Thursday, June 27, 2013
Books for the intermediate birder
In a recent post, I discussed two books beginning birders by Peter Dunne. These books covered the basics of finding birds to admire (choosing a good habitat, time of day, weather conditions, etc.), and bird identification.
But let's say you've been birding for a while. You know some nice, birdy locations and manage to identify many of the birds you find. But still, you know that there are better birders out there, and you want to know their secrets. Maybe you'd like to find more warblers in spring migration. Or maybe you wish you could find some of the rarities in your state or county. Or maybe you're struggling with one of those confusing bird categories, like warblers in fall plumage, sparrows or gulls.
Luckily, there are some books that might help you out. One I just finished recently, How to Be a Better Birder by Derek Lovitch (2012, Princeton University Press). It's a slender book and a quick read, with some attractive color photos.
The first few chapters are like a review of Dunne's books, discussing using a holistic approach to bird identification, what Lovitch calls "the whole bird and more" -- more including habitat, behavior, general impression of shape and size, etc. Lovitch recommends spending a lot of time in the field, just watching birds and their behavior, even the common ones, as well as learning about the rest of nature. This is all great advice, but probably not worth buying a separate volume for, assuming that your library already covers the birding basics.
But subsequent chapters provide more. "Birding by Night" explains how to use radar images from weather reports to predict the best times and places of finding birds, especially in migration. The chapter "Birding and Weather" suggests that birders might want to learn the basics of meteorology, for wind patterns and storms will definitely affect the birds you might be able to see.
The chapter on "Vagrants" discusses some reasons why rare birds show up. The concept of "mirror migration" is especially interesting; sometimes a bird will fly the expected distance during migration...but in the opposite direction. Knowing the best time of year and locations, as well as studying which birds are showing up in neighboring states or counties, can help your chances of finding a really exciting bird. (Not that all birds aren't exciting....)
Finally, the chapter on "Patch Listing" gives some good reasons why birders should find a local patch and visit it often. And in "Birding with a Purpose," Lovitch mentions some ways to get involved in projects or use your observations to help further the cause of science, such as Christmas bird counts, breeding bird surveys, and Cornell's ebird database.
And additional feature that makes this book helpful is the exhaustive resource list of both books and websites for each of the topics he discusses. I really enjoyed this book, and will probably refer to it often, especially to check out the books and websites he recommends.
Another useful book is Identify Yourself: The 50 Most Common Birding Identification Challenges, by Bill Thompson II and the editors of Bird Watcher's Digest (2005, Houghton Mifflin).
I consulted this book several times when I first began birding, with special attention paid to the chapters on sparrows. For some reason, identifying sparrows used to drive me to distraction. At the time, I did not find the book especially helpful. There was just too much information and too many details about field marks, habitats, comparing one sparrow to another.
Fast forward several years to the present day. Now, I have a fondness for sparrows, which seem like such gentle, unassuming birds. Flocks of American tree sparrows cheer up bleak winter days, and the sight and song of our familiar breeding species -- field, song and chipping sparrows -- are part of the beauty of a summer walk. Every spring and fall, I look forward to the passage of large flocks of white-throated, white-crowned and fox sparrows. And when something less common pops up, like the lovely LeConte's I found at Weldon Springs, hooray!
Now that I have more experience with sparrows, and other species, I decided to dust off Identify Yourself and give it another try. I looked especially at the chapters on shorebirds, gulls and flycatchers, as these are some of the categories that still give me pause. And of course, I reread the chapters on sparrows, which no longer seemed overwhelming.
While I found this book confusing when I first started birding, I now think it is a handy addition to an "intermediate" birding library. It's still not the kind of book I would sit and read cover to cover, but I think it will be quite helpful to study one chapter at a time, in conjunction with field guides and observation of the actual bird.