Published July 19, 2006, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Shorebird experts reveal their secrets.”
2014 Update: All three books are still recommended reading, still available.
By Barb Gorges
The Shorebird Guide, by Michael O’Brien, Richard Crossley and Kevin Karlson, published 2006 by Houghton Mifflin.
Shorebirds made a big showing on the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Big Day Bird Count back in May. Seventeen species were recorded by the end of the day.
Now in July we are in the midst of shorebird migration again as they straggle back from their northern breeding grounds.
Back in May we had half a dozen crack birders with us who could glance through a spotting scope and proclaim obscure names but now I’m on my own.
I know a few common, unique looking shorebirds like the killdeer and avocet, but the rest just seem to blend into a mob of brown birds with long legs. I don’t see them often enough to practice identification.
How do the experts do it?
Three of them, Michael O’Brien, Richard Crossley and Kevin Karlson, reveal their secrets in a book released this spring by Houghton Mifflin, “The Shorebird Guide.” Their technique is based on “jizz” as they pronounce the acronym for “general impression of size and shape.”
To help readers get a feel for jizz, they’ve included multiple photos of each of the 50 shorebird species that can be seen in North America, plus the few that might blow in.
A typical field guide will give you a perfectly lit profile of one individual per species, but here are photos of flocks as seen in the orangey glow of sunrise or sunset, from a distance or with other species, giving some idea of relative size. In some photos, the birds may be molting or their feathers show wear or maybe they are this year’s young.
After 300 pages of photos, there are 160 pages of text and small range maps. Here’s where you get the skinny on population health, migration patterns and South American wintering grounds.
The best way to learn birds is to hang out with people who know them. This book is like that and I think with study, I might come closer to distinguishing the 30 species of shorebirds that pass through here once or twice a year.
Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, by Pete Dunne, published 2006 by Houghton Mifflin
A second book released by Houghton Mifflin this spring was “Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion.” There are no photos and no range maps. Instead, Dunne gives you a sense of a species’ “gizz,” as he spells the nickname for not only general impression of size and shape, but also typical behaviors and activities.
Dunne and his wife traveled all over North America to refresh their first impressions, coming up with nicknames for each species. Black-crowned night heron is “Waterfront Thug”; American robin is “Lawn Plover” and house sparrow is “Horatio Alger in Feathers (an American Success Story).”
These nicknames only work if you’ve seen the night herons at Holiday Park hunched at the water’s edge waiting to mug a fish, or if you know how plovers run along the shoreline, stopping suddenly to pluck invertebrates, or if you know that a few house sparrows were brought to North America from England and are now found everywhere.
One of the highlights of Cheyenne’s spring count was the golden-winged warbler. Dunne nicknames it “Chickadee-bibbed Warbler.” An eastern warbler few of us had seen before, the nickname does describe the unique and easy to see field mark.
Pertinent to the other vagrant eastern warblers we often see here during migration is Dunne’s “Vagrancy Index.” The golden-winged warbler rates a 3, “an established, widespread pattern of vagrancy. Ignore the range descriptions. This bird could be sighted almost anywhere.”
One disappointment is that though Dunne gives information on some species’ wintering grounds, he doesn’t for this warbler. But perhaps science doesn’t have the answer yet. A lot of the information Dunne gleaned from the great 17,000 page opus, “The Birds of North America,” but he nicely translates the scientific terminology for the reader.
Dunne gives a lot of gizz characteristics, though I need a vision in my mind’s eye to apply them to, such as the photos in the Shorebird Guide or other field guides. But, after all, this book is represented as only a field guide companion—only 700 pages’ worth.
John James Audubon, The Making of an American, by Richard Rhodes, paperback edition 2006, hardcover 2004, published by Random House.
But it’s the rainy season here so it’s a perfect time for pulling out the paperback edition that came out this spring of Richard Rhodes’ biography, “John James Audubon, The Making of an American.” The story is pretty amazing and I read every page.
Rhodes draws different conclusions than other Audubon biographers. He said Audubon was not a bad business man because his first business failed, but rather a victim, considering 90 percent of businesses also failed in the financial panic of 1819. Later, Audubon, a consummate salesman, convinced people to spend thousands in 1800s dollars on subscriptions to the four volumes of “Birds of America.”
The biography is one part love story, one part starving artist’s tale and one part frontier saga. But it will also help you understand why, over 100 years ago, bird watchers concerned with the conservation of birds decided to name their fledgling organizations after Audubon.