Archive for category Book Reviews
The Owl and the Woodpecker: Encounters with North America’s Most Iconic Birds, by Paul Bannick, The Mountaineers Books (http://www.mountaineersbooks.org), 2008, 200 pages, $ 26.95.
Maybe I’ve spent too many years looking down, scanning the ground for wildlife (I am, after all, a herpetologist), but it wasn’t until photographer Paul Bannick’s The Owl and the Woodpecker that I realized how critical a keystone species woodpeckers are to their winged cousins. In much the same way ground squirrels interweave the earth with burrows that become superhighways and refugia for fellow ground-dwelling insects, amphibians, reptiles, small mammals, and even some birds (say, burrowing owls), so too does the woodpecker riddle the woods with cavities that become the tenements and penthouses for owls and an impressive array of woodland creatures.
Combining the best of both worlds, Bannick both shows and tells the rich natural histories of these two indicator species through well-researched text and jaw-dropping photography. Bannick, always fascinated by the glimpses of owls and woodpeckers fortune put in his path as a youth, decided in 2005 to photograph every North American woodpecker and owl as a way of drawing attention to these species’ plight and the questionable future of the sensitive habitats they depend on for survival. The result is a captivating compendium of facts and photography, a true testimony to Bannick’s mastery of light, timing, birding, and patience. In the scores of photographs Bannick carefully selected for these pages, his timing with the shutter freezes in place cascades of wood chips, wriggling insects bound for ravenous fledglings, the spray of feathers on touchdown, the buoyancy of wingtips on liftoff. Every page is one delight after the next, capturing the prismatic color and charisma of these spectacular birds.
Bannick’s photography unabashedly venerates the owl and the woodpecker, and rightfully so. If nothing else, Bannick’s work serves to remind us why it is so important to look up – to catch sight of these treetop totems.
The Tortoise: A Publication of the Turtle Conservancy (http://turtleconservancy.org), Volume 1, Number 1, 2012, 160 pages, $25.00.
Late last year, the Turtle Conservancy published the inaugural issue of The Tortoise, “a magazine dedicated to the appreciation and conservation of tortoises and turtles and their habitats.” The Turtle Conservancy is the nonprofit scientific and educational organization behind the Behler Chelonian Center, an AZA-Certified turtle and tortoise conservation facility in southern California that acts as a hub for research and conservation around the globe, and as a breeding facility and assurance colony stronghold for at-risk species. There on the center’s lush mediterranean grounds, more than 650 individuals representing some 28 species of endangered turtles and tortoises are cared for and bred in a gamble against the possible extinction their cohorts face in the wild from habitat loss or collection for the food and pet trades. And these are just some of the species featured in the debut issue of The Tortoise.
From Madagascar’s ploughshare tortoise to the Pinta and Floreana tortoises of the Galapagos Islands, The Tortoise features thirteen stories by Turtle Conservancy associates in the trenches with the world’s dwindling chelonian populations. The stories vary from accounts of the turtle and tortoise trade (“Widely Endangered and Widely Available”) to glimpses of the Turtle Conservancy’s many projects (“The Bolson Tortoise”) to swan songs for species on the brink (“The Geometric Tortoise, Quietly ‘Slipping’ Into Extinction”).
Reading The Tortoise cover to cover, two articles stood out of the crowd. In “Turtle Soup for Dinner”, Peter Laufer, author of Forbidden Creatures: Inside the World of Animal Smuggling and Exotic Pets and The Dangerous World of Butterflies: The Startling Subculture of Criminals, Collectors, and Conservationists, reflects on his introduction to turtles and tortoises as he explored the worlds of the animal trade and obsessive collectors. In “On the Track of the Volcan Wolf Tortoise”, renown herpetologist Peter C. H. Pritchard explains the important role genetics can play not only in understanding the distribution of species in an island system, but also in rediscovering the genes (and on occasion the individuals) of species presumed extinct in the wild.
