2015-03-06 / Front Page

Bird is the word

“Birdology” offers projects for children and their teachers and parents
By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer


Monica Russo and Kevin Byron pose with a copy of their new book, “Birdology: 30 Activities and Observations for Exploring the World of Birds,” published in January by Chicago Review Press. It is the fourth nature based book by the couple. 
(Courtesy photo) Monica Russo and Kevin Byron pose with a copy of their new book, “Birdology: 30 Activities and Observations for Exploring the World of Birds,” published in January by Chicago Review Press. It is the fourth nature based book by the couple. (Courtesy photo) ARUNDEL — When Monica Russo was a little girl growing up in Connecticut in the 1950s, no one realized she needed glasses. Her universe, therefore, consisted solely of the things she could see up close, leaving such things as the sounds in the trees the stuff of mystery, at least until she got her first pair of glasses.

“That opened up a whole new world for me,” she said from her Arundel home on Monday. “I finally got to see what was making all those noises in the trees. I’ve been seriously bird-watching since I was 9.”

Now, Russo, 64, has produced an activity book that, thanks to the photography skill of her partner, Kevin Byron, brings the creatures she could once only imagine into vivid focus for youngsters.


An eastern meadowlark is frozen in flight in this 2001 photo taken at Kennebunk Plains, off Route 99 in Kennebunk, by Arundel photographer Kevin Byron. It’s one of more than 80 photos, many taken locally, which appear in the just-published book, “Birdology: 30 Activities and Observations for Exploring the World of Birds.” 
(Courtesy photo) An eastern meadowlark is frozen in flight in this 2001 photo taken at Kennebunk Plains, off Route 99 in Kennebunk, by Arundel photographer Kevin Byron. It’s one of more than 80 photos, many taken locally, which appear in the just-published book, “Birdology: 30 Activities and Observations for Exploring the World of Birds.” (Courtesy photo) Titled, “Birdology: 30 Activities and Observations for Learning About the World of Birds,” the 108-page book, published by Chicago Review Press, is filled with birdrelated activities and projects kids can do with their parents, or teacher. It is, says book-review powerhouse Kirkus, “more than an introduction.” It is, “an immersion in the world of birding.”

Birdology is the 29th nature-related book by Russo, bringing her full-circle from her first title, “The Complete Book of Birdhouses and Feeders,” published in 1975. It’s also the fourth collaboration with Byron, her partner of 38 years, following, “The Insect Almanac” (1991), “The Tree Almanac” (1993), and “Watching Nature” (1998).

Byron, 66, a professional photographer since 1974, has filled the book with nearly 100 images — many from his extensive files, some taken specifically for the book — with more than 90 percent of the depicted birds photographed in Maine. Many of the photos were captured at Kennebunk Plains Preserve, Biddeford Pool and around South Portland.

One particularly striking image, taken at the plains off Route 99 in Kennebunk about four years ago, captures in sharp detail the pinions of a eastern meadowlark as it cruises the grasslands of the preserve.

“I never got another one, not of one of those guys,” Byron said. “That one I’m pretty proud of.”

But all of the photos in the book are stunning, a testament to the power still possessed by print, even in the digital age.

“The color reproduction and printing of the photographs by Chicago Review Press was spectacular,” Russo said.

“They’re among the very best I’ve ever seen in my life, of anybody’s work,” Byron said. “They did a really, really good job.”

That’s especially gratifying for Byron. Photographing birds can be hours of boredom, punctuated by moments of panic, Byron notes, as he has to wait for hours in the bush, or behind a blind, then must strive to get just the right shot in the instant his quarry flashes by. Other times, stalking his intended subject can be the work of an entire day.

“He was a tough one,” he said, pointing to a photo of a grasshopper sparrow. I was chasing him all over the plains for about three hours.

“A lot of it [photographing birds] is sitting and waiting, but then sometimes the pictures happen immediately,” said Byron. “You have to be prepared to be surprised. But also, you have to be prepared for disappointment. About threequarters of all attempts to get a shot end in failure.”

What has not been any kind of failure, however is Russo and Byron’s relationship. The couple “met in a bar” he jokes, although both were at an event hosted by the Connecticut Falconers’ Association, during a drive to get falconry legalized as a sport in the state.

“We discovered we had numerous common interests and we were both very much into nature and wildlife, not just birds,” Byron recalled.

But it was birding that brought the couple to Maine permanently in 1986, after several seasonal pilgrimages in early May, for what birders call “warbler week,” just as the small perching birds return from the winter vacations, but before the leaves have fully popped to hide them from view.

“We initially came up for all of the bird-watching hotspots along the coast and up to Rangeley ...” began Russo.

“. . . and then we forgot to leave,” said Byron, with a laugh, finishing the sentence.

But the irony, says Russo, is that global climate change in recent years means that while she first came to Maine to see birds she could not find in Connecticut, she now regularly spots species once rarely seen north of her native state.

“You are seeing things here in Maine that years ago you only would have seen in Connecticut,” Russo said. “Your grandfather probably never would have seen a cardinal here in Maine, or a mockingbird, or a turkey vulture. Now, if you’re a birdwatcher anyway, you definitely see those every year.”

Russo said her favorite bird is the kestrel, while Byron fondly recalls his time spent studying with ornithology professor Heinz Meng, largely credited with saving the peregrine falcon from extinction.

But regardless of species — and dozens are featured in Birdology — the latest book by Russo and Byron is less a field book to spotting various species than a guide to learning from them.

Aimed at children ages 8-12, the book is designed to foster careful observation through hands-on activities, many of which, perhaps counter-intuitively, can be done indoors.

“Just about all of it is teacher-friendly and adaptable to the classroom, or to the living room, with parents.” Russo said. “A lot of it is about noticing colors and patterns on birds, the shape of the tail, or the beak, and things you might not need binoculars for.

“There are kids, of course, who will never be able to go on bird-watching hikes, but even in the city you might see any range of birds,” Russo said. “Even in Biddeford you can see a flock of 10-20 pigeons and you’ll notice they don’t all look the same. Each one has a different color pattern.”

Throughout Birdology, Russo walks young readers through the different markings and biological features of birds, along with avian habits, life cycles and behaviors. She includes instruction for youngsters on how to make notes and drawings of their observations, while also discussing ways to protect and nurture our feathered friends.

“Certainly, parents and teachers will get a lot out of it themselves,” she said.

“But an adult should not feel insulted reading it themselves,” Byron said. “It can be read and enjoyed by anybody.”

Still, it is the target audience that Russo hopes to impress. What she yearns for, she said, is to open the eyes of young people to the natural world, especially given that many in this myopic modern world are as closed to its wonders as she was, before that first pair of glasses.

“Hopefully kids will be able from this book to have more of a focus on the natural science than the paradigm of social media,” she said. “It’s a great way to get kids outdoors, looking at things, and noticing things.”

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