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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Worthless Rain

I thought the rains last night might have dropped some waterfowl onto the local lakes, but Lake Nockamixon and Peace Valley were both eerily quiet this morning. Best birds were a flock of 20 Wild Turkeys right off the highway. Sadly as I was returning home I saw a crippled deer unable to get up over the curb after just being hit by a van.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Art Book or Biggest Field Guide Ever?

Americans have enjoyed large format bird art books since Audubon came out with his huge double-elephant folio sized The Birds of America starting in 1827. Most of us don't own anything that large, but many of us own Audubon's folio-sized reprint volumes that have almost always been in print since then. After Audubon, Louis Agassiz Fuertes and others have given us additional bird portraits, though after the success of Roger Tory Peterson's books, bird illustrations from field guides have become perhaps the most popularly viewed bird art in North America.

The worlds of bird art as illustration and bird art as portrait have finally come together again in the release of the National Geographic Illustrated Birds of North America, Folio Edition. This book is essentially a large-format hard-cover version of the latest 5th edition of the popular National Geographic field guide. National Geographic bills it as "both hard-working reference and sumptuous art book" that "schowcases the more than 4,000 original, full-color, meticulously rendered bird paintings--by 20 contemporary bird artists--in striking detail and scientific accuracy."

So, is this really a "magnificent and highly collectible" bird art book, or just an attempt to sell us a Biggest Field Guide Ever version of the book we already have in our backpacks or on the seat of our car?

For me, I actually agree with the marketing description of this book and enjoy it as both reference and art book. First most intermediate or more advanced birders, who don't carry field guides in the field anyway, so-called field guides are really mostly desk references anyway. So the size of this book doesn't detract from its use in that way. In addition, after buying multiple copies of previous editions of the National Geographic guide, I was slow to consider even picking up the latest 5th edition. Sure there were some nice changes, but if you have a couple previous editions of this book first published in 1983, there's little incentive to go out and add the latest edition to the line up on your field guide shelf. So while I passed on the original 5th edition NGS guide, when this version came along it offered something new.

That something new is a whole new appreciation for the heft of this book. We've been spoiled over the years in seeing thousands upon thousands of bird field guide illustrations and hundreds of thousands of bird photographs. Increasing the size of this book helps us appreciate just what a monumental book it really is and has been since the 1980s. Think about it--over 4,000 original bird paintings. We used to just carry that around in our large coat pocket and not think much more about the paintings except for their use-value in helping us identify birds. While we would never use original Audubon prints for dinner table placemats, we've been undervaluing the artwork of the NGS guide by treating it as mere illustrations for helping us answer our mundane bird identification questions.

But no more. When you hold the National Geographic Illustrated Birds of North America, Folio Edition in your lap, the sheer weight of the book shatters that mindset. As you leaf through the pages of this volume, you start to see the illustrations for what they are--amazing and "meticulously rendered bird striking detail and scientific accuracy."

I'll admit that when I first heard of this project, I had my doubts. While the text and illustrations of the original NGS field guide sent shockwaves through birding communities and immediately replaced the Peterson and Golden Guides as the guide of choice when it came out in the 80s, I thought that some of the illustrations had become a bit stale in the intervening years. For example I had never really warmed to Donald Malick's Great Horned Owl plate (p.257) and H. Douglas Pratt's jay plate (p.321) had grown a bit stale after more than 25 years of exposure.

Happily, even these plates take on new life in the larger format. As field guide illustrations, they may have lacked a certain spark, but as bird portraits, they unquestionably rank with the works of previous grand masters. They may never be my favorites, but seeing them closer to how they were originally painted, rather than scrunched into a more compact format, seems to release them from bondage and bring them alive again.

So the art work is wonderful, and it is a joy to peruse the plates as art rather than mere illustration.

That said, here's what I'd like to see in a second edition of this book:
1) There's a lot more room here, so perhaps we could expand the text of the species accounts a bit? Give us a little extra something that wouldn't fit in the original smaller format guide?

2) Since this version is billed as an art book as much as a field guide, how about printing the signatures of the artists on each plate so we can appreciate them without having to search out the credits in the back of the book.

3) If we left the species accounts as they are, how about giving us a section at the bottom of each text page with notes on the art from the original artists? Sort of like the director's commentary on a DVD? I'd love to have more info on what went into painting each of these 4,000+ masterpieces.

But even without these extra features, the National Geographic Illustrated Birds of North America, Folio Edition deserves a place in the house where it will be picked up and enjoyed--and not just a space on the shelf next to your similarly-sized Audubon reprint. For a North American field guide, the text of the 5th edition reproduced here is still a fantastic and valuable reference, and the artwork is worth seeing and lingering over in this larger format. It isn't just the Biggest Field Guide Ever, this book is something more. If nothing else, the artists who's illustrations have helped us identify birds for so many years, deserve for us to appreciate their works as the first-rate bird portraits that they truly are.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Hornsby Bend Survey--10 Oct 2009

Over 10 years ago we started a monthly bird count at Hornsby Bend in Austin, Texas. It's still going strong, and here's Eric Carpenter's recap of the survey I helped with last Saturday. I personally saw the Kentucky Warbler (locally rare) and found the only Ring-billed Gull and saw over 1280 of the over 4,000 Swainson's Hawks that went over in the morning. A great day at a great birding spot!
Saturday's (10 Oct) monthly survey was the best-attended of any survey and yielded the most surprising number of birds. As part of the weekend-long celebration of 50 years of birding on the property, there were at least 50 people for the morning survey and we were able to split into 6 groups to cover virtually the entire property. Peg Wallace also manned the hawkwatch all day and was able to enjoy the large groups of Swainson's Hawks that had over-nighted just northwest of the property. In addition, several folks stuck around most of the day and picked up several species missed during the morning. The afternoon survey at 4pm was also well-attended with over 25 folks present. A big thanks to Claude Morris et al for kayaking along the Hornsby portion of the Colorado River in both the morning and afternoon sessions to give us complete coverage of the property.