Although it isn’t clear whether The Tortoise will be an annual, quarterly, or – less likely – a monthly periodical, the breadth and scope of the magazine is promising. With little exception, nearly every photograph was worthy of a high-end coffee table book. The full and half page spreads, as if each story were part photoessay, gave the photography top billing. With so much backing this endeavor, I look forward to future issues in the hope that by broadcasting their message under The Tortoise‘s banner, the Turtle Conservancy’s work to conserve the world’s turtles and tortoises will succeed.
Hawks in Flight (2nd ed.), by Pete Dunne, David Sibley, and Clay Sutton, Houghton Mifflin Company (www.hmhbooks.com), 2012, 384 pages, $ 26.00.
In the parlance of birders, there are two kinds of known unknowns: the LBBs (“little brown birds”) and the BBBs (“big black birds”). Both acronyms are code for the befuddlement that ensues when confronted by a bird that moves too quickly or is too distant to identify on the fly. For as long as birding has been a hobby, field guides have struggled with how to guide their users toward a successful (and painless) species identification. And even though field guides marked a departure from the traditional shotgun approach (literally), to this day even the most detailed black and white illustrations, color photography, or careful field marks still handicap observers to what they can see through a pair of field glasses. At 100, 1,000, and 10,000 feet, the bird in flight is increasingly a different beast than the bird at rest. Field marks vanish, colors blur, and songs get carried away in the breeze.
With that in mind, Hawks in Flight tackles the lofty goal of hawk identification when your BBBs have taken to the skies. Unlike the recently reviewed Hawks at a Distance: Identification of Migrant Raptors – which capitalized on identification through photographs taken… well, at a distance against cloudy to brilliant skies – Hawks in Flight emphasizes a distant hawk’s gestalt and carriage – its patterns, posture, form, character, and placement in the sky. Hawks in Flights treats the silhouette as a bird in and of itself to scry the shadow’s caster.
Reprising their roles for this, the guide’s second edition, Dunne, Sibley, and Sutton have updated Hawks in Flight to include all hawks that breed in the United States and Canada, including the California condor. Following intuition rather than convention, the guide is broken up into chapters that lump birds easily mistaken for each other: the buteos (red-tailed hawk, red-shouldered hawk, broad-winged hawk, Swainson’s hawk, rough-legged hawk, ferruginous hawk), the accipiters (sharp-shinned hawk, Cooper’s hawk, northern goshawk), the falcons (American kestrel, merlin, peregrine falcon, prairie falcon, gyrfalcon), and the eagles and vultures (bald eagle, golden eagle, turkey vulture), not to mention white-tailed kite, northern harrier, and osprey. These and other specialty chapters also cover east coast species, borderland species, Florida species, and other regional variants and subspecies. In each chapter, the focus is on wing shape, body proportions, areas of light and dark (patches, windows, commas, bars, stripes), and flight behavior. And in closing each chapter, there is an emphasis on teasing confusing species apart by examining the pitfalls and pratfalls of misidentification.
Pairing concise illustrations (Sibley, natch), sterling photography, and tried-and-true wisdom (“To simplify the identification process, don’t look at a hawk perched on the crossbar of a utility pole, perched on a tree along the highway, or soaring over a woodlot and wonder, ‘Now, which one of North America’s ten buteo species is that?’ Ask instead, ‘Is that a Red-tailed?’”), Hawks in Flight is both practical and revolutionary, helping to close the gap between bird and birder.
Rafetus: The Curve of Extinction, by Peter C. H. Pritchard, Living Arts Publishing (www.livingartspublishing.com), 2012, 173 pages, $65.00.
In recent years, there has been a well-deserved groundswell of interest in what has been called the rarest freshwater turtle species in the world, Swinhoe’s softshell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei). Some of the Swinhoe’s softshell turtle’s fame stems from it featuring prominently in Vietnamese legend as the fabled Sword Lake Turtle, which inhabits Hoàn Kiếm Lake (“The Lake of the Returned Sword”) in Hanoi, Vietnam. But more important than its legendary status is its rarity. There are only four Swinhoe’s softshell turtles known to exist in the wild or captivity – much like Lonesome George, hailed the last remaining Pinta Island tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra abingdonii) before George’s passing in 2012.
