Book Review: “Peterson Reference Guide to Owls of North America and the Caribbean”

Guide to OwlsThe Peterson Reference Guide to Owls by Scott Weidensaul is my first owl-specific guide and my first volume in their “reference guide” series, and what a wonderful introduction to both.

The book covers all 39 species of owls found in North America, Mexico, and the Caribbean. This is a very comprehensive, authoritative, and beautifully illustrated book which has everything you need to know about owls. Because it’s hardcover, it would also be a great coffee-table book.

Scott Weidensaul is a co-founder of Project Snowstormthe research project that bands and tracks the movements of owls that appeared in the recent irruptive years; he is a co-director of Project Owlnet, a project with almost 125 banding and research stations across North America studying owl migration; and for nearly 20 years he has directed major studies on Northern Saw-Whet Owls.

The first part of the guide is the “How to use this book” section which covers a longevity, alpha codes, how to read the range maps, the topography, and explanations for such terms as reversed sexual dimorphism (where “females may be 20 or 30 percent larger than males”).

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The next and largest section is the Species Accounts. The accounts range in length from three to 17 pages, representing the knowledge and research available on that species.

Each Species Account includes both English and scientific names, and the banding (alpha) code. Measurements, longevity, and a general description of the species follow. There are more detailed sections on Systematics, Taxonomy & Etymology, Distribution, Description & Identification, Vocalizations, Habitat & Niche, Nesting & Breeding, Behavior, and Status. At the end of each species accounts, there are Notes and Bibliography for further reading and research.

Each account contains a up-to-date range map and there are also subspecies distribution maps for Spotted Owls, Great Horned Owls, and Eastern and Western Screech-Owls.

One of the best parts of the book is the photos — there are 340 color photos included in the guide. I have an awful time getting photos of owls, so I take my hat off to the many photographers who spent time capturing the behaviour of theses secretive and hard to photograph birds. The easier owl species to find are represented with lots of great photos while lesser-know owls such as the Tamaulipas Pygmy-Owl have only one photo.

As owls are generally heard more than seen, much emphasis has been put on the vocal descriptions which are very detailed and descriptive. However, I find the best way to learn the calls is to actually listen to recordings. The author and publishers have put together a list for anyone interested in audio with 86 owl vocalizations which you can download for free from the Cornell’s Macaulay Library of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology — a wonderful bonus!

The Acknowledgments section includes a list of all the researchers, photographers, and even citizen scientists who helped with the book. Next is the Glossary where you can find all the owl terms mentioned in the book.

There are five pages of General Bibliography listing published papers, ornithological articles, and citations; these are primarily paper versions but there are some links to online sources too. The index includes species and subspecies names, both English and scientific. Pages for photographs, maps, and captions can be found in a bold font.

Even though much of the information is technical, Mr. Weidensaul’s style is very engaging and easy to read. One of my favourite sentences is from the Northern Pygmy-Owl: “Northern Pygmy-Owls rather famously lack a sense of proportion when it come to picking their prey.” And the back of the book is as helpful and comprehensive as the front.

For anyone interested in owls and their ecology and behaviour, the Peterson Reference Guide to Owls of North America and the Caribbean is a must-have. It’s incredibly well-written and well-designed, with informative text, and the photos bring each species to life. This book deserves a special place on the shelf or coffee table. This is a really wonderful book, and I’m hoping it will help me change my bad luck with owls.

I’d like to thank my good friend Ray of Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds for sending me a copy of this guide.

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eBook Review: The World’s Rarest Birds

[This is a cross-post from my guest post at Nemesis Bird on Monday]

The World’s Rarest Birds by Erik Hirschfeld, Andy Swash, and Robert Still; published by Princeton University Press (April 2013). TheWorld'sRarestBirds

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The World’s Rarest Birds began as an international photo competition held by BirdLife International, to assemble a collection of photographs and to document birds around the globe listed as Endangered, Critically Endangered, Extinct in the Wild, and Data Deficient on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. The World’s Rarest Birds is a wonderful book, though it’s unfortunate we live in a world where such a book is necessary.

Princeton University Press recently released the title as an eBook on iTunes, and I’m delighted to be reviewing it after receiving a copy from Drew at Nemesis Bird. Thank you to Drew for the code, and a reminder that the following opinions are my own.

