IT STARTED nearly a decade ago. John Manger, a British expatriate and who had spent 20 years at Oxford University Press, had joined the publishing division in the CSIRO, becoming director in late 2005. He was also an avowed bird nerd who’d worked on many large ornithological titles. There were five Australian field guides already on the market but for Manger, that wasn’t enough. He decided to do something about it.
Manger contacted Jeff Davies, one of Australia’s pre-eminent bird illustrators – and it’s probably fair to say that at that point, the birding community held its breath. Davies was a notorious perfectionist, not known for doing anything by halves.
Next Monday, the community will finally exhale, with the publication of The Australian Bird Guide. “From the moment I started, people who knew what I’m like started saying, when are you going to finish?” Davies says in his studio in Heidelberg. “It actually annoyed me a little bit, but I’d always reply with a smile, and my answer was always, as long as it takes.”
Not that Davies was working alone. Authors Danny Rogers and Peter Menkhorst were brought in, then Rohan Clarke; Davies recommended Peter Marsack and Kim Franklin as co-illustrators. It was a team fit for a gargantuan task: nearly 550 pages and 4700 illustrations of over 900 species recorded in Australia and its territories. They set themselves five years for the task. It ballooned to eight.
In the old days, birds were illustrated by referring to museum skins. Those days are long gone. Before any contracts were signed, Davies says, “there was a year where I just sat here with no income, collecting photographs, starting to design the book in my head”. He says he’s collected around half a million images. “That’s the reference collection. It’s a whole renaissance in birding and our understanding of birds.”
Clarke, who was brought on board for his photographic collection as much as his writing skills and status as one of the country’s top twitchers, agrees digital photography was the game-changer. “Being able to sit down with 20 images of the key plumage or position or posture [of a single species] just meant we were in an unparalleled position, really.”
And that, more than anything, justifies The Australian Bird Guide’s existence: the literature needed updating to reflect the explosion of knowledge that came with the explosion of imagery. All previous Australian field guides had their own strengths and weaknesses, and most serious birders will nominate a favourite, but this one is very much a reflection of the digital revolution that inspired it.
The obvious question that arises is why go to the trouble of commissioning illustrations at all. But photography still has limitations. Illustrations aid identification in that they can capture subtle differences between nearly identical species in ways that even multiple photographs can not.
And identification is the whole point, says Danny Rogers. “We thought we could do much better than other guides on the fundamentals of identifying birds. There’s lots now known about difficult birds – shorebirds, seabirds, and so on – that’s just not in the other guides; lots of interesting plumages were illustrated for the first time.”
Plenty of grey hairs were sprouted and lost in the process, though, as the book began to give new meaning to the term “long awaited”. Davies is unapologetic. “Anyone who gets into art is a perfectionist,” Davies says. “Every painting they’re doing, they’re being a perfectionist about that painting. It’s the obsessive nature of it, and it’s not a derogatory term; that’s just what’s required.
“I think I pushed everyone out of their comfort zone. I feel for them, because I know everyone has other people to answer to, and it probably made a lot of people’s lives pretty difficult. But my side of the job was to deliver the best book that I could deliver, and I was never going to skimp on it, ever.” He completed the last two years of work back on no income, while raising a daughter at home with his wife Barbara.
Life came and went around the authors as they worked. “When I started this, I was working as a post-doc at Deakin Uni, and now I’ve got two kids that I didn’t have and I’m now a senior lecturer in ecology at Monash,” Clarke says. But, he adds, “we went into this with our eyes open. If it had taken 10 or 11 years, I still think it would have been time well spent. I think the team would have loved another month or two.”
Davies describes painting as “a very monastic experience. You have to be very comfortable with listening to your own head. You have to actually enjoy being on your own, and the silence and the thinking. A lot of people today have trouble with that.” (The irony that Davies can talk the leg off a table and is highly active on social media will not be lost on his friends.)
Devising each plate, however, was a painstaking team effort. Photographic images would be bounced between authors and artists before the first drafts were made, then bounced around again. Just as the text was drafted and re-drafted, plates went through multiple iterations until everyone was happy.
But it’s obsession, and Davies’ obsession in particular, that drove the project onward. And onward. Whatever anxiety was created in the process, the results speak for themselves. “We wanted to make an identification guide that’s satisfying not only to people who are starting out birding, but people who already birders and want to get better at it,” Rogers says.
Davies was born both to birding and to art; his father was also an illustrator. “It’s something I do on my own, and I did that from a very early age. I got a strong direction of where north was by the time I was six! I could just walk off in the bush and come back to where I started very quickly.”
With the guide done, he’s returning to larger paintings. He’s working on one now: a pair of scarlet robins on a 1.1 metre x 810 cm canvas. He started it eight years ago, before the field guide called. “Obsession just becomes an abnormality when it’s used in different situations to this,” he says. “When it’s used in the activity of doing something artistic, it’s actually the most important part of the whole process.”
First published in Spectrum (The Age/Sydney Morning Herald), 28 April 2017
This piece ran with the following teaser in the front section of both papers:
IT’S A true story, based on love, obsession and sometimes madness. Thankfully, the authors (and their publishers) managed to avoid murdering each other along the way. But after nearly a decade in the making, The Australian Bird Guide finally hits bookstores on Monday.
To call The Australian Bird Guide long-awaited would be putting it mildly. There are a number of field guides to Australian birds in print, most of which are regularly revised and updated. But an entirely new tome is as rare as, well, a very rare bird indeed: this is the first publication of its kind in about 17 years.
Melbourne artist Jeff Davies was the first of three illustrators, in addition to three authors, to be approached by CSIRO’s publishing division nearly 10 years ago. Instantly, the questions started: “I had various people tap me on the shoulder saying, ‘when are you going to finish’ – and that was when I’d just started,” he said. Some privately wondered if the book might ever be finished.
For the first year, Davies said, he sat at home without income, accumulating a vast archive of avian imagery for reference: much of what’s new about this book is a byproduct in the explosion of new knowledge generated by digital photography. When the project ran over time – the authors were on a five-year contract – Davies spent another two years without income as the book was finished. It features more than 4700 colour illustrations, with many species illustrated for the first time.
Davies, who had previously worked on the mammoth multi-volume Handbook Of Australian And New Zealand Birds, has a well-earned reputation as a perfectionist and a stickler for detail. In the twitchier circles of Australia’s birding community, however, detail is everything. For them, the wait will be worth it.
Davies said he would have refused the assignment if he hadn’t had sufficient time, but also understood the significance of the opportunity, as well as the magnitude of the task. “I’m 60. I’m going to be dead in a couple of decades time, I’m not going to fuck around and waste time,” he said. “I throw everything in otherwise I don’t bother doing it at all. But I think people who knew me already knew that.”