Notes from the field

When to Capitalize and When to Italicize Scientific Names

People who write about wildlife sometimes need to use scientific names. A species’ scientific name is the one scientists use to be sure they are talking about the same critter no matter which country they come from or which language they speak. It is the recognized Latin name given to an organism. An animal may have numerous common names depending on local preference, but every species known to science has just one scientific name.

A scientific name is comprised of the genus and species. These two words are always written in italics. The genus is capitalized. The species is not, even if it is based on a proper noun such as a place or a person’s name. An example is Merriam’s kangaroo rat, named for C. Hart Merriam: Dipodomys merriami.

The questions that most often come up when dealing with scientific names and other elements of a species’ taxonomy are when to capitalize words and when to italicize them. (See “Kings Play Chess On What?” for more on taxonomy.)

Recently, I had to look up whether to italicize the genus when it stands alone, apart from the species. I was editing an article on trout and salmon and had reviewed it several times. Up to that point, I had left the genus name Salmo in roman type. Sometimes, when you edit, you get into a “fun” mental loop. One part of your brain says, “If I left it this way before, I must have had a good reason. I must have looked it up, and I just don’t remember doing it.” The other part replies, “It doesn’t feel right. Look it up again.” The two sides may haggle, with one side arguing that looking something up twice would indicate you are growing dull-witted. Ignore that judgment and all it implies. Look it up again (and again, if you must).

I did, and I’m glad. I found this great reference page on the National Geographic website that told me everything I needed to know (and then some):


I highly recommend bookmarking National Geographic’s page, if you sometimes have to publish scientific names or other information related to taxonomy and want to get it right. And by the way: The genus should be italicized, even when it stands alone. Thanks, National Geographic!

More Tales From the Coyote Trail

Last week, after a late snowfall, I took my cross-country skis to Kendrick Park, north of the San Francisco Peaks. It was the first time in this dry Arizona winter that I’ve had a chance to do one of my favorite things.

There were only two other cars in the parking lot. As I donned my gear, I looked north, into the treeless park, and saw a sparkling expanse of newly fallen snow cut by a single set of cross-country ski tracks. I took a deep breath, smiled and set out, heart singing.

For the next two hours I saw no other humans … but I was not alone. Plenty of animal tracks decorated the fresh snow. As I glided along, I stopped now and then to look at tracks and think about their makers.

It can be hard to figure out tracks in snow. You’d think it would be easy, since they’re so visible: anywhere an animal walks in this soft surface, it can’t help but leave clues behind. The trouble is, the weather had warmed up quite a bit since the previous day. The tracks were already softening, which not only erases detail but widens the track.

Still, I had fun guessing about tracks and their makers. One trail I found looked like this:

Coyote that dragged both paws

I could tell from the size of the prints that it was left by a coyote. There’s an interesting sliding trail on the snow’s surface, just before each deep imprint of a paw: This coyote wasn’t lifting his feet much. Here’s a closer look:

Coyote that dragged both paws

I skied along happily, finding other tracks, and a bit later I ran across more coyote sign:

Coyote that dragged one paw

Was it the same coyote? I couldn’t be sure, but I guessed not. Look at his tracks more closely:

Coyote that dragged one paw

See how this coyote only slides one paw across the top of the snow? My sleuthing instincts told me it was a second animal with a different gait, but of course, when you’re trying to puzzle out the life of an animal you can’t see, nothing is certain.

I kept skiing, thinking about the coyote or coyotes, happy to be sharing this day with it or them. Then I came up over a slight rise and found this:

Two coyotes

Everyone who loves wildlife is used to living with mysteries. But every now and then, it’s nice to solve one.

Here is another post about coyote tracks: https://words4wildlife.wordpress.com/2011/03/05/coyote_rail/

And a link to more photos from that day: https://flic.kr/s/aHsk5Et1wL

End With the Beginning in Mind

My mother is one of the best copyeditors I know. She’s attentive, not just to spelling or punctuation, but to words at their essence. I couldn’t have a better role model for my work as an editor.

Mom recently read the latest draft of a novel I’ve been working on for fun since 2010. In her review, she didn’t pull punches — the best editors never do, even if you’ll be in charge of choosing their senior living center. She pointed out everything from typos to opportunities to further shape the characters.

One of her most significant suggestions was to change the ending. “Why don’t you bring it back to what you talked about at the beginning?” she asked.

I began to giggle. She asked why.

“I’m always telling writers that very same thing,” I explained.

It’s true. Stephen Covey’s “Begin with the end in mind” may be one of the seven habits of highly effective people, but highly effective magazine writers often turn that guideline inside out. They end with the beginning in mind.

Especially for those who don’t often write for a popular audience, ending with the beginning in mind can be a powerful technique. It doesn’t mean slavishly copying your beginning statement word for word at the end. That would be lazy, and we don’t like lazy. It just means making some reference to that beginning as you build your closing paragraphs.

