By Nathan Swick, Wake Audubon Board member
I love field guides. Just love ‘em. I love the way how what can seem like an essentially static form, a paperback book to help you identify the birds around can be interpreted in so many ways by so many different people. Granted, ever since Peterson came up with the illustrations facing information format back in 1934 the cast was essentially set for the next 80 years. As such field guide innovation has been limited to more (or less) information or better illustrations or illustrative photos or different tips for identifying birds packed into increasingly, and unfortunately, unread introductions. With ever more information about identifying birds at our disposal, perhaps it was inevitable that a bird guide (I wouldn’t dream of tying the adjective “field” to these most recent behemoths) would come out that sought to incorporate it all. We got just that late last year in the Stokes recent magnum opus, a jolly orange giant that is easily the most informative field guide currently available, if not the most user-friendly, that seemed to seek to make the rest of the genre obsolete from the perspective of a pure, unadulterated data crush. One guide to bring them all in, indeed. And when I reviewed that guide several months ago I asked, is this the ultimate culmination of the field guide genre? Is there ever going to be anything new under the sun?
The much anticipated new bird guide from Richard Crossley looks to answer that question with an enthusiastic “yes!”. Birders have been privy to the Frankenstein’s monster Crossley had been working on for some time, as he doled out finished plates on his own website before the book was published, so we sort of understand what he’s going for here. Each plate is a composite of many different photographs, mostly Crossley’s own work, showing a single species of bird at multiple angles and multiple positions and multiple plumages all stitched together via the magic of photo-editing software into a mostly seamless whole. And that’s essentially it; the gimmick that we’ve known would make or break the book from the moment we saw the first plate on Crossley’s website.
The question is, does it work?
For me, the answer is yes and no. Crossley clearly deserves to be cheered for his creativity. This is a very different guide from what we’re used to, for better and for worse, and his treatment seems to work better for some species than for others. Flocking birds such as waterfowl, and larger open country species that are often observed in flight come out really, really well here. It’s incredibly useful to see distant flocks of Scoters, for instance, in a guide, or to have in front of you examples of the many ways a field birder might see a Sandwich Tern or a Rough-legged Hawk.
Shorebirds, too, translate exceptionally well to this approach. Not that this is to be unexpected for one of the authors of The Shorebird Guide, one of the best, if not the best, family specific guides on the market, but it stands to be reiterated that Crossley has an innate sense of how these species manifest themselves to field birders, and presents them as such. That’s why it seems odd, though, that I end up disliking some of the perching bird plates for precisely the same reasons I love the larger bird plates. The birds can seem cluttered and awkwardly shuffled into their habitats. In these plates the limitations of the photo-editing seem more obvious and the whole plate can be a tad overwhelming with multiple birds in multiple and often inconsistent light schemes, devolving into little more than a game of “Where’s Bird-o”.
But of course they have to be like that, it’s not as if Crossley could switch his format up half-way through. This is what makes the book unique and, as Crossley himself states in the introduction, very often this is how you see the bird in the field. Games of “Where’s Bird-o” are all too common among birders picking warblers out of treetops so why shouldn’t an ostensibly useful field guide seek to illustrate this on its pages?
And that’s what I think is the crux of what Crossley is trying to convey. What should be obvious for any self-professed connoisseur of field guides is that it is incredibly difficult to re-invent the wheel in this genre. Not only are there 80 years of avocational inertia Crossley has to overcome, but there are very good reasons why field guides show the things they do and are laid out the way they are. Notably, because it’s generally the easiest way for observers to narrow down the birds they have seen in the field so that they can identify them.
They have seen. Past tense.
If I am looking to use a field guide to help me puzzle out a difficult identification of a bird I’ve seen, Crossley’s guide would not be the first book I’d use. I have Sibley, of course, and Kaufman’s Advanced Birding if it’s relevant. Maybe throw in the Collins Europe guide or Crossley’s Shorebird Guide or Howell and Dunn’s Gull guide depending on the family I’m dealing with. I even have the Pyle guides if we’re really stuck, so to be honest, Crossley would probably not be in the top five. Those other books lay the potential confusion species out in a systematic way. They point to relevant field marks and generally get me to the right bird eventually after a series of steps I have to follow. They’re roadmaps.
