Book Review: “Offshore Sea Life ID Guide: East Coast”

Ever since I learned about pelagic trips, I’ve had them on my wish list. And until I get the chance to see petrels, guillemots, and shearwaters in person, I’ll happily read through my new copy of the Offshore Sea Life ID Guide: East Coast by Steve N.G. Howell, a seabird expert, and Brian L. Sullivan, an eBird project leader.

Offshore-Sea-Life-East-Coast-cover-197x300This new guide, along with the Offshore Sea Life ID Guide: West Coast, was recently published by Princeton University Press. The eastern guide covers 39 bird and 21 mammal species, and the western guide covers 43 birds and 22 mammals. Because the guides is geared toward offshore species, it doesn’t include animals such as loons, Harbour Seals, and sea ducks that you can see just off shore. The Offshore Sea Life ID Guides cover the sealife to be found farther out in the pelagic zone, more than a mile from the shoreline.

I have many ID guides for birds, but none for whales, dolphins, or flying fish, so the new volume gives me extra incentive to study up on the species I don’t know as well. The guide is meant to be a handy resource for on- and off-shore pelagic trips; it’s very thin so it can fit in a larger jacket pocket or take up little space in a backpack.

One of my favourite parts of the book is the Quick Page Finder on the inside cover. The book begins with an introduction of the oceanic environment, followed by an explanation of location abbreviations and a glossary. The species accounts for Marine Mammals come first, followed by Seabirds, Sea Turtles, Flying Fish & Squid, Billfish, Sharks, Seaweeds, and other sea life. The last page includes species codes, scientific names, and the index. The back cover has a map of the east coast, south of Canada to the tip of Florida and as far east as Bermuda.

Here’s the species account for Jellyfish:jellyfish640h

Because views of marine mammals in the wild tend to be brief and limited to tails, dorsal fins, and flippers, the book’s focus is on those key features to help identify whales and dolphins. Of course, you have a better chance with seabirds to see the entire bird, but between a rocking ship and similar plumages, identification can still present challenges. Seabirds are shown in both immature and adult plumages, different colouration morphs, in flight (toward and away), paddling on the surface, and sitting on the water.

There are 120 colour photos in the book and are arranged in Crossley-style composite photos. The photos are digitally compiled to appear as if you are viewing each species from aboard ship.

The species accounts are concise with very large, easy to read font. Common name, banding code, and the time of year the animals are most likely to be seen make up most of the accounts. Flight patterns and wing molt are heavily covered for seabirds. The volume includes page numbers when citing other species in the species account.

The species accounts for Northern Fulmar, Great Shearwater, Cory’s Shearwater, Sooty Shearwater:

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I really like this guide and definitely will bring it with me on my first Atlantic voyage. The Offshore Sea Life ID Guide is a well-designed and highly informative book that would benefit both beginning and advanced birders who want a convenient and affordable guide to eastern sealife.

Thank you very much to Princeton University Press for providing me with a review copy.

Book Review: Birding For the Curious

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There are a lot of volumes geared toward new birders, but Nate Swick’s first book, Birding for the Curious: The Easiest Way for Anyone to Explore the Incredible World of Birds, is perhaps the only book ever written for non-birders. This is the perfect book for gardeners, armchair naturalists, and others who find themselves considering birding as a hobby.

Nate’s knowledge and enthusiastic style makes birding seem very easy and appealing for non-birders. while the book is intended for adults, it would also be the perfect book for older kids. While Nate is an experienced birder who writes at his The Drinking Bird blog, is the editor for the American Birding Association’s blog, and is a contributor for the 10,000 Birds blog, his new book offers is a very gentle introduction, an easy and unintimidating first step, to birding.

The book has 10 chapters, which covers such subjects as using a field guide, choosing binoculars, the basics of identifying birds, and citizen science. The chapters aren’t very long, but the information provided is solid and very useful. Each chapter has at least one “activity”, such as going on a bird walk or learning how to pish.

Nate is a big user and advocate of eBird and writes about it in the book, even devoting two “activities” to learning how to submit sightings to, and finding birds with, eBird. However, he mentions only one birding app (BirdLog), and while I do understand that new apps are being released all the time (and others are going through changes), the book could have benefited from a list of basic birding apps that would be helpful to new, especially younger birders.

The book has a few photographs as well as watercolour illustrations. The latter are fairly unusual for books of this nature. But I think they work well with the subject and also with Nate’s style of writing, encouraging the reader to pick up a field guide and learn more about birds.

