Water Babies

by William Burt


(W. W. Norton/Countryman, October 2015)


For 40 years, photographer William Burt has chased after the birds few people see: first rails, then bitterns, nightjars, and other skulkers – and now these, elusive creatures of a very different kind: the Water Babies. They are the subjects of his new book.



The “babies” are the downy young of ducks, grebes, gallinules and shorebirds, herons, and the other birds of wetlands – those that get their feet wet, as it were – and challenging they are, to birder and photographer alike: quick-footed, wary, and well-camouflaged, to say the least; and temporary. You have only a week or two each year in which to find them. But above all else, they are endearing. From the comic-monster herons to the fuzzy ducklings and stick-legged sandpipers, these tots have personality, and spunk. You see it in their faces, every one.

To find these youngsters and adults Burt prowled their wetland breeding grounds each spring and summer for some 7 years, all over North America, from the arctic circle to the Gulf of Mexico. The result: a portrait of these wild birds of the wetlands as both young and old, unknown and known, new and familiar.

How many could you recognize?

For a preview of the book:


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Marshes: The Disappearing Edens

by William Burt


(Yale University Press, 2007)


Catalog Description:  


"Drawn since boyhood to the beauty and allure of marshes, naturalist William Burt has prowled them by day and night, in every season, from one edge of North America to the other. For thirty years he has hauled his large-format camera with him, seeking to capture on film the elusive birds, the wildflowers and grasses, and the unique wild beauty of the marshes. In this breathtakingly lovely book, he selects ninety of his most striking photographs. He also offers his reflections on the marshes he has visited, inviting his readers to come with him and become acquainted with this hidden world, its richness, and its vulnerability.


Burt explores marshes near and far, from Connecticut to Manitoba, the Gulf of Mexico, California’s Central Valley, the Northern Plains, and elsewhere. His photographs explore all aspects and seasons of marsh life but focus especially on such shy inhabitants as rails, bitterns, grebes, and gallinules. While the photographs tell stories of their own, Burt’s narrative invokes the marshes of the past and compares them to today’s, with prose as picture-sharp as the photography.


No book has ever evoked the mystery and beauty of the marshes so compellingly as this by William Burt. And no reader, having accompanied the author to this secret world, will fail to appreciate the rare privilege of having been there."


from Reviews:

"William Burt has an enviable gift: the power, with prose and camera lens, to persuade a reader of Marshes that these 'disappearing Edens' are among the most remarkable places on earth. Believe him."—House & Garden

"Photographer and bird lover Burt has had a love affair with marshes since childhood, and this book portrays, in words and photographs, his romantically tinged tour of North American marshlands and his take on how they've changed since the early explorer-naturalists first found them."—Publishers Weekly


“Burt melds the eye of an artist, the soul of a poet, the dedication of a religious acolyte, and the wizardry of seldom-seen nature photography to create a stunning evocation of the edenic marshlands of North America.  This is simply a marvelous production.”

Bernd Heinrich  (author of Ravens in Winter and Winter World)


"Naturalist Burt uses his considerable literary and photographic skills to describe the mysterious beauty of rapidly disappearing wetlands. More than half a dozen states have lost 80% of their wetlands. An estimated 99% of Iowa’s wetlands have been lost to agriculture. A constant battle rages for water, the most precious of resources, and a never-ending argument ensues over how it should be best used. Burt points out that humankind’s shortsightedness is matched by threatening natural elements, such as the
common reed that overwhelms other plants and is extremely difficult to eradicate. His photographic journey moves from Oregon along the coastline, then on to Texas and Louisiana, up the Atlantic seaboard, and into Canada.  Capturing on film elusive spoonbills, bitterns, and herons sheltered by elegantly shaped plants with delightful names like sea pink, sweet flag, swamp rose mallow, silverweed, and blue flag, Burt delights in and educates readers about the fragility and importance of wetlands."

Pamela Crossland, Booklist



Rare & Elusive Birds of North America

by William Burt


(Rizzoli / Universe, 2001)


Late on a June night, in the middle of a vast Spartina marsh in eastern Maryland, William Burt achieved his long-time goal: to photograph the black rail, a mythic red-eyed bird so rare and secretive, so deftly elusive in the fine grass of its meadow home, that few ornithologists had ever even seen it.


But this was just the first of many picture quests, and the first phase of a mission that would occupy him for some 16 years in the marshes, swamps and bogs and other wild lands all over North America.  His mission: to photograph all 20 of the most elusive “ghost birds” on the continent, and to photograph them well, as never before, close up and undisturbed in their wild and secret haunts.


