There’s always a moment of surprise when you’re with Lillian and Don Stokes. On a recent visit to the backyard of the nation’s best-selling nature writers, the moment occurred when a large hawk arched overhead and landed in a nearby tree. The Stokeses responded with the excitement of predators spotting their quarry. Lillian, 53, nailed the ID. “It’s a Cooper’s hawk! Female!”
Don, 50, began the tutorial: “That’s an unusual hawk in that it eats other birds …”
“Notice how quiet it is,” injected Lillian. The background twittering of young goldfinches had indeed stopped.
As hosts of the country’s first weekly TV show about bird-watching, the Stokeses will bring their surprises into living rooms beginning this week when “BirdWatch with Don and Lillian Stokes” premieres on PBS stations throughout the country.
It may well be the most spontaneous nature show on television. You could film for years and never capture a wild mountain lion on tape, so some filmmakers trap animals in enclosures and fake the drama. But birds are all around us. So, although the Stokeses work with a script they write, unexpected birds are always popping up while the TV camera is rolling: a golden eagle zooming overhead while they are filming hummingbirds in Medeira Canyon in Arizona; a startled swallowtail kite taking flight while they’re filming wood storks in the Everglades.
The Stokeses live for these moments and shout and point with more genuine enthusiasm than most game-show contestants who hit the jackpot.
Before moving on to birding hot spots around the country, each of the first 13 “BirdWatch” episodes begins with a segment in the Stokeses’ own 5-acre Carlisle backyard, where they show how to entice birds to visit by adding birdhouses, feeders, water, and berry-producing shrubs.
Certainly the Stokeses, who have a total of 3 million copies of their 21 books in print, jumped into landscaping with the thorough, fact-based enthusiasm they bring to every project. That meant studying garden history, traveling to Europe to visit gardens for ideas, and auditioning a zillion plants. “When we do something, we delve deeply,” said Lillian, who met her husband 18 years ago when she took his class on bird behavior for the Massachusetts Audubon Society.
It’s all a balancing act, the yin and yang of birds’ needs and people’s desires, of formal beauty and low maintenance.
On their new TV show, the Stokeses use their yard as a classroom, and they’ve made it an attractive one. If the show is successful, what they’ve done here in Carlisle to bring the two most popular outdoor hobbies - gardening and bird-watching - into convergence may influence back yards across the United States.
They have high hopes for the show, which they’ve co-produced with Charles F. Rattigan and Connecticut Public Television.
“There’s never been a TV series about backyard birds,” said Don. “You’ve seen more birds from Africa or South America on TV. The media says nature is somewhere else, never where you are. We want people to know that nature is one step away.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: ON TV “BirdWatch with Don and Lillian Stokes” is scheduled to to run 13 weeks on KSPS, Spokane Public Television, beginning Saturday at 11:30 a.m.