Category Archives: Birdwatching

The Birds Of India: New Guide

A Photographic Field Guide to the Birds of India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh is one of those next gen guides that uses photos but photos that are either enhanced or contextualized to serve the same role as drawings served in the old days, when drawings were better and photos were merely fun.

From the editors:

This is the only comprehensive photographic field guide to the birds of the entire Indian subcontinent. Every distinct species and subspecies–some 1,375 in all-

-is covered with photographs, text, and maps. The guide features more than 4,000 stunning photographs, many never before published, which have been carefully selected to illustrate key identification features of each species. The up-to-date facing-page text includes concise descriptions of plumage, voice, range, habitat, and recent taxonomic changes. Each species has a detailed map reflecting the latest distribution information and containing notes on status and population density. The guide also features an introduction that provides an overview of birdlife and a brief history of ornithology in India and its neighbors. The result is an encyclopedic photographic guide that is essential for everyone birding anywhere in the subcontinent.

  • Covers all 1,375 subcontinental bird species
  • Features more than 4,000 stunning photographs to aid quick field identification
  • Includes up-to-date facing-page text and range maps
  • Contains concise descriptions of plumage, voice, habitat, and much more
  • Best Bird Book Of the Year So Far: What The Robin Knows by Jon Young

    There was a dead rabbit in the middle of the road today. I suspected such a thing, nearby, just out of sight, and edible, because I noticed some crows taking off whenever a car went by. Then, when I went over, I could see the rabbit that they were feasting on between drive-bys.

    I had been looking for rabbits lately, because of this: the cat had switched to hanging out by the upstairs window, the better to observe the just arriving Juncos (snow birds, it is fall). She had previously spent most of her time observing rabbits from the lower, ground level windows, until just the other day when, rather suddenly, all the rabbits disappeared. Until then, there was always a rabbit or two. In fact, the entire city had been recently invaded by rabbits, according to several reports, and now they seemed to be disappearing quickly. This, I assume, means that the coyotes finally got busy. Or, an epidemic of tularemia. Either way, something happened.

    I once had a cat that was partly outdoors on Cape Cod. Well, the cat was indoors, but would escape. We’d go looking for it and always find it in a bush (a different bush every time) surrounded by no rabbits. All the other bushes would have rabbits nearby. But not the one with the cat in it. (Until, again, the coyotes showed up and ruined the rabbit-test method of finding the cat!)

    Have you seen the film Dead Birds? See it if you can. This is a very important ethnographic film, of the old style, by Gardner, of a place in Highland New Guinea. Part of the story actually has to do with live birds, not dead ones, and how they are used by sentries at the outskirts if the village lands, during times of conflict, to detect the arrival of enemy combatants. You watch the birds, and you are watching the hidden predators.

    Or you can listen to them. Or you can listen to the monkeys. Anything with an alarm call. I could engage you with story after story, if you and I both had the time, of finding very interesting and elusive critters out in the bush, mainly in Africa, by following up on the predator avoidance behavior of primates or birds.

    And, this brings us to what I think is one of the best bird books ever.

    What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World by Jon Young is an exploration of nature based on this premise: the robin knows everything about its environment, and this information is regularly conveyed via the bird’s call, or its behavior. By observing that behavior or understanding the robin’s vocalizations, you can poach that information and also know a lot about the immediate environment, which may be your own back yard, the area near your camping site, the wooded gully the enemy may approach you by, or a nearby park.

    And, of course, it isn’t just the robin, it is all the animals including birds, insects, and everything else. But Young is talking about birds, and it is certainly true that in most or possibly all habitats, it is the birds that, owing to their diurnal and highly visible and sound oriented nature, are telling you all this information about your mutual surroundings as well as about the bird itself.

    To me, birding (and nature watching in general) is not so much about lengthening one’s list (though that is always fun) but, rather, about observing and understanding behavior. Young explores this, teaches a great deal about it, and places this mode of observation in the context of countless stories, or potential stories, about the world you are sharing with the birds you are watching.

    This is a four or five dimensional look at a multidimensional world. Lucky for us humans, as primates, we share visual and audio modalities, and mostly ignore odor, and we have overlapping ranges in those modalities (to varying degrees). But birds fly (most of them, anyway) and are small and fast and there are many of them. In many places we live, we are the only diurnal visually-oriented non-bird. Indeed, while I’m sure my cat communes with the rabbits at a level I can’t possibly understand, I’m pretty sure I get the birds in ways she could not possibly get her paws around. (Which is why we don’t let her out of the house. She would prefer to eat them, rather than appreciate them!)

