While a few of the plates in John James Audubon’s landmark book The Birds of America (1827–1838) show specific locations, and the essays he wrote on bird life in Ornithological Biography often recount the details of his personal travels through North America, it’s fair to say that Audubon was a man much more focused on birds—and himself—than on social commentary or geographical depictions. To him, travel was a means to an end, with birds and his ability to record them in pen, pencil, and brush the primary focus of his far-flung peregrinations.

Denis Clavreul, a gifted contemporary artist and knowledgeable biologist, has just spent a decade and a half retracing his fellow Frenchman’s travels through North America. For him, the people and places he encountered along the way were every bit as important as the birds. His evocative watercolors of all 3 subjects, and his engaging account of his experiences,...

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