(Here is part 1 of my interview with author/illustrator Annette Cate, whose new book is the children’s picture book Look Up!: Bird-Watching in Your Own Backyard [Candlewick, March 2013] — great for new, young birders! Some great thoughts from Annette about her own birding, and also her thoughts on children and nature, and seeing things from a kid’s point of view, as well as a couple of her original doodles! Thank you, Annette, for giving us the chance to get to know you better.)
Annette: I am originally from Waltham, Massachusetts, which is very close to Boston, just a few short bus rides away (which is why I went to the Art Institute of Boston, a very small art school, which luckily turned out to be quite a nice fit). I grew up with four sisters and two brothers, and lots of kids on the street to play with, though I was mostly pretty quiet and shy and spent much of my time reading and drawing and thinking about all my secret plans, like all the books I would write someday.
I still live in Massachusetts, now in a very small town, with my husband and my two sons, Dave and James. Our house is on a woodsy hill. There are lots birds and all sorts of other critters, too — we’ve had black bears come right up to the house!
In my spare time (which, like with all mothers I suspect, is not terribly abundant) I like to cook, work in my garden, volunteer at school, travel with my family, watch movies, read the newspaper, write letters, ride my bike, go for walks, regular everyday stuff like that.
Charlotte: Are you more of a birdwatcher or a birder?
Annette: I looked up the difference just to make sure, and I guess I probably come out more on the side of the plain ol’ everyday backyard birdwatchers here. Maybe if I had more time I would go on more birding adventures, but I just don’t have very much of that in my life right now. And even if I did, probably my number one obstacle to being a true birder is the fact that i’m just not very good at getting up early in the morning. And even if i do get up early, it’s almost impossible to get myself out of the house. And that’s especially true when I go anywhere interesting on vacation! ( I generally don’t get up until my husband goes out and finds me coffee, I know, terrible for a bird-watching person!)
Still, the thing I’m most excited about when I think about my family’s upcoming trip to the southwest this summer? The chance to see new birds, of course! (So there may be hope for me yet.) But really, like I said in my book, I am no expert bird-watcher, not even close! I am not very good with binoculars, and I have never gone on any sort of organized bird-watching walk. I admit I am too self-conscious to do that sort of thing with other people, because I’m afraid I’m not doing it right (which is very silly of me, I know!). I am very content to watch the birds in my yard, and to sit quietly on a rock somewhere and sketch the birds I can see with as little effort as possible, when I go on a trip. So I guess that really only makes me a casual bird-watcher. But still, that brings me great happiness.
Charlotte: How old are your sons, and do you go birding with them?
Annette: My sons are almost 10, and 12, and the last time I actually took them birding proper was when they were very young (around ages two and four) and we were on the southern coast of Texas, one of those famous birdwatching meccas, and I absolutely could not bear the thought of not looking for those fabulous Texas birds I might not ever get the chance to see again. So I would drag them out into all the marshy birdwatching places with me. I would be carrying James (the littler one) and he would be fussing and chatting and carrying on, and Dave and I would fight over the binoculars (he would use them backwards, of course), and they would get bored and want to run around, and we would annoy all the serious birdwatchers (though I must say really every single person in Texas was unbelievably nice to us at all times, no-one ever actually acted annoyed). And we did see many wonderful birds, which I guess the boys do not remember.
Nowadays when we go for walks and hikes and bike rides as a family (and we do try to do this as much as we can) I try to point out birds and ask questions about them in a casual way, since I already foist so much on them as it is (like piano lessons), and I want looking at birds to be fun and happy, not just me being a pain as usual. Our new favorite bike-riding spot is the Cape Cod Canal bike path, where there are always lots of sea birds just hanging out, and a pair of cormorants on every telephone pole. This is such a great place to really see birds. On the canal they can be quite close, you can easily see lots of fun details (like those crazy big Common Eider heads), you can see birds dive and swim. I ask the boys if they can see what makes birds different from one another, if they can tell the boys birds from the girl birds, if they can tell which are the younger ones. And the cormorants are close enough to see the little breeding plumes, these are really fun things to point out.