As an entry level birding book, Birding for the Curious is an excellent choice anyone looking for a gentle introduction to a hobby that is a passion for so many of us. The book is available as a hardcover (which is perfect for schools and libraries) and as an eBook, which makes it very portable. This would make an excellent gift for the beginning or young birder in your life.

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Thank you very much to Page Street Publishing for providing me with a review copy.

Birding in Franconia

imageI got a package from Germany this past week and it was my copy of A Birdwatcher’s Guide to Franconia by German birder Thomas Büttel. Franconia is a region of northern Bavaria in Southern Germany, and two of the major cities in the area are Nuremburg and Bamberg.

Thomas emailed me back in October to ask if I could help him with his new English-language birding guide. Thomas’s English is very good (miles better than my nonexistent German!), but I helped with some editing.

A Birdwatcher’s Guide to Franconia” covers 10 sites in the area, lists the best times to visit, and provides suitable places for finding the region’s specialty species, from Ortolan Buntings to Red-breasted Flycatchers and other difficult-to-find species. Each site description provides information on species in the area, which species you can expect to see during each season, car and public transport access, maps, and GPS coordinates. There’s a checklist with all the species at the back of the guide as well as other useful resources. image-1

You can download the guide for free from the Birding Franconia website or you can buy a hard copy for 4€ plus postage ($6.25 in Canadian dollars and $4.35 US). The website and the guides are available in both English and German.

If you’re planning on birding in Southern Germany, specifically the Franconia area, this new guide is a very helpful resource.

Thank you very much for sending me the guide, Thomas, and also for the kind mention in the guide. I was happy to be a little bit of help in what is a great birding project.

Viking Smart Phone Adapter: First Impressions

:: I received a Viking Optical Smart Phone adapter from the company for review; all opinions and writing are my own ::

Viking Optical is a UK company that makes scopes, binoculars, and optics accessories including their Universal Smart Phone Adaptor, which is designed to allow any smart phone to attach to a spotting scope. Viking is an independent company in the UK with a long history of supporting conservation organizations, including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and BirdLife International, the species champion for the Forest Owlet and Seychelles Paradise-flycatcher.

This digiscoping adapter is comprised of two elements — a platform to support the smartphone and a collar that twists and locks onto the platform.

Viking Optical has a choice of five collar sizes designed to be compatible with five scope models: 39mm (RSPB AG), 48mm (Viking ED Pro Zoom, Viking AW Zoom),
55mm (Swarovski ATS/STS Zoom; Kowa TSN 770/880 Series, Zooms and 30x),
56mm (Leica APO Televid 65/82 Zoom; RSPB HD Zoom), 59mm (Swarovski ATX). The collars will also work with other brands. I was sent the 55mm and 56mm collars as we weren’t sure which would fit my older-model scope. The 55mm collar fits best on my scope’s eyepiece and provides the most support for the platform.

Just align the phone’s camera with the centre of the adapter’s opening. Secure the phone in place by tightening with the four adjustable flexible rubber clamps which are tightened to hold the phone in place. The clamps can be removed and placed in different sections for a better fit no matter the design/model or thickness of the phone. Once secured, the camera is able to rotate within the adapter, alternating between portrait and landscape shots.

This adapter would be great to share on birding walks with other birders since various phones can be switched in and out to get digiscoped photos.

Another benefit to this adapter is that I’m able to leave on my protective phone case while using this adapter. Setting up the adapter for use is simple, and the adapter is both lightweight and sturdy. It also fits inside a larger jacket pocket, and comes with a detachable lanyard in case you find yourself pocketless.

The Black-capped Chickadees at my feeders are great for practicing my digiscoping technique.

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Photo taken with an iPhone 6, Viking Optical Universal adapter, and Swarovski ATM 80 scope with 20-60 zoom eyepiece

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Photo taken with an iPhone 6, Viking Optical Universal adapter, and Swarovski ATM 80 scope with 20-60 zoom eyepiece

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Photo taken with an iPhone 6, Viking Optical Universal adapter, and Swarovski ATM 80 scope with 20-60 zoom eyepiece

Review: eBird Mobile App

New birding apps are coming out all the time. One app that looks new, eBird Mobile App, is in fact the Birdseye Log (or BirdLog) with a facelift.