But Crossley’s guide is not a roadmap, it’s more like a Fodor’s guide. This is what struck me most about the way Crossley lays out his guide because it was intentionally meant to be more than just a means by which you identify that weird bird that you saw. He means to change the way we think about birding, how we think about the resources we use, for the better. He wants us to look at his guide and prepare yourself for what you might see before you go out in the field. It may not be a novel approach for us – how many of us have a field guide on the coffee table to flip through absent-mindedly in spare minutes – but for the vast majority of the bird guide buying public, this is something of a revelation. And it works too, because if I’m going to a new place and I want to familiarize myself with a new suite of birds so that I can easily identify them when I get there, I’m going to want to see them in multiple lighting schemes and multiple angles and different distances. In these cases, Crossley’s guide may well be the first one I reach for.
Other reviews have pointed out that this is emphatically not a “field” guide in the conventional sense, but it’s not meant to be for reasons beyond its heft. It’s more obviously a tool to teach you how to identify birds rather than a bird catalog, to know what to look for and to prepare you for the potential pitfalls so that when you find that bird you’ll be able to identify it without the book. It’s more of a textbook rather than an identification key, and should be taken on those terms.
So while there are some issues (an out of place and unidentified female Mallard in with the Cinnamon Teal (p59), and the Saltmarsh Sparrow is incorrectly labeled “Sharp-tailed Sparrow” (p464) to name two), this book is one I think birders should feel legitimately excited about. It is, bar none, the closest anyone has gotten to actually showing what the birds look like in life short of a video recording, and there’s no better way to train yourself to be a better birder than by seeing birds in life.
And until everyone starts carrying around pocket video field guides, the Crossley ID Guide may be the nearest thing we get.
Thanks to Princeton University Press for providing me with a review copy
crossposted at The Drinking Bird
By Nathan Swick, Wake Audubon Board Member
I led the monthly Wake Audubon field trip to Anderson Point Park, one of Raleigh’s city parks and the one with which Wake Audubon has had a long-standing partnership, last week. A group of a dozen joined me as we strolled through the fields and forests puzzling over myriad sparrows, gaping at gorgeous Eastern Bluebirds singing atop the nest boxes erected by Wake Audubon, and chatting about birds at feeders and what we’ve seen recently. You know, the usual stuff. A Fish Crow honked overhead early on, the first one I’ve seen this year and the first real sign that spring is around the corner in this part of North Carolina.
We followed the path into the woods to the actual “point”, where Crabtree Creek flows into the Neuse River, and came across a beautiful adult Red-headed Woodpecker. Red-heads have grown scarce in the Triangle, especially within the city limits, and you couldn’t really get a nicer bird for a bird walk if you’d ordered it out of a catalog. Everyone got fantastic looks as it vaulted back and forth between a massive sycamore and a broken oak limb. He paid close attention to the tip of the break, and we wondered if he’d cached acorns there.
We saw Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers and Flickers too, only the Pileated and Hairy away from the woodpecker slam. No one seemed disappointed though. The embodiment of economy of color that is a Red-headed Woodpecker tends to sate just about any would-be bird walker.
A flock of sparrows drew my attention so I lead the group to a little seep where we picked up a super obliging (I’m obliged to use that word in a trip report at least once) Hermit Thrush. When you’re looking to show a group of birders the cool things around them that they might not normally see by themselves, Hermit Thrush is a definite goodie. Not only does it have lots of memorable field marks, both physically and behaviorally, but it’s quiet and easily overlooked. This bird stayed right out in the open where everyone got killer looks. I have to say, as a bird walk leader, I was feeling pretty good about the way things were going.
The resident Loggerhead Shrike was a no-show, and too bad too as I was hoping to pick it up for my Big Year, but the day was a success. Everyone got great looks at the two best birds and I picked up a Fish Crow for the year.
