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Saturday, October 30, 2010

Jon Stewart's Medal of Reasonableness

Features an owl. Of course. Birds rule! And help restore sanity and/or fear!

BTW, Sit Vis Nobiscum is Latin for May the Force Be With You!

Friday, October 29, 2010

First Social Flycatcher in the US?

This week I visited The Research Museum at the Acopian Center for Ornithology at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Their bird collection was in storage for many years, but in going through and curating their collection, they found this Social Flycatcher, collected in Brownsville, Texas in February 1887. This should represent the first Social Flycatcher record north of Mexico. Unfortunately there isn't a lot of data associated with some of these old specimens, but the record has been submitted to the Texas Bird Records Committee.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Bird Hazard Survey

What hazards are killing birds? How does our society deal with these hazards?

Yesterday I was up visiting researchers at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania who are looking at some of these issues. They are requesting that people help them study these types of questions by filling out an online survey.

Many birds are killed each year by various forms of human technology and activity. Some of these human-made hazards attract much more attention than do others. The researchers are interested in how various factors shown to influence people’s perceptions of the risks posed by nuclear power or water pollution (e.g., is it a ‘new’ hazard, how 'natural' does the hazard seem) may also contribute to peoples’ perceptions of various hazards to birds. This information will be useful in helping bird conservationists strategize in campaigns to raise awareness with regards to different kinds of threats to birds and other natural systems.

Please fill out the survey found at the following link:

Your participation will remain anonymous and confidential. The survey takes about 25 minutes to complete. At the end of the survey, you will be re-directed to a separate page upon which you can request a summary of what we find. This research project has met Muhlenberg College’s Institutional Review policy requirements.

If you have any questions about the project, please do not hesitate to contact Dr. Jeffrey Rudski at rudski AT

Monday, October 25, 2010

Real UK Birdwatching Celebrities

Here's a recent list from the BBC's Stephen Moss. Heavy emphasis on the BRIT in celeBRITy here, no mention of American birdwatchers including Jimmy Carter, Laura Bush, Jane Alexander, Wes Craven, or Daryl Hannah.

Here's more on UK birdwatching celebs.

Future of the ABA--in 1996

Rummaging around in my files this afternoon, I found a copy of a letter that I sent to then American Birding Association president Greg Butcher back in 1996. I had searched for this letter a couple months ago, but it didn't turn up until today. At any rate, back in 1996 I had been working seasonal bird jobs for a few years out of college, had helped launch the Great Texas Birding Classic, and I was a young guy with a lot of ideas. So I wrote some of them to Greg, who I had met while planning a 1996 North American Big Year fundraiser for Audubon that didn't happen, and the Great Texas Birding Classic, which was about to happen.

Anyway, here's the letter:

A few of these ideas seem a little strange now, but I'm surprised how many of them were actually accomplished by the ABA since then (Junior Audubon notebook contest, Lane birdfinding guide for birding in American cities, etc.). Perhaps I wasn't the only one to suggest these ideas, but at least it is nice to see that my ideas had wings. There might even be some old ideas here that are still worth pursuing. And as always, there are many more ideas where these came from!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Review: The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America

The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America is a colossal wonder. As advertised, it has:

--More photos (3,400) than any other North American field guide
--More species (854) than all but the National Geographic field guide
--More subspecies (all) included than any other North American field guide
--More hybrid combinations than any other guide (all reported hybrids included)
--American Birding Association finding codes (only the Smithsonian Guide also includes these)
--Most recent changes to scientific names and recent species splits including those announced this summer, like Pacific Wren

It also features:
--Way more pages (816) than any other North American field guide
--More weight (3 lbs) than any other North American field guide, including Big Sibley

Don and Lillian Stokes spent more than six years putting this guide together, and it shows. It is a monumental work. Birder's World magazine posted a must-read interview with the Stokeses, which provides a detailed look into the decisions that the Stokeses made in order to make this guide, as outlined in the guide's preface, "the most useful guide to identifying the birds of North America ever published."

That's a tall order, but the true measure by which this guide invites us to evaluate it. So how are we to determine the usefulness of a guide like this? Or determine which guide might be the most useful? That's perhaps an equally tall order, one that I'm hesitant to tackle, but one which I find unavoidable in attempting to provide this review.

Any question of usefulness should look at how the book is actually used by possible intended audiences. We'll have to leave that for a future review, as I have not yet field tested it with others. For now I can only speculate about how the book might be useful to others. I will do a little speculating here, but mostly look in more detail at how useful I find it for me personally.

I would love to hear how useful beginning birders or casual birders find this guide. 800 pages and 3400 photos are a lot to thumb through in order to find an unfamiliar bird. At 3 lbs, some reviewers have already mentioned that they probably wouldn't carry it around in the field. Most intermediate and advanced birders don't carry guides in the field, but may carry one in their car. Otherwise, field guides are usually references or perhaps armchair guides--useful for looking up field marks on unfamiliar birds, or for studying before heading out in the field. Again, I would be interested to hear more about how this guide is actually used by beginners and more advanced birders.

For me personally, the question of usefulness boils down to questions like these:
1) Is this the guide I would most likely carry with me in my car for regular birding?
2) Is this the first guide I would look if I needed to look up something unusual after coming back home from the field?
3) Is this the first guide I would look at to review birds I haven't seen for a long time before heading on a trip to somewhere I don't get to very often?
4) If I could only take one field guide with me on a cross country trip, would this be the one?

