Notes from the field

Off the Beaten Path

a fallen aspen marked by animals

This fallen aspen is a favorite with local wildlife.

You never know what you might find when you leave the trail and strike off to explore trackless territory.

My friend Dianne Howard and I were reminded of this lesson last weekend as we hiked in the White Mountains of east-central Arizona. We were exploring the Railroad Grade Trail, west of the town of Eagar. It’s a long, relatively flat trail that begins at a big trailhead on State Route 260. The trail led us out into the high grasslands. We amused ourselves by scanning for hunting northern harriers and other grassland birds. But it’s late in the season, and there weren’t many birds out, so we decided to explore the nearby woods.

After a mile of walking, however, it was clear the trail was not going to take us there. So, we left the trail, striking off across hillocks of waving, golden grass. Entering the forest fringe was like crossing the threshold to a new world. Edges are such fascinating places. The edge is where we found this tree. The fallen aspen was at least 30 feet long, and every square foot of its surface had some sort of marking.

White Mountains; Arizona; Railroad Grade Trail; fallen aspen with signs of animal use

White Mountains; Arizona; Railroad Grade Trail; fallen aspen with signs of animal use

A black bear had clawed the tree in many places, leaving scratch marks behind.

According to biologist Randy Babb, the marks are probably signs of bears and porcupines at work. He thinks the claw marks were made by a bear, while the teeth marks were made by a porcupine.

Fascinating, isn’t it? Yet we never would have seen this tree if we’d stayed on the trail.

White Mountains; Arizona; Railroad Grade Trail; fallen aspen with signs of animal use

White Mountains; Arizona; Railroad Grade Trail; fallen aspen with signs of animal use

A porcupine had gnawed at the bark, leaving deep telltale gouges.

Whenever I leave a trail, I’m careful to avoid harming the habitat or leaving signs of my presence behind. There are fragile soils on the Colorado Plateau that should never know the press of a human foot. These living “cryptobiotic” soils, aka “the crust,” are important members of their ecosystems. One service they provide is keeping dust out of the air. When you think about leaving a trail, look before you step, and make sure to stay off these soils, which take decades or longer to heal.

But do leave the trail, when you can. Amazing stories are waiting to be told, and you never know when you might find one.

Remembering Dr. George C. West


George West and Julie Hammonds walking together.

You never know when a special person will walk into your life … or when one will leave. Photo by Dianne Howard

This is going to be difficult to write, because I want to do him justice, and I won’t be able to. I only knew Dr. George West for the last few years of his long, productive life. What can I possibly say that would reflect my admiration for this man, who was such a pleasure to know and who accomplished so much?

The best I can do, I feel—the only thing I can do that might have any value—is write about what I experienced and learned during the time I knew him.

My friend Dianne Howard introduced me to George after meeting him and his dog, Sandi, while on a hike in the White Mountains in 2013. During their conversation, she told him she was writing an article for Arizona Wildlife Views magazine. He mentioned he had prepared the first draft of a memoir about his life working with birds as a scientist and conservationist, but didn’t know what to do with it next. He was looking for help, and Dianne thought of me, because she knew I freelanced as an editor.

I’m so glad she introduced us. I’ll never be able to repay that favor.

It turned out that George and I had some fun things in common. We both loved birds, of course; we’d both lived in Alaska (he lived in Fairbanks and Homer, I lived in Juneau). Once we’d been introduced via email, George sent me the first chapter of his memoir, which I read and responded to in an editorial letter. Then he sent more chapters, and I responded again, and this relationship was launched: writer and editor, meeting on screen and on the page, communicating via the written word.


The writer-editor relationship is intimate, perhaps especially when you’re working on a person’s memoir, but I can be slow on the uptake, and George was such a humble man that it took some time before I grasped the full extent of his credentials. During a distinguished scientific career as an avian physiological ecologist with the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Dr. West had more than 80 scholarly articles published. To share his knowledge of birds with the public, he wrote the “Birder’s Guide to Alaska” and other bird guides, including two books about hummingbirds. His talents were not limited to the written word: He was an accomplished artist in a breathtaking variety of media, from pen-and-ink to photography. He also co-founded the Hummingbird Monitoring Network, which collects data to ensure smart conservation of hummingbirds. And that’s only a beginning of the list of things he’d accomplished in his 80+ years.

By the time I found these things out, we were colleagues with a project to work on, and though I was impressed by his doctorate and his many other achievements, I wasn’t cowed. George was such a gentle, self-effacing man that it never occurred to me to be nervous about working with this illustrious personage.

