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The Birding Adventures Of Vera And Bob Thornton

Wildlife enthusiasts Vera and Bob Thornton have climbed an 80-foot tree in Venezuela and traveled to a dozen or more countries in pursuit of their twin passions: birding and photography.
By Nancy Nichols |

Vera and Bob Thornton have published two books (below) as a result of their birding adventures. Find both at Wild Birds Unlimited, Barnes & Noble, Borders, and other retail outlets.

Taking Flight

Vera and Bob Thornton have climbed an 80-foot tree and traveled the globe in pursuit of their twin passions: birding and photography.

Vera Thornton might weigh 100 pounds if she were wet and holding all of her camera equipment. She’s an elegant lady who, at first glance, appears to be a woman who would be more comfortable at a charity ball than dangling from a tree 80 feet above the ground, deep in the rainforest of Venezuela.

But my story of Vera and Bob Thornton, the husband-and-wife authors and photographers of two delightful, not-your-average-nerd-style bird books Chasing Warblers and Chasing Neotropical Birds, begins with Vera wet and holding her camera deep in the tropical rainforest of Venezuela. The couple was chasing the elusive”and rarely photographed”Capuchinbird, nicknamed the calf bird because, among its other unusual habits, it moos like a cow. The twosome had already battled poisonous snakes, biting army ants, and miserable weather before locating the Capuchinbird just outside of the town of Las Claritas in eastern Venezuela. For three days the dynamic duo, who’d hired a professional mountain climber to rig a pulley system to heave them up a giant laurel tree, rose before dawn, strapped themselves into harnesses, and were hoisted eight stories high to the top of the rainforest canopy. There, about 100 yards away, hundreds of male Capuchinbirds were mooing in hopes of attracting the attention of a female.

It was at this point that we seriously questioned what in the hell we’d gotten ourselves into, Bob says. Here’s Vera and I riding a limb no thicker than a telephone pole, swaying in a tree in the rain, trying to protect her equipment, and trying to get close enough to get a shot off.

Three days later, after they’d shrugged off what Bob calls the unique brand of anxiety that often seems to accompany poor personal judgment, the couple got lucky just as time and daylight were running out.

Did this Indiana Jones sense of adventure stem from a life long passion of birding and photography? Vera and I weren’t really into the birding or the photography thing, says Bob, the recently retired vice chairman of J.P. Morgan Chase Dallas and an avid naturalist. But I’d always been curious to see the spring migration when millions and millions of the neotropical migrants come through the Gulf Coast of Texas.

They were also aware of the neotropical migrant trap, or fall out phenomenon, which happens when migrating birds get a spell of bad weather. When the weather is clear, birds that spend winter deep in the tropics begin to head north and breeze easily across the Gulf of Mexico. But occasionally the birds get a bad break: Those that have already flown halfway across the Gulf meet strong northerly winds and rain that pushes them back as they attempt to move forward. The birds that eventually make it to the shores along the Texas coast literally spiral out of the sky and fall to the ground to rest and recuperate.

In the early 90s, the couple visited High Island. On her first day of birding, Vera witnessed a fall out. She was hooked. I felt so privileged, she says, aware of the fact that seasoned birders may wait a lifetime for the experience. Here were all these tiny beautiful birds in colors of blue and red, like Christmas tree ornaments, scattered at my feet. Vera grabbed her camera and clicked away. We took photographs that day simply because we had the camera, and the pictures turned out so well, Bob says. We said, Gee, this is kind of a fun thing to do.

It was on that day that the Thorntons photographed their first warbler and decided to see how many different species they could photograph. We’ve been told that nobody else has ever photographed all of the nested wood warblers in the U.S., Bob says. He also freely admits that the list is not long for those who ever wanted to spend all of their free time trying to photograph a 4-inch bird.

Forty species into the project, they redirected their goal: to capture all 52 warblers. It took the dedicated couple seven years and around 20 trips to remote areas of Canada, Oregon, Arizona, West Virginia, Connecticut, and Arkansas to complete the task. Chasing Warblers was published in 1999. Six years later, in May 2005, after countless trips through 11 countries, they published Chasing Neotropical Birds with pictures of 116 elusive specimens.

What’s next? Perhaps a book on the exotic birds of Mexico, but right now they are taking it easy. They are both very involved with the exciting nature scene around here.

Even though Dallas is not noted for the richness of its special habitat or wildlife, thanks to many generous and dedicated local birders and wildlife enthusiasts, Dallas will soon become an even greater birding city. Huge projects such as The Audubon facility in Trinity Forest and the Dogwood Canyon project will make Dallas an important birding destination, says Bob Thornton, who has been on The Nature Conservancy’s board for more than 20 years. How’s that for an unusual set of circumstances?

Obviously no more unusual than climbing an 80-foot tree to take a picture of a 3-ounce bird.

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