    From the publisher, about the author:

    Growing up near the Pine Barrens in New Jersey, Jon Young studied as a tracker and naturalist. For three decades, he has taught and mentored children and adults, combining Native skills practiced worldwide with the tools of modern field ecology, emphasizing the nearly lost art of understanding bird and animal language. The founder of OWLink Media, 8 Shields Institute, and the Shikari Tracking Guild, he consults with programs around the world. Jon has written or produced numerous books, audio, and multimedia projects. His website is www.birdlanguage.com. Married with six children, he lives in the woods above Santa Cruz, California.

    Lots of science in this book, well documented and referenced. Simple black and white but very engaging graphics. So far my favorite bird book of the year.

    Wildlife Of The Galapagos: Updated Field Guide (Review)

    Wildlife of the Galápagos: Second Edition (Princeton Pocket Guides), by Julian Fitter, Daniel Fitter, and David Hosking is both a field guide and a travel guide, focusing on the Galapagos Islands. It includes basic information about each island and each town or tourist destination, and a comprehensive guide to how to visit, what to bring and not bring, and otherwise plan your trip to these amazing evolution-drenched islands.

    The wildlife that is covered includes birds, other land vertebrates including the famous tortoises and lizards, offshore mammals, fish, insects, and plants. There is even a short section on the different geological features, which are not technically wildlife, rounding off the guide as the only book you really need to bring. Oh, and there is also an overview of the Islands’s history.

    Over 400 species are covered with 650 illustrations including maps and drawings. The wildlife (and geological features) are represented mainly as photographs. It is a pocket size pocked guide similar to your average portable bird book.

    The authors are experienced guides and have been involved with Galapagos conservation and tourism for years.

    The first edition of this book was widely used. The second edition has added fish, Spanish names, more information about history, climate, geology, and conservation, and of course, updated information on visitor sites.

    You can’t go to the Galapagos without this book. You can, however, get this book and not go to the galapagos, and pretend you are going! (Or, get inspired, and start saving up now!)

    Feeding Wild Birds

    When the Texas A&M University Press asked me to consider reviewing Feeding Wild Birds in America: Culture, Commerce, and Conservation by Paul Baicich, Margaret Barker, and Carrol Henderson, I had mixed feelings.

    Was this just another backyard bird feeding guide? That would be nice, but not too exciting. After all, feeding birds is just a matter of getting a bird feeder and keeping it full, right? Was it an indictment of what some might consider a bad practice, because it brings birds in close contact with killer windows and cats, and causes them to become dependent on fickle human providers? Was it yet another guide to help bird lovers in their never ending battle with squirrels and other feeder-exploiting non-birds?

    But, I figured, what the heck, I’ll have a look. And I’m glad I did. This is a great book because it is full of stuff you would have never thought important or interesting, but that is, in fact, important and interesting.

    Americans have been feeding birds on a variable but more or less regular basis for well over a century. Human feeders have become part of the ecology of birds, and the practice has probably figured into the redistribution of a number of species, some invasive, some not. Bird conservation and birding, and generally, interest in birds, has been significantly enhanced by the practice of “bringing the birds to the people,” which is usually the reason to do this. The annual backyard bird count, which plays an important role in tracking conservation and zoological status of birds, is an extension of backyard bird feeding.

    _____________
    See also: Books on birds and nature.
    _____________

    Just as importantly, and really, one of the main reasons to read this book, is that the practice of feeding birds, supplying feed, designing feeders (and baths and other things) is an historically rich, complex, nuanced, and fascinating endeavor. Understanding the history of feeding birds is a little like collecting stamps. You can’t avoid myriad connections with history, in this case, world political history, history of American industry, game hunting, conservation, and, the environmental movement.

    The history starts in the nineteenth century, when regular feeding of birds became a thing. By the early 20th century, books on the topic, and a commercial and do-it-yourself industry, formed around the problem of delivering seed. Over time, various seeds and other feed products were invented, and the same industry that feeds our pets and farm animals got involved in producing bird feed. Before World War II, the practice and the associated industries were established, if not yet fully mature.

    Things got tough during the depression and World War II, because of limited resources (see especially the chapter on “Hemp, the Devil’s Birdseed”).

    Somewhere in there, the practice of feeding game birds developed. Bird baths were invented and deployed. Suet was introduced. Windows and cats increasingly became problems, and increasingly, solutions developed (partly).