Not so long ago, in late 2007 the Hoàn Kiếm turtle was one of only three Swinhoe’s softshell turtles in existence: Vietnam’s Sword Lake Turtle, plus two known from China – an older male on display at the Suzhou Zoo and a recently re-discovered female, “China Girl,” part of the Changsha Zoo’s, collection. Of the eight Swinhoe’s softshell turtles known to scientists to exist in the wild or captivity in the preceding years, the remaining five had died since the 1990s: two in the West Garden Buddhist temple in Suzhou; one in the Suzhou Zoo; one in the Shanghai Zoo; and one in the Beijing Zoo. The following year, experts from Cleveland Metroparks Zoo’s Asian Turtle Program and Education for Nature-Vietnam announced in April 2008 that they had successfully photographed and confirmed a second wild individual – the fourth of its kind alive today in the wild or captivity – west of Hanoi in Đồng Mỏ Lake. Their discovery quickly turned bittersweet when later that year, the prodigal turtle disappeared after floods washed out Đồng Mỏ’s dam, only to reappear weeks later in the possession of a local fisherman who announced his intent to sell the turtle to a local Hanoi restaurateur. The fisherman eventually turned the turtle over to authorities, who returned it safely to the lake.
In recent years, the Swinhoe’s softshell turtle has repeatedly made international news: first with the capture of Hoàn Kiếm’s Sword Lake Turtle for medical treatment in 2011, after it was reported that the individual was showing signs of stress and illness, and second with the pairing of the Suzhou Zoo male with Changsha Zoo’s China Girl as part of an as-yet-unsuccessful captive breeding program that has been underway since 2008. Swinhoe’s softshell turtle has quickly become as famous as it is rare, joining Lonesome George as a poster child for the growing legion of the lost, those species on the edge of extinction.
Renown herpetologist Peter C. H. Pritchard sets out to tell “the story of the giant softshell turtle of the Yangtze and Red Rivers” in Rafetus: The Curve of Extinction, from the inception of the Sword Lake Turtle legend to Western science’s discovery and description of Rafetus swinhoei to the species’ present-day plight as the purported largest and rarest freshwater turtle. Books such as this are no small undertaking, especially if you consider that the bulk of the material is based on Pritchard’s extensive years in the field inspecting and verifying zoological and museum specimens, in situ interviews with fisherman and other locals, and boots-on-the-ground surveys of the turtle’s haunts. Few others have dedicated themselves to such an intimate understanding of this elusive turtle and learned so much in so little time. This tome is truly a testament to Pritchard’s passion for Rafetus swinhoei.
Despite everything Rafetus: The Curve of Extinction has going for it, where this book suffers most is in the layout/design and editing. Structurally, the book itself is sound: a sturdy hardcover, gold embossed spine, and heavy glossy paper stock. The gorgeous artwork of Tell Hicks’ Rafetus swinhoei pair gracing the front and rear endpapers is icing on the cake. But it becomes apparent as early as the Table of Contents, where the chapters are divided into three unnamed parts (might I suggest Part 1: Trionyx, the Soft-shelled Turtles; Part 2: Rafetus swinhoei, A Species New to Science; and Part 3: Natural History and Conservation), that there is an aimlessness to the journey on which you are about to embark.
In general, this aimlessness manifests itself most prevalently in the book’s layout/design. For example, on any given page paragraphs are set apart from each other by a yawning chasm of space, giving the impression that each paragraph is afloat on the page. Pick up any coffee-table-style book (I just flipped through a stack of five) or text book and you’ll see that an indented first line is enough to do the trick. Admittedly, this is more a preference than a fatal flaw, but it contributes to a second issue whereby the flow of the narrative is further occluded and aggravated by a lack of consistency in editorial conventions. Take, for instance, the haphazard manner in which long passages of quoted material is presented. Instead of following the standard practice of indenting long quotations from the left margin, here long quoted passages (excerpted emails or journal articles) are instead called out from the text with nothing but a pair of quotation marks and, if lucky, a colon for punctuation. When significant chunks of material are quoted over the span of several pages, the reader is left to feel their way blindly through the text to find the change in narrative voice or the end-quotes (Chapters 2 and 6 are repeat offenders on this count). Elsewhere, however, long passages are presented almost like side-bars, as is done with the essay (??) “When Turtles Had Teeth” in Chapter 1, although in some cases purported side-bars (see “History, Mythology, and Biology Come Together”, Chapter 10) bleed back into the text.
