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Photo of author Todd Newberry
Professor Emeritus Todd Newberry's essays in the book range from the practical to the philosophical. Photo: Harlan Chapman

October 24, 2005

Todd Newberry shares wisdom gained from a lifelong passion in The Ardent Birder

By Tim Stephens

In The Ardent Birder, published this month by Ten Speed Press, Todd Newberry shares the wisdom of a lifelong birder, an accomplished scientist, and an extraordinary teacher. The book is packed with valuable tips on how to become a better birder, as well as interesting stories and information about birds, but its real subject is the experience of being a birder.

In 50 short essays, Newberry addresses topics ranging from the practical (aiming binoculars) to the philosophical (do seagulls play?). Illustrated with delightful drawings by Gene Holtan, the essays are elegant and insightful meditations on the challenges and rewards of birdwatching.

Newberry, a professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology, focused on marine invertebrates as a researcher, but birding has been his lifelong avocation. A popular and influential teacher at UCSC (he won the Distinguished Teaching Award in 1987), Newberry retired in 1994 but has found that birding continues to provide new opportunities to teach.

In his biology classes, Newberry said, he tried to teach students how to become "investigative reporters of nature." Birders can do that, too, and Newberry explains in The Ardent Birder how to move beyond asking the basic question of "Who are you?" when observing birds in the field. One of the most entertaining and instructive essays in the book involves an imagined "interview" with some godwits on a mudflat. The exercise gives a hint of Newberry's own remarkable skills as an investigative reporter of nature.

Newberry said he set out to write a book for intermediate birders, because there seemed to be good books already available for beginners and advanced birders. He calls advanced birders the "varsity" (professionals are "major leaguers"), and at one point the book was about how to join the varsity. But in the end, Newberry produced a book that will appeal to all ardent birders regardless of their skills, and even nonbirders are likely to enjoy many of the essays.

What makes someone an ardent birder? Newberry explains it in terms of an emotional attachment to nature that comes from experiencing those special moments when, as he puts it, "lightning strikes." For Newberry, lightning struck for the first time when he was a boy in boarding school and a meadowlark shot up from the ground at his feet. Those moments of exhilaration and awe are essential to understanding why birders pursue their avian obsession with such passion.

"The thing that bonds us are those special moments. It's a private thing, but I think it's something we all share," he said.

Since his retirement, Newberry has taught occasional courses on birds at UCSC. He also leads outings of the local bird club and will be guiding visitors during the first annual Monterey Bay Birding Festival in November. (For more information, visit the festival web site.

The Monterey Bay region is one of the great birding hot spots of North America. "People come from all over to go birding here," Newberry said.

But wherever they may go, birders of all kinds are sure to find pleasure and inspiration in The Ardent Birder.

Newberry's writing has appeared in Omnivore, The Antioch Review, The North American Review, and Three Penny Review. He came to UCSC as a founding faculty member when the campus opened in 1965. He earned a B.A. in biology from Princeton University and a Ph.D. in biology from Stanford University.

The artist, Gene Holtan, has devoted a long life to the visual arts, painting and drawing in a range of media including paper, canvas, pottery, and children's books. After many years in Santa Cruz, he now lives in Oakland.

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