By Len Lear
Doug Wechsler, who has lived in Chestnut Hill for 22 years — and Wyndmoor for eight years before that — started training to write books on nature at the age of five. “That’s when I first became interested in birds,” said Doug, one of the nation’s most prolific authors of nature books for children. (He has written 23, some of which have won major awards that are too numerous to list here.) “Don’t ask me how that happened. I can’t remember. Sometime soon after that, I started collecting butterflies and beetles. Soon I also had snakes and lizards as pets.
“As a kid, I knew all of the birds, snakes, frogs and salamanders of the neighborhood. I spent much of my time in the woods and fields near our house. I also got the idea, probably from watching Wild Kingdom on TV, that when I grew up, I would catch animals in Africa for a living. That actually became partly true. I did spend a month in the country of Cameroon catching birds to photograph them.”
Wechsler’s latest book, just-published, is “The Hidden Life of a Toad” (Charlesbridge Publishing), filled with spectacular photos, also taken by Doug, who has “observed toads most of my life … I learned that weather brings toads out in the spring. I had to move quickly because most breeding takes place in just a few days.”
When asked his age, Doug, who has worked for the past 28 years for the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, replied, “It’s classified information.” Doug grew up in Oyster Bay, Long Island, and graduated from Oberlin College with a degree in biology.
One of Doug’s professors, Edwin O. Willis, had a profound influence on him. “I was already interested in the idea of visiting tropical forests,” Doug said, “but he was the one actually responsible for getting me there. He introduced me to tropical forests, and I learned a great deal about their natural history and ecology from him. Though I had watched birds since I was five, it was from him that I learned the importance of using your ears to find and identify birds. The work with professor Willis for a month in Panama and six months in Brazil opened doors to my future work in tropical forests …
“In Panama we followed army ants and kept notes on all of the birds that followed the ants. Why did they follow ants, you might ask? Most people guess to eat them. Actually, the birds eat crickets, cockroaches and other little creatures that are trying to escape from the ants.”
After his work in Panama and Brazil, Doug went to work with the Seattle Audubon Society trying to save habitat. As part of this effort, he began writing articles about conservation. His first book was inspired by many of the insect photos he took in Costa Rica. While working out of a house deep in the jungle, he would bring back the strangest insect he found each day and call it the “weird bug of the day.” Ten years later many of these insects wound up in Doug’s book, “Bizarre Bugs.”
After 13 years in Seattle, Doug came to Philadelphia to take the job as Director of VIREO (Visual Resources for Ornithology at the Academy of Natural Sciences). There he has run the largest collection of bird photographs in the world, more than 100,000. After almost three decades at the Academy, “I don’t like to say I am retired. I am working hard to create more children’s books and to present programs on natural history and nature photography.”
What Doug likes most about living in Chestnut Hill is “being close to the Wissahickon, Schuylkill Center, Morris Arboretum and Fort Washington State Park, which allows me to get out into nature easily. I also love that I can walk to the co-op, the library, the train station and many stores on the Avenue.”
Wechsler and his wife, Debbie, have spent the last two winters in Ecuador volunteering for the Jocotoco Conservation Foundation. (You can see photos from the reserves where they lived on Doug’s website. The Jocotoco Foundation is a non-governmental organization established in 1998 to protect land of critical importance to the conservation of Ecuador’s endangered birds and associated biodiversity. To date, the foundation has established 10 reserves protecting about 37,000 acres.)
“Many of the birds I have photographed in South America are threatened by habitat destruction,” Doug said. “Forests are being lost to agriculture and logging. Climate change is also a threat. Some birds like the Jocotoco Antpitta are extremely rare and would possibly be gone if it weren’t for the Jocotoco Conservation Foundation.”
What kind of education are most kids getting these days about the creatures Doug has photographed? “My impression is that it is superficial and does not include much first-hand observation. I would like to see more classes getting out into the woods and fields, experiencing nature and observing wildlife.”
What does Doug consider his greatest achievement? “My books, especially those on toads, salt marshes and vernal pools. (Ed. Note: Doug says the difference between a frog and a toad is that “a frog has smooth, moist skin and jumps with its long legs; a toad has dry, warty skin and hops with its short legs.”)
What is Doug’s biggest pet peeve? “Monsanto (a St. Louis-based multinational chemical and agricultural biotechnology corporation). It appears they would like to change the world so we will be dependent on their chemicals, with little regard for our health.”
What is the proper role of government in environmental protection and wildlife preservation? “Government should take a leading role in assuring that the environment is not contaminated by toxic chemicals or those that will change our climate … Government has not been sufficiently attentive to many of these issues, though for others it has been. Overall I would have given it a C for past performance. Now it’s heading for an F- with the present congress and president.”
For more information about any of Doug’s books, visit dougwechsler.com. Signed copies of “The Hidden Life of a Toad” are available from the author (email@example.com). Free delivery in Chestnut Hill.