Notes from the field

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.



My First Blog Post

Today, we feature the work of a guest blogger, of sorts. She’s me! I found this in a report I wrote in fifth grade. It’s labeled as a rough draft. I hope the final version retained the humor.

To me, any part of nature is worth many pages, though often I find myself at a loss of words that describe the wonder and beauty of creation. Nature can be found all in all places, from the arid, beautiful desert, to the softly pounding ocean, to the cool, quiet forest.

Read more …

Three is Enough

If you judge the success of a writing workshop only by the number of participants, you’d have to say the most recent one I taught was a failure. During the Wings Over Willcox Birding & Nature Festival two weeks ago, only three people joined me in the dining room off the main hall of the Willcox Community Center for a two-hour exploration of writing about wildlife.

But one of the prerogatives of being an adult is, you get to define “success” your way. Nobody gets to tell you what earns an “A” and what earns an “F.” Going into this workshop, as with the ones I taught in Alaska last August, one of my goals was to learn how to lead workshops. I acknowledge that I’m a newby at this. I accept that experience is going to teach me things.

By that measure, I succeeded, because I learned something. If you want people to participate in your workshop, you have to advertise it ahead of time, via your own social media outlets and in the festival’s printed program. I’d offered this workshop too late for the organizer’s print deadline. So, my workshop was advertised online, but not in the four-color printed document every festivalgoer received when they checked in.

I did get three students, though, and I learned from them, too. One was a nature blogger, another had written for Arizona Wildlife Views in the past (and been edited by me, too). The third had come to the festival for personal reasons and wanted to capture some of his experiences and insights in writing.

Because there were only three, I was able to adjust my curriculum and talk with each of them about their specific goals and needs and questions when it comes to writing about wildlife. As with the previous workshop, there was time not just for talk but for writing. I also gave them time for revising their rough draft and for reading out loud. Everyone was diligent about all three. They were really into it. And the first drafts they read aloud made me glad I’d offered the workshop.

In the end, it’s not about the number of students. A workshop succeeds if every participant gets something out of it, and I learn something, too. I came away feeling humbled and honored to have helped people create something new, a piece of art, a piece of writing that expressed appreciation and emotion. Being a “workshop leader” sounds so grand. I know I’m more of a “workshop provider.”

I’d like to do this again, sometime.

Dos Cabezas Mountains at sunset

The Dos Cabezas Mountains southeast of Willcox glow in the light of a winter sunset.


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