June 2023

Vol. 51, No. 3

About Books: In The Footsteps of Audubon and Darwin

Mark Lynch

In the Footsteps of Audubon. Denis Clavreul. 2022. Princeton University Press. Princeton, New Jersey.

Galapágos: A Natural History. John Kricher and Kevin Loughlin. 2022. Princeton University Press. Princeton New Jersey.

In the Footsteps of AudubonBirders often follow in the footsteps of others. Someone finds a rarity, posts its location, and numbers of birders will promptly follow the directions to that bird. Birders love “where to find” articles and closely follow the directions of the author in the hopes of seeing the species the author mentions at the spot written about. Less common are “where to find” books to locations near and far. These guides are critical for any birder venturing out of state or out of country on their own. Finally, we often closely follow in the footsteps of trip leaders whom we count on to know where the good birds are and to point them out to us. Following is in our blood. Below are two unique books that follow in the footsteps of an illustrious artist of American birds and one of the founders of the theory of evolution.

“I decided that I would go to America one day to discover the landscapes, trees, and birds that enchanted the life of John James Audubon.” (p. 1, In the Footsteps of Audubon)

Denis Clavreul is a noted watercolorist, biologist, and traveler. He prefers, if at all possible, to sketch and paint his subjects at the spot when and where he is seeing them, whether it is a bird, insect, mammal, or landscape. This means he paints quickly, and the results capture the spontaneity and excitement of the moment. If the subject is stationary, like a plant, tree, landscape, or even preserved specimens (all of which are in this volume), Clavreul’s work will be more detailed. But capturing birds in motion, his work can be quite impressionistic bordering on the abstract. A two-page painting of a colony of skimmers flying all about, found in the first pages of this book (un-numbered), had to be completed later. At first glance this painting of skimmers may look like a collection of crossing brush strokes. On closer inspection, the skimmers are obviously there and painted with a real feel for their flight. This painting reminded me of Futurist Giacomo Balla’s 1913 painting “Swifts: Paths of Movement + Dynamic Sequences.” Painting in this manner is demanding and requires skills learned after decades of painting out of doors with all the distractions and changes in light. Clavreul is a master of this style of watercolor and the perfect person for this type of rigorous project.

More than a decade ago, Clavreul saw and sketched a hoopoe near Courëon, in the Loire Valley of France, not too far from where Audubon spent most of his childhood. It was at that moment that he decided on the ambitious project of tracing Audubon’s travels in North America, painting what he saw.

This book is the culmination of a personal project spread over more than fifteen years. Over the course of a dozen trips to the United States organized between 2003 and 2018, and also in France and Canada, I have produced hundreds of sketches and watercolors in landscapes as varied as the Florida Everglades, the islands of Labrador, and the immense plains of the Dakotas. (p. 2)

A map at the beginning of In the Footsteps of Audubon charts seven of his trips, with numbers corresponding to chapters in the book. Clavreul’s book and travels begin in France at La Gerbetière, the old Audubon family property. Audubon drew and painted birds in the area and so does Clavreul, including Red-backed Shrikes (p. 4) and Common Shelducks (p. 6). Then it is on to North America.

On his travels, Clavreul quotes appropriate sections of Audubon’s journals, commenting on what the area was like in Audubon’s times and describing how these locations look today. Not only does Clavreul paint the birds and other wildlife, he paints the landscapes where Audubon traveled, which gives the reader a real sense of the place. Some of his landscapes run over two pages and testify to Clavreul’s mastery of the genre. He also sketches and paints cityscapes, busy streets in towns, and portraits of the people he meets along the way, including many researchers and wildlife monitors. The reader sees these places not only through Audubon’s writings, but also through the eyes of a contemporary artist.

This book is not so much about Audubon the person as it is about his influence on the current world. Audubon the concept. One passionate and talented artist/naturalist of today reflecting on connections to an equally passionate and talented artist/naturalist of 200 years ago. (p. xiii, David Allen Sibley in the Foreword to In the Footsteps of Audubon)

Clavreul’s North American adventures begin in Mill Grove, Pennsylvania, at the John James Audubon Center. His writing here conveys his excitement at starting this project.