The next bird walk at Anderson Point Park will be held March 12. We hope to see you there!
Via Land for Tomorrow:
ACTION ALERT: Legislators move to take millions from conservation trusts – take action now!
On Thursday, February 3, the North Carolina Senate took its first vote on fast-moving legislation that would gut two conservation trust funds. Senate Bill 13 would take $1.8 million from the Farmland Preservation Trust Fund and $8.5 million from the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund. This legislation is moving quickly, so write your Representative and Senator today and ask them to oppose Senate Bill 13.
The legislation is part of an effort to shift money from this year’s state budget into the next fiscal year. Legislators are facing a $3.7 billion budget shortfall for the next fiscal year, and are looking for ways to reduce the size of that shortfall.
Taking money from the state’s conservation trust funds is the wrong way to close that gap. These trust funds leverage local dollars, protect farms and create jobs.
Click here to take action now by writing your state legislators. Tell them to protect the state’s conservation trust funds.
By Jeff Beane, Wake Audubon Vice-President.
The Young Naturalists Club enjoyed a successful trip to the Albemarle Peninsula on Saturday, 22 January 2011. This trip featured the wildlife (focusing on birds and mammals), wildlife refuges, and wild lands of the Albemarle Peninsula, and included portions of Beaufort, Dare, Hyde, Tyrrell, and Washington counties. Trip leaders were Jeff Beane and Ed Corey; Miranda Wood also attended as a female chaperone. Club participants were Matt Burroughs, Matt Daw, Seth Gaffer, Jo Himes, Nate Laughner, and Kristen Shireman.
Our primary destinations were Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. We left Raleigh at just after 8:00 a.m. En route, we stopped at a couple of places along U.S. 64 to look at waterfowl, and were lucky enough to pick out a couple of Ross’s Geese from a mixed flock of mostly Canada Geese and Snow Geese near Plymouth. These were lifers for most of the group, though we were afforded only a fleeting look at them before a Bald Eagle flushed the flock.
The day was cold, windy, and overcast, and temperatures did not make it above freezing all day. We had a snow shower at Alligator River, which became heavy enough at times to hinder our visibility, but we still saw a good variety of birds, most notable of which was a Swainson’s Hawk that passed directly above our heads. We were also able to approach two American Bitterns very closely. We were not, however, able to turn up any of the hoped-for Black Bears, Bobcats, or Red Wolves.
We next headed for the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes, where we had originally planned to spend a good bit of time. However, having heard several reports that the spectacular Snow Goose flocks of the previous weeks had not been seen recently, and that there had otherwise been little significant activity there, we stopped by that refuge for only an hour or so, during which time we saw very little other than the usual Tundra Swans and a few blackbird flocks. We added only a handful of new species to our bird list and again struck out on bears.
Our last stop of the evening was a Beaufort County wetland mitigation site, where a good number of Short-eared Owls had been reported recently. Arriving about an hour before full dark, we were able to find shelter from the freezing wind behind a storage building; there we waited, keeping watch over a large, wet field where numerous Northern Harriers were foraging. At sunset we were rewarded with probably at least seven Short-eared Owls, and were able to get good looks at some of them. These also represented a lifer bird for most of the group.
We capped off the day with a Pizza Inn buffet in Washington, and arrived back in Raleigh at about 9:10 p.m. We ended with at least 67 bird species, but it was a rather poor day for mammals. White-tailed Deer were the only live mammals that we confirmed; we also saw at least one Nutria, a Gray Fox or two, and several opossums and raccoons as road-kills. Despite the cold weather, a good time was had by all, and everyone learned something.
By Kari Wouk, Wake Audubon Board member
On a cold winter’s morning this past Saturday, 12 Wake Auduboners ventured out at Anderson Point Park to learn about Cunning Corvids and enjoy a winter bird walk. I brought a couple of specimens from the Naturalist Center at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences-the two specimens we were most likely to see-an American Crow and a Blue Jay (we saw both). We talked about corvids, their amazing intelligence, learning behavior and remarkable adaptations.
