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Monday, July 24, 2006

The Shorebird Guide

As a young birder growing up in Oregon, shorebirds were some of my favorites. They migrated through in fair numbers, but mostly through out of the way habitats that most people didn't even know existed. I remember some of my first attempts to observe and identify sandpipers, like the time I walked out through knee-deep mud into Siletz Bay, and was rewarded with my first ever views--very close views--of such gems as Black Turnstone, Ruddy Turnstone, and one of my first "rarities" a Semipalmated Sandpiper. The smell of the mud, the blinding sun, the close connection to exotic arctic-breeding birds...all hooked me on shorebirds for life.

Learning to identify shorebirds was a challenge. Many of them look very similar. After years of puzzling over them, mostly identifying them through trial and error (oh, and the errors there were!), it got easier until now, most of the time, I can identify most shorebirds I see quickly and at great distances.

Now, Michael O'Brien, Richard Crossley, and Kevin Karlson have made it easier for most birders to feel comfortable identifying shorebirds in what Houghton Mifflin is billing as The Shorebird Guide (and yes, the italics are in the original title). And you know what, it clearly is the best shorebird guide out there--and there have been some fabulous shorebird titles come out over the past 20 years.

At over 460 pages, its impossible to do a thorough review of this book. It isn't one to be picked up and read through all at once; it is more appropriately a useful tool and study guide. The first section contains almost all of the identification material, with hundreds and hundreds of photos illustrating every shorebird species known to have occurred in North America. The photo captions explain how to identify each species as they change colors throughout their lifetime--which gives the reader the best idea ever of what the birds look like. The second half of the book contains more detailed description of the behavior, migration, molt, and vocalizations of each species--which helps the reader better understand the birds themselves.

Much is made about this book's (along with Pete Dunne's recent book's) attempt to teach the skill of identifying birds by their General Impression of Size and Shape (GISS). While Dunne's book tries to do this through words, this book mostly does this through stunning photographs which--while they do illustrate size and shape very well--also undermine the emphasis on those points by drawing more attention--through their absolute beauty--to the feathers and markings of the birds. Perhaps more "bad" photos of distant birds or silhouettes might have provided more useful here (though there are a fair number of shots such as these to look tantalize the reader). But hey, how often is your harshest criticism of a book that its illustrations that are "too" good?

And now a brief word of caution for the shorebirding tyro heading out to the mudflats with this book. While it contains most of the information you will need to identify these birds, it can't give you the skill and wisdom needed to actually do so. That will take some time and effort. By relying on size and shape, you may make snap decisions that are incorrect. I still mess up sometimes on distant Pectoral and Least Sandpipers when they are far away and I can't get a good size comparison to gauge their true size because these species look very similar to me without looking at plumage details. So, while using size and shape is a good first step in identifying these birds, don't be fooled into thinking that this will always be enough. Most of the time you'll need feather patterns and colors to back up your GISS identification. Especially if you think you are looking at an exciting vagrant shorebird from the Old World. GISS identification, while a skill of advanced birders, can wreck havoc on the intermediate and beginning birders, and can even throw an expert when used carelessly.

GISS is of greatest use in situations where lots of distant birds need to be identified and counted quickly without being able to see nuances of plumage--such as at a hawkwatch or while doing shorebird surveys (and if your going to take the time to find and identify shorebirds, you might as well count and report them so we can better track their movements and populations). But most of the time, wisdom will lead an experienced observer to use both GISS and careful feather inspections to confirm their ID. So, if you live in most of the country away from the coast, don't immediately think that the dowitcher you are looking at is a rare Short-billed because it looks too flat-backed and not round like it swallowed a grapefruit. If the bird gives you that impression, make sure you get confirmatory plumage marks and vocal clues.

That said, I absolutely love this book. Few observers will be so familiar with all shorebird species to not learn something new from this book, while the beginner will encounter an embarrassment of riches. It will still take a lot of field work to really learn to identify these birds out in the elements, but that chore is made much easier with this book. Some of the photos even serve as photo quizzes, which make readers really work out the identification for themselves--a very useful approach. Puzzling over one such photo, I learned more than I ever bothered to learn before about the differences between young and adult Black Oystercatchers. These birds are a cinch to identify most of the time, so the temptation is to pay them little mind, but this book brought me closer to appreciating them than I've felt for a long, long time. So, if you love shorebirds, you'll love this book. If you struggle with identifying shorebirds, this book will help you with that, while instilling a love for them in the very core of your soul.


Jeff Gyr said...

Hey Rob--

Nice is a great book, isn't it? Always nice to see the team (birders as a community) move the ball down the field. Of course, I know that it was Michael, Kevin, & Richard (and editor Lisa White) that did all the hard work, but there's also a kind of civic pride to be felt in such advances.

Aw, man, I'm gonna make myself cry.... ;-)

Anonymous said...

As someone who still struggles with peeps (hey, I've had my own scope for only 2 years!), this book seems to be very helpful BUT I am dying for larger photos. I just wrote to one of the authors to suggest that they sell the photos in digital format so users can buy a CD or download and view in ppt projected onto a screen or wall.


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