Under the golden canopy of the first trees a Northern Cardinal suddenly slips away between two shadows: a burst of red as a sign of welcome. The landscape opens, and I notice a meadow on my right. The air is very luminous. Everything seems at once calm and expectant, like that moment of suspense in the theatre when the curtains are raised and the scene first becomes visible. I am there…at last! (p. 9)

Clavreul’s paintings sometimes are captioned with his observations of the subject. Under his paintings of Purple Martins, you read: “The birds interspersed their singing with a curious rattle made by rapidly clicking their bills together.” (p. 19)

At other times, paintings are captioned with quotes from Audubon. Clavreul keeps Audubon’s original spelling and terminology. Under a painting of a market in New Orleans, you read:

Monday, January 8th 1821. As day breaks, went to the market, having received information that much and great variety of game was brought to it. We found vast many Mallards, some teals, some American Widgeons, Canada Geese, Snow Geese, Mergansers, Robins, Blue Birds, Red wing Starlings, Tell Tale Godwits. (p. 71, John James Audubon quoted in In the Footsteps of Audubon)

At one point on his travels north, Clavreul stops in Massachusetts to visit fellow watercolorist Barry Van Dusen, who has worked with Clavreul before on projects for the international effort “Artists for Nature Foundation.” Those of you familiar with Barry Van Dusen’s art know that he works, like Denis Clavreul, painting and sketching out of doors.

Today, far from India or Peru where we have previously collaborated for this organization, we walk along the trails of Wachusett Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary, a reserve run by the Audubon Society of Massachusetts. Our eyes riveted to our telescopes, we attempt to sketch the aerial acrobatics of an Eastern Phoebe, this small flycatcher for whose return Audubon watched every spring while he was at Mill Grove. (p. 127)

Though Clavreul basically painted what he came across, there are certain creatures he really wanted to see and seeks them out. Like alligators.

But where are the alligators? I don’t see any of them, while the water teemed with them when Audubon was here aboard the Spark, to the point that he prevented Plato from going into the water for fear that he would be devoured. (p. 96)

Spoiler alert. Clavreul eventually does see alligators, but it is an interesting story that I will not give away.

Some animals Clavreul becomes fascinated with only after seeing them for the first time, like the bison in the Montana Badlands. He painted them both from close up, dustbathing, and from a long distance.

But here I am obsessed by the bison. They are the highlight of my trip. So I go to the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The first bison I see are very far away, small black points under an immense sky. I spend the whole day near a herd to better sense the rhythm of their life. Between grazing and moving around, the troop stops, and most of the animals rest to ruminate, often on small circles of bare soil. From time to time, an animal rolls on his side to scratch his back, his four legs in the air in the middle of a dust cloud. The prairie dogs circulate heedlessly among these giants. (p. 175)

Sometimes the wildlife spectacle is too much for him, and he finds that he cannot paint on the spot because there is too much going on and has to paint the subject later. This does not happen often, but when it does, the results are paintings that are almost abstractions of the subject. Visiting the famous colony of Northern Gannets on Bonaventure Island, Quebec, June 29, 2003, he captions his painting, “Overwhelmed by the tumult of these thousands of birds, I was unable to paint on the spot. So I made this watercolor from memory a little later, as I waited more calmly for the ferry.” (p. 146)

Though Clavreul visited many well-known National Parks and protected areas, there are times in his travels when he stumbles across a secret spot that is perfect for what he is doing.

Lyle and Garnet indicate a marsh nearby, “a very nice place,” where I could see and draw before leaving the region. I head there the next morning and am immediately overcome by the show: lost in the middle of nowhere, the marsh that covers the bottom of the valley is a true paradise for birds. An uninterrupted show of courtship displays, songs, calls, flights and dives. I hurriedly sketch Ruddy Ducks, Wilson’s Phalaropes, Franklin’s Gulls, Marbled Godwits, and White-faced Ibis. (p. 169–70)

Up in Labrador, Clavreul finds landscapes that have changed the least since Audubon’s times. It is a rugged, rocky land, beaten by sea and wind, and his land and seascapes of this area are dramatic.

Clavreul’s journey ends in New York City. He birds Central Park with noted writer and birder Roger Pasquier. Clavreul does a fine painting of a Mourning Warbler that Pasquier finds, not realizing at the moment what a great find that bird is. Imagine Pasquier’s surprise when he points out the uncommon warbler and Clavreul immediately takes out his pad and paints. But that is how he works.

