Sean Sime on A Field Guide to the Birds of Brazil
Sarah Russo, Associate Director, Publicity
Sean Sime is a professional photographer with a personal interest in birds and nature photography. He has photographed two field studies for the American Museum of Natural History in Brazil in 2001 and 2003–a team led by Helen Hays, Director of the Great Gull Island Project/AMNH. As you will learn below, he has a deep fondness for bird guides and reads them as you or I would a novel. He is not alone in this seemingly odd habit as a marketing survey done in 2000 for the National Audubon Society Sibley guide to Birds determined that one in four Americans considers themselves to be a “birder.” Brazil is one of the ultimate birder destinations with 1,712 species third to only Colombia and Peru respectively. You can see more of Sean’s work at www.seansime.com.
Just when I needed you most.
So you’re wondering why I’m dropping quotes from Randy VanWarmer, the one hit wonder king of 1979. I just got a look at Ber van Perlo’s A Field Giude To The Birds of Brazil. It hit me like a freight train, like running into an old girlfriend on the street…a girlfriend you begged and pleaded to stay. The one who, when all was said and done made you feel frustratingly numb, staring cross-eyed at the wall.
Let me backtrack. In 2001 and again in 2003 I traveled to Brazil with researchers from the AMNH tracking Common and the endangered Roseate Terns. We traveled up the coast from Sao Paolo north to Recife by boat, plane, and automobile. Although my duties were of the photographic nature and quite intense, I am a birder and by definition that means any spare minute would be spent looking for all things avian.
At the time my choice of field guide was either the two volume biblical tome The Birds of South America, by Ridgley and Tudor or Birds of Southern South America and Antartica, a pocket guide by De La Pena and Rumboll.
The choice wasn’t that difficult. Dragging around 60 pounds of camera gear left little room for extra weight. Ridgley and Tudor would stay home. How hard could Brazilian birds be? Especially given the fact I was going to be predominantly on the coast.
After 26 hours of travel I awoke in Bahia. There’s my first bird sallying across the hotel lawn. It’s a flycatcher. It’s black and white. This should be easy. Break out my handy field guide. Plate 75 … It’s a black and white, well…something. Now to say the illustration was of a skunk, or an Oreo may be an exaggeration, but let’s just say I wasn’t counting the number of primary feathers from these drawings. By the time I found the correlating range maps (in the back of the book) I realized I was trying to turn this bird into a one that lives in Argentina! The bird had flown. Now it’s down to the memory of my brief glimpse before I started fumbling through my guide. Did it have white wing bars or just black wings? Was there a dark eyeline? What color was it’s back? I instantly felt extremely uneasy with my choice of books and my demise was set.
I began trying to get photographs of EVERY bird I saw in the hopes I would have an equal shot at a positive ID back home as I did in the field. So what did this translate into?
I trudged the line between taking as many field notes as possible while chasing birds around with Camera in tow hoping for something definitive. What I came home to find was that in many cases i.e.…all cases with more than one possible ID, both my notes and photographs ultimately missed the key field marks.
The greater travesty kicks around my psyche still today. I just don’t feel like I lived those trips. My memories have the frame of my camera’s viewfinder around them; was the Scarlet-headed Blackbird 1/125th at F11 or 1/500th at F5.6? Who knows?
So here I am, music drifting past the glow of my lava lamp, covers pulled tight.
“Cause I need you more than I
needed before and now
where I’ll find comfort
cause you left me just when I needed you most.”
So to that ex (and Van Perlo) I will never forgive you for not being there when I needed you. Van Perlo, your ability to get all of Brazil’s birds in an easily portable guide is a feat in itself. Your page size allows for larger illustrations-which always helps and including the birds’ local names and range maps on the same page is simply genius.
Having a field guide like yours would have been a true benefit to my travels. And unlike my chances with that ex-girlfriend, I can go back to Brazil!