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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Peterson Guide to Owls

IMG_0964Last week’s mail was very bird-themed*, in part because I received a copy of the new Peterson Guide to Owls of North America and the Caribbean by Scott Weidensaul, sent by my good friend Ray from the radio show, Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds.

(If you’re not familiar with Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds, it’s a live radio show from Massachusetts about birds, birding, and conservation. The show airs Sundays at 9:30 am (Eastern time). You can listen live from anywhere in the world through the WATD website. If you can’t listen live, all of the past shows are available on the website and iTunes. If you’re looking for a birding show or podcast to listen to, Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds is excellent and you might even win a Droll Yankees feeder for their Mystery Bird contest!)

I just had time to page through the book quickly, and noted some very good photos of owls by a number of photographers, including from my friend Christian Artuso in Manitoba (Christian has a Ph.D. in Environmental Science, did his thesis on Eastern Screech-Owls, and is the Manitoba Program Manager for Bird Studies Canada). I’m hoping to read the book and write a review before the end of this month.

Thank you for the great book, Ray! Some readers might remember that I had the incredible opportunity to meet Ray and the Talkin’ Bird’s crew one year ago this month when I traveled with my father to Washington, DC to be a part of Ray’s 500th episode. For the past year, I’ve also been part of the show with a “Charlotte’s Weblog” segment every other week, which includes my sightings from here in Alberta as well as information for young birders and naturalists.

*Also in the mailbox: the latest issue of BirdWatch Canada from Bird Studies Canada, the Birder’s Guide to Listing & Taxonomy from the American Birding Association, and two new digiscoping adapters!

Birding with an iPad, and a Giveaway!

More birders are now using technology such as tablets and smartphones, and there are many bird-related apps which can help ID birds in the field, submit checklists (eBird), and more. In this post I’m going to round up some useful bird apps, including my favorites.

Stay tuned until the end of this post for the giveaway details!

AppscollageField Guides:

Many field guides have been made into apps, which makes going birding much easier because you don’t have to lug around heavy books. In fact, with a smartphone or tablet, you can take an entire bookshelf with you. Most of the major field guides are available as apps and most offer multiple audio files for almost every species; the search function makes it very easy to search for birds. I have most of the following apps on my iPad, many of which are compatible on other iSO devices even Android.

— Sibley eGuide to Birds of North America ($19.99); I’m a fan of David Sibley’s illustrations, so of course the app is my favorite too. One of the features offered in this guide is the side-by-side comparisons for difficult to ID species. There is also a”lite” version which is free, which is a good way to see if you want to buy the full app.

— Audubon Birds ($14.99, often on sale); is a photographic guide, so if you are partial to photos vs. drawings, this may be for you. With the Audubon app you are able to submit checklists though the app to eBird and see what other birders have submitted.

— Peterson Birds of North America ($9.99, often on sale)

— National Geographic Birds of North America ($9.99); I don’t own this guide so I’m not very familiar with it. But from reading others’ reviews it seems to be a very good app and features 995 species and custom-created quizzes.

iBird (“lite” version is free, various full versions range in price); The iBird app is very user-friendly and great for new birders. iBird has guides for North America, and also Britain & Ireland.

BirdGuides (“lite” version is free, various full versions range in price); BirdGuides have UK field guide apps and also one Birds of Brasil app with over 1,800 species.

Apps for Learning Bird Song:

Larkwire ($2.99); a very user-friendly app which uses games to make learning bird songs fun. Larkwire groups together similar-sounding species and gives the listener a better chance to familiarize him/herself with the songs and calls of each species.

Bird Finding/Reporting Apps:

The BirdsEye app is for finding birds reported to eBird, and BirdsEye Log is for submitting your own sightings. They’re very good apps, and when I was in Ontario last summer working at Long Point, they worked very well for me. My only complaint is that the apps can’t find my location here in Alberta. I get a message saying “Low GPS Signal”. I don’t live in the complete middle of nowhere and we have good WiFi, so I’m a little disappointed that I can’t use these apps regularly at home.

BirdsEye (full versions range in price)

BirdEye Log ($9.99)

BirdsEye Hotspots ($4.99); BirdsEye Hotspots is another great app, which quickly finds eBird hotspots. Here is my review of the app. As a reminder, I received this app from Drew Weber at BirdsEye (who also writes at Nemesis Bird).

