INSIDE STORY: The Evolution of the National Audubon Field Guides Series

Q&A with Author Peter Alden

By Alex Bensley

The New England Edition has sold more than 18 million copies. The entire series has sold over 100 million copies. The reviews on Amazon are stellar. Many people call their field guide “my go-to source for nature”.

How did this popular series come to be? How is that Concord native Peter Alden came to author the series and what was it like for him to write them?

Spark Birding sat down with Peter Alden after a recent birding walk to hear his story.

Q: How did your career with Audubon begin, and how did it lead to your first book?

Peter: I started off while I was in college at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and immediately as I got to Tucson I started going to Mexico. Eventually, we had a National Audubon convention in Tucson. Shortly thereafter, I became vice president of Tucson Audubon. National Audubon said, “we're having a convention with 1000 people in Tucson next year, can some of you in the organization lead some trips for us?” I said, “I can lead a trip down to Mexico.” And while I was doing that, I decided to do a book on finding birds in Western Mexico, and the book came out.

Q: How did you get asked to write the National Audubon regional series of field guides?

Peter: I got a phone call from a guy named Andrew Stewart, who was Martha Stewart's husband for 26 years. He was in charge of many Audubon Society field guides at various times. He wanted to do a book on African wildlife, mammals, birds, reptiles, and national parks. I got a contract to do a book on African wildlife, which has sold over a million copies for the South African, French, British, Canadian, and American additions. He said, “Peter, I bet you've got some more books up your sleeve.” I said, “Andy, what I'd really like to do is do some field guides that are regional, and more than just birds.” I said we should do a book on New England, a book on the Mid Atlantic, a book on the southeast, a book on Florida, a book on the Rocky Mountains and Southwest and the Northwest in California. And he got a contract for doing it. These were my first field guides, and we decided to use photographs rather than hire artists.

Q: How long does it take to write one field guide?

Peter: I was doing eight of them simultaneously, but [I could] apply the same descriptions of a given bird or flower, keeping in mind subspecies and regional variations. I wrote eight books in three years while I was traveling to seven continents.

Q: Can you describe the process of writing your first field guide?

Peter: For the first book, The Audubon Field Guide to New England, I had to look over 44,000 submitted slides in order to choose about 1200-1300 slides, which were finalists. The most difficult part was actually selecting, which birds, which flowers, which insects to include. What is widespread with big, bright, beautiful? What's interesting, what's dangerous, and what are people going to see? So writing wasn’t so difficult as it was to choose the species.

Q: You wrote the field guides back in 1998 when Amazon was largely unknown. How is it that the guides have staying power?

Peter: It’s still selling pretty strongly because they are beginners’ guides to get you started. So if you're a hardcore bird watcher, you're not going to need my particular books. But if you're just getting into nature, it's quite useful. It's useful for all the things you're not a specialist in. I’m helping you identify dragonflies, butterflies, frogs, flowers, and so many other things of 1000 species in each of these regions. I'm just trying to simplify things in a portable way to help beginners.

Q: You mentioned that these books speak mostly to beginners. What does it mean to you to have the opportunity to reach the next generation of birders?

Peter: One of the driving focuses is my life is to help create naturalists. Many people tend to get into one group of nature. But some people have gotten into all of nature, and I’ve gotten to know a few people who have managed to record over 1000 species in their neighborhood or their property. And they try to identify the birds and flowers and the mushrooms, and become total naturalists which is relatively new for people to get beyond one of those clusters in taxonomy.

Q: Do you have any more books on the horizon?

Peter: I've been planning and doing the skeleton of a “confessions of a tour leader”. There've been many different books out there, but there hasn’t been a book by a tour leader, at least an eco-tour leader. When you work in 100 countries, and some of them are considered dangerous, we’ve had some problems. We've walked away from three plane crashes. I've had tour groups held hostage at gunpoint, [in a] jungle in South America. I've had malaria, I've had cholera. I had to put some clients in insane asylums overseas because they went totally bonkers. But most of the time, things are wonderful.

Q: In spite of the difficulties you’ve faced while leading trips, what drives you to continue your work?

Peter: I like being a pioneer and leading the first ever trips to many of these foreign countries around the world. No one ran a tour to Senegal or Paraguay, Cameroon or Bougainville Island, or parts of New Guinea before I did, but it’s been a challenge…I like that challenge. I guess I have that explorer gene in me.