Cover story

Taking flight

With their latest photo-packed field guide, best-selling authors Lillian and Donald Stokes are putting a new focus on bird watching

By Joel Brown
Globe Correspondent / March 5, 2011

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Bird watching is not just about distinguishing between, for example, a semipalmated plover and a piping plover, or knowing the difference between a bobwhite and a bobolink. It’s about forging a lasting connection to the natural world, according to best-selling authors Donald and Lillian Stokes, who (having written dozens of birding books) know a thing or two about being in the wild.

“It’s not like there are humans and then there’s nature,’’ Donald said. “You can’t draw a line between us and the things around us.’’

That said, for those who do want detailed information about plovers, sparrows, and hundreds of other winged creatures, the couple is there for you. Their acclaimed latest book, “The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America,’’ took six years to compile and covers 854 species in 816 pages.

The Stokes, who live in New Hampshire, will talk about the book — their 31st — as keynote speakers today at the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s 19th annual all-day Birders Meeting at Bentley University in Waltham.

Lillian took more than 500 of the 3,400 brilliant color photos in the Stokes guide, earning it a place on the shelf alongside such classic field guides as “The Sibley Guide to Birds’’ or the Peterson Field Guides series. Those books rely on paintings or one or two photos to show a bird’s characteristics. In the Stokes guide, more than 20 photos show the red-tailed hawk in its various incarnations: adult and juvenile, eastern and western, light and dark. The profusion of images has won over even the most experienced birders.

“I think it’s fantastic,’’ said Wayne Petersen, director of Mass Audubon’s Massachusetts Important Bird Areas Program and co-editor of the Massachusetts Breeding Bird Atlas. “The quality of the images and the sort of telegraphic text accompanying the images . . . is a very, very tough act to follow.’’

Carlisle residents for 20 years, the Stokes have lived on the Bobolink Farm in Hancock, N.H., since 2001. They sold a second home in Florida so they could add another parcel of land to the farm, allowing them to preserve a total of 48 acres, including fields, woods, and a lake. They’ve tried to be careful stewards of the land — even making sure that the fields are not mowed until it’s safe for fledgling bobolinks, which nest there.

“I think it’s that unity of the natural world and ourselves that we’ve always tried to help people understand,’’ Donald said, “and tried to motivate them to do the things they can to preserve the environment for us and all the wildlife that surrounds us.’’

The Stokes were driving back to Boston this week from their annual sojourn to a rented home near the J. N. “Ding’’ Darling National Wildlife Refuge, a birder’s paradise on Florida’s Sanibel Island. Between appearances in the area, the couple drove almost daily into the refuge, where it was easy to spot everything from roseate spoonbills “putting on a show,’’ to bald eagles, to yellow-throated warblers. And photograph them, of course.

According to a US Fish and Wildlife Service study, 24 percent of Massachusetts residents are at least part-time bird watchers, a pastime that has changed dramatically with the advent of digital photography. “You are able now to have this phenomenal wealth of gorgeous images to choose from,’’ Lillian said, “which allows you to illustrate anything you want on a bird, to show just the right angle and just the right light and just the right field marks.’’

“The other day somebody reported that they might have had a yellow-legged gull up in Gloucester harbor, which is a European gull that would be very unusual here, but possible,’’ said Stephen Moore of Northborough, a veteran birder. “Most of the field guides, if you got any pictures of yellow-legged gulls you’d be lucky, but in this one they’ve got nine separate pictures of yellow-legged gulls. . . . It’s very helpful.’’

In addition to the pictures, the Stokes have coined a new term, called “quantitative shape.’’ It is the comparing of one part of a bird — its outline and its dimensions — with another part of the same bird, like length of bill to length of the head. “It’s a new concept,’’ Donald said, “a new way of looking at birds.’’

At more than 800 pages, the book is more likely to travel in the glove compartment or backpack than a back pocket. But many local birders are willing to trade portability for sheer thoroughness.

“I’m one who believes you should be looking at the bird, and afterward you can go look at your field guide,’’ said Sue McGrath, founder of the Newburyport Birders. “I think all birders will be using this, at all levels.’’

The couple met in 1979. Don was already a nature writer, and Lillian, a psychiatric social worker, signed up for a Mass Audubon bird behavior class he was teaching. By the mid-1980s they were married, writing books together and eventually had TV shows on PBS and cable.

Lillian takes photos while also keeping an eye on the big picture. She handles the blog ( and Facebook and Twitter. Donald specializes in organizing and teaching through writing.

“Of course, I’m going to show it to her and she’s going to say, ‘I think this needs to be taken to the next level,’ ’’ he said, “and that’s the hardest part, because I know she’s right.’’

Neither Stokes keeps a traditional birder’s “life list’’ of all the species they’ve seen, but they do keep a list of the more than 190 species of birds they’ve seen at Bobolink Farm. And they’re never bored with the everyday.

“I get just as thrilled with seeing that beautiful male cardinal just singing and singing in my yard as I did over 20 years ago,’’ said Lillian.

“People say, ‘What bird do you want to see most?’ ’’ Donald added. “And we say, ‘Every bird, better.’ ’’

Joel Brown can be reached at

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