Tag Archives: field guide

Garden Insects of North America: Ultimate Guide to Backyard Bugs, New Edition

BOOK NOTE: I interrupt this book review to note that Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman is currently available, again, as a Kindle book, for two bucks. And now returning to our regularly scheduled review.

Garden Insects of North America: The Ultimate Guide to Backyard Bugs is not a pocket field guide. How could it be? There are over a million species of insects and probably a lot more (huge numbers certainly remain to be discovered) and of them, some 100,000 exist in North America. I’m actually not sure how many are represented in this book, but several thousand distributed among some 3,000 illustrations, mostly color photographs. Continue reading Garden Insects of North America: Ultimate Guide to Backyard Bugs, New Edition

The Horses Of The World: Don’t say Neigh to this great book.

Over the years, the field guide and the coffee table book have merged, and we now have coffee table-ish books (but serious books) that include a species description of every critter in a certain clade. In the case of Horses of the World by Élise Rousseau (Author), Yann Le Bris (Illustrator), Teresa Lavender Fagan (Translator), while every living species of horse is in fact covered, the book is a comprehensive guide to breeds of horses.

Of which there are 570.

A horse is horse, of course, but but is a donkey or an ass? What about zebras?

Horse people are very picky about what they call a horse. It is generally thought that there are onlly three living or recent species of horse. The Prewalski’s horse (Equus ferus prezewalski), which lives in Asia, the tarpan (Equus ferus ferus) which is the European version of this animal, and went extinct when the last zoo inmate of this species died in 1909, and the modern horse, Equus ferus caballus. But if you think of a horse as a member of the genus Equus, there are more, including the donkey/ass and three species of zebra, the Kiang (a Tibetan ass), and another Asian ass called the Onager. And, since when speaking of horses, the extinct European wild horse is generally mentioned, we will add the Quagga, the half horse-half zebra (in appearance) African equid that went extinct in 1984 (having disappeared from the wild in 1883).

Since “horses” (as in Mr. Ed and friends) and Zebras can interbreed successfully, and some of these other forms can as well to varying degrees, we need to think of Equus as a close knit genus and not be exclusionary in disregarding the Zebra and Donkey.

Anyway, that is not what this book is about. As noted, there are some 570 or possibly more varieties of horse (no two experts will likely agree on that number) and Horses of the World covers them all. There is introductory material about horses, breeds, how we tell them apart, conservation status, etc. Each horse breed is then given one half of a page on each of two folios, so you see overleaf some illustrated text on one side, and a fuller and very official illustration on the other, for most breeds, with some variation.

This is one of the few books that comes with a movie, compete with some rather galloping music:

Élise Rousseau is the author of numerous books on horses. Illustrator Yann Le Bris has illustrated numerous books.

A guide to the butterflies (book review)

A Swift Guide to Butterflies of North America is a field guider’s field guide. It is the shape and size of a traditional field guide. The designers of this book said “we don’t need no stinking margins” so there are no margins. Color bleeds on the page edges allow a quick index to major butterfly categories. There is a two page spread visual index. A no nonsense introduction give you the basics about how to use the book, how to be a butterflyer, and how to not be a jerk about butterflies (like, don’t net them and kill them). The front covers even have those flaps that you can use as bookmarks.

Ranges are an interesting problem with butterflies, since their biogeography is both very heterogeneous and in some cases rapidly changing. Also, a key feature of their breeding ranges is not so much when they are there, but how many times they cycle through broods over the warm months. So the maps are interesting:

A species entry is jammed with info. The color of the species name indicates something about its range, and key information about habitat, timing of adult phase, etc. is pulled out and highlighted. And so on. I’m giving a few examples of the pages here so you have an idea of how no nonsense serious this book is as a field guide. This is the book in which you find the butterfly, no question.

This guide, by Jeffry Glassberg, world expert on butterflies, is the revised second edition of what has always been recognized as the most usable and detailed field guid for the average intense person. 3,500 photographs cover all known species in the region, depicting details and variants.

The guide is photographic, but using modern techniques to this approach (which, in the old days, was usually not as good as drawing) so you have the best illustrations in this book.

See also: Monarch Butterflies and Milkweed: An amazing new book


The information about each species in together with all the other information about each species.

Species are grouped in major categories that are essentially morphological. So you go, “look, there’s a skipper” and look it up in the section on skippers.

This is an excellent must have field guide.

From the publisher’s site:

Jeffrey Glassberg is a leading butterfly authority and author. He is president of the North American Butterfly Association, editor of American Butterflies magazine, and the author of many books, including the Butterflies through Binoculars series. He is adjunct professor of evolutionary biology at Rice University and lives in Morristown, New Jersey.