I cannot say enough about In the Footsteps of Audubon. It is a fascinating project. Clavreul’s artwork illustrating his travels gives the reader a sense of being along with him for the trips. He is great company on his travels because many things pique his curiosity. His artwork changes in execution depending on what he is painting. Sometimes he paints dead birds such as museum specimens of Eastern and Western meadowlarks or a dead cardinal he finds on a trail. These paintings are detailed and fully realized. Often his rambunctious field sketches contain several species in a single work, some done in pencil, some in paint. I enjoy these kinds of sketches because they give the viewer a sense of how the artist works, how he develops an image, and a sense of how the bird looks and moves. Clavreul’s landscapes, riverscapes, and seascapes are of museum quality. I hope he gets the exhibition here in North America that his work deserves.

In the Footsteps of Audubon is a book to enjoy reading or by just looking at the artwork. One of the last paintings in the book is of Audubon’s grave in Trinity Church Cemetery. In the caption for the painting, Clavreul writes, “I was moved to see a Mockingbird, one of Audubon’s favorite species at this spot.” (p. 227).

“There really is no place on earth quite like the Galápagos Islands. If I ever doubted the truth of that statement, it was driven home to me on the very first morning of my very first visit some years ago.” (p. 8 in the Foreword, written by Scott Weidensaul, to Galápagos: A Natural History)

When you think of the Galápagos, chances are high that you will immediately think of Darwin and evolution. If you have a passion for natural history this rocky archipelago in the Pacific Ocean is on your bucket list of must-see places before you die. Some of you have already been there. There are 61 islands that have a name, 13 major islands, 6 minor islands, and 42 islets (p. 45). Even today, though planes and ships regularly stop at the Galápagos, these islands still have the feeling of remoteness. Despite their isolation, they were visited by 271,238 people last year. This popularity is interesting because, unlike Hawaii or Fiji, the sole attraction here is natural history.

The Galápagos are natural history. No one goes there to experience the native people, the ruins, or the architecture. The Galápagos are not anthropological, not cultural, but instead represent pure natural history. (p. 44)

John Kricher is professor emeritus of biology at Wheaton College, Massachusetts, and is an internationally recognized ecologist, ornithologist, and author. Best of all, Kricher is one of the leading explainers of evolution and ecology, a skill undoubtably learned from his decades of teaching. He previously put out a book on the Galápagos in 2006 and has written a number of books on ecology and bird behavior, such as The New Neotropical Companion. Kevin Loughlin is a world recognized nature photographer and tour guide. He has led more than 40 trips to the Galápagos. They met serendipitously in Central America a few years back and decided to seriously revise Kricher’s now out-of-date guide. This two-person dream team has produced a thorough and enjoyable guide to the natural history of the archipelago. This book is a must read if you are going to the Galápagos. Even if you have never been and are not planning on going, this is an enjoyable book to read on evolutionary history and island ecology. Finally, thanks to Loughlin’s photography, it is also a beautiful natural history book.

Kricher covers all aspects of the islands, their history, their complex natural history, their geology, and Darwin’s history both on the islands and at home. Galápagos: A Natural History begins with Kricher describing a typical first-time tour aboard a panga, a flat-bottomed boat used for getting around in the Galápagos (p. 12–24).

The human history of the Galápagos includes pre-Darwin buccaneers and whalers visiting for water and food. After Darwin, several notables also paid the Galápagos a visit. In 1872, the famous foe of Darwin and the theory of evolution, Louis Agassiz, spent nine days in the Galápagos. It was late in his life, and perhaps it was that he was infirm, or just plain ornery, but he left the islands terribly unimpressed. Herman Melville too was unimpressed. Other notable visitors included William Beebe and David Lack. One of the more interesting writers about the Galápagos was Kurt Vonnegut.

And then there is Kurt Vonnegut. He published an entertaining and fanciful novel Galápagos, a futuristic story about human evolution set in the Galápagos and featuring the likes of Mick Jagger and Jacqueline Onassis. The story is fanciful and takes Darwin’s theory almost too literally. Vonnegut basically posed the question presumably solved by some iguanas of the distant past—namely, when humans suddenly find themselves permanently isolated on the Galápagos, how do such beings eventually evolve into an aquatic creature with fins and beak? For the answer, at least Vonnegut’s answer, his book is recommended. Take it with you when you visit the islands. (p. 41)

This book has to be the only natural history guide that cites Kurt, Mick, and Jackie O. Russell Crowe should be added to this list of notables, because on page 115 is a photograph of the odd looking pahoehoe lava, the exact patch seen in the film Master and Commander (2003) as soldiers walk along atop it. This guide misses nothing.