    The authors investigate the spread of various species, including invasive species, with bird feeding. Of particular interest is the spread and distribution of the Cooper’s Hawk, which in some areas specializes in hanging around the feeder-equipped backyard where it is easy to find prey. (This hawk specializes in catching birds in close quarters.)

    During the 50s, 60s, and 70s, the practice involved a lot of experimentation, including how to address squirrels, and a further diversification of feed types and types of birds attracted, and the development of more companies making more products. By the end of the 20th century, the practice was fully institutionalized, and most of the current practices and products were developed, from seed to suit to hummingbird juice.

    ________
    See also: How do birds survive the winter?
    ________

    If you are a feeder of birds, this book will help you be a better feeder of birds. More importantly, it give you something else. Both bird watching and bird feeding (and lots of other things people do) are pleasurable, and people get hooked on these activities, their leisure time enriched. But these are also activities that are potential touchstones to other, vast areas of knowledge. Just as birders could, in my opinion, have an even better time birding if they knew more about the ecology and evolution of birds, bird feeders can appreciate this activity a great deal more knowing about the history. And this history is not dry, or a hard slog of any sort. The book is engaging, compelling, and just plain cool.

    I strongly recommend Feeding Wild Birds in America: Culture, Commerce, and Conservation for your avian culinary edification.

    Books On Birds And Nature

    Here we look mainly at bird books, but I wanted to also mention a couple of other items on non-birds. I’ve mixed in some new books along with a few other books that have come out over the last couple of years, but that are still very current, very amazing books, and since they have been out for a while, may in some cases be picked up used or otherwise less expensively.

    Screen Shot 2015-11-25 at 1.46.45 PMLet’s start with the least-bird like book, one that will be a must have for anyone traveling to or studying Africa. This is The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals: Second edition. This is a newly produced edition of this now classic work, which pretty much replaces most of the other guides. However, be warned, the book is a bit big and thick. If you are going on safari, consider also getting something smaller and more pocket size such as Pocket Guide version of Kingdon or the more classic Dorst and Dandelot A Field Guide to the Larger Mammals of Africa.

    Kingdon is a naturalist and an amazing artist. The guide is detailed and has more species than any other guide. The maps are excellent and detailed. The drawings are both lifelike and designed to highlight key features. The text includes a lot of background on evolution and physical variation. This is just a great book. For African mammals, this is, these days, the guide.

    A book with all the African mammals is fairly large. There are just enough carnivores in the world (excluding seals and their kin) to put them all into one book. Carnivores of the World (Princeton Field Guides) is just plain a lot of fun. It is a bit silly, perhaps, to have a field guide to all the carnivores, because where exactly are you going to travel and see all the carnivores? But it is amazing to see them all in one place, well organized, similarly treated.

    51zayKv8lYL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Flight has evolved many times, and only some of those evolutionary events are visible in living form today. We have to assume that flight is one of the most useful adaptations, and at the same time, difficult to emerge. David Alexander’s On the Wing: Insects, Pterosaurs, Birds, Bats and the Evolution of Animal Flight is a careful and intriguing look at the evolution of fully powered flight in the four major groups that achieved this ability.

    While birds have received the majority of attention from flight researchers, Alexander pays equal attention to all four groups of flyers-something that no other book on the subject has done before now. In a streamlined and captivating way, David Alexander demonstrates the links between the tiny 2-mm thrip and the enormous albatross with the 12 feet wingspan used to cross oceans. The book delves into the fossil record of flyers enough to satisfy the budding paleontologist, while also pleasing ornithologists and entomologists alike with its treatment of animal behavior, flapping mechanisms, and wing-origin theory. Alexander uses relatable examples to draw in readers even without a natural interest in birds, bees, and bats. He takes something that is so off-limits and unfamiliar to humans-the act of flying-and puts it in the context of experiences that many readers can relate to. Alexander guides readers through the anomalies of the flying world: hovering hummingbirds, unexpected gliders (squirrels, for instance), and the flyers that went extinct (pterosaurs). Alexander also delves into wing-origin theory and explores whether birds entered the skies from the trees down (as gliders) or from the ground up (as runners) and uses the latest fossil evidence to present readers with an answer.

    The following several books are bird books that have been available for a range of time (mostly not too new, at least one quite old) but that are either really nice books, or invaluable references.