The Table of Contents:

Introduction 7
About This Book 7
Butterfly Identification 7
Butterfly Biology 8
Names 9
Interacting with Butterflies 9
“Releasing” Butterflies 10
Conservation 11
North American Butterfly Association 11
Wing Areas and Body Parts 12
About the Species Accounts 13
Abbreviations, Symbols and Glossary 14
About the Maps 15
Swallowtails Papilionidae 16
Parnassians Parnassiinae 16
True Swallowtails Papilioninae 18
Whites and Yellows Pieridae 36
Whites Pierinae 36
Marbles and Orangetips 46
Yellows Coliadinae 52
Sulphurs 52
Yellows 68
Gossamerwings Lycaenidae 74
Coppers Lycaeninae 74
Harvester Miletinae 83
Hairstreaks Theclinae 84
Blues Polyommatinae 122
Metalmarks Riodinidae 146
Brushfoots Nymphalidae 158
Heliconians and Fritillaries Heliconiinae 158
Heliconians 158
Greater Fritillaries 162
Lesser Fritillaries 182
True Brushfoots Nymphalinae 190
Patches, Checkerspots and Crescents 190
Anglewings, Ladies and Relatives 220
Admirals and Relatives Limenitidinae et al. 232
Leafwings Charaxinae 246
Emperors Apaturinae 250
Snouts Libytheinae 253
Satyrs Satyrinae 254
Ticlears, Clearwings Ithomiinae 277
Mimic-Queen and Monarchs Danainae 277
Skippers Hesperiidae 280
Firetips Pyrrhopyginae 280
Spreadwing Skippers Pyrginae 280
Skipperlings Heteropterinae 332
Grass-Skippers Hesperiinae 334
Giant-Skippers Megathyminae 394
Hawaii 400
Photo Credits 402
Selected Bibliography 403
Selected Websites 403
Caterpillar Foodplant Index 404
Butterfly Species Index 408
Visual Index 418

Birds of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East: New Field Guide

Just got my copy of Birds of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East: A Photographic Guide by Frédéric Jiguet and Aurélien Audevard.

This is the first and only field-ready photographic bird guide that covers every species in Europe. There are 2,200 photos covering 860 species. The West Asian and North African coverage is of all of the species there that have occurred in Europe, so think of this primarily as a European guide.

The entry for the Mute Swan.
The entry for the Mute Swan.
I hasten to add and emphasize. These are not your grandaddy’s photographs. Many photographic guides have pretty nice looking photographs that show a bird, but then, when you go look up the bird you saw, you quickly discover that many of the best guides (such as this one) are not photographic, but rather, follow the Peterson/Pedrides tradition of drawings designed to help in identification. Jiguet and Aedevard use photographs that are then enhanced and set in a non-photographic background or matrix, so they end up looking, and acting, a lot more like the drawings. This means that key features are indicated and notated.

Critically important in this guide is the ratio between the above mentioned numbers. For every species, there are potentially several photographs. Sometimes, it is male and female. Some other morphological categories are illustrated. For some birds, especially raptors, there may be numerous views in flight.

The amount of information give per bird is minimal (this is a field guid) and the range maps are classic style and well done. Some books have dozens of pages of front matter, but this book has almost none. Other than the index and credits, there is no back matter. Yet, the book is well over 400 pages long. That’s a lot of birds in one book. If you want a European bird guide for the field, this is the one.

About the authors:

Frédéric Jiguet is one of France’s leading ornithologists and a conservation biologist at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris. He is director of the Centre de Recherches sur la Biologie des Populations d’Oiseaux (CRBPO), and serves on the editorial board of France’s premier bird-study journal, Ornithos. Aurélien Audevard has been studying birds for much of his life and has conducted several high-profile conservation studies for the Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux, Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur (LPO PACA). His photographs have appeared in many of Europe’s leading birding magazines, including Ornithos, L’Oiseaux, Birding World, and Dutch Birding.