Then, we headed out for a walk around the park. We saw many of the normal species for the season, including Northern Mockingbirds, Northern Cardinals, Dark-eyed Juncos and more. A Red-headed Woodpecker gave us wonderful views. Things didn’t get really interesting until we got out to the point, though! There we saw a suspicious crime scene. There was some nice mud, just perfect for animal tracks! There were some tracks that were obviously raccoon but right next to them were tracks that were much smaller, though superficially similar (check out our Facebook page for photos). Right next to the tracks was a corpse! The unfortunate critter was a White-footed Mouse, looking a little worse for the wear. It had obviously been there for a little while since it was splattered with mud.
So, we ask, what happened? After consulting with some experts at the Museum (thanks John Connors and Mike Dunn), it was decided that 1) the tracks belonged to a muskrat and 2) the dead mouse was circumstantial and unrelated. Muskrats do not eat mice. So, the mystery goes unsolved but maybe someone will come along have a nice little mousie snack for free.
After the walk, some of us stayed and cleaned out the nest boxes. Wake Audubon has a variety of nesting places (not all are boxes) for birds at Anderson Point. Unfortunately, no sign of nesting Purple Martins at the martin house. We had our usual huge success with bluebirds-six out of ten boxes were used (and one of the unused ones was on the ground, so that doesn’t really count). There was no sign of nesting in the kestrel box. Of the three flicker boxes, one was empty, one had a squirrel nest in it (with a mummified baby squirrel in it) and the other had a nest of grasses (Connors theorizes starling). Both phoebe cups had evidence of nesting. We did not check the four prothonatory boxes or the chimney swift tower (our ladder was not tall enough!) but I hope to get to that soon.
All in all, a very successful day in nature!
Tonight’s monthly meeting will be canceled due to the inclement weather. Enjoy the snow and busy feeders today!
Attention Young Naturalist’s and parents!
On Saturday, January 8, the Young Naturalists’ Club will meet for a service event. The activity will involve trash cleanup at the Middle Creek Bottomlands II, a tract owned by the Triangle Land Conservancy along Smith Road in Johnston County. Much of the trash is along the side of Smith Road, but some is back in the woods or in the water. Trash bags will be provided. Bring warm clothes and work gloves. Waterproof boots and a garden hoe (for pulling trash out of water) are helpful if you have them. We may see some birds, too–this site is good for Swamp Sparrows in the winter. We’ll meet at the parking lot east of the Museum of Natural History and the state historical museum at 9:00 to carpool down to the site.
If you’d prefer to drive directly to the site and need directions, they are as follows: Drive south from Raleigh on I-40 toward Benson and Wilmington. Well before you reach Benson, get off at Exit 319 (NC rt. 210) and turn left. Drive four miles and turn left onto Smith Road. There’s a sign at the corner that reads “Dodd’s Pro Body Works.” Drive down the hill to the bridge over Middle Creek, pass it, and drive to the subdivision on the far side of the swamp. Turn left onto Water Oak Drive and park there.
Please let Erik know at erthomas (at) ncsu (dot) edu if you are going to attend!
The year is coming to a close, and with it our 2010 Bird of the Year events. One of these events was the Shraiku contest. Shraikus are poems in the form of haikus with themes that evoke the Loggerhead Shrike. There were 25 entries. After the difficult job of judging, three winning shraikus were chosen. Winners received Shraiku Award certificates and first place winners received gift certificates to Outdoor Bird Company. Here are the winning shraikus.
First place, by Ali Iyoob and Matt Daw
Death on a barbed wire
Head juices drip to the ground
Butcher strikes again.
Second place by Jeff Beane
Black, white, shades of gray:
The colors of deception.
Inside I am red.