There are 590 bird species in the world classified as Endangered or Critically Endangered by BirdLife International. This book features beautiful photographs of 515 of them and is the first time images of certain species have been published. For the 75 remaining species, which are either extinct or no photos are known to exist, artist Tomasz Cofta has created very helpful illustrations.

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The beginning chapters assess the threats facing birds, from hunting, climate change, and agriculture, to geological events. Each threat is summarised globally with examples of species particularly affected by that particular threat. Additional chapters are devoted to extinct species, globally threatened bird families, and to data deficient species. Many species around the world face multiple major threats to their populations and we can only hope that with more awareness and some human help, bird species can rebound so they don’t fade into history.

The body of the book is the species accounts. This part is divided into seven regional sections: Europe & the Middle East, Africa & Madagascar, Asia, Australasia, Oceanic Islands, the Caribbean, North & Central America, and South America. Each regional section highlights main conservation challenges and threatened bird hotspots, followed by an illustrated directory of the most threatened or endangered birds in the region.

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Each species description includes a photograph or illustration, the IUCN Red List category, population size and trends, the key threats, a distribution map, and a QR code (quick response bar code) with a direct link to the factsheet of the species on the Birdlife International website.

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This may look like a coffee table book, but it is a comprehensive catalogue of endangered bird life around the world, and an important tool in creating awareness about the threats facing bird species. The eBook format also makes it very useful for travellers and twitchers, since the print version is quite large and heavy. For anyone interested in bird conservation, The World’s Rarest Birds is a must have. It’s incredibly well-designed, with well-written and informative text, and all the photos bring each species to life. This book deserves a special place on the shelf or, in this case, iDevice, whether you’re a birder, a naturalist, or conservationist.

Book Review: The Stokes Field Guide to Birds (Western and Eastern Regions)

StokesfieldguidetobirdsEarlier this year I was very excited to win two autographed copies of the new Stokes Field Guide to Birds, Western Region and Eastern Region editions, from Donald and Lillian Stokes. I’ve read through them, they’re terrifc, and this review is long overdue!

The guides are revised and updated from the previous editions published in 2010. They’re also smaller and more portable than the previous editions and especially the one-volume edition, though they still won’t fit in a smaller pocket and they do have some serious weight (about two pounds each). But as the only photographic field guides for both eastern and western North America, what you lose a bit in portability you make up in comprehensiveness.

The Stokes guides are identical in format, with an average of one page for each species, with four or so color photographs for each species. However, the Western guide has more photos (2,400) compared to the Eastern guide (2,200 photos). The guides each measure 8.5″ by 5.5″, and are each about an inch thick, not too big for carrying around in a backpack. But together they weigh a good deal — the Eastern guide is 1.7 lbs. and the Western guide weighs 2 lbs. A good part of that weight are all the color plates, and the quality of the photos is very good. Each entry has a average of about four photos, showing differences in summer and winter plumages, age, sex, and location; each photograph is also identified by location (state, or province or country) and month. Difficult birds get more photos — the Red-tailed Hawk in the Eastern guide gets a full dozen shots, and in the Western guide, 23 photographs over four pages. The Wilson’s Snipe and Long-billed Dowitcher get two pages and seven photographs each in the Eastern Region volume. That’s lots of scope for showing the variations in appearance in a species.

The text supports all the photography very well. The text is detailed for each species, concentrating mainly on identification but including common name, scientific name, important subspecies, ABA Codes, common hybrids, habitat, voice, and range maps which show year-round, breeding, wintering grounds; and migration routes. Throughout the guides, the Stokeses have added boxes with “identification tips”  that further explain how to distinguish between difficult, or similar-looking, species, such as Swainson’s Thrush and Gray-cheeked Thrush, Western Grebe and Clark’s Grebe.

The new guides include the American Ornithological Union’s most recent changes to common and scientific bird names, new splits or lumps to a species, and updated taxonomical order.

One feature I find very useful is the Quick Alphabetical Index just inside the front cover. The back of the book includes a full index, and also a complete list of photo credits.

I understand from other birders and other reviewers that the previous one-volume edition included a bonus CD/MP3 with 150 tracks of bird songs. This is no longer part of these field guides, but I would imagine that was a decision made to keeping the new volumes the books more portable and affordable.

If you’re an amateur or a serious birder, just watching birds in your yard or planning a special trip, these guides definitely deserves a place on your bookshelf or in your backpack. I highly recommend these field guides, and thanks again to the Stokeses for the contest and the autographed copies.

You can buy it from your favourite bookseller or Amazon.com.

