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Avian obsession turns into book on Southwest Alaska birds

Carey RestinoThe Arctic Sounder
Loren Holmes photo

Ethel Joanne Nelson has been interested in birds ever since she noticed a pretty American tree sparrow sitting in the sunshine years ago. But unlike those who might quickly forget the sighting, Nelson flew with it.

The next time the longtime Dillingham resident went to Anchorage, she bought a bird book and looked up the interesting bird. Next came a bird feeder followed by more research. Soon she was participating in annual bird counts and leading bird walks with her grandson’s fourth-grade class. That led to teaching seasonal college classes on birding and leading multi-day birding expeditions. Now it has lead to a book.

Sometime in the next few weeks, a box of books will arrive on Nelson’s doorstep, the end of nearly a decade of work creating the “Guide to the Birds of Southwest Alaska.”

“At first I thought this would be a pamphlet,” Nelson said. The goal really was to create a birding guide for her students that cut out birds either rare or absent from the Bristol Bay area. But much like her interest in birding, Nelson’s original idea grew. First, she wanted to include information about what each bird filled its nest with, how many eggs it laid, what color they were, the length of incubation, what habitat the birds prefer, what it eats, how it gathers that food, and tidbits about the birds’ traits. Then Nelson wanted to figure out how often the birds were spotted in the area, so she gathered statistics from bird counts. Lastly, she expanded the region covered by the book beyond the Dillingham area. By then, it was definitely a book.

Not that bigger is necessarily better, Nelson said. She struggled for years with the idea of trying to get all the information about each bird on a single page. Finally, a family member asked her why she was so adamant about that one detail, so she tossed the idea and allowed individual bird descriptions to jump from one page to the next. That solved a lot of problems.

What the book is not, Nelson noted, is another bird book filled with attractive photos. Rather, it’s a collection of information for people interested in learning more than a bird’s identity.

“It’s written for people who are just curious about birds,” she said. “It’s for people who are interested in the intricacies of the lives of birds and their interesting habits.”

Nelson said the final push to publish came when family members got together last Mother’s Day and pooled their money to help her.

“You don’t turn your kids down,” she said.

When she finally started learning about how to publish, the process went smoothly. Before long, a proof was in her hands. Now, the book is available at Amazon or through Infinity Publishing, which specializes in self-published books. At 146 pages long, “Guide to the Birds of Southwest Alaska” is priced at $23.95.

“I am so delighted with it,” Nelson said. “It expanded my knowledge a great deal.”

Carey Restino is a reporter for the Bristol Bay Times. Used with permission.