Together, we focused on the memoir. George told me he’d never written this kind of thing, and didn’t read such books. He read mostly science and, when he wanted to relax, mysteries. It’s tough for someone to write in a genre they don’t read. It is also tough for someone to write an engaging, personal memoir that’s largely about science. He knew I liked reading and writing memoirs, and asked if I might take his first draft and ghost-write something for publication. By that time, I’d read more than half of it. I felt its potential, and I also felt George was a man who liked a challenge. So instead, I offered to coach him as he revised it.

We looked for books “like” the one he wanted his memoir to be, to use as examples, but found very few. I had the audacity to send him a reading list, trying to help him find a writing style for this new kind of work he’d embarked on. Among others, I suggested “All Creatures Great and Small.” I knew his eyesight was poor, so “reading” might mean listening to a book on computer. I also knew  how incredibly sharp his mind was. If he enjoyed even one of the books I suggested, it was worth his time and mine. To his great credit, he always expressed appreciation for my suggestions, no matter how far out in left field they went.

I marked up his chapters, coaching him, pushing him in the direction of memoirs I’ve read and enjoyed. I encouraged him to be personal, put the reader in the moment, share his feelings. Here again, though he did push back gently sometimes, he was always incredibly kind to me and respectful of my suggestions. I can’t imagine a more gracious response to what must have been, at times, a repetitious litany of notes.


This will sound funny, but in the two-plus years we worked together, we only met once. Dianne and I joined him and his beautiful wife, Ellen, and Sandi for a walk on the West Fork of the Black River and a visit to their house in the White Mountains in September 2015. I was actually nervous to meet him in person, even after so many months of collegial emails. But those nerves soon faded away. We walked and talked, looked at plants and appreciated the beauty of a place he loved and knew well. He was a quiet person, but so am I, and it was easy to be around him. I will always be grateful for those memories.

With George West on the West Fork Black River, September 2015

With George West on the West Fork of the Black River, September 2015. Photo by Dianne Howard

There were interruptions in our work, of course. He travelled; I travelled; he had other projects; I had a full-time job. One thing he never let slow us down was his health. His eyesight was rapidly deteriorating. I’m sure it must have frustrated him, this man who’d been able to pick out distinguishing marks on a pale brown bird a hundred yards away, but he found ways to keep working and never once entertained the idea of quitting our project.

In fact, the concept of quitting wasn’t in his vocabulary. The man was a publishing machine. While we worked on the memoir, his book “North American Hummingbirds: An Identification Guide” was published by the University of New Mexico Press; a great achievement. This past summer, he sent another book, “Plants of the Eastern White Mountains, Arizona,” to the same press for consideration. He invited me to help him with the introductory material, which I felt honored to do.


In the meantime, we made progress on “A Life for Birds.” After we’d finished a few rounds of revision, other people read drafts and gave suggestions. Writing this story was a big challenge for a science guy, but that didn’t phase him. He was ready to wade back into it with me this fall. His eyesight had become a significant impediment, but he said, “I really hope we can work out a way for you to get me through the rest of this book.” He felt that, after one more review, it would be ready for consideration by a publisher.

I wish I had been able to finish the project with him. It wasn’t like George to leave work undone. But this was still on his list when he died Aug. 31 after a stroke.

I will always remember George West as someone who grew old with grace, accomplished great things with a humble attitude, never stopped learning, and always made people around him feel appreciated. In his 85 years, George never quit making a positive difference for the people, places and birds he loved. I will miss him, and I’m just one person who knew and admired him for a short time in his long life; there are so many people who are grieving his passing, and most of them knew him better. We share this in common: Although I am sad about his death, I am grateful for his life; for all of it, but especially for the part he shared with me.

George’s obituary has been published by the Daily News Miner in Fairbanks and the Homer News in Homer. Ellen West asks people who want to donate something in George’s name to choose the scholarship fund  at Friends of Madera Canyon, Box 1203, Green Valley, AZ 85622.

Learn more about George C. West and view some of the artwork he and Ellen created at Birchside Studios. Read more remembrances of George, including the lovely article Dianne Howard wrote for Arizona Wildlife Views after meeting him, on this page. If you would like to write a remembrance of George for publication there, send me an email.

One Beautiful Cloud

Word Cloud of Magazine Article Titles

I chair the annual awards program hosted by the Association for Conservation Information, which means I get to see all the entries after they’ve been judged but before they’re shown at the organization’s national conference.