Third place by Annie Runyon
Bold eyes in dark mask
One blade trembling in the grass
How many of us are really aware of the plight of the Rusty Blackbird? Sure, it’s not flashy, it’s rarely a target species for many as it’s buried there in the back of the field guide, and often can be difficult to tell from other blackbirds especially given the Icterid propensity to hang out together. But of all the species that have suffered declines in North America (and sadly, it’s many), the Rusty has quietly suffered one of the most severe. According to Breeding Bird Survey and Christmas Bird Count statistics, the Rusty Blackbird population has collapsed, down a staggering 80-90% since the 1960s. The bird is in serious trouble.
In many states blackbirds, characterized as not only the ever present grackles, starling and red-wings but also the Rusty are listed as nuisance birds. Therefore, one is allowed to take as many as one wants if the birds are, and this is directly from Federal law (emphasis mine), “committing or about to commit depredations on ornamental or shade trees, agricultural crops, livestock, or wildlife, or when concentrated in numbers and in a manner that constitutes a health hazard or other nuisance“. There is a lot of gray area there. In short, you can shoot Rusty Blackbirds practically whenever you want. In North Dakota the USDA is currently testing a new plan that involves baiting the birds with brown rice. If that proves successful the rice will be treated with a poison. Migratory Bird Act need not apply apparently.
The problem, of course, is that there are no provisions differentiating starlings and grackles, which certainly can be nuisances in large numbers, from our Rusty Blackbird, whose population is taking a dramatic nosedive. And if no such qualifications are made, the Rusty Blackbird’s unfortunate resemblance to more problematic species may write its ticket right into extinction.
So we’re well aware of the bad hand the Rusty Blackbird has drawn. And it can be overwhelming to sit there as a birder and feel completely helpless as these forces largely out of our control conspire to take one of North America’s unique bird species away from us right before our eyes. But in this case there is something you can, in fact, do to help. In heart of darkest cynicism shines a glimmer of hope.
Cornell Lab of Ornithology is launching their third annual Rusty Blackbird Blitz, encouraging birders from several states in the southeast and lower midwest to go out over a three week period, from January 29 to February 13, with Rusty Blackbirds specifically in mind. Your bird lists, either with or without Rusties (negative data is still data!), should be submitted to Cornell via eBird. More specific details are available here.
You should do this for several reasons. First; Rusty Blackbirds are in big trouble and we need to know where they are when they are so that appropriate habitat can be preserved.
Second; data collection via eBird will introduce you to what is a phenomenal tool for your personal birding records as well as a way for scientists to compile data on bird populations and movements. In many ways conventional “citizen science” rarely provides useful data sets, but eBird is that rare project that is actually enormously useful for scientists and birders, and when more people use it, its usefulness grows exponentially.
Third; you’re already going to be birding then anyway, right? Might as well look for Rusties!
I hope the case is easily made. The bottom line is that Rusty Blackbirds need your help and that you have the opportunity to offer it. So get out there and look for Blackbirds, folks!
By Nathan Swick, Wake Audubon Board Member
It goes without saying that birders in North America have a wealth of choices when it comes to field guides. So many other places with well established birding cultures have a single guide that is considered to be the one to have. Europe’s Collins guide or Australia’s Simpson and Day are good examples. But on our continent we are nearly overwhelmed with choices. In fact, you could probably argue that the greatest example of the unrestrained free market, the ultimate manifestation of good old American capitalism, lies on the book shelves of your local bird store.
If you like illustrations, there are field guides for you. If you prefer photos, you’re still in luck. Expert or beginner? Rarity codes? Arrows? Birds in flight? Multiple plumages? Juveniles? Subspecies? Any combination of the above? You’re likely to find a field guide that will adequately meet your needs. Split the continent in half? Even more options. This means that while birders will likely find it easy to pick a field guide, or if you’re anything like me, a series of field guides, that works for them, it can be exceedingly difficult for field guide authors and publishers to break new ground in what is an increasingly crowded marketplace.