Along these same disjunct lines, the list of publications in Chapter 5 (appropriately titled, “A Mass of Confusion”) where Rafetus has been referenced over the years is a jumbled mess, a morass of what-appear-to-be-paragraphs-that-should-be-a-bulleted-list that includes publications that don’t even mention Rafetus after all (!!), while the battery of rare and large turtles described in Chapter 8 are separated by the character set “–ooOoo–” (which I’ve been told is a legacy typesetter’s convention for section breaks) instead of headers or subheaders, which themselves rarely make an appearance.
And then there are the typos – for example: “Was the offending person. [sic] a humble secretary” (p 37); “the special [correction: "species"] of the turtle that lays them” (p 42); “dozens of men waded ino [correction: "into"] the water” (p 116); “a second animal in Dong Ho [correction: "Dong Mo"] Lake” (p 136) – as well as photos absent captions (p 27) and the suite of spacing and formatting gaffes that riddle the pages. Speaking of photo captions, the illustration on page 148 innocuously captioned “The juvenile Rafetus specimen” is surely misplaced and underwhelmingly captioned. By proximity alone, the only mention of a juvenile Rafetus in the surrounding pages is that of the remains of a turtle caught and butchered by a Vietnamese fisherman. In truth, the illustration is none other than a detail taken from an engraving of the original holotype specimen (reproduced below), which first appeared in zoologist John Edward Gray’s 1873 description of Rafetus swinhoei under the synonym Oscaria swinhoei. That alone is a pedigree worth mentioning.
Unfortunately, at times this aimlessness also carries over into the narrative. Between and within chapters, time and space are fluid, jumping back and forth between past and present events. Admittedly, Rafetus swinhoei‘s story is a convoluted one, further complicated by several hundred years of nomenclatural confusion, a full cast of players, and a dearth of data. But it is for that very reason that the reader should expect nothing less from this narrative than for Pritchard to sort the confusion out for us. Instead, occasions for travel are left undated and timelines bend, leaving the reader at best discombobulated.
Retelling the history of the Hoàn Kiếm Lake’s turtles (Chapter 10), for example, Pritchard casually backs into describing the controversy surrounding the efforts to protect the Sword Lake Turtle without tipping his hat that the multiple attempts to capture and treat the turtle took place in 2011, and then “fast foward[s]” to an April 14th, 2011 email from a colleague describing the measurements and health of the individual now in custody. All without actually explaining to the reader that after several failed attempts, the Sword Lake Turtle was eventually captured on April 3rd, treated, and released back into the lake on July 12th. As another example, while describing his trip to the West Garden Buddhist temple in Suzhou (Chapter 11), I can only say for certain that Pritchard’s visit occurred pre-2008 – the year the West Garden Rafetus died.
At other points in the book, the text teeters dangerously on the brink of filler material. Take the dispensable, non-sequiturial Chapter 7 “Museums Old and New”, in which the only two references at all to Rafetus swinhoei appear in the first and last paragraphs of the chapter. Sandwiched between them are four pages that spasm between the nature and flavor of Chinese natural history museums, museum curators and specimen catalogs, the author reflecting on visits to the British Natural History Museum (and other museums) as a youth, museum restoration and revitalization, and Chinese government sponsored biological museum exhibits on AIDS and sexual hygiene. All to say, “I visited the Municipal Museum in Hangzhou, and among the many softshell turtle specimens I examined was a single mislabeled Rafetus swhinoei – Success!”