Introduction 6
Species descriptions 12
Swans 12
Geese 14
Shelducks 21
Dabbling ducks 22
Whistling ducks 28
Diving ducks 28
Sea ducks 34
Stifftails 41
Vagrant and exotic ducks 42
Gamebirds 45
Divers (Loons) 55
Grebes 58
Shearwaters and petrels 61
Storm-petrels 66
Rare petrels and albatrosses 67
Frigatebirds 75
Tropicbirds 76
Gannets and boobies 77
Pelicans 80
Cormorants 81
Herons, bitterns and egrets 83
Storks 93
Spoonbills and ibises 94
Spoonbills and storks 96
Flamingos 97
Honey-buzzards 99
Buzzards 101
Snake eagles 105
Kites 106
Vultures 108
Harriers 113
Eagles 117
Osprey and Black-shouldered Kite 126
Accipiters 127
Falcons 129
Rails, crakes and gallinules 137
Cranes 143
Bustards 145
Oystercatcher and Turnstone 148
Stilts and avocets 149
Stone-curlews and coursers 150
Pratincoles 151
Plovers and lapwings 153
Sandpipers 162
Woodcocks and snipes 173
Dowitchers and Upland Sandpiper 176
Godwits 177
Curlews 178
Larger sandpipers 180
Phalaropes 185
Skuas (Jaegers) 187
Gulls 190
Terns 211
Auks 222
Sandgrouse 227
Pigeons and doves 229
Parakeets 234
Cuckoos 235
Owls 238
Nightjars 246
Swifts 248
Kingfishers 251
Rollers 253
Bee-eaters 254
Hoopoe 255
Woodpeckers 256
Larks 262
Swallows and martins 269
Pipits 274
Wagtails 279
Accentors 284
Wren and Dipper 286
Robins and chats 287
Redstarts 291
Stonechats 295
Wheatears 298
Rock thrushes 303
Thrushes 304
Bush warblers and cisticolas 311
Grasshopper warblers 312
Reed warblers 315
Tree warblers 320
Sylvia warblers 324
Leaf warblers 333
Crests 341
Old World flycatchers 343
Tyrant flycatchers 348
Penduline tit and leiothrix 350
Reedling and parrotbill 351
Long-tailed tit 352
Tits 353
Nuthatches 358
Treecreepers 360
Wallcreeper and Golden Oriole 361
Shrikes 362
Crows and jays 370
Starlings 377
Waxwings 379
Bulbuls and mynas 381
Sparrows 382
Introduced exotic finches 386
Finches 389
Buntings 404
Vagrant Nearctic passerines 417
New World warblers 433
Index 434
Photographic credits 444

The Mammals of Borneo

How do you judge a field guide?

Phillipps’ Field Guide to the Mammals of Borneo and Their Ecology: Sabah, Sarawak, Brunei, and KalimantanSome field guides you leave on the shelf and rarely look at. Others you may put in the living room to spice up the coffee table, because they make great eye candy, but are otherwise not that useful. Others you take out, and at least have around in case you need them. Others you make sure you are never very far away from because you find yourself looking for them all the time.

rajah640hAnd, every once in a while, a field guide comes along that you want to take to bed with you.

I’m sure you know what I mean.

It is such a beddable field guide.

Sure, if you are going to Borneo, you may want to check this out because it covers that region. But really, when you are out and about in the wilds of Borneo, you’ll be with a guide. Most of the mammals you’ll ever see can be listed on an index card, with large hand writing, and the few others that might come along, you’ll only see for a fraction of a second, and your guide will be able to make up something good about them.

So, yeah, bring it, and it will serve you well, help you keep the guide honest, etc.

But then take it to bed with you, because Phillipps’ Field Guide to the Mammals of Borneo by Quenton Phillipps and Karen Phillipps is some serious reading.

There are 277 species of mammals covered for the region, including the fish-like mammals such as whales. Most of the hard work in this book is done with drawings, which are excellent, but there are also photos. The drawing-photo combination is quite rare among field guides.

Note the second half of the title: “And their ecology.” There is about 75 pages of text prior to the “field guide of mammals” part, which blend interestingly and smoothly into one of the key mammal groups, the fruit eating bats, while still talking about ecology. The last 75 pages or so are detailed expositions of key ecologically important areas, and other back matter. The middle 225 pages or so have the “field guide” but about 25% of that space is not just field guide, but rather, some other information about the mammals being covered.

Here is an example of why this is a great book. It is a field guide to mammals. And their ecology. Thus, an entry on a fruit:

That’s not the last of the figs. Lots more on figs. Figs are keystone species in Borneo.

This is a book you can browse through, as your night time reading, enjoy immensely, learn a great deal from and never actually go to Borneo. But if you are going to go to Borneo, get the book. And spend a little quality time with it before your trip. Bring it along on the trip. Then, after the trip, use it to fill in the blanks.

Borneo, by the way, is pretty interesting.

The Wildlife of Southeast Asia

Wildlife of Southeast Asia by Susan Myers, is a new pocket identification guide covering “wildlife” in Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, West Malaysia, and Singapore.

It covers birds, mammals, reptiles, frogs, and invertebrates. Considering that there must be tens of millions of inverts in Southeast Asia, the coverage here is very minimal, just the highlights, just a few pages. This is mainly a bird book, with pretty good coverage of mammals, a bunch of snakes, some of the more important frogs, and some of the more obvious insects, etc.

It is standard field guide size, and uses photographs rather than drawings. The first several pages outline the better wildlife viewing spots.

The animal info comes with very little geographical information (i.e., no maps) presumably because the area of coverage of this book is actually fairly small and somewhat homogeneous.

There are 500+ photos.

