Blog-erview with Shawneen Finnegan
Although she's planning to move soon, Shawneen currently lives in Tucson, which is where I finally met her. We crossed paths during the American Birding Association convention in July 2005. I hope that we'll cross paths again after she lands in Oregon.
And now, a glimpse into the experiences of the multi-talented Ms. Finnegan.
Did a specific event/species encourage you to start birding?
My interest in birding was sparked in my mid-20s while working in my mother’s yard, located in the foothills of the San Francisco peninsula. The yard was very overgrown, and after a number of weekends trying to tame it, I decided to write my first list of what I had seen: 12 species in all.
Without a field guide, my names for them were, for example, Blue Jay, Brown Thrasher and Red-headed Woodpecker. In reality, they were Western Scrub-Jay, California Thrasher and Nuttall’s Woodpecker.
Have you always sketched birds?
No. At age 3, I began drawing horses, which continued into high school. My drawing of birds began in the mid-1980s.
At first, it was mainly to document rare birds that I had seen. With lots of practice--studying photos and live birds, occasionally dead birds or museum specimens--my work improved to the point where they were of publication quality.
One of the benefits of drawing birds is that you have to look much more closely at them and learn how their bodies are constructed. Feathers are amazing. I don’t know of a better tool for learning to observe how a bird is constructed--patterns, shapes and bird topography--than using a pad of paper, a pencil and eraser.
What’s your most amusing experience as a tour leader?
Many funny things happened on tours, though not always funny to the clients. The most amusing tour was spending a week with a group from the Chicago Ornithological Society. My van was filled with wild and hilarious women, and we laughed the entire week. The folks that preferred a quieter traveling experience rode in the other van. I have never laughed as much on a tour.
Describe your feeder setup at home.
Not much at the moment as I am trying to sell my house to move to Portland, Ore. At the moment, several hummingbird feeders are set up year-round. Niger has been my favorite seed as it isn’t as messy and doesn’t attract as many House Sparrows and Rock Pigeons, which have dominated the normal sunflower mixes because the house is located mid-city.
Where do you like to bird most often?
Right now the canyons of southeastern Arizona, of which there are many--Madera Canyon in the Santa Ritas, Cave Creek in the Chiricahuas and many of the canyons in the Huachucas. Sweetwater Wetlands is my favorite local spot in Tucson.
In the winter, I love going to the Sulphur Springs Valley to look at scads of cranes, Ferruginous Hawks and all the sparrows and Lark Buntings that abound down there in this largely agricultural valley. Other loves have always been coastal California, where my passion for birding began, and the seven years living in Cape May were pretty hard to beat.
How would you describe your tenure on bird records committees in New Jersey and California?
Very educational, rewarding and challenging. Because I met California birders like Jon Dunn, Kimball Garrett, Paul Lehman, Guy McCaskie and Joe Morlan early in my birding career, I developed a great deal of respect for the California Bird Records Committee. If a record of mine was to be accepted by the CBRC, my documentation had to be really solid.
It was much harder back in the 1980s and 1990s to document rarities. Recognizable photos were much more difficult to take, and your written description had to be sufficient enough to stand on its own without a photo, tape recording or video.
Learning bird topography, aging and sexing, molt and so much more was crucial to being an accomplished birder--and that is what I wanted to be. Before the Internet, being on the California records committee allowed access to knowledge that was often learn otherwise. What a privilege it was to be the first woman to be elected to the committee during its 20 years of history. The New Jersey records committee was much more relaxed and had different voting procedures and fewer birds to vote on than California did.
How different it is today when fabulous photographs can be taken through telescopes with digital cameras and/or videos from amazing distances, and you can get images of details of identifying features that you previously would get only if you captured the bird and examined it in the hand.
How do you feel about rubber ducks?
Hearing the sound of a rubber duck means only one thing to me: Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers! That squeak is one of my most favorite avian sounds. Hearing one always makes me bubble up inside with joy.
Describe your dream birding trip: who, where, when, why, how long, which species.
My dream birding trip would be to spend a few months in the Southern Hemisphere visiting South Africa and Madagascar, or Australia and New Zealand. Just imagine all the fabulous land birds you would see.
Who wouldn’t want to see a fairy-wren or a Lyrebird in Australia or the groundrollers and vangas of Madagascar? And how about all the cool birds, animals and plants that South Africa has to offer? Going on pelagic trips down yonder would be a must to see tons of albatross, prions, petrels and so much more. And while looking at the birds, add the cetaceans, lemurs and African critters, not to mention marsupials! As to when it will happen and who could go on such a long trip, that is a good question!