    Screen Shot 2015-11-25 at 3.00.35 PM

    Bird Guides

    The Warbler Guide by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle is the definitive guide to warblers. It includes all the North American species, with excellent visuals and a lot of information about the birds and their songs, including sonograms designed to actually relate the visual image to the sound itself, as an aid in identification. Because, let’s face it, you are going to hear a lot more warblers than you are going to see. Which is why they are called “warblers” instead of “colorful little birds.” Perhaps unique among bird guides, this book has quizzes to make sure you are keeping up. There are piles of other information about warbler watching

    All of the Crossley ID guides are fantastic. These are not pocket books, but they are car books. You put them in your car when you are out looking for birds. These guides are unique in the way the birds are depicted, giving you views of the birds as they actually look in the wild, including really far away or hiding in the bushes, or all the other things birds do. Everyone needs to have a couple of these.

    Screen Shot 2015-11-25 at 3.06.23 PMThe Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds (The Crossley ID Guides) mirrors the typical Peterson type guide in its coverage. This is to be supplemented by the very valuable The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors for the hawks and such. There is also a The Crossley ID Guide: Britain and Ireland.

    Some of the Crossley guides come in an alternative binding format

    Bird Books About Birds (evolution, history, biology)

    There is a handful of books that I tend to go back to again and again to learn things about bird biology, the history of bird research, or other things beyond field identification.

    The first one I would recommend is The Birder’s Handbook: A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds by Paul Elrich, David Dobkin, and Darryl Wheye.

    Screen Shot 2015-11-25 at 3.13.49 PMThis is an older book but little of the information is out of date. This is where you look up some bird you’ve been watching or wondering about and find out the real tale behind the tail. Since it is an older book you can obtain it for just a few dollars.

    Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin by Tim Birkhead, Jo Wimpenny, and Bob Montgomerie is an authoritative, rich, well written, big, giant, tome that reviews the history of research, and the researchers, over many decades of bird study. Bird biology is a major part of organismic (meaning, not inside the cell or body, but outside) biology. So, in a sense, this book is a history of our understanding of how animals in general work. Again, because it has been out for a few years, you may find a good price on a used edition.

    The next six books cover conservation, the intersection of birds and art, or expose detailed information about a single group of birds. They are all coffee-table level quality but rich in information and in some cases just plain inspiring. They are all current, but not right out of the publishing houses, so they can be obtained at a reasonable price, in most cases.

    The World’s Rarest Birds (WILDGuides). There are something over 10,000 species of birds (thus the name of the famous blog). Of these, just under 600 are in very very serious trouble, some to the extent that we are not sure if they exist, others are so rare that we know they exist but there are no good photographs of them, others are merely very likely to go extinct. There are patterns to this rarity, having to do with what threatens birds on one hand and what makes certain birds vulnerable on the other, but the range of birds that are threatened, in terms of size, shape, kind of bird, habitat, etc. represents birds pretty generally. It is not just obscure frog-like rainforest birds of Borneo that are threatened. Chance are you live in a zone where there are bird species that have gone extinct over the last century, or are about to go extinct over coming decades, including birds that you will never see unless you are very very lucky.

    Rare Birds of North America is the only extensive treatment I’ve see of the so called “vagrant birds” in the US and Canada. Most, or at least many, traditional bird books have a section in the back for rare birds, occasionals or accidentals, which one might see now and then. But when you think about it, how can five or even a dozen species in a bird book really do justice to the problem of spotting birds that are normally not supposed to be spotted?

    Penguins: The Ultimate Guide is a beautiful coffee table style book full of information. All of the world’s species are covered (amazingly there are only 18 of them) and there are more than 400 excellent photos. The book covers penguin science (science about them, not by them). There is also quite a bit about their conservation.

    The layout of the book is interesting. The last section of the book, by Julie Cornthwaite includes portraits of each species, and a compendium of interesting facts such as which is the fastest penguin, strange things about their bills, their odd moulting behavior, interesting color variants, how they “fly”, interesting mating facts, and what threatens them. Then there is a table organized taxonomically giving their status, population estimates, ranges, and main threats. Following this is a two page bird-guide type spread on each species, with a range map, photos, descriptions, information about their voice, breeding behavior, feeding behavior, etc. That is what you would expect in a book about penguins.