The twenty-five pages devoted to Chapter 8 “The Rarest and Largest Freshwater Turtle?” either argue or illustrate the point (which camp Pritchard belongs to isn’t outwardly clear) that Rafetus swinhoei is or isn’t the rarest freshwater turtle and the largest freshwater turtle, claims perpetuated in contemporary magazines, newsletters, newspapers, and journal articles. It has always been clear to me that implied in these claims is the unspoken qualifier “…living today”. If they instead meant “…of all time” or “…living or extinct”, that would be a qualification worth spelling out to drive their point home. Pritchard instead muddies the waters by reviewing a bale of extant and extinct turtle species – sprinkled with a tortoise here and there – and waxes academic unnecessarily on the nature of rarity. Yes, there are no shortage of rare turtles and tortoises: some are scarce, some are cryptic, some are extinct. But it seems only natural that the candidate for “rarest turtle” should be the one with the fewest confirmed individuals known in the wild or captivity. For now, there are four Rafetus swinhoei known to exist in the wild and captivity in China and Vietnam. Years of searching for more specimens has turned up nothing but whispers and legends, stories and bones. Unless there is a freshwater turtle lonelier than that, I think Rafetus swinhoei is a shoe-in. And to answer the question about the “largest freshwater turtle”, Pritchard concludes in Chapter 8 that soft-shell turtles of the genus Chitra rank the largest of the freshwater turtles, only to upend that claim in Chapter 10 after reporting that the Hoàn Kiếm turtle in Hanoi, Vietnam – measured following its April 2011 capture – is larger than any Chitra by 3 cm (1 inch).
If I seem frustrated by this book, it is because I am. I want to love this book, and to be honest – despite any criticism I may have about the book’s nuts and bolts or the meandering nature of the narrative – I am still willing to see the forest for the trees. Rafetus: The Curve of Extinction could as easily be a call to arms to protect the world’s rarest freshwater turtle species as much as it is this species’ last will and testament. Pritchard’s work should be commended for accomplishing what no other has done for this lonely turtle. He alone has dedicated years of his life to track down those very same whispers and legends, stories and bones upon which this book was built. If only every species had so stalwart a champion, perhaps there would be fewer species on extinction’s brink.
What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World, by Jon Young, Houghton Mifflin Company (www.hmhbooks.com), 2012, 272 pages, $22.00.
Being the avid reader than I am, it is the rare book that captivates me enough by the last page that I relish setting it aside to be reread. Most books end up consigned to the bookshelf to become what author David Quammen describes as a “comforting sort of intellectual wallpaper.” Rarer still is the book that entices me to reread it from the first few chapters. But so it was that some eighty pages in – having already recommended this book to any colleague who would listen – I knew that What the Robin Knows was indeed such a rare book. Turning over that last page did not disappoint.
Imagine if every time you set foot outdoors, you were at once attuned to the natural world around you. Imagine if you could intuit the comings and goings of songbirds – their quirks, their chatter, their body language – like second nature. Unless you are Sacagawea or Crocodile Dundee, for most people that is the stuff of legend, tall tales emboldened and emblazoned in Hollywood’s hallowed halls. But what if deciphering bird language was neither flight of fancy nor parlor trick, but instead a primeval, visceral know-how, a skill that could be restored to second nature?
Through What the Robin Knows, birder, tracker, and naturalist Jon Young establishes the simple premise that there is a common language among songbirds, and if you take the time not only to hear, but to listen, birdsong can open doors to the natural world around you. To really see wildlife, Young offers – not just the urban-indentured skunks and raccoons, but the evasive deer, foxes, and mountain lions we share the woods with – you have to get the birds’ permission first.
At first blush, this may sound like all sorts of bunkum and hokum. But the deep bird language Young is selling is a visceral augury shared among scouts and trackers around the world, from the San Bushmen of South Africa to the Native Americans of North America. In today’s busy world, where this sixth-sense savvy has atrophied, modern man has instead become victim to not seeing the trees for the forest. The remedy is simple: listen to the birds.
