Posts Tagged Bird Watching
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.
Earlier this week – huddling groggy behind the sliding glass door waiting for the dog to conduct his business – I caught the flutter of feathers descending from across the fence into the silver maple out back. No sooner had I slid the door ajar to lean into the mute morning grey then the culprit – the neighborhood Cooper’s hawk – startled from her perch and again took flight, exchanging the naked limb for one in the skeletal tree in our next door neighbor’s yard.
Over the past few years, my family has come to know this Cooper’s hawk from our occasional run-ins with her here and there. My first encounter occurred one afternoon throwing a tennis ball for the dog in the front yard. Surprised by the sudden approach of wings, I looked up from my play with the flagging dog in time to catch one of my neighbor’s domestic pigeons careening toward and then around me like a child seeking shelter behind his parent’s legs. No sooner had the pigeon swung past then my gaze was transfixed by a second bird – the Cooper’s hawk – fast approaching me at eye level with unparalleled purpose. Today, all I can recollect of that instant is the feeling of looking down the barrel of a gun before she too was gone. She must have pulled up and out of that dive abreast of me like a top gun pilot to avoid the living room window and the towering sycamore in her flight path beyond. By the time I had gathered my wits about me, she was disappearing behind the roof tops with a little less purpose, her quarry having escaped with me as accomplice.
Our sightings of her continued: atop telephone poles shortly after sunrise, or herding pigeons during their afternoon recess. Last year, my wife called me at work to say that the Cooper’s hawk had made an appearance again on the front lawn. Called to the door by the dog’s incessant barking, it took my wife a moment to realize that it wasn’t the mailman or a passerby that had caught his attention, but the Cooper’s hawk on the front lawn with a pigeon pinned to the turf. Flustered no doubt by the barking dog, followed by the appearance of my wife at the front window, she fumbled in her attempts to launch herself into the air with her prize, until at last she let loose the frightened pigeon in a blizzard of breast feathers and gave up the chase. Two hours later, downy feathers still danced lazily on the lawn when I arrived home.
The fall we moved into this house, however many years ago that was, I stepped out from behind that same sliding glass door one morning as the dog – at that time still a pup – was pushing leaves with his nose under the pretense of conducting his business. That morning, I caught another raptor in the back yard. This time, our visitor was a western screech owl. Remembering my wife’s camera on the dining room table, I somehow reached back into the house, fumbled the camera on, and slipped into the back yard in time to snap three photos before the owl had had enough of my insolence and slipped off into the inky morning. Several weeks later, eying the silver maple a little more closely late one afternoon, I happened to remark to my wife that a certain cavity looked like the ideal spot for nesting birds. Retrieving my binoculars from my field bag a few minutes later, we were both surprised when none other than the screech owl appeared peering back at us from within the hollow.
The screech owl became an autumn staple, making the dead branch her evening roost over several weeks that year and the next. But after the rotting branch succumbed to a winter storm, despite the nest box lined with wood chips I built and hung in the maple that summer, the owl hasn’t been seen since.
Although the Cooper’s hawk’s appearances are fleeting and the owl has moved on, I still have the lesser goldfinches, house finches, dark-eyed juncos, oak titmice, and chickadees that parade around the feeders to keep me company. California towhees scratch in the leaf litter below the feeder. The black phoebe returns each year to perch on the handlebars of my son’s tricycle or, now, the lawn chair beneath the maple. And the Anna’s hummingbirds that nest in the neighbors-across-the-back-fence’s yard still return throughout the year to trapline the salvias and flowering maple that line our side of the fence.
Which goes to show it isn’t always good fences that make good neighbors. On a cold winter morning, while all of us wait for spring, such friends make fine neighbors indeed.
The Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of North America, by Bill Thompson III, Houghton Mifflin Company (www.hmhbooks.com), 2012, 368 pages, $15.95.
With the publication of The Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of North America, Peterson’s Field Guides has added yet another title to their growing list of natural history guides targeting budding naturalists. But this is no beginners guide to birdwatching; it is a beginner’s birdwatching guide. Unlike Peterson’s Young Naturalists Guide Series, First Guides Series, and Field Guide Color-In Series, author Bill Thompson III has designed this stand-alone guide with his children in mind – for fifth graders, by fifth graders. Given it’s target audience, the guide is indeed easy enough for young birders to navigate. Handing it to my 1st-grader son, for example, he easily picked out the (California) quail, (tundra) swan, (Canada) goose, and (belted) kingfisher in a matter of seconds, just a few of the species he’s become familiar with from day trips and nature books.
Comparing Thompson’s The Young Birder’s Guide… side-by-side to Peterson’s now-outdated A Field Guide to Western Birds (1990), the discerning reader can see that the core material in each species account is fundamentally the same. Sure, Peterson may describe the western scrub jay’s vocalizations as a rasping “kwesh… kwesh….” in contrast to what Thompson describes as a harsh “kressh… kressh…“, but the prevailing difference between the guides is presentation.