Table of Contents:

Introduction 6
Geographic Coverage 6
Measurements 6
Basic Tips for Visitors 8
Guide to the Best Spots for Viewing Wildlife in Southeast Asia 10
Species Accounts
Birds 26
Mammals 174
Reptiles 210
Frogs 226
Invertebrates 230
References 244
Photo Credits 244
Index 249

Bovids Of The World

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, there are 143 species of bovids. The Animal Diversity Web is a bit less precise, indicating that there are “more than 140 extant and 300 extinct species.” That second number is highly questionable because today there exist sister species that are so similar I doubt they could be told apart from fossils alone. If you check around the internet, this ~140 number comes up again and again, and Wikipedia says 143.

horns640hResearch published in 2011 and later by Colin Groves, Peter Grubb, and David Leslie, which has been tagged as controversial by some but accepted by others, puts this number much higher, over 270. Why such a difference, and why is this controversy only emerging recently? It isn’t like bovids are barely studied, or highly cryptic.

One of the reasons probably has to do with vagueness in the species concept itself, and it may well be the case that there are sets of species defined by Groves et al that are too finely split. But, the most likely explanation is that more modern methods, using DNA and recently developed statistical techniques, simply come up with a larger number. I’ve only read some of this literature, but I’m pretty sure the larger number is much closer to correct than the smaller number.

This has an important impact on understanding and addressing problems of ecology, diversity, evolution, and conservation. With respect to conservation, this means that some populations of bovids, the more rare and geographically restricted ones, are likely to be more at risk of extinction, if there are other populations at different locations that can no longer be referenced as survivors. It has been suggested, indeed, that splitting large taxonomic groups into larger numbers of species is some kind of pro conservation shenanigans. Such hippie-punching has no place in modern biology, of course. The increase in our accounted-for diversity that happens with more research is both expected from historical trends over recent decades (though it is a reverse of earlier decreases in diversity as more was learned about certain groups) and is predicted by evolutionary theory.

Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 3.00.19 PMAnyway, I’m not here to talk about that controversy exactly. Rather, I want to point you do a new book, a really fantastic book, called Bovids of the World: Antelopes, Gazelles, Cattle, Goats, Sheep, and Relatives, by José Castelló.

Castelló uses the larger number, by the way: 271. And this book includes all of them.

The majority of this 664 page book consists of plates and a species description on the left, and details on the right, including excellent range maps, with one species in each layout. The species are divided by the usual commonly accepted tribes. This also means that many but not all of the species are grouped by very large geographical regions, because that is how the bovids are organized across our global landscape.

The back matter consists of nothing more than an index, critical in such a volume, and the front matter has an overview of what a bovid is, and details about key anatomy used in the field guide.

This book is one of a handful in the emerging subcategory of animal books that covers an entire taxonomic group either globally or nearly globally. I recently reviewed Waterfowl of North America, Europe and Asia by Reeber, which isn’t quite global but since waterfowl tend to migrate is nearly so. A while back I reviewed the guide “Sharks of the World” by Compagno, Dando, and Fowler. And I’ve reviewed one of my favorite guides of all time, “Carnivores of the World“, which covers all the carnivores except those that evolved partly into fish.

pantelope640hThis category of book is not meant to be the one book you carry with you while touring around in the field. If you go to Africa, bring The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals (it includes the bovids), for example. Rather, this book is to understand the bovids as a major and important taxonomic group.

Paging through a given tribe’s entries, you can come to understand biogeography better, as you see the ranges depicted on the maps of a continent or region. Also, small bovids tend to have smaller geographical ranges than larger bovids, but there are major exceptions. Why those exceptions?

Looking at the physical variation in key features, such as body size, sexual dimorphism, head dress, and markings, you can see patterns that are best explained with interesting evolutionary and ecological theories. If you teach behavioral biology or zoology, this will be a useful reference point for your thinking on all those key bovid examples. Or, if you are just interested in animals, or are planning a trip to a place where you’ll be observing antelopes or other bovids, you may want to invest in this.

And when your crotchety Uncle Bob is over for a holiday dinner and you get into an argument about how many duikers there are in West Africa vs. Central Africa, you can pull out your copy of Bovids of the World and settle the bet!

The plates are drawings, not photographs, which is entirely appropriate in this sort of book. Habitats matter to photographs and that would bias the physical comparisons. Also, I can tell you from personal experience that many of the bovids, especially the forest dwellers, just don’t have great photographs anyway.

I studied the information on the bovids with which I’m familiar from my own fieldwork, and I see only quality information.

As far as I know, there is not another guide like this available. Also it is not that expensive.

Table of Contents:
FOREWORD by Brent Huffman and Colin Groves 5
Impalas 24
Sunis, Royal Antelope, Pygmy Antelope 28
Reedbucks, Waterbucks, Rhebok 38
Gazelles, Oribis, Steenbok, Grysbok, Dik-diks 82
Klipspringers 224
Duikers 244
Sheep, Goats, and relatives 302
Horse Antelopes 466
Tsessebes, Topis, Hartebeests, Wildebeests 496
Nilgai, Four-horned Antelope 542
Spiral-horned Antelopes 546
Bison, Buffaloes, Cattle, Saola 596

Waterfowl of North America, Europe, and Asia: Beautiful new book

There are three kinds of books that count as animal (usually bird) guides.

