Leading a local community in appreciating, understanding, and protecting birds and their natural habitats.

The Value of Printed Field Guides in A Technological World


Q&A with Authors of Birds of The Pacific Northwest 

By The Nature Shop 

Birds of The Pacific Northwest is an all-in-one regional field guide which aids naturalists of all levels in identifying and appreciating all of the birds found in the vast and lush Pacific Northwest. This guide, published by Seattle Audubon, is unique to any on the market today, containing an impressive depth of information, from habitat preferences to vocalizations, to feeding behaviors. In an increasingly technological age, Seattle Audubon and the authors of this go-to guide will be visiting The Nature Shop to discuss with the public how printed field guides still play an important role in the exploration of nature. Join us on November 3rd, from 11:30 – 2:00pm to get your books signed and answer questions. In the meantime, read our Q&A with the two of the authors, Hal Opperman and Tom Avera, guided by the Nature Shop Assistant, Melissa Melloy.


What sets this field guide apart from others on the market today?

Hal: The basic premise of our species account model is the interaction of each of the components (photos, maps, topics) to shape a what-when-where-how-why understanding of a species in its specific regional context. What David Hutchinson said in an early review sums it up best: the book is compact and carries well for use in the field, but it is also a handbook to use at home for reference. The species range maps, the photos, and the descriptions of status and distribution and habitats surpass what’s available in other regional guides.

Tom: There are few bird field guides that take our bioregional approach.  The Pacific Northwest is a well-defined biogeographic unit with a diverse array of habitats and characteristic avifauna which comprises most of two large ecoregions—the Northern Pacific Rainforest and the Northern/Middle Rocky Mountains.  It also includes a third ecoregion, the northernmost deserts of North America. We attempted to synthesize detailed information beyond identification not easily available to the average birdwatcher unless they consulted multiple sources.

Do you think this field guide is best suited to any particular type of birder or birding experience? (beginners, birders who like to bird by ear, etc.)

Hal: It aims to reach an audience ranging from advanced beginners through intermediate birders, and even expert birders who are not familiar with birdlife of the Pacific Northwest.

Tom: The guide can be used by anyone who wants to know more about the birds that they are enjoying.

How did the partnership with Seattle Audubon develop?

Hal: We prepared a formal publication proposal, which Seattle Audubon accepted in 2010. Tom and I have both enjoyed long and fruitful relations with the organization. It was a natural fit.

  • We wanted to work with SAS from long before the official proposal was submitted in 2010.  In fact as early as 2005 we hoped that we might provide a bird oriented publication worthy of previous SAS publications.  Dennis Paulson’s Shorebirds of the Pacific Northwest is still one of my favorite titles by any publisher.

How do you think this book fits into the long history of Seattle Audubon publications?

Hal: Seattle Audubon’s history as a publisher began in 1942 with a guide to birds of the Seattle area, and developed over the next 50 years into the Trailside Series of field guides to birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, and plants of Washington and the Pacific Northwest. A succession of expanded, updated bird guides helped establish Seattle Audubon as the leading advocate for birds and bird conservation in the whole region. The latest of these went out of print long ago. The organization had been lamenting its loss ever since and hoping to replace it when our proposal came along. 

  • My opinion is that it fits well in the niche of the regional oriented works that preceded it.  It was satisfying to be able to provide a bird field guide that provided a forum for local photographers to display their work.

For an extensive list of Seattle Audubon’s publications visit our website!


Why should everyone learn and care about birds?

Hal: Birds are a part of who we are. It’s as simple as that. Becoming acquainted with birds in their habitats and coming to understand how they live in relation to everything else on the planet is one of the great lessons life has to offer, and as pure a form of enjoyment as exists. Immersion in this experience inspires an unshakeable and urgent commitment to conservation, I guarantee it. Suggested reading: The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy, by Michael McCarthy (2016).

Tom: Why not?  They are a very a visible part of the world that can provide lifetimes of free entertainment and aesthetic appeal.



What is your favorite bird and why?

Hal: Bushtit and Black Swift (a tie). Why, I dunno. Can love be explained?

Tom: Tough question because I enjoy so many.  Tough to beat is the Pacific Wren, which weighs less than a third of an ounce yet its reverberating song can be nearly deafening if you are standing next to one belting out its song.  They also have endless amounts of attitude as they bob up and down with indignity when you enter their territory.   Then again, the Gyrfalcon…

Your book puts a lot into a small package — for each species, a written account covering several topics (description, status and distribution, habitats, etc.) — along with photographs and a range map. This must have involved some tough tradeoffs. Is there anything you would do differently next time?

Hal: It would be good to give greater prominence to the photographs. We can’t make more space by enlarging the page dimensions because the book is already at the maximum limit for portability. The maps, which have been widely praised, couldn’t be reduced in size without loss of legibility. It would be challenging to trim back the text any further short of dropping a topic, which would be akin to removing a vital organ. If we have the opportunity some day, I believe we could make better use of the space for photographs without tampering with any of the other content. This would involve modifying the design to free up extra space by a more efficient placement of the species names on the page, and also replacing or reformatting some of the photos to better fit the spaces assigned to them, yielding a more favorable bird-to-background ratio.

Tom: I definitely wish that we had more space to display the fine work of the many photographers who contributed.

Birders are turning more and more to smartphone apps, websites, and other electronic resources. What role do you see printed books as playing amidst this expanding digital environment?

Hal: The print versus digital question is still a long way from a definitive answer. Both have their uses, and they mostly complement one another. For sure, though, printed books are not going to go away. As an example, the Canadian edition of our book has been on the British Columbia best-seller list month after month since it first came out. Sales numbers of the electronic version, released at the same time, can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Tom: Another tough question, but I continue to believe that there will always remain a need for printed material.  Whether one is in the field or at home, our book provides a single source for a wealth of information.  I know that when I search for information on internet, I almost invariably get distracted by peripheral information which can sometimes cause me to lose my focus.

Eager for more? Join the Washington Ornithological Society at the UW Center for Urban Horticulture. Hal and Tom will be doing a formal presentation on their book starting at 7:00pm on November 5th!

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