I'll leave off the suspense and just state that for now, the answer to all of these questions is probably no. As useful and great as this guide is, and as much as I think I will refer to it in the years to come, I don't see it as my first "go to" guide. Here's why:

1) Photos: I've already outlined the problems with photo guides in another review, so I don't want to totally rehash those points here. While the photos in this Stokes guide are for the most part outstanding, I don't find presentations of photos to be the best way to quickly and easily identify birds, or to review the finer points of bird identification. They are great for reference, but I find it easier and more useful to have similar species depicted next to each other, with diagnostic points enumerated on the illustrations, perhaps with supplemental diagrams. In the Birder's World interview, the Stokeses tell us why they didn't want to clutter up their photos with text describing field marks, and they are right that it detracts from the beauty of the photos, but in a field guide, and especially in a beautiful one such as this, a focus on aesthetics may come at the cost of some utility.

2) Comprehensiveness: I'm glad that the book covers 854 species. That is more than Sibley (810) and all of the other field guides except for National Geographic. All regularly occurring wild birds (ABA finding codes 1-4) are included, as well as many birds that have only shown up a few times in North America. It is fun to see multiple photos of such rarities as Great Frigatebird, Lesser Frigatebird, Brown-chested Martin, and Common Redshank. But for a traveling urban birder like me, I'm more likely to have to identify a host of free-flying exotic species including parrots and waterfowl that are well-covered in other guides, but not included here.

One of the goals of this guide is "to create the most complete photographic record of...plumages and subspecific variations that has ever existed in one guide" (from the preface). The Stokes guide clearly does this. But just because it is the most complete photo guide doesn't make it the most complete field guide--illustrated guides often provide more images of each species, including more illustrations of subspecies, plumages, and birds in useful positions including flight images. Here's a quick comparison of the Stokes guide to the NWF and Smithsonian photo guides and Big Sibley (an illustrated guide)--using random birds that just pop into my head.

Each of these guides has its own strengths and weaknesses on the images front. Stokes clearly is the most complete photo guide, but far from the most complete guide, and even misses some photos that you would expect (like juvenile owls) or want (flight shots for most songbirds). Interestingly, Stokes was the only one of these guides to illustrate a baby Mountain Quail. None of these guides, including Stokes, illustrates most baby game birds. Or shortly-held juvenile plumages for most songbirds. We have yet to see those included in a standard field guide.

As far as including subspecies, Stokes does mention all subspecies and provides a shorthand description of their range and distinguishing marks. Most are not illustrated. While the guide may be a useful indicator for noting subspecies identity of birds within their known geographic ranges, it usually won't be enough information to actually identify an out of range individual to the subspecies level--that would take a more detailed reference. Interestingly, some species rarely seen in North America (like Green Violetear and Green-breasted Mango) are illustrated (and clearly labeled) with individuals of subspecies not found in North America.

3) Text: There is a lot of text here! That is good (for providing information) but can be tough to sort through--again perhaps making it more useful as a reference than as a field guide for making quick IDs. Each species account provides several sections, each labeled with red or black bold section markers, which does chunk the information and make it easier to find. Sections include an initial description of each bird's shape, then descriptions of each plumage--usually of birds both sitting as well as in flight, a short line on habitat, and a voice description of commonly heard vocalizations. This is followed by the list and brief description of each subspecies, as well as a list of known or reported (as well as suspected) hybrids.

One feature that the Stokeses have tried to advance, is a more quantitative measure of bird shape--especially expressed as rations of one body part to another. Sometimes this is very useful--as in comparative bill to head lengths--while other times maybe not so useful--how easy is it to determine that a Buteo hawk's wing length is 2 1/4, 2 1/3, or 2 1/2 of its wing width?

The text of the Stokes guide does a much better job than most photo guides of comparing birds to similar species and providing distinguishing field marks. That said, much of the species descriptions are still that--just descriptions without highlighting plumage features that separate them from similar species. I generally find it more useful to have one species described by comparing it directly with another. So while there is nothing wrong with, for example, describing the Ringed Kingfisher by listing the various color features of its plumage, including that its tail is barred black and white--it might be more useful for some birders to have the bird described in comparison to the common and for most of us more familiar Belted Kingfisher or to focus on those features which are clearly distinctive. In short, I miss the Similar Species section of the old Peterson guides.

So suppose I'm in my car with my scope on my window mount and I think I've got a Bar-tailed Godwit out on the mud flats. I want a quick review of how to make sure. It doesn't fly, so I can't see its rump. I open up Stokes to the Bar-tailed Godwit account. Dang! There's six photos there, lots of text. I struggle to wade through it all to figure out what exactly would make it a Bar-tailed Godwit rather than a Hudsonian Godwit three pages away. Or maybe it is a juvenile Marbled Godwit? Wait, there is no photo of a juvenile Marbled Godwit. Hmmm. Where's Big Sibley? All four godwits in a row in Big Sibley. I quickly compare them and feel much better about my initial identification.

Don't get me wrong. The Stokes guide provides lots of useful information. Tons. It's just that between all the details in the text, and the vagaries of the beautiful photos, it doesn't always provide the information I want in the easiest format for me to quickly use, especially in the field.

But again, tons of useful information here. In many cases, the text descriptions may actually make it easier to age and sex an individual of the species, than to distinguish it from a similar species. For birders who want to age and sex individual birds, this information is useful. For birders who just want to identify a bird to the species level, the information here might be a lot to wade through--especially if there are no comments clearly outlining distinctive features or comparing similar species.

I need to reiterate that there is a LOT of text here. The Red-tailed Hawk account is well over a thousand words (I gave up trying to count!) and includes the equivalent of almost one and a half full pages! For hawkwatchers, there are lots of tips about identifying birds in flight, but not as many illustrations as in Big Sibley. This is a bit frustrating in the case of Accipiters, as the similar Sharp-shinned and Cooper's Hawks each get more than a full half page of text, but only six photos each. It is nice to have them on adjacent pages for comparison, but I'm not sure that the chosen images really provide enough information for most birders to use them in attempting this common but tricky identification challenge based on the subtle features mentioned in the text.

