outings until a male mountain quail walked into the clearing. He clicked off two shots before it disappeared.
“That was the big ‘project bird’ for me. It was a monumental effort,” Shewey said. “I got a little bit obsessive by climbing up Black Butte at 4 in the morning.”
A collegial community
Shewey never considered filling the book with illustrations. Compensating for such work wouldn’t “have been tenable in terms of economics and time,” he said. “I can’t even imagine the task of painting 400 birds, let alone photographing 400 birds.”
That Shewey and Blount couldn’t pay contributors was completely fine for hobbyist photographer Jim Hardman, a retired lumber mill manager from Eugene. Shewey had met Hardman while in central Oregon, which they shared a bird blind — or a small, camouflaged viewing tent — from which they photographed songbirds. Hardman, 74, contributed more than 20 images. It’s his first time having his photographs published.
“It means a great deal to me to have photos published,” said Hardman, who has captured about 450 species in his private collection of more than 13,000 images.
Hardman picked up avian photography when he retired in 2010 as a way to stay active. Of the photos that appear in the book, Hardman said photographing the American bittern proved a challenge, even though the tall, slender birds habituate the grassy marshland at the Fern Ridge Reservoir near his home. What makes it a difficult subject is the way the bird’s plumage blends with the tall grass. In order to find them before a contrasting background, Hardman draped himself in a netting that matched the color of the nearby reeds.
That his doggedness would not earn a paycheck didn’t bother Hardman.
“There are some photographs floating around on the internet that are excellent,” Hardman said. “I was appreciative of John (Shewey) recognizing my photos as being worthy of being put in print.”
Shewey contacted Michelle Lamberson, a British Columbia photographer, after he found her work on her Flickr account. She contributed eight photos, including one of the persnickety, camera-ruining black swift. Lamberson, an educational administrator at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus, has contributed avian photography to scholarly works, birding magazines, and the “Birders Guide to Vancouver and the Lower Mainland,” whose cover bears one of her images.
In “Birds of the Pacific Northwest,” Lamberson is most satisfied with her scenery shot of a large flock of dunlins in Boundary Bay. A hobbyist who rarely sells her photography, she said it felt good to give back to birders, whose ranks she joined later in life.
“The birding community is by nature a collegial, sharing community,” Lamberson wrote in an email. “It’s wonderful to be able to contribute back to that community and help others understand birds better.”
A local’s touch
To ensure the originality of “Birds of the Pacific Northwest,” Shewey and Blount cross-referenced a variety of source texts, which included some field guides but largely depended on obscure avian reports and scientific papers that dig deeper than typical bird books.
“We used everything available to us,” Shewey said. “And layered on top of that is our own experience in the Pacific Northwest.”
Shewey and Blount, who lives in Sherwood, Oregon, found flaws in the range descriptions of some field guides dedicated to the West or to the entire country. By narrowing the scope, “We were able use our local knowledge to enhance the range descriptions,” Shewey said. “We were able to recommend some key locations for people to have a pretty good chance of seeing these birds.”
Shewey and Blount had fun creating original, phonetic descriptions of their bird calls, which they studied via online recordings.
“We wanted to have our own interpretation,” he said, acknowledging the challenge. “When you’re trying to convert any call or song into the English language to describe it, you could play the call to 10 people and they would give you 10 different descriptions.”
Shewey’s favorite bird call is the red-breasted nuthatch’s. Thin and tinny, it commonly echoes through central Oregon forests. Shewey declined to do an impression.
“The best description I ever heard was that the red-breasted nuthatch sounds like a mallard duck on helium,” he said.
Birds of the Pacific Northwest
By John Shewey and Tim Blount
Timber Press. 561 pages. $27.95.