Amherst Magazine

Prettier Than a Speckled Pup Under a Red Wagon

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To get the photos in Waterbirds (Norton, 2009), Theodore Cross ’46 ventured to tropical Christmas Island, subarctic Funk Island and the remote Kolma River Delta

Reviewed by Richard Goldsby

[Coffee-table book]  To get the shots in Waterbirds you have to be very skilled. But even great skill is not enough. You have to go where the birds are—the egrets, terns, puffins, eagles. You have to be willing to take some risks and be blessed with great patience. Many of the photographs in Waterbirds, by Ted Cross, who died on Feb. 28, 2010, come from exotic locations: tropical Christmas Island in the far western Pacific, Ellesmere Island just below the North Pole, the remote Kolma River Delta in distant northeastern Siberia—these are just some of the places Cross ventured hoping for intersection with chosen quarry.

Cross also traveled to subarctic Funk Island in the North Atlantic, a great place to photograph murres, puffins, gulls, gannets and others, but physically a godforsaken, stinking, guano-covered rock, barely a thousand yards long, uninhabited and without docking facilities. Getting on the island requires jumping from an open boat onto a slab of rock; miss, and you are in icy water, likely to suffer a frigid death in the surging currents. Fortunately for us, the then-66-year-old Cross made two broad jumps—off and successfully back onto the pitching deck of the fishing boat.

With Waterbirds, Cross, in his photo­graphs and detailed textual notes, has created a work of poetic beauty and
elegance. The book’s generous gallery of often beautiful and always crisp portraits of a dazzling variety of waterbirds justifies the sustained and occasionally risky effort required to hunt them down in their habitat. Our gallery tour is led by the author, an enthusiastic and knowledgeable docent, whose text provides an opportunity to learn something about the remarkable creatures captured in the images. Some birds are included for their striking beauty, among them the lovely and difficult-to-sight Ross’s Gull, with its “dovelike head and delicate necklace of black feathers.” In quirky contrast, we also see the Atlantic Puffin and the Horned Puffin, birds with massive, colorful beaks that appear comically mismatched to the rest of their bodies. Cross introduces the puffin as a bird “resembling a small parrot dressed in a tuxedo.” He reveals that these familiar birds are surprisingly fast fliers and accomplished underwater swimmers, able to feed on fish at depths of as much as a 100 feet.

If the author finds a hero among the birds he serves up in this visual feast, it is probably the Red Knot, a bird the size of a robin that shuttles 8,000 miles each way on its route between “Tierra del Fuego at the bottom of the world, to a nesting site on one of the islands in the highest point of the Canadian Arctic.” During this commute, the Red Knot sometimes flies 300 miles at a stretch, occasionally hitting speeds of 45 miles per hour. By the time it reaches its seventh birthday, a Red Knot has flown a distance equivalent to circling the globe four times. Cross also includes two photos of bald eagles that are especially fierce and iconic; our nation’s seal would be improved by replacement of the current exemplar with either of these splendid creatures, nevermind the author’s reminder that Ben Franklin found the bald eagle a “rank coward of bad moral character.”

Besides birds, many other interests commanded the attention of Cross, who served as a trustee of many organizations, including Amherst, the Folger Shakespeare Library and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. He was a major commentator on African-American economic development, and for more than 16 years, he published The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, a broad, thoughtful and reliable chronicle of events in this important and often underreported part of the landscape of higher education.

Upon finishing Waterbirds, some readers will wonder how someone so widely and busily engaged as Cross, with concerns quite unrelated to the life of birds, found the time to create Waterbirds, a book that a member of his birding group, the late Dewey Wills, a poet of his Louisiana patois, surely would have declared to be prettier than a speckled pup under a red wagon.

Goldsby is a professor of biology and a John Woodruff Simpson Lecturer at Amherst.