Back in 2012, David Bell’s company, Birds In The Hand, released the BirdLog app. The app was the first and only app to send your birding checklists directly to your eBird account. The Birdseye Log app became so popular that the Cornell Lab and Mr. Bell reached an agreement last year to move the app’s management and development to the eBird team at Cornell.

The revised app, now called eBird Mobile App, can be used worldwide and is available for free on the app store. eBird Mobile sends information directly from your iOS device to your eBird account on the eBird website.
At the moment, the app is available only for iOS devices with the 7.0 update or later. The Android version is in the development stages and should be available soon.I downloaded the eBird Mobile app couple of weeks ago and enjoy it very much, so I thought I should write a review.
The home screen is very clean, fresh, and easy to understand. The first thing you do is tap the start button.

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When you’re ready to pick a location, the app pulls up your established eBird locations or hotspots based on your device’s location, using GPS. You can also create a new location if you’re in a new birding spot. Offline checklists are helpful if there isn’t cell reception.

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Here, I’m choosing a location from the map. If you decide to change your birding location, all you have to do is tap on any of the pin-points,

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After choosing your location, it’s time to set your date and time. Your start time will default to the current day and time, but you can easily change the day or even year if you like. Just scroll down the days, hours, or minutes to set your exact time.

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Once you’ve picked your location and entered the start time, you can record the species you see. The species are listed alphabetically or taxonomically (set your preference in the settings). You can spell out the species name or search by four-letter banding code. For example, the Snow Bunting’s code is SNBU and Black-billed Magpie is BBMA.

Every time you enter a count for a species, the app keeps track and adds to whatever you already have. For example, if  enter “5 BCCH” (Black-capped Chickadees) in the search bar, I then have five Black-capped Chickadees in my checklist. If I see four more later on my walk, I can enter 4 BCCH and then the checklist total will be nine.

Now say I miscounted the chickadees. All I have to do is enter negative numbers and that will subtract the extra birds and give a new corrected total.

You can also add species by tapping on the left-hand side of the bird’s name. You can increase the number of species seen, one tap at a time. This works well if you see only a few birds. However it’s not very practical when entering 1,000 Snow Geese or more. In this case, tap on the right side and you can enter the numbers by keyboard. With this function, you can also add comments to that particular species.

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At the end of your birding, enter the protocol information for your checklist — how long it took, how the observation was made (Travelling, Stationary, or Incidental) along with distance traveled, number of observers in the birding party, and if you’re listing all the birds you saw.

The app keeps track of how long you’ve been birding, but unfortunately not your walking distance (there are other apps that can keep track of that). If you have any extra notes about your checklist, you can add them to the comment box.

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All your checklists, including In Progress and Accepted can be found in the My Checklist part of the app (found on the home screen). You can delete inaccurate or test lists by swiping right to left on the right side of the checklist to show the delete button.

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If you submit a checklist and then decide you want to go back to edit it, the app sends you to the eBird website. This is my only quibble with the app. It would certainly be easier if one could edit the checklist in the app; however, it isn’t a big problem. If I do have to edit, I usually wait to do so on my laptop.

Play around with the app and you’ll quickly get the hang of it. Submitting a checklist from the field requires a cell connection, so if you have only WiFi you’ll be unable to enter checklists.

Since I have my new phone with me all the time now, the app makes it very convenient for submitting sightings to eBird. Just last week, I was horseback riding and saw a Rough-legged Hawk flying over our pasture — my first for the fall season. I was able to enter my sighting right from the field. The app is so easy to navigate that you can even use it on the back of a moving horse!

Overall, the app is wonderful and I highly recommend that birders download it on their phones. It’s free, easy to use, and you are contributing to the knowledge of bird distribution and abundance across the world.

You can find the app at the iTunes store here.

Review: The Collins Bird Guide App

Preparing last fall for my family’s trip to Europe last month, I researched field guides, websites, and apps that might be helpful for birding in France and Germany. I planned to take my iPad and iPod, but not my laptop.

I knew I was going to take my paperback copy of Birds of Europe (second edition) published by Princeton University Press, but a few days before we left I came across The Collins Bird Guide app which I though might be useful to use with my iPad. 

Thanks to Touchpress, publisher of the Collins Bird Guide app, I was able to get a review copy downloaded onto my iPad before our departure. I spent the flight to France learning the features of the app, and because I enjoyed it so much and found it so helpful for my trip, I thought I’d share my opinions and a little about how to use the app in this post.