1) A pocket field guide of the critters of a reasonably circumscribed geographical area, like the Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America. This is a small book that can fit in a big pocket, and a classic guide like this one is something you’ll want to have with you while bird watching in the eastern or central US.

2) A big book, not suitable for pockets, of the critters of a reasonably circumscribed geographical area. A great example of this is The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds . It covers the same geographical area as the aforementioned Peterson guide, but the book’s authors and publishers sacrifice portability for other characteristics like richness of detail and more book real estate for many more images.

3) A book, larger or smaller, that focuses on a specific geographical area but covers most of the visible wildlife including, often, plants, and maybe including additional information for the traveller. A recent example of this is the just published Wildlife of the Galapagos.

4) A book that covers a large taxonomic group, but over a vast geographical area. Carnivores of the World is an example of this. It covers all of the non-aquatic carnivores, everywhere on the planet. This particular book is a pocket field guide, but in a way that is kind of funny because you’d have be on quite a trip to need a pocket guide for the Earth for a given type of animal. I quickly add, however, that while it might seem a bit silly, the Carnivores of the World is actually a fantastic book.

barrowsgoldeneye640hThe book, Waterfowl of North America, Europe, and Asia: An Identification Guide, by Sébastien Reeber, overlaps with some of these categories. The title could be rewritten to say “Temperate and Subtropical Waterfowl of the Northern Hemisphere,” though that would be a bit misleading because a large percentage of these birds migrate long distances, so really, it is more like “Waterfowl of the world except the ones that stay in the tropics or otherwise don’t migrate north of the tropics,” but that would be a silly title.

Also, Waterfowl of North America, Europe, and Asia: An Identification Guide is large format. The up and down and back and forth dimensions are not as large as Crossley’s bird guides, but it is way bigger than a field guide, and thick … 656 pages. The plates start on page 32 and the detailed text and photograph rich species accounts run from pages 177 to 616, to give you an idea of the balance and expansiveness found in this volume.

This book is organized in a unique way. There are two main parts. First, 72 plates show peterson-style drawings of all of the birds that are covered, with the drawings arranged on the right side, with basic ID information, range maps, and references to other parts of the book on the left side. This allows the user to find a particular bird fairly quickly. Importantly, the pictures cover both sex and age variations.

The second part of the book significantly expands on the plates, and is cross referenced by plate number, with extensive text and multiple photographs to add very rich detail.

So, when it comes to your preference for drawings vs. photographs, you can have your cake and eat it too. Also, when it comes to your need for a basic field guide vs. a more in depth discussion, you can have your cake and eat it too there as well.

easternspot-billedduck640hAside from these two main sections there are sections on how to use the book, basics of taconomy and systematics, the physical anatomy of birds and how that relates to identification, important information on moulting and plumage variation as well as age and sex, which as you probably know are key in identifying waterfowl because this varies so much. There is an extensive section on hybrids, which, again, is a big deal with many waterfowl, and a very large number of hybrids are addressed in the book. (There is a separate hybrid index.)

The book is extremely well produced and presented. I love this book.

Since Waterfowl of North America, Europe, and Asia: An Identification Guide is brand new, if you’ve got a birder friend or relative with a birthday coming up soon, this is the perfect gift. Meanwhile, migrations are underway. You need this book now.

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!)

Golden Eagles and Free Coffee!

You’ve heard of the The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds (The Crossley ID Guides). It is a revolutionary new way to assemble a field guide, where each page has a drawing of what it would look like if suddenly outside your living room there was a full blown habitat for some species of bird, with individuals from that species flying or sitting all over the place in different positions, doing different things, and at different distances. These pages in the field guide almost give you the experience of having seen many of this partiuclar species of bird, like you were suddenly an experienced birder. In preparation for a birding trip, you can prepare by going over the birds you hope to see, and during or after the trip you can use this guide to check your ID’s.

Well, now, there is also the The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors. This is the same thing but for Raptors. The book is coming out RIGHT NOW so Princeton has organized a major blogging tour, and right now, you’re on the tour! The other blog posts are as indicated here, on this schedule. I recommend visiting all the other entries. Some of them are giving away prizes, so especially check those out.

As a matter of fact, we’re giving away a prize here, right now, on this blog post, and you may be able to win it. Details are below. But first, a word about ….

… Golden Eagles …

Golden Eagles are a bit of a sore spot with me because they are rare and said to be hard to distinguish from immature Bald Eagles. This is not their fault. But when one claims to have seen a Golden Eagle the automatic reaction among most birders is to claim that you are wrong, that it was an immature Bald Eagle you had seen. This is especially true in Minnesota. If you look at bird books, they are sometimes not shown to be here at all, even as migrants, or otherwise, only rarely.