(I won copies of each guide, but my opinions in this review are entirely my own.)

Book Review: “1001 Secrets Every Birder Should Know”

1001SecretseverybirdershouldknowFrom the time I learned that Sharon “Birdchick” Stiteler was coming out with a new book earlier this year, I looked forward to getting a copy.

1001 Secrets Every Birder Should Know: Tips and Trivia For The Backyard And Beyond (Running Press, April 2013) is a great bird book that covers everything birders, especially beginning birders, need to know about birding and birds, with more than 1,001 secrets in 296 pages. As Sharon writes in her introduction,

This book is to help you enjoy birds. I want to share with you insights of bird behavior — the spark bird that drives many of us to watch them. Most people love listing all the birds that they’ve seen because at the end of the day, bird-watching is more than a hobby. It’s an activity you can enjoy no matter where you travel to on the planet. It’s a scavenger hunt, and the objects fly and sometimes change color! It’s an adventure. But there’s so much more to enjoy about birds beyond seeing a new species.

In addition to being a writer, blogger and a digisicoper, Sharon is also an avian field ecologist, has worked as a National Park Ranger, and started in the bird feeding industry (one of her earlier books is City Birds/Country Birds: How Anyone Can Attract Birds to Their Feeder). She also has a great sense of humor and is very creative (testing how waterproof scopes and binoculars are by taking a bath with them, and with one of the best birding podcasts out there). As you can see from all of her writing — online and in books — Sharon is passionate not just about birds but also about wanting as many people as possible to understand and appreciate birds. This passion, humour, and creativity, is what makes this book so good. In his introduction to the book, English ornithologist/naturalist and entertainer Bill Oddie (who a few years ago also wrote an introduction to birdwatching), writes, “I think I would go so far as to say that if I were to write a book about birds that was amusing, informative, and sometimes a bit rude, this would be it.” He says a little bit more, but you’ll have to read the book to find out what that is!

The design of the book is very attractive (light and airy, not too dense with text) and all the photos are full-color. Sharon took most of the photos, many of which were digiscoped with her iPhone, and the rest were taken by her blog readers (disclosure: I submitted a few but none were accepted. However, some of my friend Dan Arndt’s photos were used).

This book is filled with lots of great information: bird feeding tips, travel ideas for the best birding hot spots, bird trivia, and ideas for bird jobs. At the bottom of most pages, Sharon dispels common myths about birds in a feature called “Bird Busting!” You can see the feature, and also the layout style, here,

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This book is a great choice for birders to give to the almost-birders in their lives, the family and friends you know who like birds but who might like to know more about them, even if it’s just some crazy bird trivia, or how to get more birds to come to the feeders in your yard. Even non-birders might become more favorably inclined to birds after reading this book — I found one of my younger brothers (who likes to call me a “bird nerd”) reading the book and enjoying it, although he will never admit it! The book includes chapters on attracting and feeding birds, nesting and roosting (and bird houses), bird anatomy and adaptations, commonly asked questions about birds (“Why are those smaller birds attacking that hawk?”), migration, mating, how birds raise their young (including what Sharon calls some “lethal parenting methods”), and how to learn more about birding and bird watching. The back of the book also has a glossary, as well as a bibliography, a suggested reading list for different levels — Beginner, Knows more than the average bear, Hard-core maxi bird books, Articles and online resources. I think Sharon’s breezy and humorous writing voice, and the general layout of this book, make it suitable for all ages, from older kids to adults of all ages. And the book would also be a very good choice for libraries, as very a useful reference for those who are looking to learn more about birds and birding.

Birders who know more than the average birder, and even hardcore maxi types can also find useful hints, tips, and trivia here, from the first-ever (and Nobel prize-winning) case of bird necrophilia, to the 10 areas that should be on ever birder’s bucket list. I finished this book on my recent plane trip to NYC and it was great to have in my backpack, especially because I could read it in short chunks, and it was always informative and often funny. Sharon writes in the book,

I love bird-watching because there’s no right or wrong way to do it, and as long as you are’t wiping out a whole species by the way you enjoy birds, do what feels good to you. If you enjoy listing and categorizing every bird you see — that’s terrific. If you like to peek out your window and see a chickadee at your feeder — that’s great. … Just get out there and watch the birds.

You can buy the book from your favorite bookseller or from Amazon.com. It’s also available for the Kindle edition.