    But the first, and largest, part(s) of the book provides its uniqueness. The first section, by Dui De Roy, covers penguins generally, or specific exemplar species or groups of species, to provide an overview of what penguin-ness is all about. The second section, edited by Mark Jones, consists of 17 essays by various experts on specific topics, such as how penguins store food, how they are tracked at sea, and penguin-human interaction. I would like to have seen more about penguin evolution (which is interesting) but the sparsity of coverage of that topic does not detract from the book’s overall quality.

    Five families of birds make up the group that could be referred to as the Cotingas and Manakins, which in turn include species with such colorful names as “Pale-bellied Tyrant-Manakin,” “Bare-necked Fruitcrow,” “Peruvian Plantcutter,” and “White-browed Purpletuft.” And certainly, you’ve heard of the Andean Cock-of-theRock. These birds and their relatives are THE famous colorful amazing birds of the Neotropics, the birds people who go to the Jungles of Central and South America go to see. “… the song of the Xcreaming Piha,… the loudest bird on Earth, is used by moviemakers to epitomize jungle soudns the world over, no just in its native South America,” we are told by the authors of Cotingas and Manakins, an amazing new book that you need to either add to your collection right now or give to your favorite birder.

    How are birds related to dinosaurs, crocodiles, and pterosaurs? Where do birds live, and not live? How many bird species are there, and how many actual birds, and how does this vary across the glob? What about endemics?; Where ate the most local species found? Mike Unwin’s The Atlas of Birds: Diversity, Behavior, and Conservation covers this and more in a richly illustrated detailed global survey of Aves.

    The image at the top of the post is by Analiese Miller. Ana is a fantastic bird photographer, and you can see some of her work either by visiting my house and looking at my wall, or by visiting this web site.

    The Birds At Itasca and Other Matters

    When I studied the Efe Pygmies of the Congo, I discovered (and yes, it was me who discovered this amazing fact everyone now knows) that the Efe organize their space in elongated linear trails. They knew all about everything along those specific trails, and their knowledge of other trails was often very limited. If an Efe person spent time living with a group associated with a trail, he* would learn about that trail as well. Most interesting is that one’s knowledge of important things like where to find food (or danger) was based on experience not on general principles. So an Efe off his trail, or another trail he knew about, was not much better than, say, me (after a couple of years gaining my own experience) at having a clue. Also interesting is that there is a relatively formal connection between historic families (you can think of these as “clans”) and regular use of specific trails or sets of trails. So an older male member of Clan X will tend to know all the trails anyone in Clan X knows.

    Turns out this is true of Minnesotans as well….

    Continue reading here.

    Rare Birds of North America

    Rare Birds of North America is the only extensive treatment I’ve see of the so called “vagrant birds” in the US and Canada. Most, or at least many, traditional bird books have a section in the back for rare birds, occasionals or accidentals, which one might see now and then. But when you think about it, how can five or even a dozen species in a bird book really do justice to the problem of spotting birds that are normally not supposed to be spotted?

    I’m reminded of one South African bird guide that has a half dozen penguin species listed in it. There is only one species of penguin in South Africa but a handful of others have shown up, almost always as a corpse floating around with other junk on the beach somewhere. I suppose when we’re talking penguins, that counts.

    Anyway, Rare Birds of North America by Steve Howell, Ian Lewington and Will Russell includes 262 species illustrated across 275 plates, from the Old World, the New World Tropics, and the planet’s oceans. The first 44 pages or so are about rare birds, and the rest of the book is a morphologically-grouped compendium of the species. The species discussion run from page to page (unlike a typical modern guide). They include common name, binomial, basic size stats, then info on taxonomy, rarity, normal distribution, and as appropriate, subspecies Most of the plates have multiple illustrations showing various angles and flight vs. non-flight, sex-specirc, and other views. The illustrations are drawings and as far as I can tell are good quality. But since you never see these birds who the heck knows!?!?

    An appendix includes brand new rare species not covered in the book. A second appendix includes species that may or may not have occurred. A third appendix lists the “birds new to North America” by year. This appendix and various data presented at the beginning of the book are analyzed in the work, but seem ripe for further Science by Spreadsheet!

    This is a Hefty, thick-leaved, well made book (I reviewed the hardcover). Not a field guide but not a big coffee table book either. More like the bird-book-shelf and truck of the car style book.

    Steve N. G. Howell is research associate at PRBO Conservation Science and is affiliated with WINGS, an international bird tour company. Hew wrote Petrels, Albatrosses, and Storm-Petrels of North America. Ian Lewington a bird illustrator famous for the high quality of his work. Will Russell is cofounder and managing director of WINGS.