Tag 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
  • Raptors of Mexico and Central America

    There are about four hundred species of birds we call “raptors” of which most are falcons, hawks, eagles, owls, and so forth. I believe there are about 40 in what is considered the United States (from a person, not a bird, perspective) and many of them are found across much of the US, with the usual breaks across the Rockies, and a certain amount of north-south geography, and varying degrees of migration.

    A typical page
    A typical page
    There are 69 species of raptors, many overlapping with those in the US, in Mexico (which is part of North America, from a human perspective) and Central America. Interestingly, many of those species are geographically fairly limited in space, compared to the more northerly North American raptors. Or at least, that is my impression from looking at the distribution maps in Raptors of Mexico and Central America by William Clark and N. John Schmitt.

    This is a very nice book. Given that it covers only 69 birds (but comprehensively, because it has all the raptors in this raptor book) it is possible to have all the methods and modes used in one book. There are plates with multiple species, appropriately collected to make helpful comparisons, using drawing of the old Peterson style. If you use this book to identify raptors in the field, you’ll probably make your final decisions based on reference to these plates, as that is what they are designed for.

    The bulk of the book are species essays, some several pages long (generally about two-three pages). Each essay has a prominent photo of the bird, other photos, a range map, etc. Details on behavior and ID are given, as one expects in a bird book, but with much more information than usual, making use of the space available. Variations of sex, morph, age, and molt, are very important with raptors, depending on the species. The species-level discussions of molt are fantastic.

    The front and back matter is modest and appropriate.

    Plate of the Collared Forest-Falcon.
    Plate of the Collared Forest-Falcon.
    If you live in the US Southwest or south to Ecuador, this book needs to be on your shelf. If you ever go to any of those places, bring it. The format is full size trade book, not field guide.

    William Clark is a photographer specializing in raptors and one of the leading authorities on this type of birds. N. John Schmitt is an artist who specializes in drawing birds of prey. You’ve certainly seen their work many times. The book Raptors of Mexico and Central America gives you 213 more color photos and 32 plates with many drawings per plate.

    A few other books by these authors:

    A Photographic Guide to North American Raptors (Natural World)
    Birds Asleep (Corrie Herring Hooks Series)
    A Field Guide to the Raptors of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa

    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

    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.

    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.

    The New Crossley Raptor ID Book: You Want It

    A couple of years back, the The Crossley ID Guide for Eastern Birds came out and it caused a huge splash in the birdwatching world. For some time now it has become apparent that bird watching, especially the identification part of it, was changing in its approach. We describe it this way, though I think the reality is more complex: In the old days we used logical links to known reliable field marks to turn carefully made field observations into species identifications of varying degrees of certainty. Now, a new approach has been developed where we look at the whole bird and get an identification using an overall gestalt, and then to the extent possible verify the identification with tried and true field marks.

    picture of Peterson's field guide page
    Old Style: Carefully drawn images or photos showing keys to identification.
    This consideration of methodology would be a great way to get into how humans make observations and draw conclusions … how we think and how we know things, in fact … and would not be done well enough without bringing in semiotics and other areas of philosophy. Some day we’ll do that. In the meantime, just consider the difference between a typical field guide and a guide like Crossley.

    Well, now, we have a new book to play with: The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors. This new volume follows the same principle as the original Eastern Birds book, but with some important differences. A very large portion of Raptors is not images, but rather, very information rich species accounts along with pretty darn good range maps. The first half or so of the book consists of the usual Crossley style plates. Here, we have gone back to an old style layout: Text and details in one section of the book and plates in the other. Another important difference is that there are more images per species, for the most part, in Raptors, and in some cases, variants are given their own sets of plates.

    Crossley plate
    Crossley Style: Lots of photos of one species as they appear in real life, in an appropriate context.
    Also, there are plates showing many individuals of more than one similar looking species, with the key indicating which image is which species located elsewhere in the book so you can’t cheat by just looking at the caption, and get to learn the differences without leaving the comfort of your birding gazebo, or wherever it is you hang out.

    Overall, there is far more information about each species than in the Eastern guide, which is of course exactly what we would expect from a more specialized volume such as this. There is also a handy comparison-of-everything graphic in the front cover with page numbers, a nice map in the back, and the other usual amenities found in most bird books these days.

    I used some of these images to construct the quiz I put HERE (the winners of that quiz to be announced soon).

    I can not do the images justice with inserts into a small format thing like this blog post, but here are a few examples to give you an idea:




    This is not a book review, in that I’m giving you the negatives and positives of a particular book so you can decide if you want it or not. This is, rather, a notice that the book you want is available now.

    While we are on the subject of raptors, you will probably want to check out this video of a red tailed hawk trying to get at the eggs or chicks of a bald eagle, but instead, becoming the eagle’s lunch. Caution: It is gruesome.

    Enjoy your new bird book!

    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.

    How to draw birds

    Tired of merely watching birds? Ever consider trying to draw them? There’s a method to do so. John Muir Laws is very good at this and he’s written a book that can help you get started, maybe even become good at it yourself:Laws Guide to Drawing Birds .

    In case you were wondering, Laws’ name does not connect him genealogically to the famous John Muir; his parents named him that. But apparently, there is a connection between names and what people do, and John Muir Laws is in fact a naturalist.

    This book covers all the usual methodology of illustration but with birds. There are a gazillion “chapters” each one or two pages or so in length, divided into sections: Bird Drawing Basics, Mastering Bird Anatomy, Details and Tips for Common Bird, Birds in Flight, Field Sketching, and Materials and Techniques.

    In teaching physical anthropology, anatomy, or archaeology, I’ve found it to be very useful to require students to draw things. Even if they don’t become master scientific illustrators (that is a rare bird indeed) they learn about the objects that are central to the study in a more intimate and details way than possible by just looking. I would be willing to bet that the average bird watcher can improve his or her birdwatching skills by taking a bit of time drawing their quarry. In the old days, of course, this was done by first shooting the bird so it stops moving, then drawing it in the studio. This is no longer recommended, but that makes it harder. Instead, Laws recommends “spending time with living bird in natural conditions” which will “help you develop an intuitive feeling for and kinship with the living animal that you cannot get from photographs alone.”

    By the way, of you need a source of photographs to help you in your drawing efforts, check out the blog 10,000 Birds, especially the Galleries section.

    Laws is also the author of Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada.

    Happy sketching.

    It is time to start thinking about nesting

    i-724b30210afcc1a983254e2adba57f2d-Avian_archetecture_book_bird_nests.jpgBirds don’t live in nests. They make nests for specific purposes, use them for that purpose, then abandon them. Or, sometimes they don’t abandon them, but rather add on and use them again and again, but in between they don’t live in or on them. Well, sometimes they hang out on them a lot. And not all nests are for putting their eggs in. In fact, sometimes a nest is more of a symbol of quality and overall bird sexiness than it is a place to keep the chicks. As it were. Oh, and sometimes they live in the nests, now that I think about it … It’s complicated.

    But there is a book that can help you keep it all straight: Avian Architecture: How Birds Design, Engineer, and Build by Peter Goodfellow.

    Continue reading It is time to start thinking about nesting

    The Science of Birdwatching

    Birdwatching might be a casual activity, a hobby, an avocation, or even a profession (often, perhaps, an obsession) depending on the bird watcher, but there is always a science to it, in at least two ways. First, there is the science of how to do it. In this sense, the term “science” means something vernacular. We as easily say “birdwatching is an art” as we could say “there is a science to it” and here we are using both terms( “art” and “science”) in their older sense where science is how we approach things with our minds, and art is how we approach things with our hands.
    Continue reading The Science of Birdwatching