Conditions were quite ideal for this time of year. A cool front had passed thru Friday morning with rains much of Friday. Saturday was quite cool and cloudy all day and there were likely a number of birds on the property that had come down with the front.

There were many highlights lead by a heard-only Lesser Goldfinch in the northwest fields area, one of very few reports for the property. The second highlight had to be the 4000+ Swainson's Hawks that were enjoyed by virtually everyone during the morning. The overall total number of species was a hard-to-believe 124, though it was pretty evenly spread amongst the different groups of birders, as the morning group that did the ponds had the highest group species count with only 61.

Hats off to everyone that participated. The full day list follows:

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck 17
Greater White-fronted Goose 1
Wood Duck 30
Gadwall 3
American Wigeon 13
Mallard 3
Blue-winged Teal 69
Northern Shoveler 460
Northern Pintail 2
Green-winged Teal 114
Redhead 4
Ring-necked Duck 6
Lesser Scaup 1
Ruddy Duck 9
Least Grebe 1
Pied-billed Grebe 14
Eared Grebe 5
American White Pelican 42
Double-crested Cormorant 6
Anhinga 1
Great Blue Heron 3
Great Egret 4
Snowy Egret 15
Little Blue Heron 1
Cattle Egret 102
Green Heron 1
White-faced Ibis 10
Black Vulture 65
Turkey Vulture 1310
Osprey 6
Northern Harrier 1
Sharp-shinned Hawk 6
Cooper's Hawk 13
Red-shouldered Hawk 8
Broad-winged Hawk 4
Swainson's Hawk 4000
Red-tailed Hawk 6
Crested Caracara 13
American Kestrel 14
Merlin 2
Peregrine Falcon 4
Virginia Rail 2
Sora 1
American Coot 700
Killdeer 23
Black-necked Stilt 1
American Avocet 11
Spotted Sandpiper 8
Greater Yellowlegs 3
Western Sandpiper 2
Least Sandpiper 124
Pectoral Sandpiper 1
Stilt Sandpiper 1
Long-billed Dowitcher 18
Wilson's Snipe 1
Franklin's Gull 1
Ring-billed Gull 1
Rock Pigeon 320
White-winged Dove 65
Mourning Dove 40
Inca Dove 1
Common Ground-Dove 2
Greater Roadrunner 1
Great Horned Owl 2
Barred Owl 2
Chimney Swift 19
Ringed Kingfisher 1
Belted Kingfisher 3
Red-bellied Woodpecker 21
Downy Woodpecker 7
Northern Flicker 2
Least Flycatcher 5
Eastern Phoebe 24
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher 163
Loggerhead Shrike 3
White-eyed Vireo 3
Blue Jay 4
American Crow 20
Tree Swallow 6
N. Rough-winged Swallow 9
Bank Swallow 7
Cliff Swallow 8
Cave Swallow 335
Barn Swallow 275
Carolina Chickadee 45
Tufted/Bl. Crested Titmouse 7
Carolina Wren 35
House Wren 44
Marsh Wren 3
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 9
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher 49
Eastern Bluebird 8
Gray Catbird 2
Northern Mockingbird 4
European Starling 1500
American Pipit 6
Orange-crowned Warbler 15
Nashville Warbler 66
Yellow Warbler 1
Black-throated Green Warbler 2
Black-and-white Warbler 2
Kentucky Warbler 1
Common Yellowthroat 41
Wilson's Warbler 3
Clay-colored Sparrow 3
Vesper Sparrow 2
Lark Sparrow 3
Savannah Sparrow 5
Grasshopper Sparrow 3
Song Sparrow 1
Lincoln's Sparrow 19
Northern Cardinal 131
Blue Grosbeak 1
Indigo Bunting 15
Dickcissel 12
Red-winged Blackbird 1700
meadowlark sp. 7
Yellow-headed Blackbird 3
Common Grackle 73
Great-tailed Grackle 450
Brown-headed Cowbird 1200
House Finch 2
Lesser Goldfinch 1
House Sparrow 15

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Join me at Hornsby Bend

This Saturday we're celebrating 50 years of birding at Hornsby Bend, an Austin wastewater facility that is the best birding spot in all of Central Texas. We'll start the morning with our monthly bird survey (which we started more than 10 years ago and is still going strong), followed by a lunch and afternoon programs on the birds, and capped off with an evening program celebrating decade by decade the history of birds and birding at the facility. If you've ever birded Hornsby Bend, or just want to hear what it was like to be a birder 50 years ago, come down to Austin and join in the fun!

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Join the Birdchaser at DVOC

On October 15 I'll be doing the following evening program for the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club (DVOC) in Philly:

Birds of the Ancient and Modern Maya

Birds have played important roles in Mesoamerican cultures for thousands of years. Rob Fergus explores the connections between birds and various Mayan cultures as revealed in their ancient art and his ongoing field work with four modern Mayan communities in Guatemala and Belize. In addition to reviewing the songs and calls of Central American birds, if you want to know how the Turkey Vulture got its red head, which bird you can burn to a crisp to make into a love potion, why you can't have sex before you plant your corn crop, or how to cure warts, this is the program for you!
So if you are in the Philly area, stop on by for a fun evening of birds and birdlore!
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