The entries come primarily from state wildlife agencies across the United States. This year, just for fun, I took the titles of all 79 magazine articles entered in the contest’s four magazine article categories (wildlife, general interest, fisheries, and destination/historical/cultural). Then I used a word cloud generator to create this lovely tree.

I showed this image on the association’s Facebook page, where it got quite a bit of attention. I expect to see a bunch of magazine articles in the next year with titles like “The Allure of New Rivers,” “Riding the Fish Trail,” and “First Run of Wild Water.”

The Digital Photo Contest Challenge

Last week, we at Arizona Wildlife Views launched our annual wildlife photo contest. Once again, we’re partnering with Arizona Highways magazine, which sponsors the contest on its digital platform. Their support helps keep the contest free to enter and ensures wide publicity. Last year, more than 2,000 entries were received. This year, we hope for fewer. That may sound odd, but there’s a reason: Not every photo merits a spot in our wildlife calendar.

We’re looking for great images. Each winner is printed full-size on a page all its own. We use high-quality paper, and all photos are printed at 300 dots to the inch. You can’t see the dots, but you can see the detail: the edge of a feather, the bright spot in an eye, the details of fur … it all shows, or is supposed to. Dots on the page equate to pixels in a digital camera. And here’s where we got into trouble in the last contest.

Some people, not knowing better, entered photos that couldn’t be printed at that resolution. They were “good” photos: well composed, engagingly colorful, containing a compelling subject caught at an interesting moment. But when we opened the files on a computer and looked at the pixel count, we realized they were too small to print full-page at 300 dpi, which is how we do it.

We tried. We contacted photographers and asked for original files, to see if maybe the contest software had cut down the file size. Many finalists were happy to work with us on this. They dealt with a complicated FTP site to deliver big files. A few asked me what an “original file” was. I tried to help. It took a lot of my time. In the end, we were happy with our winners but not happy with the complicated process of getting them.

People who enter again this year may notice some changes to the contest rules because of these challenges. We emphasize that the photos entered must be of a quality suitable for publication. We provide detailed directions for keeping an original file on hand while entering an exact copy into the contest. Behind the scenes, we have a new process for checking the size of each entry before judging. We don’t want to waste time judging photos that can’t be printed.

These “new” rules may scare off some people, and reduce the number of photos entered. As long as what we judge can be printed, and we find 13 worthy of showcasing in our wildlife calendar, I’m fine with that.




Team Work

First page of "Ask Me About Turtle Trapping"

The other day, as we were wrapping up production on the May–June issue of Arizona Wildlife Views, I started musing about all the people who had contributed to the article I was now reviewing one last time.

This particular article is about an annual turtle-trapping event at the Phoenix Zoo, which raises awareness of the problems that occur when people release nonnative pet turtles into the wild.

I remembered this article was born in an editorial planning meeting with my boss, magazine editor Heidi Rayment, in mid-2015. We hold one big meeting each year, to start planning the next year’s content. At that meeting, she suggested we contact the turtle experts at Arizona Game and Fish for ideas that might become feature content in 2016.

It’s pretty neat to work at a place where you have turtle experts on call, but that’s Game and Fish: if it’s wildlife, we’ve got someone on staff who knows all about it.

In response to Heidi’s suggestion, this article was proposed and then written by Cristina Jones, whose job title is “turtles project coordinator.” Cristina is wicked smart, as they say back East. She cares about elegance of expression as well as accuracy of content. Plus, she’ll seize any excuse to laugh or to make me laugh. I find her a joy to work with.

Cristina wrote the article and sent it our way. In my edits, we worked on shaping an opening section that grabbed people’s attention, and I helped her make sure the article conveyed its key messages clearly and with vigor.

Then it was time to look for photos. Cristina combed through her project files for relevant images. Some were from biologists, others from freelancers. Staff photographer George Andrejko added more to the mix.

Once the photos were ready and the text was in final form, our art director, Cecelia Carpenter, got ahold of the raw materials. That’s when something that had been really good became more than that: It became art. Cecelia’s creativity pushed this package to reach its potential.

And now, here it is. About 10 months after Heidi said, “Let’s do something on turtles,” we have an article ready to publish. Will our readers know that at least 10 people collaborated on it, bringing our different skills together to produce these pages?

They will now!

The May–June issue of Arizona Wildlife Views will reach subscribers by late May.

The Art of the Cover Blurb

MJ16 small

White Rabbit: The allure of “Mysterious Jack”

Until the March/April issue of 2013, Arizona Wildlife Views magazine did not sport blurbs on its cover. That year, as part of a redesign, we began to envision the magazine as a newsstand-worthy entity. We think it’s good enough to sell in single copies, and we wanted to be ready for that day if it comes. That meant adding blurbs to the cover.