Birding eBooks:

Princeton University Press has recently made some of its most popular birding books available as eBooks on iTunes:

The Warbler Guide by Tom Stephenson & Scott Whittle ($18.99)

The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds by Richard Crossley ($19.99)

The World’s Rarest Birds by Erik Hirschfeld, Andy Swash and Robert Still ($27.99)

The Unfeathered Bird by Katrina van Grouw ($29.99)

Hawks at a Distance by Jerry Liguori ($12.99)

Birds of Peru by Thomas S. Schulenberg ($27.99)

Other Bird Apps:

Merlin Bird ID (free); the Merlin Bird ID app from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is one of the newest birding apps on the market. Very good for beginning and intermediate birders.

Bird Codes (0.99); lists numerous bird banding codes

If I haven’t mentioned your favorite app, please let me know in the comments and I’ll add it to my list.

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Giveaway!

Jessica at Princeton University Press has been very generous in providing me with eBook copies of The Unfeathered Bird and the very new Ten Thousand Birds to give away. To enter the contest, just leave a comment in this post with the name of which of the two ebooks you’d prefer.

For second entry, head over to my Facebook page and “Like” it. lease mention below in your comment that you’ve done so. After two random draws, I’ll announce the winners on February 22nd.

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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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My Birding Equipment

When I first started birding, I didn’t have any equipment at all, other than some not-very-good binoculars my father had. But slowly I started getting some items as presents, and lately have been saving money from selling eggs and my 4H steers for what I know I would like and could use.

You can either go all out with top-of-the-line equipment, and lots of it, or just have basic binoculars, a camera, and a field guide. I’m probably somewhere in the middle, with a basic older pair of binoculars and a couple of pretty basic cameras, but a Swarovski scope.

My binoculars are Nikon 8×42 Monarchs given to me by my grandfather in 2009 when I started birding. One of the eye-cups has broken since, but I’m used to it so it doesn’t affect my viewing. My most used field guide is the Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America. I’ve used it so much that it’s held together with clear packing tape. The Crossley ID Guide to Eastern Birds, which I won a copy of last summer, is also very good and helpful when I’m trying to figure out the age of raptors. I can’t wait until the Western Birds edition is out.

I have two cameras, both Canon Powershots. One, which was my grandfather’s (I think he bought it in 2008), is a Canon Powershot SX10IS 10MP Digital Camera. It takes quite good pictures on auto, though I’m trying to learn more about manual; I find the auto setting easier and am having trouble with the white balance. The other is a Canon PowerShot ELPH 100 HS, which is very good, takes excellent close-ups, and is good for my digiscoping. I started wring this post before I interviewed birder and photographer, Mia McPherson. In her interview, she gave some great suggestions for beginning photographers and I need to put her advice to use and get to know my equipment better.

A Carolina Wren at the Long Point Bird Observatory, taken with the ELPH100 HS,

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The most recent addition to my equipment is my spotting scope, which we bought in May and which I finally repaid my parents for at Christmas. My scope is a Swarovski ATM 80 with a 20-60 zoom eyepiece and the tripod is a Manfrotto 190 with 128RC head. I bought it from Pelee Wings which had a great price and wonderful service. If you have the money to spare, I definitely recommend buying a Swarovski. The clarity is excellent, and it’s a very well made scope. My scope isn’t getting much use this winter because in northern Alberta there are no open ponds, lakes, or sloughs in winter, but I used it a great deal from late May until November, and even took it to Long Point with me. I can’t wait to use my scope this coming spring and will take it with me every time I go out.

Now that I have a scope, I’m learning about digiscoping. Right now, I’m hand-holding or using a homemade adapter with my ELPH100 HS, but getting the camera so it’s centered is a little tricky, so I need to practice more. An adapter would make taking photos much easier. The set-up I would like is the Swarovski digital camera adapter and the Vortex PS-100 point-and-shoot attachment. The adapter is a little pricy, so I’ll just have to wait until I’ve saved up some more. Until then, hand-holding and using the home-made adapter works well.

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If you are especially happy with something you use for birding, whether it’s a field guide or some equipment, please mention it in the comments below. Thank you!