Maybe it is unfair to review a guide based on the more difficult identification challenges out there. Perhaps those identifications are best left to comprehensive specialty guides, in this case something like Liguori's Hawks from Every Angle or the classic Hawks in Flight, where subtle marks can be given more discussion and space for illustration. This example merely illustrates how tough it would be for any guide to be the "most useful" in any given situation.

4) Maps: I haven't gone through the maps with a fine tooth comb, but they seem to be accurate and up to date. The color scheme is familiar to old timers who cut their teeth on the old Golden Guide, with red summer ranges, blue winter ranges, and purple permanent ranges. Migration routes are marked with bright yellow (rather than the old hashed shading of the Golden Guide). Areas where out of range birds are known to wander are enclosed in yellow, red, purple, or blue dotted lines--which gives some indication of where wanderers may occasionally appear. One thing that I really liked in the Kaufman guide when it first came out were the light and dark shading to indicate relative abundance across a bird's range. Neither the Stokes guide, nor any other major guide, has kept up with that innovation.

There's a lot more to talk about, perhaps here in the comments section, including the associated CD of bird sounds and mini Identification Tips essays on how to ID some groups of birds like hawks, shorebirds, and gulls. Speaking of gulls, there is a lot of information on gulls here--full two-page spreads for most larger 4 year gulls. Again, this is more than found in most guides, situating the book halfway between a standard field guide, and a more detailed reference guide.

In the end, that is where this book seems to settle with me--as a bridge between field guides and more detailed reference guides. Perhaps it is most useful in that way--in the car as a stepping stone between checking in a field guide and a reference book at home. So while it wouldn't be the first book I would carry in my car (that one still goes to Big Sibley for me, Kaufman for the kids), it might well be my first choice to ride in the car as a backup to consult before checking more references back at home.

So, in summary, the Stokes guide probably really is, as advertised, "the biggest, most colorful" guide out there. As for being the most useful, I've discussed how that probably isn't the case for me, but I am enjoying other reviews online, and am interested in hearing how the book fares with the larger birding community and individual birders across a wide spectrum of interest and abilities.

Like all guides, it has its strengths and weaknesses, some of which I've pointed out. Perhaps more than most field guides, the Stokes guide is like a box of chocolates--when you look in there to identify a bird you are not always sure what you are going to get. Beautiful photos for sure. Lots of text to read. Maybe a fantastic nugget of useful info. Sometimes not as much as you might like.

But I'm a big chocolate fan, and this is a seriously big and beautiful box of chocolate. So it's a keeper and I look forward to dipping into it for years to come.

This review is written on the basis of a review copy provided by Little, Brown and Company.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Surprise AC/DC Birding Lyrics

SYDNEY (AP) —A new museum exhibit about Australian rock band AC/DC makes some startling revelations, including that the anthem "For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)" was originally written during the 1980 Christmas Bird Count season to celebrate birding. According to the original draft (see copy below), the lyrics were considered too nerdy and were changed for release the next year on the groups 8th studio album.

As originally written, the song urged all birders to stand up and be counted, and was originally performed in Maryland after a Christmas Bird Count, when birdwatchers who have been out counting birds all day gather together to make a list of all the birds they've seen during their annual all-day bird count.

Here are the lyrics as originally written and performed:

Oh Yeah, yeah
We roll tonight
To the birds in flight
Yeah, yeah, oh

Stand up and be counted
For all the birds that you have seen
We are the birders
We are birding lean and mean
Hail hail to the good times
'Cause birding's got the right of way
We ain't no legend, ain't no cause
We're just livin' for today

For those about to bird, we salute you!
For those about to bird, we salute you!

We bird at dawn on the front line
Like a bolt right out of the blue
The sky's alight with birds in flight
Birds will roll and flock tonight

For those about to bird, we salute you!

Caught on Film: Taylor Swift's Favorite Bird Field Guide

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Birdchaser Interview: Attuvian John Puschock

John Puschock is a Seattle-based bird tour leader and owner of Zugunruhe Birding Tours, which offers tours to far-flung birding hot spots including the fabled Attu Island in the Aleutians. I've been dreaming about going to Attu since the early 1980s, when I first read about it in James Vardaman's classic recounting of his 1979 North American Big Year Call Collect, Ask for Birdman. In 1995, when I was planning my own North American Big Year as a fundraiser for Audubon (but that's another story), I actually paid the $300 down payment for a spring trip to Attu, but when Audubon pulled its support for the venture and I lost that deposit and a few years later Attour closed down its trips. It looked like my chances of getting to Attu, and seeing dozens of cool Siberian vagrant birds in North America, were gone for good. A few years ago Victor Emanuel Nature Tours stopped by Attu, and last year Zugenruhe started offering boat-based trips there again. So perhaps I can still get out there yet!

I first met John Puschock back in 2006 when I was out in San Diego. I found a locally rare Marbled Murrelet off La Joya Cove, and John was one of the incredulous birders who showed up to look for it for several days before it was rediscovered and my sighting was vindicated. The funniest thing I remember about hanging out with John at La Jolla Cove was when I asked if I could borrow his scope, and he said I could as long as I didn't have pink eye. Funny guy!

Anyway, I've kept up with John off and on over the past few years, and am happy to have him join me on here for a Birdchaser Interview:

BIRDCHASER: So, when we met back in 2006, were you already leading tours then?

JP: First off, if the line about the pink eye was the funniest thing you
remember, I must have been having an off day. Sorry about that ;-)

And yes, I started leading tours in 2004 for Bird Treks, and when I moved to San Diego in 2005, I also began a business doing day trips around southern CA. I’ve since moved to Seattle and started Zugunruhe Birding Tours, but I still work for Bird Treks, too. But I’ve dropped the San Diego day trip portion of the business since the commute was a killer.

B: How did you start going to the Aleutians?