Here’s a video Birdchick made about her book,

Book Review: “Look Up! Bird-Watching in Your Own Backyard”

(Here is my long-overdue review of Annette LeBlanc Cate’s children’s picture book, Look Up! I have to mention that Annette sent me not only an inscribed copy of the book but also three autographed copies to give away at the Snow Goose Chase. My mother was going to buy at least one copy of the book for the Chase before Annette offered to send some. I consider her a friend since writing to her this Spring to ask about interviewing her for my blog, but even if she weren’t my friend, I would rate this book highly. Part of the reason we’ve become friends is that we are both passionate about birds, and teaching kids about nature.)

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A few months ago, when I found out about the new nonfiction children’s picture book, Look Up!: Bird-Watching in Your Own Backyard by Annette LeBlanc Cate (Candlewick, March 2013), I thought it would be perfect for kids and especially for the Young Naturalists’ Corner at the Snow Goose Chase at the end of April. I can’t tell you what it would have meant to have this book when I was eight or nine years old — I’m pretty sure I would have become a serious birder even sooner. The book includes a lot of information I didn’t come across until much later.

When you stop to think about, there really aren’t any good books for kids on learning how to watch, and listen to, birds. There are lots of junior field guides (such as Bill Thompson’s Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of North America, from Peterson), and story books about birds (such as The Burgess Bird Book for Children), and nature books about birds in the wild (such as Mel Boring’s Birds, Nests and Eggs), but really nothing to help kids, especially those who live in cities and might think there is nothing to watch, learn about the hobby of birding:

Oh, I know what you’re thinking… Bird-watching is NOT boring! Is a hawk swooping down to gobble a mouse boring? Of course not. And how about crows getting into your neighbor’s garbage? Also not boring…

Birds are, by far, the easiest-to-see of all wild creatures. No matter how small your corner of the world, there will be some birds in it. You might be amazed at just how thrilling it can be to see new birds, find out about them, and learn their names! …

The point is…spending time outside observing life and drawing in a sketchbook can help you see the world in a whole new way. You’ve always known that the birds and the trees and the insects and the rocks were there… but when you take the time to sit and patiently draw them, you do more than see them: you experience them. You feel yourself more connected to the natural world, more at home in it.

The book points out that, if you live in a city, “You may not have a yard, but you do have the sky. Look up!” Look around your street, too, keeping quiet and paying attention. You might be surprised what you can see when you start to look. The book moves from the very general — where to find birds — to the particular, getting more detailed as it goes on, from the many colors of birds, their shapes (and how the shapes of the birds and their bodies are clues), their behaviour, and then field marks, seasonal plumage, sounds and birdsong. The book also talks about habitat, range, and migration, and how to use a field guide when kids are ready for one. There’s a wonderful section at the end about classification, with explanations about how scientists classify life forms and why and how they use Latin names.

Look Up! is a picture book, comic book, and a birding book all rolled into one, with excellent drawing of many species of birds. Annette has drawn cartoon birds to illustrate her book, and the birds have quite a lot say with most of the text occurring as thought bubbles. The text is informative and educational, but still appealing and fun for kids to read. And the book is packed with pictures and text, starting with the endpages (with information on “What NOT to bring when you watch birds!”, “What Do You Need to Watch Birds?” “Bird-Watching Do’s…and Dont’s!”, “Some Thoughts about Bird Drawing”, and “Some last tips for you…” Annette wrote the book with technical assistance from Jim Barton of Cambridge, Massachusetts, who has been birding for 45 years, leading field trips and teaching bird identification for the Massachusetts Audubon Society, the Friends of the Mt. Auburn Cemetery, the Cambridge public school system, and the Brookline Bird Club.

This is one of my favorite spreads from the book,

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At the bottom of most pages, Annette includes facts about birds — for example Foot Note, Look Closely, Be a Bird Brain, and Wing Tip. Annette offers helpful tips on sketching birds, simple ID tricks, and enjoying birds anywhere you are.

Not many children’s nonfiction picture books have bibliographies, but Look Up! does. Annette lists a number of the books she read to  help her with her drawing and writing, including How to Know the Birds by Roger Tory Peterson, The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior and The Sibley Guide to Birds, Naming Nature by Carol Kaesuk Yoon, Peterson First Guide to Birds of North America (the field guide that got Annette started), and the little Golden Guide’s Birds: A Guide to Familiar American Birds by Herbert S. Zim and Ira N. Gabrielson. I think it’s important to note that other than the Peterson First Guide, none of the books in the bibliography are specifically kids’ books. Annette has done a lot of solid research for this book, and has used these other books to build a strong scientific foundation for Look Up!