He pursued these trying subjects day and night alike, often spending weeks in the field at a time and visiting sites repeatedly, year after year in certain cases, to get the pictures he was after.  He photographed the five other rails, both of the bitterns, and the elusive nightjars − an endeavor that itself required five seasons’ unrelenting effort − and then half a dozen other kinds that birders long to see, and seldom do.  Finally, in 1999, in the mossy bogs of northern Minnesota, he photographed bird number 20: the Connecticut warbler.


The fruition of those 16 years is showcased in his book, Rare & Elusive Birds of North America, beautifully published by Rizzoli/Universe in 2001.  The book combines Burt’s photographs with his stories of the searches, the places, the secret birds themselves, and the old-time naturalists who searched before.


from Reviews:


“In engaging prose, photographer and naturalist Burt records the 16 summers he spent in search of 20 of America’s most elusive and mysterious birds, captured in 57 arresting photographs.  Sprinkled with relevant quotes from Thoreau, Audubon, Seton, and others, his text is poetic and lyrical yet grounded by a scientist’s eye for fact and an appreciation for place and history.  Burt’s epic, singular odyssey in the plains, prairies, coastal marshes, bogs, and woodlands are compellingly and entertainingly set forth.  End chapters provide photographic advice, well-annotated lists of references, and vivid descriptions of these unusual, near-mythic birds.  Highly recommended.”

 Henry T. Armistead,   Library Journal  (September, 2001)                                                                      


“His work reveals delicate patterns and unexpected beauty…..  The photographs are vivid, sometimes startling glimpses through the natural keyholes of thicket, grass and leaves at secret birds, caught unaware.”

James Gorman,   The New York Times  (Weekend − December 21, 2001)


“William Burt is a perfectionist whose photographs of rails and other shy and elusive birds of our wetlands are unquestionably the finest ever taken.  He has set a new standard.”

Roger Tory Peterson  (on jacket)


“The full-color photographs are stunning – rich and detailed – showing these species in their natural habitats as few people have ever seen them.  The text is a wonderfully engaging narrative of the travels behind each photograph.  Ultimately, this is the story of one man’s quest, and the satisfaction of exploration and discovery.”

 David Allen Sibley,   House & Garden Magazine  (November, 2001)


“The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins once wrote, Glory be to God for dappled things… and I think that Mr. Burt must have taken this to heart at an early age .…

….William Burt (has) a unique and hauntingly beautiful prose style and brilliant photographic skills. This book is a treat to the eye and inner ear and I enjoyed every dip into its crepuscular waters.”  (February, 2002)




by William Burt

(Lyons & Burford, 1994)


“Nature photographer Burt writes hauntingly and evocatively of his search for two species of secretive marsh birds: black rails and yellow rails.  Reluctant ever to fly and largely nocturnal, these cryptic, almost mythical birds skulk through marsh grass unseen.  Fortunately for Burt, they do call vigorously in the breeding season, and his exquisite color photographs of the birds are legendary among birders.  He takes the reader to Chesapeake Bay marshes to find black rails and their nests and to Manitoba, North Dakota, and other prairie regions for yellows.  Much of the yellow rail segment concerns his search for and miraculous relocation, 90 years later, of haunts visited by a kindred spirit, a Rev. P.B. Peabody.  Full of musings, philosophy, and lyric descriptions of the rails’ chosen habitats, Shadowbirds is a fine read.  Highly recommended.”

Henry T. Armistead,  Library Journal   (May 15, 1994)




“Burt has done it – captured in words the magic spell those marvelously elusive phantoms of the marsh, the tiniest rails, cast over him. Readers of Shadowbirds will find themselves inexplicably drawn to the marsh…..”

S. Dillon Ripley  (Secretary Emeritus, Smithsonian Institution)

 “This book is a little gem ….. It is on a prominent place on my bookshelf, along with other classics of Nature Writing….”

 Bernd Heinrich, Wild Earth (Spring 1997)

“Told with exceptional grace and good humor…. I recommend this book wholeheartedly.”

 Roger Tory Peterson

“It is impressive enough that Burt has fashioned mysterious and engaging characters out of a couple of eccentric birds. Add to that an absorbing storyline and a talent for depicting the places he roams, and this modest book takes on rather grand proportions.”

Kirkus Reviews (March 15, 1994) 


“In pursuing two obscure species at considerable expense, personal risk, and sacrifice, William Burt becomes the quintessential trophy hunter.  In sharing his quest with us, he’s written one of the best natural histories of the decade.”

George Reiger  (Author, Essayist)


“Burt has a marvelous knack for keeping his quest in often humorous perspective.  This is a first-rate book by a talented and sensitive writer, an effort that reaches far beyond the story of capturing images on film.”

Nelson Bryant  (Columnist, The New York Times)

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