JP: The long version of the story begins with me not seeing a Gray-headed Chickadee, at least not definitively, while working in northwest Alaska in 1998. But no one wants to read a long story on a blog...The short version is I read Ted Floyd’s account of his trip to Adak in Aug 2003 and that the island was becoming accessible to the general public, so I asked Bob Schutsky, owner of Bird Treks, if he’d be interested in working with me to develop a tour there. He said yes.

B: What have been some of your best birding experiences on Adak?

Literally at least ten things come to mind, but I’ll try to pare it down...Every time we go out on a boat to look for Whiskered Auklets is special. I’ve seen quite a few now, but it’s still a mythical bird to me. Seeing one just twenty feet away never gets old.

I’ve seen four Marsh Sandpipers on Adak, and those were all great. The last two were together, and I had seen one a week earlier when I didn’t have a group with me. I told the tour participants about that bird (the one I saw by myself) before they got there, and that I didn’t expect it to stick around long enough for them to see it. I was right about that, so finding another two while my group was there more than made up for that – snatching victory from the jaws of defeat added to the excitement.

But my favorite experience was finding an Eastern Spot-billed Duck. It was late in the day, probably 9 PM, and unfortunately I didn’t have a group with me at the time – I had stayed a few extra days after my group had left – so I was driving around Clam Lagoon by myself. I surprised a group of Mallards near the road, and they all jumped. I put my binoculars on part of the group flying away and thought to myself, “That one looks different.” It landed, I got a quick scope view, and I was soon flying down the road back to town to get the other birders on the island. Some of them were already in bed, but everyone came out for it.

B: How did you end up deciding to do trips to Attu?

JP: I’ll go with the short version again: I found a boat that was close enough to Adak to make the trip financially feasible. I know a few others had tried to get there since Attour closed up shop, but the stumbling block always was finding reasonable transportation. The closest appropriate boats had been in southeast Alaska, and the cost of getting them to the Aleutians was prohibitive. Luckily, I found out about a boat, the Puk-Uk, in Homer.

B: There was a serious Attu birding culture and community that developed around Attour. Are you getting some of those old Attuvians coming back now on your tours?

JP: I had one Attour Attuvian on last year’s trip (our first), two who were on the VENT trip in the fall of 2006, plus one of my guides, Mike Toochin, was an Attour guide throughout the 90s. Now that we’ve proved we can do the trip and I’ve been able to drop the price too, I’m hoping some more will join us. I’ve always been interested in the history and tradition of birding, so it would be great to hear stories about the old days.

B: How are trips to Attu different now than they were back in the glory days of Attour?

JP: We sleep and eat on the boat now, not the old buildings that Attour used. Those building are still there, by the way, along with everyone’s list totals written on the walls. There are fewer people on our trip, but otherwise I think it’s pretty similar. We have bikes to get around, and it’s still windy.

B: Given that some years are better than others, what should a birder expect to be able to see on your Attu trips?

That’s a tough question if you’re asking about Asian vagrants. Last spring, the Aleutians were plagued with north winds for weeks. That’s not the direction you want the winds to be blowing for vagrants, and we did miss some that I thought were a sure thing: Lesser Sand-Plover and Common Sandpiper come to mind. We also had low numbers of Wood Sandpipers (3) and Long-toed Stint (1). But we did get other “expected” species such as Rustic Bunting and Brambling, plus other less-expected species like Hawfinch, Red-flanked Bluetail, and the bird of the trip, the first accepted North American record of Solitary Snipe. Of course, the species normally resident in the Aleutians and Bering Sea would be expected. We saw tons (probably literally) of alcids, included Whiskered Auklet. We saw every seabird expected and not-so-expected in the area, including Short-tailed Albatross, Mottled Petrel, and Red-legged Kittiwake. The bottom line is that a birder can expect to see vagrants and other cool birds that can't be entirely predicted, though the Whiskered Auklets are very likely.

B: Can birders see as many birds on Attu with these smaller groups as they did back in the day when there were larger groups potentially covering more parts of the island?

JP: I’m sure we’ll miss a bird here and there with our smaller group, but I think we’ll get most of them. For a long time, I thought you could only bird the island with a large group, but then the thought occurred to me that Univ. of Alaska-Fairbanks has been sending a team of two to the island for years to collect specimens, and they’ve been turning up good birds all the time. If two could do that, certainly ten could do even better.

BP: For the cost of an African safari, why should someone bird Attu or the Aleutians? What makes the Aleutians, and Attu in particular, so special?

I’m not going to tell anyone they should bird the Aleutians. Everyone has different interests. Even among the Attour crowd, people came for different reasons. From what I’ve heard, there were even a few who weren’t birders. But I will say why someone might enjoy it:

The Aleutians are a corner of the world that’s unlike anywhere else and almost certainly completely different than where you live. In that respect, it’s the same as an African safari or any other exotic location. It’s wild and remote. It’s an expedition. I like the excitement of not knowing what I might find...and then the excitement of finding it. And while Attour was finding all those first North American records, Attu was elevated to legendary status among birders, so there’s that aspect to it, too -- walking around Lower and Upper Base (where Attour used to stay) was like being in a shrine. Of course, if you want to pump up your ABA list, there’s no better place to go, particularly if it’s your first visit to the Bering Sea region.

There’s always that cost-per-bird issue with trips like this (and implicit in your question). If you’re a world birder, particularly if you’ve already seen the Beringian endemics like Whiskered Auklet and Red-legged Kittiwake, and your interest is getting more life birds, frankly there’s no reason to go to Attu. But if you’re into your ABA list, then this trip makes more sense, especially if you haven’t been to Alaska before. It would save having to make a separate trip for the Auklet, plus you may see all the resident species you would see at St. Paul, possibly saving a trip there (though admittedly the experiences would be different – at St. Paul you get to see the seabirds from close range while both you and the birds are on land).