The reference can be overt or subtle. Here’s an example from the January–February 2015 issue of Arizona Wildlife Views. In “Thirst,” authors Randall D. Babb and Anne Justice-Allen tackled the topic of wildlife and water. Which animals need lots of water, and which need hardly any?

In their first paragraph, the authors describe desert lands with their sudden storms and long dry spells as “places of either too much or too little” water. Five pages later, we find the next-to-last sentence of the article: “Struggling with too little or too much has and always will be a problem for creatures on this planet.” See how subtle that is? After 2,000 words, the reader may not even register it consciously.

When you end with the beginning in mind, you’re considering the emotional needs of those who read your prose. They made a commitment when they started this journey with you. You’ve tried to honor that commitment by entertaining them and giving them something to think about. Here at the end, pay attention as you wrap it up for them. Readers are human: They crave closure. Give them that satisfaction, and they will thank you.

This is not the only way to end a magazine article: What a boring world it would be for readers if that were the case. Ending with the beginning in mind is just one technique, but it’s a good one. Look for it in magazine articles you enjoy, and see how often it’s used. Lots of writers out there are taking my mother’s advice. Aren’t they smart!

Arizona Wildlife Views Subscription Sale

Inside tip: Arizona Wildlife Views is running its 7/$7 subscription offer until I take it down next Monday morning, so if you have been procrastinating on ordering a subscription, do it soon! Orders received through this weekend will get the 2015 Arizona wildlife calendar, which is gorgeous.


Rewards of the Job

In the January 2015 issue of Arizona Highways, readers will be treated to an eight-page portfolio showcasing the images of Eirini Pajak. It’s her first portfolio in that prestigious venue, and it represents a significant milestone in her career as a freelance photographer. Eirini kindly wrote to tell me about the publication so we could share the celebration.

News of her success reminded me of the first time she contacted me, at least five years ago. She was just starting out and wanted advice on how to approach potential clients. She had approached several other editors and photographers, but nobody had time to answer her neophyte questions.

In my role as associate editor at Arizona Wildlife Views, I decided to make the time. We talked about how to approach potential clients. She listened to my advice and took it for what it was worth. In the next few years, she would send me a selection of recent work, and I would tell her which images I liked best, and why. Eventually, we published some of her photos in Views.

When Eirini wrote to thank me for encouraging and supporting her work, I felt immensely gratified. I have always been a writer, and seeing my own creative work published is an immense source of pride. But over time, the rewards of being an editor have come to mean quite a lot to me. To coach creative people like Eirini and help them usher their work into the wider world is a privilege. I’m really pleased to have played a small role in her success.

Coincidentally, the current issue of another prestigious publication is also showcasing the work of someone I’ve had the privilege of coaching. Volume 39, Issue 7 of Gray’s Sporting Journal includes “Hunting Jack’s Rabbits,” by Johnathan O’Dell.

A biologist at the Arizona Game and Fish Department, Johnathan is driven to communicate about wildlife. To that end, he has devoted himself to developing his writing skills. He created the “Fare Afield” department of our magazine to spread the word about wild-caught foods. He’s also written several features for Views.

Johnathan works hard to polish his writing skills. He looks at every change I suggest on his articles, not so he can argue, but so he can learn. In the past few years, his grammar has improved, with no sacrifice in his creativity or style.

I described Johnathan as “driven,” and driven people dream big. Johnathan has always wanted to be published in a national magazine. He sends me drafts of articles to read in my off time, and I point out what works for me and where I see potential for improvement. His diligent rewrites have paid off; as with Eirini’s portfolio in Highways, Johnathan’s publication in Gray’s represents the achievement of a significant personal and professional goal.

I hope it’s clear that this post is not about my success as an editor. I try to be good at my job, but editing is a helping profession. I feel very honored that these two creative professionals asked for my attention to their work. That they feel they’ve gained something from that attention leaves me feeling humble, and grateful for the opportunity.

At Picture Canyon

The waning moon sets beyond the branches of a ponderosa. Nothing else to see here, honest!

The waning moon sets beyond the branches of a ponderosa. Nothing else to see here, honest!

In writing about my recent photo hike at Picture Canyon, I run the risk of getting a questionable reputation: I’m that unusual woman who likes to hang out at wastewater treatment plants.

My previous post, “A Second Opportunity,” extolled the delights of the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch, which uses reclaimed water from the city of Gilbert. And now I’m writing about this reclaimed wetland downstream from Flagstaff’s Wildcat Hill Wastewater Treatment Plant.

What can I say? In arid Arizona, any free-flowing water is bound to attract wildlife. And where there is wildlife, there are people like me, who love looking for it. We stroll slowly down the paths or stand stock still, necks at odd angles as we stare into silent trees, bearing our burdens bravely: binoculars on elastic harnesses, spotting scopes on tripods, cameras in backpacks.

