Imagine time-traveling back more than five decades to the early days of the organization that became Western Field Ornithologists. What bird would you have chosen to grace the cover of the new quarterly, California Birds, the journal now known as Western Birds?
That was the question a group of birders in the San Diego area pondered before releasing the inaugural issue in 1970. The discussion began when they formed the Rare Bird Committee, today’s California Bird Records Committee. The group, referred to as “the founders,” met regularly to bird and usually gathered at Alan and Jean Craig’s house.
Forming the Rare Bird Committee and detailing how it would function were significant steps. But what would the committee members do with the information from the reports they solicited, reviewed, and validated? The answer: Publish a journal. Two founders—Pierre DeVillers, from Belgium, and Guy McCaskie, from Great Britain—were familiar with British Birds, a journal that dated to the early 1900s. The cover of British Birds displayed a Red Grouse.
For California Birds, there were practical considerations. The journal would be printed in black and white, the use of color being prohibitively expensive at the time. That narrowed the choices. One contender was the Yellow-billed Magpie. “What is an interesting bird in California that people get excited about seeing?” McCaskie remembers the group asking themselves. Everyone enjoyed observing seabirds. Sabine’s Gull (Xema sabini) was seen both inland and on pelagic trips. Not only was it exciting; it was black and white.
Virginia P. Coughran, another founder, drew the Sabine’s Gull for the cover of Vol. 1, #1, 1970, published by the newly formed California Field Ornithologists. The front matter of the first issue opened with an editorial by Alan Craig outlining the purpose of California Birds. Following that was McCaskie’s statement describing the process by which the Rare Bird Committee would review reports submitted for publication in the quarterly. Both are reprinted on the current California Bird Records Committee website.
Coughran continued to design the covers of California Birds for many years. Beginning with the second issue, she inserted her initials, VPC, alongside her rendering. In 1973 the journal became Western Birds, to expand its geographic coverage to western states and provinces, followed shortly thereafter by CFO changing its name to Western Field Ornithologists. By that issue, Virginia Coughran had become Virginia P. Johnson, known to many as Ginger Johnson, and had changed her credit on the cover to VPJ.
Eight years later, with Vol. 12, No. 1, the cover of Western Birds was printed in color. The Sabine’s Gull, still using Johnson’s design, migrated to the upper right and partly took on the background hue that surrounded the featured color photograph. Johnson worked on the quarterly, laying out each issue and managing the graphics, through 2022. In 2010 she received the Alan M. Craig Award, named after the journal’s first editor and one of the WFO founders. At the presentation honoring her many years of dedication to Western Birds among other contributions, she received a framed print of Sabine’s Gulls in flight.
WFO’s Sabine’s Gull has carried on from the early years when the quarterly’s pages were assembled by hand to the digital era. Fittingly, the Xema Society, WFO’s new legacy program, is named for the gull’s genus. The logo appears at the top of the WFO website and has been emblazoned on T-shirts. It is also on the WFO hat you wear in the field.
—Judith Dunham, eNews editor
Special thanks to Guy McCaskie for sharing details of WFO’s early history.