I like to do trips that go beyond just ticking off lifers and are about the quality and/or uniqueness of the experience, and this is one of them. As an aside, I just got back from a tour that was my favorite ever – great birds, great people – and the trip list was only 19 species. No lifers for me, but among the 19 were Ross’s and Ivory Gulls, Spectacled Eider, and Snowy Owls. Gotta love that...But I don’t have anything against racking up a big trip list, either.

My answers are getting too long. How about some simple questions that don’t require me to think too much?

B: OK, before we finish up, maybe you could tell us your favorite thing about being a birding guide?

JP: The vicarious excitement of tour participants getting lifers and experiencing new things, but that isn’t unique to being a guide -- from my experience, just about every birder enjoys helping someone else find a bird. Getting to travel more than I would otherwise is another job benefit. I know you asked for just one thing but I’m giving you two.

That was my real world answer. My fantasy world answer would be something like this: Children running up and wanting me to autograph their binocular straps, the defeated and embarrassed look on old classmates’ faces at a high school reunion when they find out I’m a birding guide and they’re just brain surgeons and astronauts, all the attention from the ladies, and of course the money. That’s my fantasy world answer!

B: What advice might you give to potential tour participants about choosing the best tour for them?

JP: Wings (the tour company, not the band) has an essay on their website that has just about all the advice anyone would need, so even though I’m directing your readers to a competitor’s website, my advice would be to read that essay. The only additional advice would be to check with the tour operator to see when you’re expected to wake up in the morning. Not everyone enjoys getting up at o-dark-thirty.

B: And to get us out of here, gazing into your crystal ball, what new or upcoming trends do you see in birding and bird touring?

JP: Before I answer that, I want to say that if you’re not part of any trends, it doesn’t mean you’re a substandard birder. I don’t want to give the impression that you have to be part of a trend to be “with it”, and what we think of as birding will remain 98% unchanged, just as it has been since shotguns were traded in for field glasses. Also, these trends will be felt most by those of us for whom birding is a lifestyle (e.g., anyone reading your blog). With that said...

There will be an acceleration of the instant access to information that began in the early- to mid-90s due to wider use of and improvements in smartphone-type mobile devices, but it doesn’t take a crystal ball to see that coming since listservs already have real-time updates coming in from iPhones and Blackberries.

Soon no one will be complaining about a field guide being too big to carry in the field because with color e-book readers and iPads we’ll be able to carry a birding library on one small device.

Birders will take advantage of their mobile devices and cameras with audio recording capability to make more sound recordings. This will eventually lead to less fear of any Red Crossbill splits.

One trend I hope to see in the next two years is a resurgent ABA. For that to happen, I think they need to start broadening their focus and also make the internet work for them instead of against them as it has been. For example, they could create members-only wiki site guides and convert their membership directory into a Facebook-like website. I wrote a lot more on that subject on my blog. You may want to check it out if you’re having trouble sleeping. Another thing I hope to see is a book about Guy McCaskie and/or the 1970s California birding scene.

In the realm of bird tours, I think multi-day pelagic trips will grow somewhat, and some “new” destinations, both within the ABA Area and worldwide, will become more popular. I could go into some of that in more detail, but I don’t want to beat you over the head with the self-promotion. ;)

Looking further into the future, mobile devices will be able to take a picture of a bird and identify it, leading us to debate if that’s really “birding” or not. While we’re arguing about that, our machines will become self-aware, realize human birders are unnecessary, and attempt to exterminate us all. After that, a certain someone in Arizona will finally complete his guide to flycatchers, something I’ve been waiting for since 1997.

B: Thanks John, hope to be out birding with you again soon, and not just visiting here on the interwebs. Best of luck on Attu--may all your trips be filled and first North American records abound!

JP: Thank you, Birdchaser!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Evolution of the Bird Photo Field Guide, Take 2

A couple years ago I charted the rise of the bird photo field guide. Since then, several new photo field guides have come out, including the Stokes guide that is out this month, and the photographic field guides of Paul Sterry and Brian Small that came out last year. And everyone is waiting to see Richard Crossley's field guide scheduled to come out next year.

In this review I want to focus on the Sterry & Small guides to emphasize what I think are the biggest problems with photo field guides. But first some things things that stand out about these twin Eastern and Western guides.

A) Large photos: Photos in these guides are generally generously sized--which is good in that they provide a nice look at the birds, but may be bad in that they take up so much room that we don't get as many photos of each species. The beautiful photos, most by Brian Small, are easily the best feature of these guides.

B) Non-square format: One of my pet peeves about photo field guides is that each page becomes a series of rectangle bird images. Sterry & Small break that up by editing the photos so that the birds break through the frame of the rectangle. At one level this is great so as to get rid of the boxiness of the guide. But in some cases it becomes a bit distracting, and makes it so that the eye doesn't quickly comprehend the species on the page and their relationship to each other, and one has to pay extra attention to the labeling to make sure which image goes with each species. My initial thoughts on this were "nice layout" but after more closer review, the layout is maybe more distracting than useful--even if it looks nicer.

C) No migration on maps: I think we've all come to expect seeing migratory pathways rendered on field guide maps. These guides don't have them, so birders in most of the country would not be able to use this book to determine which migratory species might occur in their area during passage.

And now for some more difficult comments. To facilitate this, I'd like to compare one typical two page spread with a similar spread from what I recently called the best field guide ever, Birds of Europe, 2nd Edition (like these Sterry & Small guides, also put out in the US by Princeton Press).

Birds of Europe, 2nd Edition

Sterry & Small (Western) Photographic Guide

First things to notice:

1) Fewer bird images: 16 bird images in the illustrated guide, only 4 in the photo guide. This seems to be a fairly consistent issue with photo guides--while an artist can cram images together in an aesthetic way, that is tough if not impossible to do to the same extent in a standard photo guide.