Stan Tekiela’s Birds of Minnesota Field Guide, Second Edition does not even list Golden Eagles. The Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America shows northern and central Minnesota as a migratory route, but the rest of the state is indicated as “rare.” Birds of Minnesota and Wisconsin indicates them to be an uncommon migrant or winter visitor in parts of the region. The Birds of North America and Greenland: (Princeton Illustrated Checklists) shows them as occassional winter visitor in only a small area to the West of Minnesota. National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, Sixth Edition shows them only rarely in Minnesota, but more in the eastern part of the state. Hawks and Owls of the Great Lakes Region and Eastern North America shows them as an occasional winter species in Minnesota and a very large area of the plains and the eastern US.

The Kaufman Field Guide to Birds Of North America shows them totally absent in the state, but this book also has another interesting geographical observation. There is a huge area of eastern Canada with a dotted line around it indicating that they may or may not breed there. This is an interesting thing about Golden Eagles. When you look into it, you find that there is this large not very mountainous region in which this mountain bird seems to breed, migrate to and from, but is not observed within. Like they were hiding out there. The Birds Of The Great Plains shows them rare in Minnesota and more common to the west than the east.

Of course, one always wants to consult the bible in these matters. The Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America (Peterson Field Guides) shows them totally absent in Minnesota, but also indicates the big mysterious region to the north where they may or may not breed.

Now that we’ve established that there is no agreement whatsoever on the distribution of, timing of, or even existence of, the Golden Eagle in Minnesota, let me tell you about two of our sightings of the bird (there’s been a few but these two are particularly interesting).

The firs sighting was about 10 years ago. Julia was about seven, and we were visiting the Minnesota Raptor Center in Falcon Heights. We were being given a tour of the cages, where various raptors were kept. These birds were all rescued from somewhere, generally with injuries. Some would be rehabilitated and released. Some would become ambassador birds, traveling around the area with experts from the Raptor Center for educational purposes. Some would simply remain in the cages forever.

As the tour progressed, the tour guide would say a few things about each bird as we approached the cage, then we would look at the bird for a while, then move on to the next cage. At once point, she said, “And here is the Golden Eagle. There are no Golden Eagles in Minnesota, not at all. If you ever think you are seeing a Golden Eagle, I assure you that it is merely an immature Bald Eagle. There are no Golden Eagles in this state.”

Then, as we stopped in front of the cage to look at the bird, Julia pointed to it and said, “There’s one!”

“What?” the guid said.

“There’s a Golden Eagle. It’s in Minnesota. So you’re wrong.”

I was fully expecting to find, on further inquiry, that this particular bird had been found injured along the highway in some other state and brought here to the Minnesota Raptor Center for treatment. So, I asked, “Where is this bird from?”

We were given a very precise location, along a road near a particular town. In Minnesota. In fact, within a one hour drive from where the bird was sitting in the cage. So, there you go.

The second sighting was up at the cabin. It was early fall and we were sitting on the deck overlooking the lake, to the north. Although we were located a short distance outside the Chippewa National Forest, which is known to have the highest number and highest density of Bald Eagles in the US outside of Alaska, the tree line across the lake was in the forest proper, and in fact, this was an excellent place to see bald eagles. A nesting pair lived in sight just a few hundred yards to the left, and hunted in this bay. Sometimes other eagles came by, and the pair often had a young one. If you want to see a bald eagle from that spot, all you had to do is look. If the eagle was not visible that instance, all you had to do was listen and you’d hear either the eagles themselves or some other bird complaining about the eagles. Indeed, that is the main reason for the local loons to holler. If you hear the loon going loony just look up. There will be one or two bald eagles reeling at altitude over the loon, sharing the fishing grounds.

Anyway, we were sitting there looking north when suddenly there appeared over the tree line to the north, across the lake, a bird that was clearly a very large eagle, and it was flapping its wings in powered flight going in a straight line right for us. We knew it was an eagle because of its shape and size. However, it was significantly larger looking than any of the bald eagles in the area. I should note that despite the large number and high density of eagles in Chippewa Forest, these Bald Eagles are smaller than the Alaskan kind. But this bird was whopping big.

Also, it was flying funny. Not only was it not soaring as eagles tend to do, it was flapping its wings in what looked like an unusual pattern. And, it was not a bald eagle. As it got closer, we watched it with binoculars and could see the field markings very clearly.

“That was a Golden Eagle, wasn’t it?” I said to Amanda.

“I guess so,” she replied.

“You could see a bit of white on the upper wings before it came over us.”

“Yeah, I saw that. You could see white on its tail shinning through with the sun.”

“It had a small head.”

“And a smaller bill.”

“I know, and that color was different than an immature Bald Eagle.”