Picture Canyon has many devotees in Flagstaff who are stewarding it back to health. Once called “Sewer Canyon,” it’s now been cleaned up and the streambed restored to a more natural meander. Native plants and wildlife have returned to the area. I’d already explored the trails twice, taking scenic photographs and getting used to the area; on this trip, I hoped to bring back photographic evidence of wildlife.

Scenic Picture Canyon in autumn.

Scenic Picture Canyon in autumn.

Autumn in Flagstaff sometimes means still breezes and sunny skies at 60 degrees, but not this time. Intermittent blasts of wind at 20 mph meant I couldn’t hear birds. Wind also meant cold, not just for me, but for the wildlife I’d come to find.

It was tempting to turn and flee to the warm car, but I am nothing if not stubborn, and since the light was fine, I set out in search of my goals. I wanted a Lewis’s woodpecker, that strange bird with the glossy green-black coat and scarlet breast. I wanted mule deer silhouetted amid golden autumnal grasses. I wanted migrating pintails, their chocolate-colored feathers gleaming.

One thing about wildlife watching is, what you want is often not what you get. The reason I keep coming back to wild places has less to do with meeting predetermined goals than with enjoying the satisfactions of any given day. It’s important to simply show up, open your eyes and pay attention.

On this day, my attention was rewarded by time spent watching a flock of mallards paddling on a pond, and a raucous crowd of American robins and Steller’s jays chasing bugs and one another through bare-limbed oaks.

I went home happy, thinking at least I’d seen everything there was to see … and then had one more surprise. I was processing images of the waning moon alongside an old ponderosa when I spotted the acorn woodpecker perched on a branch. I hadn’t seen the bird when the moment happened. Isn’t that just like an acorn woodpecker? They’re such tricksters.

It’s not a publishable photo, as far as I’m concerned. For one thing, I stitched together two images to get both the tree and the moon in focus; for another, the tree’s shape is too busy, making the bird hard to find. (Click on the photo at the top, and see if you spot him.) But I like it simply as a record of a day when I showed up to see what was happening, and was surprised once again by what I found.

A Second Opportunity

A flash of wings in the woodland, interrupting a pattern of light and shadow. Your eyes follow the movement instinctively. Sometimes, you’re rewarded with the sight of a bird, and if you’re very lucky, that bird might be a hawk. It happened to me in September, when a Cooper’s hawk caught my attention at Mount Elden Springs. And it happened again a week ago, this time at a constructed wetland east of Phoenix.

The Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch uses reclaimed water from the city of Gilbert. Seven ponds are filled on a rotating basis with treated wastewater, which percolates down into the aquifer and is stored there for future use.

That all may sound quite clinical or, if you don’t like the word “wastewater,” even a bit yucky. The Riparian Preserve is anything but. The ponds are surrounded by lovely trails lined with vegetation that typifies various desert habitats. Informative signs along the walkways tell you about desert flora and fauna. A visit to the preserve can be quite educational.

It doesn’t feel like school, though. The place is entrancing. It’s a magnet for birdlife, and where there are birds, there are birders and wildlife photographers. Many of the best bird images taken in Arizona are captured here.

As I walked the trails, I could see what attracted them. One pond held scores of American avocets and black-necked stilts, tall and graceful wading birds whose reflections danced across the rippling waters. Another pond belonged to herons and egrets, and a third to half a dozen duck species. In all, I counted 37 species I recognized and another three I couldn’t despite the help of my friend David Allen Sibley (I’m sure he knows the warbler, swallow, and sparrow species I saw, but I still don’t).

My most exciting sighting, though, was the juvenile sharp-shinned hawk. Like the Cooper’s, these are woodland hawks, adept at maneuvering between trees. This one was hunting along a stream between ponds; at least, I thought he was hunting. Then I realized he was trying to take a bath, thank you very much. He’d been interrupted several times by people walking along the nearby trail, but his desire to be wet and cool and get his feathers in order eventually overpowered his shyness.

As I watched from behind a tree, he leaped down into the water and looked around in dignified fashion. Then he began to splash water up onto his back with his wings and duck his head down into the stream.

An older gentleman came up just then and asked if I’d seen any interesting birds. I was happy to be able to point him in the direction of the sharp-shinned, still splashing like a two-year-old in a bubble bath. We both enjoyed long looks through binoculars before he thanked me and moved on.

Once the bird was satisfyingly wet, he flew up into a nearby tree to shake himself out and preen. No longer was I watching an elegant hunter. His head feathers were dark and spiky and the down on his chest was in need of a blow-dry and comb-out. I left him to his work and walked on, happy to have shared a second moment this fall with one of our handsome woodland hawks.


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