Birding passion

By Dan Petersen

Special to the News-Times

Publishing stunning photography books of Whidbey Island birds is not what Craig and Joy Johnson do for a living.

It is what they do for fun.

The authors of the just-published “Our Puget Sound Birds and Habitat” are quick to point out their real livelihood is commercial watercolor art and illustration of maritime vessels. They work from a small woodland home near Freeland, where they could not help noticing the wild birds all around. Curiosity took them in a direction they could not have predicted. “We started photographing the birds to help us identify them,” Craig Johnson said.

Putting their passion for birds together with Craig’s background in graphic arts and Joy’s talents as a writer, the Johnsons took a leap of faith and self-published 1,000 copies of a modest book, “Our Puget Sound Backyard Birds.” It was soon followed by a second, “Our Puget Sound Backyard Birds II.” Their third and latest is a 100-page, full-color paperback that sells for $25 in island bookstores and wild bird shops. The photography is breathtaking. As with the earlier volumes, many of the photos in this one were taken in familiar Whidbey Island settings.

“People tell me they had no idea all these birds were out there,” Craig Johnson says. “I am using the book as a tool to get these birds in front of people who might not normally notice them.”

Designing and publishing books adds a big workload to an already demanding job, Johnson admits. “But it is well worthwhile if it helps others discover these fabulously specialized creatures and how they adapt to their habitat.”

On Saturday, Feb. 2, the Johnsons will share remarkable close-up images when they present “Birds of Whidbey Island,” one of 54 classes offered to the public at the one-day Sound Waters University, on the campus of Coupeville middle and high schools. Online registration for the day-long event opens today, Jan. 2, and continues until Jan. 18 at Favorite classes fill fast, so prompt registration is recommended. The $35 fee includes the keynote address, any three classes, snacks and coffee. An optional box lunch may be reserved for $8.50.

Sound Waters University, now in its 14th year, typically attracts more than 500 attendees from Whidbey and Camano islands and the northern Puget Sound region. It is organized by Washington State University Beach Watchers of Island County (, a volunteer organization currently about 270-strong that carries out marine science and education projects in Island County and has recently expanded throughout Puget Sound.

Sound Waters classes are presented by a cross section of authors, educators, enthusiasts and experts. The Johnsons are typical in that their enthusiasm is infectious and their passion for birds goes well beyond photography. Craig Johnson worries that habitat loss poses a great threat to many species of birds living and breeding on Whidbey Island. “Working with Whidbey Audubon as conservation chair is helping me dig into those issues, though I have much to learn,” he says.

The Johnsons work as a team. Craig does the photography, design and watercolors. Joy does the writing and also helps spot the birds while Craig is concentrating on the camera. Since they do not consider books their actual livelihood, they donate the proceeds from book sales to wildlife preservation and conservation work.

In addition to the Johnsons’ class, a partial list of other courses offered at the Feb. 2 event includes local archaeology, bats, bluffs, beaches, crabs, Cama Beach, ferry lore, fishing spots, ground water, kelp, kayaking, orcas, marine mammals, mushroom hunting, native plants, raptors, renewable energy, salmon, seafood, seaweed, sea lions, septic systems, shellfish, local state parks, tidal energy, plastic pollution, wetlands, wildlife art and undersea denizens.

Keynote speaker will be the state’s top leader for Puget Sound recovery, David Dicks. He is executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership, charged by Gov. Christine Gregoire with the formidable challenge of reversing the decline in Puget Sound’s health by the year 2020. His talk, starting at 9 a.m. in the middle school auditorium, is “A Bold New Approach to Saving Puget Sound.”

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