A new leaf
David Allen Sibley, 48, wowed birders with his best-selling The Sibley Guide to Birds. For his latest field guide, the Concord naturalist is courting tree-huggers.
Your father was an ornithologist at Yale. Did he get you into bird-watching? I’ve been interested in birds since I was a little kid, but I think my own interest was encouraged and supported by my father’s. I also have an older brother who got interested in birding before I did; it was the family thing to do.
Why do your own field guide? When I was 15 or so, I was going birding on the weekends and meeting a lot of other birders and learning from them. I’d been reading the field guides at home, and even then I had already learned a lot that wasn’t in the field guides. That was the first little seed that was planted; it just seemed to me that the field guides were incomplete.
The new book is The Sibley Guide to Trees -- why trees? I actually started working on a book on butterflies. It didn’t work out, partly because in Massachusetts, for most of the year, it’s very difficult to see butterflies. In the middle of that I realized that trees were the things I was seeing every day, no matter where I went. It seems strange to say, but tree-watching and bird-watching are similar in that way.
The new guide has 4,000-plus illustrations and took years to complete. Was it more challenging than the bird guide? The biggest challenge was that I started out knowing fairly superficial things about trees seven years ago, so I had to learn about trees and paint them and write about them all at the same time.
If you were going to send someone local tree-watching, where would you direct them? There are so many good places around Massachusetts. My daily routine takes me through the streets of Concord, just around town, and I’m always discovering new trees in new places. All these trees are out there interacting with wild nature, and they may be planted in people’s yards, but still they’re out there as a part of the local ecosystem.