Birds of Maine (Photo by Don Reimer)
Birds of Maine (Photo by Don Reimer)
Major human undertakings aren’t always simple, one-shot matters. Take Neil Armstrong’s first step onto the dusty surface of the moon on July 20, 1969. His proclaimed “That’s one small step for man. One giant leap for mankind” was a gradual and hard-earned accomplishment, resulting from alternate successes and, in particular instances, catastrophic failures to reach their ultimate goal.

As with cumulative technological and scientific advances, literary ventures hold similar tag-on qualities. And, as the old phrase says, we often stand on the shoulders of others to make gains. I recall a bearded college friend who faithfully toted a paperback book in a jeans’ back pocket, devouring the words and thoughts of other writers at every opportunity — the aspiring young writer was Stephen King.

Today’s immense body of avian knowledge and lore also rests on historic foundations of work and study done by predecessors. Peter Vickery’s recent and long-awaited tome “Birds of Maine” exemplifies this very concept. The book, published posthumously late last year, is justly lauded as monumental and brilliant, a rich tapestry of art and information — and it is all that. The volume contains detailed accounts of all 464 species recorded in Maine. It represents the culmination of Peter’s life’s work; his remarkable persistence through decades and his critical focus on details carried the day. In addition to being a premier birder and field guide, Peter engaged himself in the conservation of vulnerable grassland nesters across New England and beyond. In 1978, he authored Annotated Checklist of Maine Birds: A Complete, Up-to-Date Survey of Birds Found in Maine. In 1996, Peter co-authored “A Birder’s Guide to Maine” with Liz and Jan Pierson.

But Peter maintained an even higher aspiration, that of updating Ralph Palmer’s 1949 classic “Maine Birds,” unquestionably the most respected and comprehensive volume of Maine bird information of that era and broadly quoted to the present day. And how was Palmer able to conduct his thorough historical review of Maine bird records? Much of it came from Arthur A. Norton, curator of the Portland Society of Natural History, who tracked statewide bird records from 1894 until his death in 1943.

In later years, Peter and Ralph would become friends, providing further insights into Ralph’s scrupulous and meticulous scholarship. Peter was aware of the importance of preserving bird records early on and also appreciated the knowledge of skilled lay observers, such as Pemaquid fisherman and expert birder Mark Libby. Peter mined the field reports of many of us amateur birders, too, and analyzed data trends within the now-massive online eBird site.

I felt privileged to know each of these three individuals, who were so uniquely different. During his retirement years, I visited with Ralph Palmer at his Tenants Harbor home. One afternoon he described a request for a speaking engagement at a local organization to discuss puffins. Admittedly, Ralph could be brusque. He declined that invitation, explaining: “I’m retired now, and I’m well past the tweety bird stage of life.” The caller accepted his response but phoned again a few months later. This time Ralph conceded. Arriving at the talk with a small cloth bag in hand, he approached the lectern. Ralph emptied a stack of dried puffin bones onto the lectern surface and announced: “The subject of my talk is ‘Puffins I Have Eaten!’ ”

As a birder/photographer, columnist, and recent author, I’ve benefitted from the legacies of others who led the way, leaving behind a visible trail to follow.