He writes about the birds and the trees

Naturalist Sibley branches out in a new setting

David Allen Sibley took seven years to complete “The Sibley Guide to Trees,’’ which contains 4,000 paintings. David Allen Sibley took seven years to complete “The Sibley Guide to Trees,’’ which contains 4,000 paintings. (Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/File/2001)
By Carol Stocker
Globe Correspondent / January 7, 2010

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Crowned by critics for his bird guides as the successor to celebrated naturalist Roger Tory Peterson, David Allen Sibley is known for works dense with detailed observations and exquisite artistry. Recently, Sibley changed direction somewhat with “The Sibley Guide to Trees.’’ Seven years in the making, it contains more than 4,000 paintings of North American tree species. An exhibit of his field sketches and finished illustrations, “The Art of Identification: Field Guide Paintings by David Sibley,’’ runs through Jan. 17 at the Mass Audubon Visual Arts Center in Canton. We interviewed him at his Concord home.

Q. Your books are so popular that The Wall Street Journal called you a “naturalist rock star.’’ Do you find celebrity a burden?

A. I am recognized when I go to places where there are birders. But most people will talk about what birds are around, and then when they’re parting, they’ll say, “I like your books.’’ I’m not being mobbed for autographs. But I have to be diplomatic about what I post online. I can’t write, “That’s stupid!’’

Q. Speaking of which, a big controversy in the birding world was that reported sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker, long thought extinct, in an Arkansas swamp. Does it really exist?

A. When it was first reported I went there immediately and spent 10 days. And the river was full of fishermen with binoculars. Everyone was keyed to spot it. It was not a wilderness. And I thought then, “If it’s here, someone will see it in the next four weeks.’’ That was five years ago. . . . I wrote a rebuttal for Science magazine.

Q. Are birders a target audience for “The Sibley Guide to Trees’’?

A. Yes. It’s the first tree identification book organized like a birding guide. It’s organized by family, and when you flip back and forth through it 20 times looking for certain trees, you absorb what oaks have in common with each other and that all maples have a certain leaf shape.

Q. How can anyone identify trees in the winter, even with your field guide?

A. Winter’s not that hard. The bark, the branching structure, the pattern of twigs in the crown, and the overall shape are revealed. You can see more after the leaves fall.

Q. Why is an illustration more helpful for identifying birds and plants than a photograph?

A. A drawing can simplify an image so it just contains the things you need to know. A photo gives you too much information.

Q. In the field, do you see effects from global warming?

A. I see it in the southern species moving north. When I grew up in Southern Connecticut in the 1970s, we went on a special trip to see a red-bellied woodpecker. Now they’re all through Massachusetts . . . meanwhile some northern birds, like the Evening Grosbeak, are gone.

Q. What about the future of trees?

A. The longhorned beetle (in Worcester) is really scary, and it’s just one of many introduced pests and diseases now threatening trees.

Q. What’s your favorite tree?

A. I like the way sycamores look with their gnarled trunks and mottled bark. . . . I like oaks because they’re good for wildlife.

Q. Why did the birds stop coming to our feeder this fall?

A. This is a mast year for oaks and white pines. The trees synchronized all through New England and beyond to produce a huge seed crop so the predators can’t get them all and the excess seeds sprout. So this will be a good year for squirrels. But after this, seed production will fall low again so the number of predators will go back down.

Q. After branching out from birds to trees, are you planning other guides on other subjects?

A. No. The trees were so much more effort and time than I expected. I want to revise my existing guides and I have a couple of ideas for new projects such as a backyard bird book.

Mass Audubon Visual Arts Center, 963 Washington St., Canton, 781-821-8853;