2) Fewer plumages depicted: This goes along with the first point. Note there are no juvenile birds depicted in the photo guide. In the case of these Sterry & Small guides, there seem to be huge gaps between what is covered here and in standard field guides. When was the last time we didn't get to see juvenile Northern Saw-Whet Owls in a field guide?

3) Photos don't show as much: Despite the claim that photos show birds more realistically than illustrations, photo field guides almost always fall down on this point--they just don't show what is really needed for us to see in order to make a good identification. Read the descriptions of a bird in any photo field guide, then look at the included photos and ask if you can really see that point in the photos. More often than the authors would care to admit, the feature just isn't visible in the photo.

Here are some examples from just this owl page--look closely to see if you can see these features mentioned in the text:

Northern Hawk-Owl
--"Long-tailed appearance is diagnostic" (maybe not too obvious in photo)
--"Gray-brown overall" (we only see under parts, not most of dorsal side)
--"Upperparts are marked with pale spots..." (again, we only see a little of the upperparts)
--"...smallest and densest on the head" (you can see this, but only on the crown)
--"Underparts are barred..." (thank you, yes that is visible)
--"as is the long, tapered tail" (tail hardly visible at all)
--"Eyes and bill are yellow and facial disc is pale and rounded..." (yes)
--"...with striking white eye-brows" (OK, its there, but photos of other owls on page have at least as striking eye-brows, so what's the point of the mention?)

Northern Saw-Whet Owl
OK view of back as described, but can't really see the "underparts whitish, but heavily streaked rufous." Again, juvenile not shown at all.

Boreal Owl
--"Rich brown plumage overall" (not visible)
--"Upperparts are marked with bold white spots, smallest and densest on head" (not really visible.
--"Underparts are whitish, but heavily streaked with rufous brown" (OK, but looks more dark brown than rufous in photos)
--"Facial disc is whitish with dark border (OK)
--"Yellow eyes" (eyes are mostly closed)
--"...framed by white eyebrows" (OK I guess, but not most distinctive feature.

That's not a great percentage of mentioned features readily visible in the photos.

4) "Extra photos": In this format, there are often "extra" photos over on the left-hand side within the text of the species accounts. Usually, more photos is better, but often in this guide the photos seem more attractive than useful. Case in point the Bristle-thighed Curlew illustration on the curlew page (above). Nice to have the bird illustrated, but just as with the owl page, most of the identifying features listed for the species are not visible in the photo at all.

5) Missing flight shots: This could just be another subset of the above categories, but for most birds we aren't given photos of the birds in flight. And sometimes when they are, they can cause problems, such as...

6) Photo artifacts create confusion: Case in point, the Great Egret shot on page 87 of the Western guide (p. 77 in the Eastern) seems to show the bird with black underwings. Experienced birders will know that this is a photographic artifact due to lighting, but a beginner could be easily mislead. Just another point that photos just don't always show the birds in the best way for them to be identified.

7) Distracting backgrounds: Great thing about an illustrated guide is that the birds can be depicted against a uniform background--usually white or another pale color to best show off the plumage. In photo guides, each bird is vignetted with what are usually just distracting background leaves or other features, making the eye and mind work harder to get a clear image of the bird itself. In illustrated guides, backgrounds can be shown that are actually useful, such as the numerous small image shots of birds in the Birds of Europe that illustrate interesting behaviors or habitat features.

8) Clutter: Sometimes the guide succumbs to the temptation to pack in too many images in too small a space, such as pp.158-159 in the Western Guide, where 12 variously sized photos of Western Gull, Sabine's Gull, and Black-legged Kittiwake are so crowded as to be distracting.

9) Poor Comparisons: That same crowded gull plate illustrates another problem--because of the nature of fitting photographs onto the pages, you rarely get good close images of two similar species in proximity to each other. A standard of illustrated field guides is to depict similar species right next to each other to facilitate easy comparison. You just can't do that as well with photos. On the crowded gull plate, there is no reason to have Western Gull next to these smaller species--it would be better served in close proximity to some of the other larger gulls.

Granted, many of the problems with these guides are shared by other photo field guides, so in some cases I am just pointing out the limitations of this genre.

However, when it comes to the text, there are plenty of other frustrating things to puzzle about. I'll just mention the biggest problem--

Similar species: For the most part, and I think this is the book's fatal flaw, the book just doesn't tell us how to identify birds from others that may be similar. This is really bad in tough ID cases--like Empidonax flycatchers--as precious little is given here for those birds. There is no similar species section (except when there are extra-limital or range-limited similar species not covered by their own species account), and the text for most species usually doesn't mention other similar birds at all. When distinguishing features are mentioned, they are often not visible on the photos (see point #3 above). So birders are left to try and photo match what they see with one of the photos in the book, really can't use this to reliably identify more than just the most distinctive birds.

On books I like a lot, I usually list all the great things about it, then may have to mention a few problems or things I don't care for at the end. In this case, sadly, I'm left at the end of the review having spilled a lot of ink without dishing out many praises. But there are a few things that I liked that I can draw attention to in these books. The photos, despite not being the most useful for identification purposes, are by and large excellent and beautiful. This may well be the "most lavishly illustrated photographic guide" to North American birds as plugged on the back jacket. I also liked the "observation tips" section at the end of each species account. Sometimes there is fun or useful information there, such as when we are told for the Northern Hawk-Owl that "Low density, nomadic habits, and fickle site faithfulness make it tricky to pin down. However, on the plus side, diurnal habits and fondness for perching on treetops allow supurb views if you do find one." Of course, as with the other features of this book, sometimes this section is less than useful, as when it says that a species is "easy to see" or in the case of the American Golden-Plover when it states that the birds are "most reliably found by visiting Arctic breeding grounds in summer." What? Sorry, not useful for most of us!

Which is probably what I have to say in conclusion about these books. In many ways they are beautiful, but probably not useful for most of us.