The Collins Bird Guide app is based on the book, The Collins Bird Guide by Lars Svensson, Killian Mullarney, and Dan Zetterström, which is considered the standard European field guide.

The app is very easy to navigate through its three-tier structure which includes over 700 species and more than 3,500 excellent illustrations. The first tier, which is the home page, shows a list of all the families or species groupings included in the app — you can organize the list taxonomically or alphabetically with the app’s settings. The home page also has an introduction at the top of the screen on how to use the app with references to the maps, plumages, terminology, and more. At any point, you can move between the tiers by tapping on the “house” or “bird” icons at the bottom of the screen. Both the family groupings and the species accounts are on a continuous scroll, so it’s easy to keep scrolling through the app.

Here is the home page with all the family groupings:

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Click on a family group — this takes you to the second tier of the app. A list will open with all the species in that family which you can scroll through. Tapping on the family name above the illustrations exposes information about that family. For woodpeckers, the entry reads:

All but the aberrant Wryneck specialists in climbing and excavating nest holes in vertical tree trunks. Anatomical adaptations include strong feet and mobile toes (species with four toes have two directed backwards) and sharp claws, stiff tail-feathers which serve as support on vertical surfaces, also powerful awl- or chisel-shaped bill and “shock-absorbant” brain-case. Food includes wood-boring insects; have a greatly elongated tongue base for scouring and emptying deep insect burrows. Most species use drumming as a “song” (both sexes drum). Only the Wryneck is a long-distance migrant, others largely residents.

Here is the woodpecker family group:

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From the family page, touch a specific species and it will open to the third-tier — the species account. The species account includes multiple illustrations of the bird in different plumages, general information on the bird, range maps, the species conservation status, and audio recordings.

Here is the European Green Woodpecker species account:

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The illustrations are very good and the text is quite informative — the developers have taken all the text and illustrations from the body of the book and converted them to a digital format. To get the illustrations in full-screen, tap once. If you like, tap the screen again to remove the text and symbols. You can also pinch-to-zoom to enlarge the illustrations to see close-up details.

One of my favourite app features is the comparison function. This was useful with so many new-to-me species to identify. There are two ways to compare species. The first is accessible on the right hand side above the species text. For example, below you can see the comparisons for Eurasian Nuthatch include Algerian Nuthatch, (Western) Rock Nuthatch, and Eastern Rock Nuthatch.

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Here is where the comparison buttons are located (in red):

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The other comparison button is accessible at the bottom left of the app’s screen. Tapping on this allows you to create a customized side-by-side comparison of any species. You can do side-by-side comparisons of up to 12 species, but I found personally that two species is the best way to compare as the illustrations are still fairly large and the text is easy to read.

A majority of species in the guide come with multiple audio recordings. Songbirds have songs and calls included, while less vocal species — such as waterfowl, shorebirds, and game birds — usually are accompanied by a single recording.

There’s a search function that allows you to try to identify a species by selecting from a series of attributes including location and season, habitat, shape, size, plumage colour, family, bill colour, and more. The app then provides a list of species that fit that criteria.

Here I’m searching for species that frequent the highlighted map area:

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The app includes the option to keep a life list and to create any others lists. The lists I kept/created were my Life List, Year List, France List, and Germany List.

Tapping on the checkmark next to the species text will add that bird to your Life List (and there’s also an option to share your Lifer on social media). Then, tapping on the list icon next to the checkmark lets you add that species to any other lists you’ve created, or add a new list.  To view your lists, go to the search bar where they’ll appear under “My Lists”. The lists are arranged in the three tiers, just like the rest of the app.

One suggestion I have for any future app updates is for the app to total the number of species on each list and to let users add a date for when they see a particular bird.

This is the family groups page from my Germany List. I saw a species in each of the families that’s highlighted:

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Play around with the app and you’ll quickly get the hang of the layout and flow. The Collins Bird Guide app is excellent with an easy-to-use interface and intuitive design — of the seven bird identification apps I’ve tried (The Sibley eGuide to the Birds of North America, Audubon Birds Pro, and Peterson Birds, to name a few), this one is easily the best, and it would be wonderful if there were a comparable app for North American Birds. I highly recommend this app to any birders living in or travelling to Europe — it’s terrific!

The app is compatible with the iPhone and iPad; and I’ve read that the developers are working on a version for Android. The app is $17.99 (US), $20.99 (CAN), or £13.49 on iTunes

Thank you very much to Touchpress for providing me with a review copy.

