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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Review: How to Be a Better Birder

Unfortunately books have become like movies.  They appear, make a splash, then largely disappear from the public.  Only a few live on in the active life of most readers or movie watchers.  Books sit on shelves, movies show up in Netflix or on cable.  But many deserve a second look after the buzz has died down.

Derek Lovitch's How to Be a Better Birder (Princeton 2012) is worth a second look.  I had meant to review it when it came out, but somehow life got away from me and the review didn't happen.  But the book has been on my mind a lot, and so now is as good a time as ever to revisit it!

Lovitch grew up in New Jersey, and How to Be a Better Birder is a good introduction to what might be termed the Cape May school of birding.  His first six chapters introduce important concepts that can help birders find and identify more birds, while his final three chapters show how all of these concepts work together in real life birding situations.

The six main topics highlighted in How to Be a Better Birder are:

  • Advanced Field Identification--a review of the "whole bird" school of bird identification, as well as a discussion of taking notes and useful books for a birding library.
  • Birding by Habitat--the importance of learning local plants, and using habitat to help find and identify birds.
  • Birding with Geography--why maps are important for birders, and how to identify and find birds using geography as a tool.
  • Birding and Weather--a brief review of how weather impacts migrating birds, with several case studies including weather grounding shorebirds and weather systems in the Bering Sea driving Asian birds to Alaska ("The Siberian Experess").
  • Birding at Night--tracking migration on RADAR and with nocturnal flight calls.
  • Birding with a Purpose--citizen science programs including the Christmas Bird Count and eBird that allow birders to contribute to our understanding of bird distribution and abundance.
These chapters offer good introductions to all of these themes, with personal examples that help to see how these principles can guide and improve our regular birding--by improve it is understood throughout this book that this means finding and identifying more birds.  Including rarities.  And that's how Lovitch rounds out this moderate (192 pages) tome, with chapters on:
  • Vagrants--how the above principles influence the movement and finding of rare birds.
  • Birding in New Jersey--a review of one of Lovitch's recent birding trips to Cape May and elsewhere in the Garden State, showing how using these principles influenced and improved the birding on that trip.
  • Patch Listing--a plea for birders to pick a local spot using these principles and to bird it regularly.

All of these chapters are worthy of review.  Many of these topics are covered in more detail elsewhere, and Lovitch is quick to provide references and suggestions for those wanting more information.  If you haven't read How to Be a Better Birder yet, you owe it to yourself to take a look. It is informational, but also inspiring.  We can all be better birders, and most birders will probably find something here to spark their imagination or help them take their birding to the next level.

While most of Lovitch's examples are based on his own birding in the Eastern United States, there are references to how these principles play out in other parts of North America, improving the book's usefulness beyond the shadow of Cape May.

And you don't have to be a wide-ranging birder to take advantage of these better birding principles.  In fact, I've been thinking about these themes a lot recently as I undertake my Backyard Big Year.  For more thoughts on how these principles play out for a dedicated yard lister, check out my post on How to Be a Better (Backyard) Birder.

Disclosure: This review is based on a review copy provided by the publisher.

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