Other online reviews:
10,000 Birds
The Birder's Library

Friday, October 15, 2010

Best Bird Field Guide Ever...Again

Earlier this year Princeton University Press (in the US) published Lars Svensson, Killian Mullarney, and Dan Zetterström's Birds of Europe: 2nd Edition (published in Europe by HarperCollins as the Collins Bird Guide). There are some glowing reviews out there (see links here), to which I need to add my own.

The 1st edition was the best field guide I had ever seen, and I can now say the same thing about this 2nd edition.

As one reviewer noted, many of the North American species included here are treated better than they are in most American field guides. If you are birding in Europe, are a North American birder who dreams of finding Eurasian vagrants, or just want to rediscover the fun of reading a field guide (seriously, how much fun are most field guides to read these days, with most including dense telegraphed lines of bird description?), then you really need to pick up a copy of this guide.

A fairly random example of the fun and useful writing in this masterpiece:
(Northern) Hawk Owl Surnia ulula
L. 35-43 cm, WS 69-82 cm. Mainly resident in boreal forests, often in upper tree zone on mountainous slopes (mixed conifers and birch), preferring vicinity of bog, meadow or clearfell. Fluctuating numbers, some years locally fairly common. In some autumns considerable numbers move south. About five records in Britain in 20th Century. Partly diurnal. Food voles (main prey, taken on ground after watch from treetop) and birds (e.g. thrushes; capable of catching prey as large as Willow Grouse). Nests in tree-hole ('chimney' or vertical) or abandoned raptor's nest. Caution: Can fiercely attack intruders when young leave nest; do not go near, and keep your eyes fixed on parents while in sight of young just out of a nest!

What's not to like about that!?! And this is just the intro section to the species account. There is twice as much text following this section, where the bird is described in an Identification section and a Voice section.

Which leads me to the characteristic that makes this the best field guide ever. The identification section for each species focuses on the characteristics that most clearly identify the bird. In many modern field guides, there is a tendency to describe the species completely, and a lot of space is used to describe plumage characteristics even if they aren't that important for identifying a bird. Call me crazy, but when I read a field guide I'm looking for information on how to identify a bird--so give me that information in as tight and clear a manner as possible. I shouldn't have to dig, I shouldn't be scratching my head at the end of the description section wondering out of all that information what is the most important things to look for in identifying the bird and making sure it isn't some other similar species. This Birds of Europe guide is a great example of how to do this--by concentrating of field marks useful in identifying the bird (with most important identifying features indicated in italic text), rather than on an overall description of features readily apparent in the illustrations.

Which brings me to the illustrations. Most reviewers focus on the illustrations. Again, best illustrations in any field guide. I love them. I'm a big fan of Sibley's field guide paintings, but these paintings by Killian Mullarney and Dan Zetterstrom are simply amazing, conveying the shape and plumage of the birds as they are most likely to be seen in the field. There are over 3500 illustrations of the 772 species included in this guide, and since some of those illustrations show multiple birds (e.g. flocks of birds), it is common for most species to be shown in have five or more illustrations, which include almost all sex and age differences.

Captions of text with lines pointing to relevant plumage features as well as notes on important behaviors are included on the illustrations themselves, putting the information right where you need it most. If you are a fan of photo guides, you really need to get this guide so you can see how much better good illustrations are at conveying the information needed for comparing and identifying bird species. The text in the main section and the caption points out what are most important--be they details of feathers, or more general impressions of shape and size (GISS or jizz). I love how Hawk Owls are noted to have a "grim look" while Tengmalm's Owl--our Boreal Owl--is noted to have an "astonished look" and the European Pygmy Owl is depicted as having an "austere look"--important and unique facets of a bird's overall appearance that you won't find in most other guides.

The voice section of each species account provides more information than found in most field guides, describing many different songs or calls, often accented notes marked in bold type), which helps convey even more of the quality of the notes.

There is so much more to be said about this guide. Great maps. Extremely valuable sections on how to ID tricky groups of birds (like gulls and jaegers). A comprehensive, yet concise glossary in the introduction section. Did I mention how it does all this in a highly readable format?

Let me just end by repeating this point: the purpose of a field guide is to help you identify birds. Birds of Europe: 2nd Edition makes that easier than almost any other guide for almost any bird you may find in Europe. The illustrations and text are wedded and presented in a concise format that gives birders the most important information needed for bird identification. It is a gem by which all other gems are to be compared.

This review is written on the basis of a review copy of the second edition provided by Princeton University Press.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

CeleBIRDy Twitter IATB #136

I recently got in trouble for suggesting that birders are too geeky. Turns out there are plenty of famous and cool people who are not only birders, but bird blog readers. As I set out to do this latest I and the Bird, I checked some celebirdy Twitter feeds and found I could do a whole I and the Bird just by retweeting their tweets!

RT @Brangelina We love birding with the kids, thanks N8 for showing us how

RT @LadyG ooh la la egret pics

RT @IceT Me and Coco gotta get more of that global birding, hattip Eddie

RT @JackBlackbird Panama's being crazy invaded by huge swarms of birds

RT @BirdJoaquin can't get enough of Sweetwater #DawnFine

RT @Madea I'm having some me time with a big white bird! Gotcha!

RT @SelmaH nobody digiscopes like the BESG folks, see kingfisher catches frog

RT @FreakNasty U wanna dip with dis bird? Check out the little dipper

RT @JeffGordon despite what you may have heard I'm not new prez of ABA

RT @BirderBeck nothing makes me weep like a good kinglet photo!

RT @Beardchaser thanks for the tip on the shorebirds at Sandy Hook @dendroica

RT @Biebirder dude, check out Corey's kinglets

RT @BoratBins I do anything get in next I and Bird. Me too? High five!

Monday, October 11, 2010

More Mayan Bird Talks

Wednesday night (Oct 13) at 7pm I'll be speaking to the Huntington-Oyster Bay Audubon in Cold Harbor, New York.