One thing that I think makes the book so successful is that Annette still considers herself to be somewhat of a new birder herself, and she doesn’t talk (or write) down to young readers. She communicates very clearly her enthusiasms and eagerness for birds and birding. Which is only fitting because this book came out of her own observations and experiences sketching birds.

If you know a young birder or young naturalist, this is the perfect book for them to further their love of birds and nature. Even if you are an older birder, I highly recommend this bird book. And it definitely belongs on library shelves. As Annette writes, “You might think that bird-watching is a very serious hobby…. But you don’t have to own binoculars and know a bunch of fancy Latin names to watch birds! This is a book about how everyone, no matter where they live or how old they are, can enjoy bird-watching — and yes, that includes you!”

You can buy it from your favorite independent bookstore or Amazon.

Book Review: “The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors”

CrossleyRaptorsWhen I heard sometime last year that a new Crossley ID guide was coming out in April, I was very excited, and even more happy to learn that it was a Raptor ID guide. I was hoping to win The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors by Richard Crossley, Jerry Liguori, and Brian Sullivan (Princeton University Press, April 2013) through the Princeton University Press contest in March, but then last month, my mom surprised me with the guide she had ordered through Amazon back in January. I’ve been able to read through the guide and it’s wonderful!

Raptor experts and co-authors Richard Crossley, Jerry Liguori, and Brian Sullivan have teamed up to create a great raptor guide filled with hundreds of colour photographs and very helpful text. Jerry Liguori, who is a photographer as well, has written two previous books on hawks — Hawks from Every Angle: How to Identify Raptors in Flight (Princeton University Press, 2005) and Hawks at a Distance: Identification of Migrant Raptors (Princeton University Press, 2011). Mr. Liguori has a great website — be sure to see his amazing photographs of raptors and other birds.

Brian Sullivan is the Project Leader for eBird, and photo editor for both the Cornell Lab’s Birds of North America Online, and for the ABA journal, North American Birds. Mr. Sullivan is also a co-author of the forthcoming Princeton Guide to North American Birds.

The raptor guide follows the same principle as previous books by Richard Crossley — that of pattern recognition or gestalt, instead of field marks.  I wrote a bit on that principle back in March in my review of Mr. Crossley’s Shorebird Guide. The raptor ID guide includes 101 color plates of all 34 species of diurnal raptors that regularly breed in Canada and the United States. And almost half of the book is filled with the species accounts and excellent range maps.

And just as in The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds, the photographs are very good, and the backgrounds and the amount of information are great. Even for advanced birders, raptors can be a tricky bunch of species to identify, and there are times when one can watch a raptor at a great distance or just see a silhouette without being certain about the species. So the plates, each with a variety of the same species at different angles and ages and in varying poses, are incredibly useful.

The first part of the book (more than half) is specific species plates, with each species getting at least one two-page spread; at the end of that section, there are also some multi-species plates, for a total of 101 plates. There are also a few multiple “mystery photo images” featuring a variety of unidentified species for readers to practice with (answers are at the back of the book). The second, smaller, part of the book includes detailed species accounts and range maps.

You would think with all the colored plates that the guide would be heavier and thicker, so I was very pleasantly surprised to find that it’s actually quite light and portable; the weight is helped by the binding, which is paper flexibound (turtleback) instead of a heavier hardover. If you’re planning a trip and you’re specifically going to watch raptors, this guide definitely deserves a place in your backpack or bag. I highly recommend this field guide!

You can buy it from your favorite bookseller or Amazon.com.

The  American Kestrel plate is my favorite from the new guide,

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I thought I would just mention that Princeton University Press has some excellent titles on birds and nature: the Crossley guides and hawk books by Jerry Liguori mentioned above, and The Unfeathered Bird (which I just received and hope to review soon). If you are interested in some of their other books, you can find them in PUP’s “Birds and Natural History 2012” catalogue, available here as a PDF.

My New Stokes Guides

Last week my new Stokes field guides — the Stokes Field Guide to Birds, Eastern Region and the Stokes Field Guide to Birds, Western Region — arrived in the mail and I was so excited to look through them! I have a very busy week this week so I’m hoping to review the guides soon, I hope next week.

Thank you again to Donald and Lillian Stokes for the book, and also for being willing to mail them to Canada!

The autographed page,

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