Author, artist gives ‘Seabirds’ a new life

Years of study inspire expanded return of celebrated guidebook

Posted 7/15/21

It was American ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson who described birds as “the most vivid expression of life.”

“And I absolutely believe that,” said author, artist, and …

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Author, artist gives ‘Seabirds’ a new life

Years of study inspire expanded return of celebrated guidebook

Author, artist, and conservationist Peter Harrison has worked to offer the world another look at seabirds with “Seabirds: The New Identification Guide.”
Author, artist, and conservationist Peter Harrison has worked to offer the world another look at seabirds with “Seabirds: The New Identification Guide.”
Leader photo by Alli Patton
Posted

It was American ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson who described birds as “the most vivid expression of life.”

“And I absolutely believe that,” said author, artist, and conservationist Peter Harrison.

“There are around 10,500 species of birds in the world,” he explained, “and 434 of them are seabirds.”

“When you think of birds to study, I can’t think of a better group.”

He described one seabird, in particular – a large barrel-chested creature standing out against blue sky and choppy ocean waters. One could observe the albatross for three or four hours and almost never see it beat a wing as it glides backward and forward, riding the wind.

In a day’s flight averaging 1,000 miles of travel, the albatross will beat its wings less than a sparrow crossing an average city street.

“[Seabirds] are the most remarkable of bird groups,” he said.

They have it all, Harrison added.

“They have intrigue. They have mystery. They have beauty. They have form.”

“Some of the biology of seabirds is what, for me, turns me on as a biologist,” he continued. “As an artist, I just love their form and the way that they fly and the different shapes within the seabirds.”

Ranging in size from storm petrels that fit into the palm of your hand to albatrosses whose wingspan can reach 12 feet across, for Harrison, it has always been about seabirds.

This avian love was sparked in his birthplace of southwest England, a place of fishermen and ferocious gales, of ocean and the birds who call its shores home.

At the time this fascination took hold, seabirds were enigmatic creatures and a poorly studied group.

Because of this, he said, “it was easy to become an expert.”

In 1972, he set out on an 11-year mission to visit all of the world’s major seabird sites and make a field guide, what would become the bible of seabird identification.

“Seabirds: An Identification Guide” was published in 1983. It quickly became a success, hailed as a “red-letter event for the field-glass fraternity” and “an unparalleled achievement.”

Seabirds were no longer an enigma. Harrison’s guide had unexpectedly catapulted seabirds into stardom and seabirding into a movement.

The guide also catapulted him into what would become a life of leading birding trips abroad, embarking on expeditions all over the world, and becoming involved with conservation.

“The book became a key and the key opened door after door after door to many opportunities,” he said.

His life became one long epic adventure, researching and traveling across the waters of the world to study seabirds.

“The book definitely changed my life.”

Now a resident of Port Hadlock, Harrison has since published several other books, continuing to explore, study, and lead the charge of seabirding.

He described approaching the age of 60 and wondering to himself, “Was that it? Was creating the first identification guide what it was all about?”

Harrison had more information now, gathered over his years of exploration, that had not yet been published. He had witnessed too many changes and had collected too much new data to not embark on his next adventure — recreating the book that started it all.

“I knew that I could redo and repaint the plates better than what they were in ’83, because I have more knowledge and I’m a better artist now,” he said.

Fifteen years later, he has worked to offer the world another look at seabirds with “Seabirds: The New Identification Guide.”

The original book was 448 pages with 88 plates, detailing the seabirds of the world. Today, the new book features updated information on seabirds, different subspecies, split species, modernized maps and more. Exactly 600 pages, this latest guide includes 239 plates of the birds’ elaborate details.

“There’s not a single piece of text, there’s not a plate, there’s not an illustration that we’ve used from the original book. Everything is completely new,” Harrison said, explaining how every plate is three weeks work of researching, sketching, and painting.

The new guide was published June 16. Ten days later, the first printing was sold out. Harrison described the scramble to print another 5,000 copies which won’t be available for another three weeks.

To see previews of the book or to order a copy, visit
peterharrisonseabirds.com/store.

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