Recognizing celebrity birders

Pete Dunne

Pete Dunne’s preferred habitat is the hawk watching platform at the Cape May Bird Observatory in Cape May, New Jersey. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Published Dec. 16, 2012, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Nationally known birders have nothing on birds, the true celebs.”

2014 Update: In September our local Audubon chapter celebrated its 40th anniversary and was fortunate to be joined by John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and Ted Floyd, editor of Birding magazine, flagship publication of the American Birding Association.

By Barb Gorges

Studying birds in your field guide will help you identify them when you finally see them in the field. But don’t neglect to study the author photo on the back cover—you never know when you’ll have a chance to identify them as well.

Over Thanksgiving, Mark and I attended a family wedding in Philadelphia. One of my new shirttail relations, John, is a birder and came with us to Cape May for a day.

The southern tip of New Jersey has long been recognized for its numerous and varied migrating birds and has lots of public access for birding. We stopped at the Cape May Bird Observatory hawk-watching platform first, figuring that official migration observers might still be around and help us Westerners and John, an Irishman living in England, identify local birds.

The first ID I made was that the observer on deck was Pete Dunne, author of several books I’ve reviewed for this paper, including “Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion” and the first three of his seasonal quartet beginning with “Prairie Spring.” He’s also a co-author of “Hawks in Flight,” along with other entertaining books and articles for birding magazines.

Pete’s day jobs are director of CMBO and chief communications officer for New Jersey Audubon Society. But they let him out of the office to count birds. He can distinguish a turkey vulture from a black vulture, even when they are mere specks overhead. Without his help, we would not have identified the red-shouldered hawk or determined that the Cooper’s hawk in flight was not a sharp-shinned.

If you go to bird festivals, you too, will meet nationally recognized birders. Nearly 30 years ago, I shook hands with Roger Tory Peterson at a National Audubon convention. A few years later at another one, I correctly identified, from a distance, without using binoculars, the man in the middle of a flock of middle-aged women as author Kenn Kaufman.

But we met Pete at home, in his own habitat, with no printed agenda or groupies to indicate his status.


Mill Grove

John James Audubon explored the bird life around Mill Grove in 1803. Photo by Barb Gorges.

The next day we visited the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove, in Audubon, Penn., where one of the world’s most famous bird artists lived when he first came to the U.S. in 1803 at age 18. Hiking the trails around the house, now a museum, through the woods and fields overlooking Perkiomen Creek, I was able to add a singing Carolina wren to my life list, imagining Audubon first hearing it here as well.

A week later, the wedding couple, my uncle and my new aunt–both knowledgeable birders–were able to refind Pete on the same deck at Cape May.

Pete remembered the three of us from the week before, and conversely, said the sighting of Wyoming birders was a lot rarer event than meeting John, even though he came further. There are just over half a million Wyomingites, after all, compared to 62 million Brits. Many of us from the Cowboy State, by nature of our choice of residence, and especially those attracted to birding, prefer travelling to remote places rather than congested coasts.

We were too late to meet superstar storm Sandy, luckily. Cape May was untouched because Sandy landed some miles up the coast at Atlantic City where she devastated Brigantine National Wildlife Refuge and the barrier islands.

We still noticed Sandy’s damage in the suburban-rural area north of Philadelphia, mostly toppled pines and hardwoods, including one that impaled the second story of a house.

What happens to birds in severe storms? My aunt forwarded a New York Times article by Natalie Angier, published Nov. 12, reporting how perching birds have toes that automatically lock around a branch when they bend their legs. So they are as safe as the branch they sit on.

Angier reported birds feel the changes in air pressure from an approaching storm and those migrating may steer around it or correct course afterwards. Some get a boost, having been documented as flying into a storm at 7 mph and coming out the other side at 90.

No matter how many well-known birders I may meet, the birds are the true celebrities. The migrants propelling themselves over dangerous distances, as well as the ordinary house finch weathering another winter, are to be celebrated.

So if I attend the National Audubon convention in Stevenson, Wash., in July, I will be sure to identify the keynote speakers, but the local birds will be the real stars.

Book reviews: The Shorebird Guide, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, John James Audubon, the Making of an American

The Shorebird Guide

The Shorebird Guide

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

Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion

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

John James Audubon, The Making of an American

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.