Songbirds, Young explains, communicate their state of affairs through birdsong. Wherever songbirds are present, they are almost always “on” – constantly vocalizing as they forage, feed young, and defend territories. There are five typical vocalizations that make up the basic building blocks of what trackers call “bird language”: the four commonplace vocalizations that represent songbirds’ baseline behaviors (songs, companion calls, territorial aggression, and adolescent begging), and alarm calls.
For those that know how to listen, songbirds can be viewed as sentinels, constantly on the lookout for predators or other intruders and quick to raise the hue and cry when a threat is imminent. But it is just as important to realize that other creatures – be they fellow birds or deer, foxes, and mountain lions – also make it a habit to “eavesdrop” on birdsong, Mother Nature’s party line. Whether eavesdropping occurs intraspecies, interspecies, interorder, or interclass, other wildlife take heed when songbirds sound the alarm. To become accepted as part of the baseline and earn songbirds’ permission to eavesdrop, explains Young, we must diminish our intrusion into the songbirds’ space, a skillset teachable through patience, observation, and a “routine of invisibility.”
These skillsets are, of course, the bread and butter of What the Robin Knows. To master them, you must not only learn to assimilate yourself into the baseline through nonintrusive behaviors, but also recognize typical songbirds’ unique baseline behaviors (territorial songs and companion calls) and alarm-response behaviors (the bird plow, hook, popcorn, sentinel, bullet, and hawk drop, to name a few). When you combine these superpowers – when songbirds no longer announce your arrival as a threat, when your zone of awareness exceeds your zone of disturbance, and when you can recognize the nuances of bird behaviors – only then will you be able to intuit that a junco’s evasive “bullet” flight betrays a Cooper’s hawk on the wing, or that the “popcorn” flight of winter wrens exposes a coyote moving through the underbrush.
To better understand the principles of bird language, let’s consider two examples. The first comes from the genius mind of The Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson, who cut to the bone of deep bird language in a 1993 cartoon parodying nature documentaries. In the single frame, a raccoon ambles through the woods without a care in the world, lulled into complacency by the soothing musical accompaniment of an attending flutist and clarinetist. The caption reads:
“On this particular day, Rory the raccoon was hunting frogs at his favorite stream, and the pleasant background music told him that Mr. Mountain Lion was nowhere around.”
Replace the duet with songbirds, and you’ve got a textbook example of eavesdropping. The music (birdsong) tells Rory (other wildlife) everything is hunky-dory. When the music stops unexpectedly (threat), it is time for Rory to get out of Dodge.
The second example comes from colleague and weekend outdoorsman Mark Wilson. This September, Mark was hunting black-tail deer in Siskiyou County east of Fort Jones. On that particular Friday, Mark shot, field dressed, and deboned a buck, leaving behind the carcass, bones, and gut pile for scavengers. He also left behind a game camera. When he returned to check the kill site Saturday morning, the carcass was gone. A quick review of the game camera revealed images of a grey fox and the true culprit, a 300 lb black bear.
Without blood or snow to track the bear’s retreat, Mark figured it had dragged the carcass across or downslope (the paths of least resistance), so Mark headed downhill, east, in search of the buck. It was only after walking several hundred yards that he first registered the cacophony of ravens and crows in flight above tree line heading north, canvassing the woods with intent. Instinctually, Mark gave chase. As he gained ground with the boil of birds, the corvids changed course, this time to the west in response to a lone raven’s call. And there in a clearing, where the birds were converging in the woods to dine, lay the deer’s remains.
In following the flight of birds to the carcass, Mark was in effect “wake hunting,” a strategy regularly used by Cooper’s hawks and jays to conserve energy by eavesdropping, letting others do the hard work. He had effectively tapped into the forest’s baseline and was listening to the birds.
Whether you are a naturalist, a birder, a hunter, or a photographer, the benefits of learning the language of the birds are indisputable: acceptance as a cohort of the woods, a small footprint and all-seeing eyes, and at long last hearing what a little bird told you. I find the idea intoxicating. But it’s up to you to learn what the robin knows…
This review is also featured in the Winter 2012 Newsletter of The Western Section of the Wildlife Society.