Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Books for the beginning birder

drawing by Jean Cocteau

I recently read a pair of books by Peter Dunne that I wish I had known about when I first started birding: The Art of Bird Finding: Before You ID Them, You Have to See Them (Stackpole Books, 2011) and The Art of Bird Identification: A Straightforward Approach to Putting a Name to the Bird (Stackpole Books, 2012). They are both fairly slender books, quick reads, and written in Dunne's humorous, conversational style.

The Art of Bird Finding purports to fill a gap in the birding literature. There are numerous field guides, but no books on how to actually locate a bird to identify. Although birds are all around us, one can greatly increase the chances of seeing them by choosing the most fortuitous time of day (morning, for most birds) and habitat. Although much of this might seem like common sense, he mentions things I didn't know as a beginning birder, such as looking in flocks of chickadees for the other species that often tag along with them, or taking account of the direction of the wind when approaching a bird.

Seasonal patterns, how to take advantage of weather and migratory lines, and things to look for to find a potential "migrant trap" near you are also discussed. Further chapters go into more specialized areas, such as hawk watching and pelagic birding. The topic is almost too simple for a book unto itself (if the two books were combined into one beginning birder guide, I would give them a more enthusiastic recommendation), but I always enjoy Peter Dunne's engaging, sometimes sly writing style and anecdotes.

My favorite quote: "Mourning doves have a hard-to-explain tendency to freeze when everybirdy else flushes, which may explain why they find it necessary to breed just about year-round."

The Art of Bird Identification has a bit more meat on its bones. It is not a field guide, but an introduction to the concept of looking at birds holistically.

Field guides are both a boon and a hindrance to the beginning birder. I know that I myself was guilty of the error of flipping open my guide immediately after seeing a new bird, hoping to locate the image of my suspect on the page before it took off. This led to occasional success (my first common yellowthroat, seen at Wildlife Prairie Park in Peoria; surely one never forgets one's first common yellowthroat!), frequent frustration, and every once in a while, an error of embarrassing magnitude, such as the time I (briefly! very briefly!) wondered if I was seeing a pine grosbeak in late summer in central Illinois. (Well, I was looking for red birds in my book...kind of like the color of the house finch I soon determined my "grosbeak" to be.)

Following Dunne's advice will help new birders avoid frustrations like that. Many of the items are things that I soon learned myself through trial and error, such as studying the field guides before and after birding, taking note of habitat and time of year, and learning the behavior of different species. According to Dunne, taking in the whole picture is more effective than trying to pinpoint certain field markings, which may be hard to see. As he puts it, "A bird on the plate in a field guide is a disembodied thing. Static. Lifeless. A bird in the field is an element in a tapestry...."

I especially enjoyed the chapter on identifying birds by sound, and the example of picking out different species of shorebirds in a huge, distant flock using holistic impressions -- size, color, foraging activity, etc. I would call myself to be an "intermediate" birder, and these are skills that I am still working on.

These are both fun little books, with some good information, but I do think they would be a better value if they'd been combined in one volume. They would make a nice gift for a beginning birder. I know that the advice would have spared me some early fumbling around, and embarrassing house finch moments.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, come now; don't you wish that we had notified everyone in the local Audubon chapter about our rare sighting of pine grosbeaks, in a parking lot, in August? It wouldn't have been any worse than me announcing how happy I was to see my first "widgets", i.e., wigeons. And one can go on all one likes about looking at the bird now and the picture later...I RELY on those field markings for IDing my bird! Which might explain why I'm still very much a beginning birder...I do despair of hawk IDs, I really do! MOM