Book Review: Sibley Guide to Birds, Second Edition

SibleysecondeditionI must start this review by saying that I’ve been a fan of David Sibley’s field guides since I received my first guide — The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America — as a Christmas gift in 2009 (I was 12) from my parents. The Sibley guides are my all-time favorites and they’ve helped me learn so much about bird identification and bird behavior. When I started birding, I took the guide with me everywhere and it’s now held together with packing tape and highlighted with post-it notes.

I received a review copy of the new second edition of The Sibley Guide to Birds by David Allen Sibley (Knopf, March 2014) a few weeks ago and have been eagerly reading and looking through it ever since. I’m very happy with the new additions and the guide’s overall appearance. Here are a few of my thoughts on The Sibley Guide to Birds, Second Edition:

This guide is a bit heavier than the first edition, and I wouldn’t often take it out in the field; but if I’m studying the guide at home, weight’s not really an issue. The weight is due to an expanded introduction, updated maps, 600 new paintings which include 111 rare species added, more text on identification tips of tricky species as well as foraging and habitat behavior, and a checklist of all the species at the back of the book. Also, this guide has larger illustrations and updated taxonomy. A very good addition and nice touch are the illustrations of extinct species, a small but very good reminder of the species we’ve lost. There’s also a great section on bird topography and a very useful chart of molt cycle in birds.

The maps have all been updated to reflect the change of species distribution over the past 14 years. One of the most substantial population shifts noted is for the Eurasian-collared Dove, on page 260, which has expanded its range northward quite a bit. For species that have a more limited range, the illustrations are “zoomed in” so you can see the range more clearly.

Some of the new illustrations include more juvenile plumages for some species, additional hybrids, downy young (Killdeer, some rails, and some ducks). Red-flanked Bluetail, Hawaiian Petrel, Smew, Green-breasted Mango, Eurasian Kestrel, Variegated Flycatcher, Brown Shrike, Sinaloa Wren, and Crescent-chested Warbler are just some of the new species added to this guide.

Most of this guide is arranged like the first edition with just a few small changes. One of the largest changes birders will probably notice is the family Falconidae (which includes Peregrine Falcon, Crested Caracara, Merlin, American Kestrel, and other falcons), which has been moved between woodpeckers and parrots. This is the result of new DNA studies that show that falcons are more closely related to parrots than hawks.

I’ve read that many people are having trouble reading the text, which is now light gray in color instead of the previous black. Though I don’t find the text particularly hard to read, it might be that my eyes are still young. When I asked my (non-birding) mother, who now uses reading glasses, what she thought of the book’s text, she said she found the font thin and difficult to read in low light. So the light-colored type and thin font might be an issue for some older birders or those who need reading glasses. 

A color change in some of the illustrations has sparked even more controversy that the font. Many of the colors are significantly darker than in the earlier edition and pocket guides. The Scarlet Tanager, Northern Cardinal, Cinnamon Teal, and even Purple Finch illustrations seem much darker than the actual birds would appear in the field. Interestingly, in the first edition, some of the colors seemed much too bright or washed out in some illustrations. In this new edition, drawings of species with a lot of red or orange coloration seem to be very dark, but I think some of the drawings actually look better darker including Willet, American Pipit, and Warbling Vireo, just to name a few. If you think the dark colors are going to bother you, go to your local book store and take a look at the guide in person.

Here’s a comparison of the Scarlet Tanager: at left is the Second Edition and at right is my old Western Edition. In my opinion, the one on the left is too dark and the one on the right is too bright,

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There are some errors and few minor typos in the first printing, includling a few mislabeled species in the group accounts; the labels for the hybrid geese (GWFG x CAGO and GWFG x SNGO) on page 4 are switched; incorrect measurements for the Thick-billed Kingbird; and I noticed that the California Condor is missing in the group accounts on page 120. Mr. Sibley said that the colors and other mistakes will be corrected in the next printing, so watch out for the second printing if you’re not happy with this current edition. 

This is the two-page spread of the hawks and vulture group accounts with the missing California Condor illustration,

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With all that being said, I love this field guide and it will become my go-to bird identification field guide for North America. This guide is comprehensive, full of wonderful information, and the illustrations are so well done. I highly recommend this field guide to any amateur or serious birders. You just can’t get a better illustrated guide than one of David Sibley’s field guides.

You can buy this guide from your favorite bookseller.

Thank you very much to Knopf for providing me with a review copy.