“When it stopped flapping for a while its wings almost looked like a vulture.”

“I know. All the field markings seem to suggest a Golden Eagle, not an immature Bald Eagle.”

“Yeah, and you know what,” Amanda said.


“We know what an immature Bald Eagle looks like. That wasn’t one of them.”

And now it’s your turn. The following illustration shows several raptors. Each is labeled with a letter. Some of these raptors are Golden Eagles, some are not.


Your job is to identify the Golden Eagles. Put a set of letters that represent only Golden Eagles in a comment. I will collect all the perfectly correct answers and send them to Price Waterhouse in a briefcase, where one of the correct answers will be randomly selected.

If you use a proper email address when you sign in to comment, then I’ll be able to contact you if you are chosen. Otherwise I’ll just mark the correct and chosen comment here on this blog and you can check back later, and if you were the winner we’ll work out how to send you your prize, provided by Princeton University Press.

The prize will be two pounds of Birds and Beans Coffee! It will be sent to you by the good people of Princeton.

Also note that Princeton has a contest in which you can win a pair of Nikon 8220 Trailblazer 8×42 ATB Binoculars and some autographed bird books. Details are HERE.

Happy Birding!

We’ll pick the winner on April 1st.

Update Your Southern African Bird Guide Collection

When traveling and working in South Africa, I’ve always used Newman’s guide to the birds of Southern Africa, and more recently, I found the Sasol guide to be helpful as well. (I discuss both briefly here.) Now, I’ve got on my desk a copy of Princeton’s Birds of Southern Africa: Fourth Edition by Ian Sinclair, Phil Hockey, Warwick Tarboton and Peter Ryan. You will know Sinclair from his South of the Saraha bird guide.

All three books cover about the same species, as far as I can tell (just under 1,000) and have a similar range of illustration and information. They all have overview graphics that help narrow down the species, and other helpful information.

There are things I like about the new Sinclair book that you might appreciate as well. First, the range maps are more detailed and updated, and probably the most accurate of any in a current field guide. Sasol has helpful inflight graphics arranged to group several similar species together, but Sinclair has the in flight images in the same place as the other images of each species. That might make Sasol better for the novice who needs to narrow down “hawk thingie” to a more fine detail, while Sinclair would be more useful to the pro. (Sorry, I’m not making the comparison to Newman right now because I can’t lay my hands on my volume right now. Might have left it at Lynne’s house. In Pretoria.)

Obviously, you need more than one field guide, especially if you are traveling with more than one person. (Always bring different guides, not copies of the same, where possible!) and at the moment I’d suggest the new Birds of Southern Africa: Fourth Edition because it is the most up to date, along with the Sasol.

Wildlife of Southern Africa

Wildlife of Southern Africa , by Martin Withers and David Hosking, is new (August 2011) and good. If you are planning a trip to South Africa, Namibia, Botswana or anywhere nearby, or if you live there and like to go to the bush sometimes, consider it.

This is a pocket guide, it is small, has good photographs, is inexpensive, and accurate.

Continue reading Wildlife of Southern Africa

A Field Guide to ALL of the Carnivores! (Almost)

Why would you want a field guide to all of the carninvores? They live everywhere, so there is no reason to carry around a field identification guide with ALL of them unless you were going everywhere in the whole world on one trip!

Yet, there is such a field guide, Carnivores of the World (Princeton Field Guides), and the truth is, this is ONE OF THE COOLEST BOOKS I’VE EVER SEEN! All the carnivores (almost) in one book. Interestingly, it turns out to be possible. There are fewer than three hundred species of terrestrial carnivore in the whole world, and that is fittable in a single book.

That itself is an interesting fact, in proper context. Indeed, when I went through this book, spending a bit of time on each and every page, a number of interesting thoughts about carnivores came to mind….

Regarding taxonomy, diversity, and disparity (the former = number of species, the latter = how different they are), carnivores are fairly unique, but in a way that applies as well to primates. Looking only at the regular terrestrial carnivores first, they are all very similar in certain respects yet there is a fair amount of variation among them, including a huge range of body size from the smallest carnivore that could easily hang out in an open soda can to the largest being the northern Bears (either polar or brown, depending on how you measure a species “size”). There are almost 30 orders of Mammalia, and Carnivora is about the fifth most speciose. Yet, Carnivora has fewer than 300 species. Compared to some other animal Classes (Mammalia is a Class). the mammals, for all the interest we have in them, are fairly low density in respect to species (there are something like 10,000 Birds!), high in disparity (the “hooved animals” includes whales and bats fly like birds!) and are rather cryptic with respect to how visible they are on the landscape (compared, again, to birds, which are always rather in your face).

