Have you ever discovered a book that you were so thrilled had come into the world that you wanted to share it with EVERYONE? Look at That Bird!: A Young Naturalist’s Guide to Pacific Northwest Birding is that book for me. And its author, Karen DeWitz, has been generous enough to grant us a window into her writing/birding world.
I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did and that you share this book with all your young birding friends (and young at heart too!) My husband and I (who both enjoy adult bird books) stayed up alternating nights reading and enjoying Karen’s excellent content.
What made you want to write this book for young birders?
I decided to write this book because there isn’t really anything like it out there for kids to take when they’re heading to a local birding site or nature trail—something that would draw them into wanting to know more about the nature around them. I wanted to create a book that would get kids (and the adults in their world) excited about the birds they see in their everyday lives. Adult birding guides can be complicated and not a lot of fun to read. They can be full of technical terms that aren’t well explained, and you have to understand maps to use them properly. Kid bird books, on the other hand, can be lots of fun but contain birds from other parts of the US (like cardinals and blue jays) or even the world (like ostriches and penguins). This book is for kids in the PNW to use right here at home.
How did you narrow your selection of birds for the book?
I made a list of the most common birds in my state (Oregon), and then added in any I missed that were common in Washington, Idaho, or SW British Columbia. From there I cross-checked every bird that could be found in every state & province in the Pacific Northwest. Anything that checked all the boxes stayed (at least until we had to cut for space…boo). Unfortunately, that meant that some local favorites—like great egrets and magpies—didn’t make the cut. I’m going to create a website that includes information on birds that didn’t make it in. Lots of great birds did, though! And while kids may not see every bird in the book every day, they at least have a chance of seeing every bird without traveling too far from home.
Did you take all the photographs for the book?
I took all of the pictures except the European robin on page 49 (a friend in the UK sent me that one) and the photo of me with my dog at the end, which was taken by my son. (He’s pretty psyched to have a photo credit in a published book.) My very favorite thing to do is to hang out in nature taking pictures of birds and other wildlife. I’ve been known to sit almost motionless for hours under a pile of blankets to get the perfect shot of a hummingbird pooping or a bird parent feeding a chick. I have a super-long 600 mm lens that I’ve nicknamed Bertha. Bertha and I go almost everywhere together—you can see her along with my dog and me on the very last page of Look at That Bird! People always comment that I can probably see the craters on the moon with that thing (I can). Mostly, though, Bertha lets me get close-up shots of shy or vulnerable birds without scaring them or alerting predators on where to find them.
How long did the project take from start to finish?
In some ways I can say I’ve been working on this book for years with every bird photo I’ve taken and every new ID I’ve learned. The last time I had my camera serviced they said I’d taken well over 200,000 photos with it! (And this is not my only camera.) I’ve been sorting through tens of thousands of photos of wildlife and birds to create this book (and the other NW nature-exploring books I plan to write in what I hope will be a series). I pitched my idea to Sasquatch Books in the spring of 2019 and have been working on it in earnest ever since. The book involved tons of careful research. In addition to finding and photographing each bird profiled, I researched every fact presented and cross-checked each finding with a number of resources. After I finished, I had two ornithologists, a biologist, and one lifelong hobby birder read through it to triple-check my work. (Whew! All is well!) It’s been a couple of intense years of stalking birds, photographing birds, reading about birds, and talking to experts to learn more about the science of birds.
Were there any particular birds that were extra difficult to find?
That’s a great question! Bird photographers get super excited about the big, colorful, exciting action shots. But the hardest shots for me were the LBBs (Little Brown Birds) that bop around in the shadows and scurry out of sight just as you pick up your camera. Our local wrens were particularly hard to photograph. Their scientific family name is Troglodytidae, which comes from the same root as troglodyte, which means “caveman”— fitting since they flit in and out of the dark, hidden places in the forest.
Do you have an all-time favorite bird?
Ooh! That’s like asking if I have a favorite child! Honestly, I think my favorite is whichever bird happens to be delighting me in the moment. I do get a little extra excited when I see owls, since many species are usually nocturnal (and therefore hard to spot). But I’m also a huge fan of bushtits—and not just because people giggle at the name. They’ll visit your suet feeders in huge flocks, looking like sweet little mouse-birds. And they have one of the coolest nest out there (see page 75 in Look at That Bird!).
What did you think was the most challenging aspect of birthing this book?
I’ve helped several authors and small publishers bring their projects to life as an editor and photographer, but this is my first experience creating a book like this entirely from my own writing and photos. There’s so much to it that I hadn’t even considered! The biggest challenge, I think, was letting go of the creative and editorial control—learning to create this thing as a group project while still producing all of the writing and pictures. That can be hard when you’re used to being a perfectionist working alone. If I’m the photographer on a project, I just take the needed shots and let the editors and writers take it from there. In this case, I was also the writer, so selecting and placing the photos was a big part of my job. But I still had to let go and trust the designers, who came through amazingly.
The best part was actually getting out into nature and taking the pictures. I could do that all day every day. Sometimes I would sit for two or three hours out in my little nest on the patio just waiting for particular birds to visit the yard. When my husband or kids would give me the “Are you going to just sit there all day?” side eye, I could honestly wave them away and say, “Shh! I’m working!” I could give them the same retort every time I went hiking at yet another wildlife refuge with a friend. “I’m going to work! Bye!” Best. Job. Ever.
Where can we find you online?
My website is undergoing some new construction with the addition of Look at That Bird! to my body of work. But it exists! I’m also on Instagram. Please see links below.
You can find Karen’s book here or wherever books are sold.