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Bird Watcher's Digest and Me

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

 It has occurred to me that you might be interested in a brief history of my involvement with Bird Watcher’s Digest, the magazine I have been writing and painting for since 1986. I can’t quite believe it’s been 34 years! 


The magazine was launched from a brave notion, using my late in-laws’ retirement savings as they stood in 1978.

Bill Thompson Jr. and Elsa Ekenstierna Thompson, with Pokey. Clearly not 1978; more like 2009 or so. This is the den where a magazine was born. Now they're both gone, and the den is, too.

 My late mother-in-law, Elsa Thompson, took up birding in her 40’s, and thought there should be a digest for birdwatchers, since there was nothing of the kind out there. What a cool idea! It would have been between 1978 and 

1980 that I saw my first issue, featuring Roger Tory Peterson’s sooty terns, at Out of Town Newsstand in Harvard Square. Having only discovered that birding was a thing upon entering college as a lifelong but unconnected birdwatcher in 1976, I could NOT believe there was a magazine devoted to my passion! I remember standing there, reading it, marveling, and wondered if they would ever consider publishing my writing or painting. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t submit anything until 1986; I needed some time to hone my embryonic skills. Plus, the magazine’s interior was still being printed on newsprint when I saw it, and art looks ever so much better on glossy paper. 

My first cover, a stretching ruby-crowned kinglet, was published in 1986. Article after article, most illustrated by my watercolors, followed. I felt like the luckiest person in the world. 


My first 7 covers, spanning 1986-1992. I began writing for the magazine almost as soon as I started painting covers. The piping plover from 1988 has a big article about my work conserving piping plovers in Connecticut. There's a lot of personal history in these issues! To wit:

See that redpoll/junco cover, left, bottom row? Bill talked me into painting that for the Jan/Feb 1991 cover. He called me a lot more than he would have needed to, to get the painting over the finish line. By the time it came out on the cover, we were "talking," as my kids say.

 I didn’t meet BWD's (then) Managing Editor, Bill Thompson III until we collided at the World Series of Birding in May, 1990. We were married in 1993. Persuasive guy. 

I look at this photo and think, "Wha ha happen?" 

There followed a series of covers. Below are ones spanning 1993-1999. 

And here's 2000-2011.

Bill Thompson III was Editor and Publisher until he had to leave us in March, 2019. Though Bill’s bank of knowledge and energy was irreplaceable, Editor Dawn Hewitt comes as close as anyone could to filling his Size 12’s. Wendy Clark has added her considerable vision and energy as Publisher. I do my best to lean in and help the staff with anything remotely sciencey, as well as with thorny bird ID’s and bird feeding/housing/gardening advice. And I read every issue for scientific accuracy as well as flow and typos. By the time the magazine goes to press, it’s been by several mighty sharp sets of eyes.


I write a column called “True Nature” for every issue, right alongside such luminaries as David Bird, Mark Garland, Alvaro Jaramillo, Al Batt and Scott Weidensaul. Iowa’s fabulous Diane Porter writes frequently for the magazine as well. I also have a column in every issue of Watching Backyard Birds, which comes out in the months that Bird Watcher’s Digest doesn’t. It’s good to write a lot; to have to have something to show for all your rumination. I love sitting down to write a column, to winnow out all the things I see and then gather a lifetime of observations, to knead them all into dough and bake it into a story for our readers.



35 years after that first little kinglet was published, I’ll have my 30th cover on the May/June 2022 issue! I've got something published in most issues, and I still feel like the luckiest person in the world to be affiliated with this magazine.

Here's the body of work as it stands...well, just the covers I've painted over the last 34 years. The articles and columns in many other issues are legion.

It’s pretty darned amazing that Bird Watcher's Digest is still humming along, cranking out excellent content for its beloved and very loyal subscribers. Chalk it up to love and sheer will. Thanks to that demon C-19, everybody’s been working from home since spring 2020—another thing that amazes me no end. HOW CAN IT BE 34 YEARS???


I guess what I’m winding up to is, “Why not subscribe now, when Bird Watcher’s Digest is having a half-off subscription sale?” I don’t know how they can give this magazine away for $15 yearly (and only $12 for Watching Backyard Birds!) I guess they’re banking on your loving it as much as I do, once you’ve gotten a load of it. Needless to say, it makes a terrific gift for that bird-loving friend—it can take you to the next birding level fast, wherever you’re starting from.


Publisher and Publisher Emeritus. Both worked their entire careers putting out the best bird watching magazine ever.

Oh! Here's that offer. And thank you very much for your indulgence. I hope you've enjoyed this retrospective--color, bird painting and a whole lot of love.






They are all wonderful, but my personal favorites are the Ivory-billed Woodpecker and nestlings, the Passenger Pigeon family, and the Piping Plover with chicks. Thank you for all that you have done and all that you do to represent the importance of birds to so many people with your words and your art. Thanks, too, to the Thompson family for their singularly great idea! Happy 29th cover and 34th anniversary, Julie! We all look forward to many more!!

I just got a friend a subscription. Thank you! You should be proud of those beautiful covers, and I'm sure the articles too.

That was a trip! I want a puzzle of all those covers. And the photographs! The look on Elsa’s face in the first one made me laugh. So very Elsa! Still hard to believe they’re all gone. That the house and all the memories it contained are gone. And young You! What a babe....I think I’ll give some Christmas gifts to a few friends. Thanks for the meander down memory lane ~ your body of work is mind-boggling.

I’ve let my subscription lapse for a couple months, but I’ll renew it in the morning and may throw in a Watching Backyard Birds subscription while I’m at it.

I love the collage of all the covers and also had the thought that it would make a great puzzle! Thanks for sharing your artwork and history of the magazine.

I fondly remember Bill’s introduction to your speech at the Midwest Birding Symposium lo these many years ago. It was a gem. I am so thankful to you, Bill, Wendy, and Dawn for great birding memories.

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