On Tuesday night, October 26, I'll be presenting to the Bucks County Birders at the Peace Valley Nature Center in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.

Both talks will be on Birds of the Ancient and Modern Maya.

Birds have played important roles in Mesoamerican cultures for thousands of years. We will explore the connections between birds and various Mayan cultures as revealed in their ancient art and in my ongoing field work with seven modern Mayan communities in Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico. 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!

Friday, October 08, 2010

Freaks, Geeks, and Birders

For the record, this is me at age 13. In addition to the Bushnell 7x35 binocular, notice the brown pants, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge bird t-shirt, K-Mart shoes. I'm holding my plastic-framed turn-dark-in-the-sun eyeglasses. In a word, I'm a geek.

Chances are, if you are reading this, you are too. Or you were. Being a teenage birder, it was clear that I was a geek. Then I grew up. After decades of hanging out with other birders, I almost started to think I was normal. Then I had kids and started hanging out with other parents. No, birding was not somehow more cool than it used to be. Even though 1 in 5 people enjoy watching birds, being a real birder is not cool.

Just look at us!

Again, for the record, I'm including myself here. Aren't we just a little too White and Birdy? ABA board member John Robinson has written about the need to reach out to non-white audiences in Birding for Everyone. How we doin' on that? Even among white folks, are we covering the demographics? Last I looked, ABA members were mostly upper middle class (and higher), with household incomes over twice the national average. Relatively, we make a lot of money. But we're still on the geeky side.

So, what to do? Can we make birding less geeky? The Big Year movie coming out next summer should give us another look at how the rest of America sees birders and birding.

Just for fun, what if more birders looked more like this?

I'm not saying birding has to be cool. But a bigger tent might make it a little more fun!

ABA Growth Opportunities

I spent a good amount of time last month looking at birding demographics. Here's a chart showing to scale various birding populations in the United States (click to enlarge).

There are various ways to calculate both Audubon and American Birding Association membership, so these should be taken as rough estimates. Either way, you can see that membership in these bird organizations is very small compared to the number of people that are interested in birds, or regularly birding. With 2.4 million adult Americans keeping a life list of birds seen, ABA has huge growth potential just targeting these people.

How does birding membership compare with other groups? Well, there are reportedly 1.1 million duck hunters in the United States. How many of them are members of Ducks Unlimited? 608,154. Over half of all duck hunters are DU members! So, what are the differences between birders and hunters that make it so that half of all duck hunters will join DU, but only a tiny fraction of birders will join ABA? Alternatively, what is it that DU provides its constituency, that ABA isn't providing right now for birders?

Can you imagine an ABA with 500,000 members? Imagine what we could accomplish if 500,000 birders were united in fun and the protection of the wild birds we enjoy!

Vaux's vs. Chimney Swift

Ever seen a swift that seemed a little bit funny, and maybe you thought it might be a Vaux's Swift (if you live in the East) or a Chimney Swift (if you live in the West)? How do you really ID either one if they are out of range? How would you identify an odd, especially silent Chaetura swift?

Kevin Karlson has posted some photos comparing Chimney and a supposed Vaux's Swift online here. Chimney is on the right, Vaux's on the left.

Seems pretty obvious, right? Then take a look at the second photo. Tougher?

Kevin's description of the differences is on the ID Frontiers listserv (5 Oct 2010).

David Sibley has a new discussion on this on his own blog.

Monday, October 04, 2010

New ABA President--Jeff Gordon

This morning the American Birding Association announced that its board of directors has named my friend Jeff Gordon as its new President. I've known Jeff since I moved to Texas in the mid-1990s. Jeff was working for Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, and brought me on to lead bird tours at the Harlingen Birding Festival. Jeff moved to Delaware shortly after that and I only saw him infrequently for a few years, but it has been fun to spend more time together since I moved out to nearby Pennsylvania. Besides being an expert birder, Jeff is a great human being, with all the organizational and interpersonal skills needed to be a great ABA President.

The ABA board has clearly signaled that they are taking the desires and needs of the birding community seriously. It is heartening to see all of the congratulations and well wishes going on across the blogs, email lists, and Facebook. But this isn't the end, it is only the beginning. It might be tempting to celebrate today and then go back to birding as usual. For all of us who care about the ABA, and the future of birding as a sport/hobby/be-all-end-all or whatever, what Jeff and the ABA need now more than our congratulations is our support.

Here's what you can do right now to support Jeff and the ABA:

1) Join the ABA. If you aren't a member, it's time to pony up and join the party.

2) Up your commitment. Add an extra donation to your membership to help the ABA grow.

3) Give a gift membership. Especially for a young birder in your local birding club that is just starting out.

4) Get your friends to join. This is OUR ABA. Invite your friends to the party.

5) Give of yourself. If you have an idea for how the ABA can better serve us as birders, contact Jeff and volunteer to make it happen. It isn't the job of the ABA board or staff to do all the work while we members just enjoy the benefits. This is YOUR ABA so take ownership of it and do what you can to make it the kind of organization you want it to be.

The ABA is just over 40 years old. In 40 more years, in 2050 there will be 110 million additional Americans. How many of these people will be birders? How many birds will there be for us to watch? If population trends continue, some of our birds aren't going to make it. What will we think looking back on these next 40 years? Did birders come together as a force for good in protecting the wild birds that we love? Will the ABA remain an organization for mostly white, well educated, and economically prosperous members, or will its membership reflect the ethnic, educational, and economic differences among the birding community and larger American society in general? Now is the time to answer those questions, and to build the birding community and an ABA that we will all be proud to have been a part of.

So Jeff, congratulations. But even more than my congratulations you have my support. I look forward to a future of ABA and birding that will be both more fun for more people as well as a greater force for good in the world!
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