I try to be outside with my sons as much as possible, and I try to point out birds when I see them, and I try to keep them looking, too, in new places and even just in our own yard. I do think kids are very naturally curious, and so naturally observant, so I really do try to go with that. And they are so open and unjaded about what is a “good” bird to see. To a kid, a robin hopping and getting a worm is very cool, and I always try and remember that, you know, that really is a very cool thing to see. I try to see things from a kid’s point of view, when I remember to! Just this morning while we were outside in the yard waiting for the school bus, James and I followed a catbird around. We watched it jump from branch to branch in a big pine tree, we heard it making its “meowing” sound, and even saw its bill move while it did that, which he found really funny. Now he feels he knows the catbird a little better, he will know it when he sees it next time, he’ll know that “meow”, he knows how it moves and what tree it likes, and I think that’s really wonderful. Little discoveries, in one’s own yard, are such a great way for kids to learn about the natural world!
Charlotte: Are there any species you would really like to see?
Annette: Yes, absolutely! I think I would love to see any kind of albatross, or shearwater, but I would mostly want to see one in its natural habitat, far, far away from land, way out in the middle of the ocean, I think that would be amazing. I would also love to see a puffin. We almost went on a little cruise once when we were in Acadia National Park, where we may have been able to see puffins, but it was just too cloudy that day for the boats to go out. I’ve always been a little sad about that, that I missed my chance to see a puffin. Maybe another day it will happen.
As for birds that are right under my nose but I’ve never quite managed to see, I would absolutely love to see a whip-poor-will — any sort of bird of that kind, they seem so mysteriously creepy! I’ve don’t think I’ve seen a Great Horned Owl in real life (maybe I’ve seen one at a nature center or something), I would love to see one. Or any kind of owl, really. The only owls I see regularly are Barred Owls, we have lots around my house — any other owl would be good. And the Roadrunner! I have been to the southwest a few times, and I’ve never seen a Roadrunner, maybe this summer I will. And speaking of the Roadrunner, why haven’t I ever seen any of his other cuckoo relatives? I’d really like to see a
Charlotte: Do you have any plans to write more children’s books about birds?
Annette: Hmmm, I haven’t thought at all about what might be next but we shall see!
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I have an extra follow-up to Part 1 of my interview. I asked Annette about the birds in her yard at home in Massachusetts, and she didn’t have it ready at the time, but she does now, and here it is!
First, the usual suspects, I see these guys year-round: American Robin, Blue Jay, House Finch, House Sparrow, American Crow, Common Grackle, Dark-eyed Junco, White-breasted Nuthatch, Northern Cardinal, Mourning Doves, Tufted Titmouse, Black-capped Chickadee, and a European Starling.
These a little less often, but still all year: White-throated Sparrow, Red-tailed Hawk, Wild Turkey, Hairy Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, American Goldfinch, and a Carolina Wren
I see these a lot, just not in winter: Chipping Sparrow, House Wren, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Red-winged Blackbird, Baltimore Oriole, Northern Flicker, Song Sparrow, Brown-headed Cowbird ,Gray Catbird, Northern Mockingbird, Eastern Phoebe
These birds I have seen only a few times, probably just because I’m not paying attention: Brown Creeper, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Red-Bellied Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Great Crested Flycatcher, Blue-winged Warbler, MagnoliaWarbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Nashville Warbler, Winter Wren, American Tree Sparrow, Red-eyed Vireo, Eastern Bluebird, Eastern Wood PeWee, Wood Thrush, Hermit Thrush, Veery, Rufous-sided Towhee, Cedar Waxwing, Barred Owl, Broad-winged Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, and a Sharp-shinned Hawk.
Birds seen flying overhead: Turkey Vulture, Great Blue Heron, Green Heron, Osprey, Canada Goose, Herring Gull, Northern Harrier, Common Nighthawk, Chimney Swift, and a Belted Kingfisher.
Birds I’ve seen in my yard exactly once: Indigo Bunting, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Wood Duck, Ruffed Grouse, American Kestrel, Golden-winged Warbler, Tennessee Warbler, Orange-crowned Warbler, Bay-breasted Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, American Redstart, Fox Sparrow, Scarlet Tanager, and a Pine Grosbeak
Birds I think I have seen in my yard, but probably didn’t: Peregrine Falcon, Common Raven, Black-backed Woodpecker, and Common Redpoll.