In The Young Birder’s Guide…, each page – clearly labeled with the species’ common and Latin names together with a representative color photo – is devoted to one of over 300 North American birds and includes an informative species profile describing field marks, bird song, habitat preferences and seasonal distribution; a b/w sketch illustrating characteristic behaviors; a range map; ID tips; and fun facts. The photographs and illustrator Julie Zickefoose’s playful sketches are high-quality, while the range maps are industry-standard issue. Compared to the typical “which-one-was-it?” clutter of so many look-alike birds flocked on an illustrated plate sandwiched against a facing page of lifeless text, The Young Birder’s Guide… is instead linear, concise, predictable, practical, and most importantly, kid-friendly.
How to Be a Better Birder, by Derek Lovitch, Princeton University Press (http://press.princeton.edu), 2012, 208 pages, $19.95
Whether you are a bird feeder aficionado or a life-listing lunatic, there aren’t many birders who couldn’t aspire to betterdom. With How to Be a Better Birder, birding betterist Derek Lovitch sketches a roadmap to embetterment. Lovitch clearly brings an unparalleled zeal to birding that makes most birders look like hummingbird hobbyists. With his “Whole Bird and More” approach, Lovitch proposes both a return to birding in its purest form and a sibylline synthesis of natural science and technology to develop a sixth sense when it comes to knowing and predicting your quilled quarry.
At its core, the “Whole Bird and More” is a holistic approach to birding: not just seeing, but processing and applying what you know about the bird before you beyond it’s field marks (the meat and potatoes of traditional field guides). To draw a parallel to something more relatable, it’s the difference between bagging a peak by starting out at the trailhead and following the posted trail or orienteering your way to the summit with nothing but a compass, a topo map, and your read of the landscape. Anytime, anywhere, your geography (an oak woodland, the shoreline) as much as a species’ habits and habitats (the plants they frequent, the species’ seasonality) are predictive of the birds you may encounter.
With practice and study come instinct. But with a hybridization of natural science and technology (and, let’s face it, more than a little voodoo) comes an advanced form of instinct often mistaken for obsession: intuition. From here on out, Lovitch seamlessly transmutes science into art, combining geography, meteorology, and technology (Doppler radar) with uncanny legerdemain. Here his years of practice and study shine as he scries the stopovers and fallouts of common migrants and vagrants alike, whether by stalking peninsulas and peaks or by chasing storms and (radar) swarms.
Still, despite his predictive prowess, Lovitch humbly reminds the reader (and himself) that there’s just as much luck in the equation as there is logic. To wit, Lovitch is as quick to admit his success stories as he is to admit strokes of luck and strike-outs. Intuit all you want, but the bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
While Lovitch’s “Whole Bird and More” approach is well presented and his prose concise and illustrative, the book’s one shortcoming – the reckless fallout of typos (“Yes, it’s night and its [sic] dark…”; “But [sic] I want to focus on here is using…”) – left me feeling rushed. Nevertheless, for the birdwatcher beguiled by betterment, Lovitch’s better birding bible is a birder’s boon.
Bird Watching, by Paula McCartney, Princeton Architectural Press (www.papress.com), 2010, 120 pages, $50.00
As publishers and birders strive for the perfect birding book – be it The Crossley ID Guide‘s photodigital-realism or The Sibley Guides‘ careful scientific illustrations – the field guide Cold War currently under way has increasingly become an arms race toward capturing an image of that perfect bird unmistakably representative of its species. Now, photographer Paula McCartney’s most recent through-the-looking-glass vision turns that concept inside out.
Not quite a coffee-table book, and in no ways a field guide, Bird Watching is instead the journal of a tongue-in-cheek experiment that explores people’s perception of nature. And if there is an object lesson to be learned from McCartney’s Bird Watching, it is that books can be deceiving.
Fifteen years ago, McCartney tapped the zoo exhibits of days gone by as a springboard for her “Bronx Zoo” [1997-1998] project, exploring the presentation of live animals displayed against painted backdrops. Now, it is instead the animals that are faked in these dioramic wilds, with McCartney affixing Styrofoam faux-fowl to outstretched limbs with wire mounts like a flock of cheap clip-on ties. Even in their fraud, these complicit chickadees and cactus wrens complete the vistas – purposefully posed, they alight on the perfect branch, they gambol and warble and preen for the camera, they do everything short of… well, flying.
While McCartney offers she “wanted to make the landscape more romantic, more idyllic,” one could just as well argue that these Styrofoam simulcra are really just the subjects of a philosopher’s field guide that provides a prophetic view of a future where our only encounters with wildlife are those painted, posed with wire, and planted in the landscape – stuffed turkeys in every sense of the word. Writing in the forward, curator Karen Irvine suggests that McCartney’s fictions question our relationship to nature and wildlife, asking “What are our expectations when we approach the natural landscape?” But Irvine overlooks what McCartney’s fiction also reveals about that relationship – that in the present day where extinction is a very real consequence, McCartney’s fictions may all too closely mirror reality. With the Wild Kingdom and Planet Earth experiences of instant gratification we’ve come to expect every time we set foot outdoors becoming increasingly untenable (were they ever?), pseudo-safaris such as imagined by McCartney could become more true than – though equally as strange as – the fiction they represent.
What does this mean for you, the reader? Bird Watching is life imitating art imitating life ad infinitum. Judging from the reactions of co-workers as they thumbed through the book, you’ll either appreciate the trickery with a wry grin or be offended at the perceived treacherous transgression against the natural world.