Carnivores, relative to some of the more common mammal Classes, are both ubiquitous and thinly distributed. As you track mammals across the landscape, you might find that certain mammals are highly concentrated here and there, almost absent in other places. The total biomass of bovids in northern climes varies dramatically as you go from herds of bison to forests with thinly distributed deer to tundra or mountain slopes where the highly specialized forms occur in small groups with big gaps between. But everywhere you go, you will be within the territory of a carnivore. In fact, as a rule, you’ll be within the territory of between two and four carnivores, as they tend to divide themselves up by size class, with the classes sometimes competing with each other. In one place there may be otters or minks (small) and coyotes (medium) and either a cougar or a wolf pack (large), or there may be lots of coyotes (large) and otherwise mainly stoats and the like (small). In much of Africa, there will be one large cat (lion) one small cat (golden, wild-house, or sand?) one hyena and two or more mongoose-getet-civet-like creatures that are different from each other in size covering the exact spot you are standing. You’re standing there looking at some bird, and off in the bush there are five carnivores looking at you. In the ancient middle east, there would be lion, leopard, a smaller cat, and an even smaller cat. And so on.

Don’t think about that too much … it is just a rule of thumb. The point is, most space is occupied by carnivores, yet at the same time they are way spread out because of their territorial habits which arose for a number of reasons including the fact that they eat other animals and thus are limited. And, this means that as they disperse during their own carnivoresque personal development cycle, they tend to disperse over very long distances, maybe not during all generations but certainly some. Therefore, some carnivore species have huge ranges, or if they have diversified a bit, some carnivore groups of species have huge ranges. And, for many types of carnivores, there are both tropical and template’s and in between forms. This is not typical of the other orders of mammals.

This is why we get interesting patterns such as the fact that the New World cougar and the Cheetah are close relatives, having differentiated in North America. The Cougar did not spread from North America probably (this is just an educated guess) because medium+ size cats were already everywhere, but the Cheetah was rather a novelty … a doggish cat that could run as fast as the fastest antelope or pronghorn … so it did spread. Subsequent events left the Cheetah only in Africa but it was once more widely dispersed (as a type of cat, not necessarily the same species).

The lion was probably the one mammal among all mammals, other than humans, that has the largest range of all mammals ever, having been spread across North America, Europe, Asia and Africa not too long ago. And so on and so forth.

The result of these patterns of adaptation, dispersal, and ecology is what you see in Carnivores of the World (Princeton Field Guides). When you look at the carnivores organized more or less by taxonomy and then pay attention to the geography, your mind will be blown and you will demand an explanation! How the hell did we get the same basic animal living in the woods of North America (wolverine) and the nearby prairies (badgers) as we have across Europe and Asia and Africa (the honey badger) with about dozen or so other versions all over the place? And you will see other patterns as well; As you thumb through the pages, you will repeatedly see size grading among the carnivores, but most of the size grading is localized. It isn’t like Asia has large otter-mink-stoat critters and Africa small ones .. everywhere gets a range from small to large. Also, as you thumb through the pages, every here and there you’ll see “Crab Eating X” where “X” is some kind of animal (dog, badger, cat, whatever). Either carnivores like them their crabs or carnivore namers are regularly surprised enough to see crab eating that they tend to name anything they see eating a crab after that behavior, even if some of them actually rarely do. (Had I named coyotes after my first extended wild encounters with them, they would be the “crab eating dog”!)

Hunter’s book does not cover the fish. Yes, folks, just as the “hooved animals” gave rise to several fish (whales) and other groups have given rise to fish (hippos, etc.) the carnivores has a fish branch as well (walrus, seals, sea lions). I think it would be cool if Carnivores of the World (Princeton Field Guides) included these critters as well. Including them would make important points about evolution. I respect the fact that this book is written by an expert on land carnivores, so having seals and such in there with the terrestrial forms may be inappropriate. But in a future edition of the book, I would love to see five pages dedicated to the Fish nee Carnivores, not all species but just a nod to the families of seals, walrus, and sea lions.

The other thing that is missing from this book that I would very much like to see and that I must insist (as if I could) be included in the next edition is range maps. I have ideas as to how to make them fit. It is important. (But see below)

Luke Hunter is an Australian who has done research in South Africa and elsewhere. He heads the Panthera Corporation and formerly headed Great Cats and the Wildlife CosnervationSociety.

The Panthera Foundation web site has lots of information about carnivores, and in particular, you can download the range maps that are missing from the book, here!

New Bird Book: Birds of North America and Greenland

Face it. Half the time … most of the time, really … you use your Peterson (or some other favorite “field guide”) as a checklist. You see a bird and you pretty much know in your head what it is, but you need to look it up to see what the three or four similar ducks or woodpeckers or whatever are in your area in order to be sure that it is a Common Merganser or a Red Headed Woodpecker or whatever. All you need is a basic picture (drawing preferred for this sort of thing) the names of the birds and basic range maps.
Continue reading New Bird Book: Birds of North America and Greenland