You probably already know this, but a cover blurb is text on the front cover that lures the reader inside. It’s marketing copy that sells the magazine to a casual passerby. These blurbs are not meant to follow grammatical rules. Their sole purpose is to catch your eye so you will pick up the magazine and flip it open.

There are words you may glimpse on the covers of magazines as you wait in the checkout line that you’ll never see on the cover of Views. We’re a wildlife magazine, so you probably won’t find promises such as “win a fabulous prize,” “more money, guaranteed,” or “easy secrets for improving your love life” on our cover.

The task of writing cover blurbs falls to the Views editorial team. Nobody’s more familiar than we are with what’s inside the magazine, so who better than us to write blurbs? Here’s how we do it.

First, the editor and art director select a cover photo, usually one connected to an important story inside that issue. That makes writing cover blurbs easier because we already know what at least one of them should promote.

Then, one of us (usually me) opens the cover file and summons up the forces of creativity. We each have a different way of doing this: My way is to spend a minute or two looking out the window and thinking about nothing much. Then I turn back to the computer screen, look at the cover photo and start collecting words that relate to it.

At this point, I’m just playing. Which words grab my attention, incite curiosity, make me smile or think, challenge me, raise a question? Once I have a list of random words, I start moving them into various configurations of head and deck. In a blurb, the head is the larger text. The deck, in smaller type, amplifies the idea expressed in the head.

In the past three years of learning to write cover blurbs, I’ve come up with the following strategies:

  1. Keep it tight: Make every word count.
  2. Grab attention: Deploy every word for maximum effect.
  3. Waste not: Avoid filler words whenever possible.
  4. Be honest with readers: Don’t promise what you can’t deliver.
  5. Make it matter: Give the reader a reason to care.

I’ve had some failures, but fortunately readers didn’t see them because once I have generated a set of three to five possible heads and decks, my boss reviews them. She has a very creative mind. If she doesn’t find magic among the list I’ve created, she’ll develop her own blurbs, which generally make me slap my forehead and say, “Why didn’t I think of that!” We go back and forth until we’re happy with the copy.

Here are some of my particular favorites from the past few years. Which do you like best?

Can they be restored to the Catalinas?

Girl gang
The tribal life of the curious coati

Those eyes!
Hypnotized by burrowing owls

to relocate 600,000 tiny trout

Water and wildlife in an arid land

The Secret Life of Peregrines

What do peregrine falcons do when they think nobody’s watching? Check out the Arizona Game and Fish Department’s new “peregrine cam” to find out.


Upgraded recently at an active nest box in downtown Phoenix, the cam is broadcasting live images and sound. It’s early yet, but we’re hoping a pair of peregrines that first used the box in 2014 may lay eggs here again this spring, allowing us remote-viewing humans a chance to watch what happens.

I’m excited to see how it all plays out. When I tuned in yesterday around 5 p.m., one of the peregrines was standing on the edge of the box, lazily preening. The flexible bird contorted its body into positions that would make an advanced yogi envious. Then it fell asleep standing on one leg. Take that, Karate Kid!

Wildlife cameras are neat. They let us see behaviors we might not otherwise be privy to. I would never climb up the side of a building to look in a peregrine nest: I hate heights. Thanks to this camera, I don’t have to conquer acrophobia. I can sit at my computer and, if I’m lucky, watch the male and female brood their eggs.

There’s a down side to having a front-row seat at a “theatre of the wild,” on occasion. Wild animals sometimes behave in ways humans find unsightly or unseemly or downright shocking. In Massachusetts, a web cam on an osprey nest caused an Internet sensation when the female osprey began attacking her chicks. Incensed by her behavior, people besieged the camera host, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, with pleas to save them. The person in charge of the camera tried to explain that sometimes, wild animals don’t do what we would consider to be a good job of mothering. Despite public pressure, the camera stayed up. The staff at Woods Hole felt it was important for people to see what’s true, even when it isn’t beautiful.

I’m hoping these two peregrines cause no such controversy. The species nearly went extinct in North American from pesticide poisoning, but thanks to its adaptability to urban areas—and help from humans—it was removed from the federal list of endangered and threatened species in 1999. This year, wouldn’t it be fun to see healthy eggs, growing chicks, and eventually, the launch of more peregrines into the world?

Happy watching!


Want to learn more about the osprey cam controversy?

Listen to the audio story “Words of Prey” on This American Life.