The newest guide from Don and Lillian Stokes, The Stokes Field Guide to Birds of North America, comes into this yawning anti-void taking the more is more approach, promising to be the most comprehensive photographic guide ever published. There’s little to argue with on that count, because by any objective measure the Stokeses have succeeded in creating a field guide that meets or exceeds that lofty standard. Most field guides, simply to be considered worthy of the moniker, have to make certain concessions; unusual plumages are left out, range-restricted subspecies are removed, and vagrants given short-shrift, but the Stokeses made the executive decision to do none of that. Birds are shown in every plumage you may or may not observe, at multiple angles, with particularly difficult identification issues given more room rather than less (Gulls are particularly well-represented). Every subspecies is mentioned, if not pictured, regardless of relevancy to field identification. And vagrants, even exceptionally rare ones, are pictured in all their glory, sometimes multiple times. This, then, is a guide that leaves absolutely nothing out.
The success of a field guide stands or falls with the quality of its photos (or illustrations if that’s what floats your boat) and, like so many of the photo guides coming out these days, the ones picked to flesh out this guide are stunning, many of them from Lillian Stokes own extensive collection, and laid out to great effect. Connoisseurs of bird photography may recognize the names of luminaries like Brian Small, Kevin Karlson and Richard Crossley (whose own photo field guide comes out next year) among others filling in the gaps and North Carolina birders will be happy to see our own Brian Patteson’s work well-represented in the seabird section. Several of the photos are identical to those from Ted Floyd’s recent Smithsonian Guide, a testimony more to the difficulty of obtaining images of several species rather than anything intentional, but there’s surprisingly little overlap given the massive quantity of photos that made it into the book, a testimony to the explosion of field guide quality images in the wake of the digital photography revolution. In an additional echo of the Smithsonian guide, Stokes have included location and date information in the corner of every photograph, an nice little touch that helps birders to begin to understand the basics of molt and practically essential for a guide that features as many photos as this one. There’s no reason future photo guides should omit this particular feature ever again.
In an attempt to cover all possible bases, the text is perhaps more extensive that it needs to be. As such, it’s small, packed into the space provided and filled with abbreviations that read a bit too much like a Pyle guide, more or less like checklists of important field marks rather than descriptions of the bird’s gestalt that would be useful for a beginning birder. This is not too much of a bother given the fact that the text is intended to play second fiddle to the photos, but it’s potentially a concern once you start trying to piece together a difficult ID. That said, the inclusion of all described subspecies and known hybrids is an excellent touch, even if it may not be more than trivial knowledge to the majority of the book’s intended audience. It is, however, an example of how a bias towards including more information rather than less is useful. Even with all this specific information, the lack of general introductions to bird families at the beginning of each section was noted (the introductions are scattered throughout the section), and was, in my opinion, a missed opportunity to focus on the broad view in a text that can feel a bit obsessed with minutia at times.
Such thoroughness and attention to detail isn’t free, however. The cost is paid in size. This book is big, there’s no getting around it. Unless future editions split east and west asunder this is hardly the type of book anyone is going to take into the field. That’s not a knock, as Sibley’s masterwork is hardly field-worthy either, but begs the question of how much is too much when it comes to field guides. The Stokeses have taken the medium about as far as it can go in a single volume, including just about everything that any birder would want, and that’s great. But for the birder that needs something to take in the field to identify what they see right then and there, we may have reached perfection with the original Peterson’s (once it went full-color and got the maps in the right places, of course) and everything else is just gilding the lily. Who knows, though. We’ll likely see no stop to new field guides coming down the pike in the immediate future, and as we learn more about birds the impulse to put more in our hands will increase. There’s nothing inherently wrong about that, and in fact, I’m one who generally believes that more is better when it comes to information, but birders in North America will have to figure out what works for them. Fortunately, they have no shortage of opportunities to do so.
As for this particular book, it’s definitely something to check out, and at $25 (going as low as $17 on Amazon) there’s really no reason not to have it on your shelf. Because regardless of how accurate the term “field guide” is, the Stokeses have truly put together a beautiful and comprehensive book.
Thanks to Little, Brown and Company for sending me a review copy.
Cross posted at The Drinking Bird