The chapter titled “Eminently Curious” chronicles Darwin’s trip to the Galápagos (p. 80-99). As important as the islands are to the history of evolution, Darwin barely mentions the Galápagos in his classic On the Origin of Species. Only 1.1% of the text (p. 83) discusses the Galápagos. Darwin’s initial feelings about the islands were far from positive.

Charles Darwin did not like what he saw. It was September 17, 1835, and the HMS Beagle had carried Darwin, then twenty-six years old, from his secure home in rural England to a forbidding archipelago of remote, and black volcanic islands in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, nearly 600 miles (about 1,000 km) west of the South American country of Ecuador. (p. 12)

Writing about divergence of closely related species, “Darwin used the Galápagos for two prongs of his argument: first that the flora and fauna of the archipelago are uncommonly related to mainland species, the nearest mainland species, and second, that among the islands themselves species diverge from one another.” (p. 84)

Every aspect of the natural history of the islands is covered. The ecology of the islands is unique. Even some of the island’s ecological zones may be unfamiliar to many readers. For instance, there is the Scalesia Zone, or the Tree Daisy Zone, similar in some aspects to the elfin forests of the High Andes. There are chapters on the ocean life around the islands, near shore and well offshore. There are meaty sections on the birds, with chapters on specific groups, including seabirds such as gulls and albatrosses. The Galápagos mockingbirds, which Darwin was initially more fascinated by than the finches, get their own section (p. 273–81). The finches are unique globally:

Evolution’s ornithological crown has eighteen jewels in it, and all but one reside on the Galápagos islands. Known to science as the Geospizinae, these birds are much more widely recognized as Darwin’s finches. (p. 281)

A chapter titled “Darwin’s Finches: Ancestry and Divergence” (p. 281–309) should be read by anyone with an interest in island evolution and species diversity. There are other sections on the tortoises, the invertebrates, the fishes, the mammals, the plants, the geology, and more. There is even an essay on how much barnacles influenced Darwin’s life (p. 323). The book ends with an island-by-island guide, with descriptions of landing sites, habitats found on each island, and what plants and wildlife you should expect to see on each island. If you visit the Galápagos, chances are excellent that whatever you see will be covered in this book.

Galápagos: A Natural History is generously illustrated with Kevin Loughlin’s top-notch photography. Some of these photographs are unique, like his shot of a frigatebird delicately holding a tiny sea horse in its bill (p. 208–9). The photographs, combined with the detailed text, will give the reader a vivid sense of what a visit to the islands is like. The reader is left with an in-depth understanding of why the Galápagos are famous in the history of ecology and evolution. There are a number of maps and charts as well.

Sadly, there are some dark clouds for the Galápagos on the horizon. Unsurprisingly, global climate change will ultimately change the ecology of the archipelago. But currently there is a real problem with drifting trash, often containing lots of plastics. Much of this trash is from illegal fishing boats, mostly from China, which feel no remorse leaving behind their garbage (p. 368). Loughlin includes several photographs of this shameful practice.

Galápagos: A Natural History is not an identification guide, listing all the field marks of the birds or fish. Rather, it is a state-of-the-art guide to the natural history of a specific place. It sets a new standard for what natural history books can accomplish in education. John Kricher has taught the subject matter of natural history, ecology, and evolution for decades. He knows how to convey the important ideas while holding the reader’s interest. Kevin Loughlin is a world-famous photographer and has photographed most of the islands’ residents and habitats. Putting these two talents together to write this guide is genius. Galápagos: A Natural History is thorough, always interesting, beautiful to look at, and the Baedeker for anyone visiting the islands.

“Though at first appearance, the Galápagos held little appeal for Darwin, in his nearly month-long visit, he garnered enough insight to change biology.” (p. 41)

Literature Cited

  • Kricher, John. Galápagos: A Natural History. 2006. Princeton University Press, Princeton New Jersey.
  • Kricher, John. The New Neotropical Companion. 2017. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.

To listen to interviews with the authors recorded by Mark Lynch for his radio show Inquiry, on WICN 90.5 FM, please use the following links:



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