Friday, April 4, 2014

Interview with James Sandrock and Jean Prior, pt. 1

James Sandrock and Jean Prior are the authors of The Scientific Nomenclature of Birds in the Upper Midwest, a Bur Oak Guide published just this month. Bur Oak Guides series editor Holly Carver asked them a few questions about the book.

HC: In your professional lives you, Jim, were a professor of German language and literature, and Jean was a research geologist. Tell us how you got from there to this level of obsession with birds.

JS: For some reason still unknown to me, I sat in on an informal birdwatching class offered by Mike Newlon in the winter of 1979–80. On the first field trip (to Cone Marsh in Louisa County), I discovered that there were more birds than just “a duck” or “a sparrow.” After tagging along on several sponsored field trips, I began to bird alone. My notes show that I identified the first species previously unknown to me on 14 June 1980; that bird was Polioptila caerulea. Later that day, I identified Dendroica (now Setophaga) dominica. Learning how to identify birds by sight, sound, behavior, habitat, and season grew more and more appealing to me. For several years, I birded almost daily—alone or with others—in Hickory Hill in Iowa City or Lacey-Keosauqua State Park in Van Buren County; soon I was making trips to the Black Hills, the Rio Grande Valley, southeastern Arizona, California, Canada, and Europe in search of birds. Thanks to Jean, who is wise in the ways of nature, my initial urge to list great numbers of species has given way to a more contemplative appreciation of birds and the experience of birding—traveling, hiking in a variety of landforms, observing wildflowers and butterflies, exploring a canyon, following a stream.

My metaphysical interest in birds was triggered by Troglodytes troglodytes hirtensis, still a target bird for me—but not an obsession!

JP: One of my colleagues at the Iowa Geological Survey was Carol Thompson, also a well-known birder and a co-author of The Iowa Breeding Bird Atlas (University of Iowa Press, 1996). I began paying closer attention to birds when doing field work with her, riding in a vehicle that came to frequent abrupt halts in response to bird sightings. It was self-defense. Even earlier, however, I had parents and good friends who were interested in the natural world. In my work as a geologist on the State Preserves Board and during natural history field trips for teachers or the public, I spent considerable time with biologists, ornithologists, and ecologists, and we learned from each other. When Jim Sandrock, also a birder and text editor of The Iowa Breeding Bird Atlas, came into my life, we began making regular birding loops through Lacey-Keosauqua State Park, a place he knew very well. Birds were incorporated into the Iowa Nature Calendar (University of Iowa Press, 2007), which we did together with artist Claudia McGehee, and now this new book is a total immersion into Jim’s world of birds, words, and classical language and literature.

HC: Writing this book must have called for excessive amounts of patience and research, not to mention attention to detail. What was the most challenging part?

JS: There were several challenges. All my professional writing—whether a note, a review, an article, or a book—called for a narrative style; I was able to explain, comment upon, expand upon, and ponder the use of metaphors and figures of speech. This book required a style that conveyed detailed information in a compact, streamlined—sometimes almost telegraphic—style that fit the pattern we had established. (Note: The reader will see that I reverted to narrative style in some entries.)

Always a challenge for me is what information to include, what to leave out. Research always provides much more information than appears in the text. Discipline must be drummed up—not without pain—to omit information that is interesting and appealing but, alas, not essential.

And it was a challenge to assure the accuracy of spelling (and transliteration) of all English, Greek, Latin, and words from other languages and of names, dates, and places. These concerns became even more challenging when recent DNA testing brought about many and frequent changes in taxonomy. During the time that we were working on this book, for example, the warbler genus Dendroica was changed to Setophaga. We have included all the changes published by the AOU [American Ornithologists' Union] to July 2012. In July 2013, however, two shorebird monotypes were put into another genus. Since the final manuscript of this book was then in the hands of the UI Press, we were unable to include these most recent changes. Upon publication, therefore, this book, like all field guides, will be—to some degree—obsolete.

JP: Decoding Jim’s handwriting of all those Latin and Greek words. My high school French wasn’t much help. Most of my research for this project focused on finding regional or folk names used for upper midwestern birds, and Jim had many helpful reference books. Usually they were all spread out and open at the same time as we each looked up or confirmed different information on different birds for different purposes. This project did require patience and precision, especially as we checked and rechecked spellings and sources, and as we edited and honed to get the clearest meaning into the fewest words.

Featured Birds
Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum)
Bombycilla: From Greek and Latin bombyx = silkworm, made of silk + spurious Latin cilla = tail. "Silky tail" apparently alludes to the glowing dash of yellow on the tip of the tail.
cedrorum: From Latin cedrus (Greek kedros) = cedar tree. "Of the cedars" refers to the evergreens that provide the favored berries.
Common Name: Cedar Waxwing
Other Names: cedar bird, cherry bird

Green-winged Teal (Anas crecca)
Anas: Latin for "a duck."
crecca: This specific term was applied very early to this bird by Linnaeus in his Fauna Suecica (1746). It is apparently a latinized form of the characteristic utterance of the male, perhaps crek or crüc. Similar onomatopoetic names for the Green-winged Teal are the Swedish kricka, Danish krikand, and German Krickente, all of which seem to confirm the etymology as echoic. It is difficult to exclude Greek krex and Latin crex; both are rail-like birds named for their raspy sounds.
Common Name: Green-winged Teal for the prominent green speculum, especially visible in flight
Other Names: redhead teal, mud teal, winter teal

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