Bird books worth reading

Published Mar. 12, 2017 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Bird books worth reading.”

By Barb Gorges

If you are the books you read, here is what I’ve been this winter.

2017-3Genius of BirdsThe Genius of Birds” by Jennifer Ackerman, c. 2016, Penguin Press

This was a Christmas present from my daughter-in-law, Madeleine, who teaches cognitive psychology. It’s an enthralling overview of the latest studies that show how much smarter birds are than we thought, sometimes smarter than us in particular ways. They can navigate extreme distances, find home, find food stashed six months earlier, solve puzzles, use tools, sing hundreds of complex songs, remember unique relationships with each flock member, engineer nests, adapt to new foods and situations. They can even communicate with us.

2017-3GoodBirds“Good Birders Still Don’t Wear White, Passionate Birders Share the Joys of Watching Birds,” edited by Lisa A. White and Jeffrey A. Gordon, c. 2017, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

The previous volume, in 2007, was “Good Birders Don’t Wear White, 50 Tips from North America’s Top Birders.”

One of my favorite essays is by our Colorado friend Ted Floyd, “Go Birding with (Young, Really Young) Children.” Having frequently accompanied him and his children, I can say he does a terrific job of making birdwatching appealing.

Many of the essays start out with “Why I Love…” and move on to different aspects of birding people love (seabirds, drawing birds, my yard, spectrograms, “because it gets me closer to tacos”), followed by tips should you want to follow their passions.

2017-3ABACalifornia“Field Guide to the Birds of California” by Alvaro Jaramillo, c. 2015

This is part of the American Birding Association State Field Guide Series published by Scott & Nix Inc. The series so far also includes Arizona, the Carolinas, Colorado, Florida, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas.

Each author writes their own invitation to the beginning birdwatcher or the birder new to their state.

While a few birding hotspots may be mentioned, the real service these books provide is an overview of the state’s ecological regions and what kind of habitats to find each species in, not to mention large photos of each. I’ll probably still pack my Sibley’s, just in case we see a bird rare to California.

2017-3PetersonGuidetoSong            “Peterson Field Guide to the Bird Sounds of Eastern North America” by Nathan Pieplow, c. 2017, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

While including the usual bird pictures and range maps, this book is about learning to identify birds by sound and corresponding audio files can be found at www.petersonbirdsounds.com.

Bird songs are charted using spectrograms, graphic representations of sound recordings.

You can think of spectrograms as musical notation. They read from left to right. A low black mark indicates a low-pitched frequency. A thin, short line higher up indicates a clear sound with few overtones, higher pitched and short-lived. But most bird sounds are more complex, some filling the spectrogram from top to bottom.

Pieplow explains how to read spectrograms, the basic patterns, the variations, the none-vocal sounds like wing-clapping, and the biology of bird sounds.

Once you can visualize what you are hearing, Pieplow provides a visual index to bird sounds to help you try to match a bird with what you heard.

Taking a call note I’m familiar with in my neighborhood, the one note the Townsend’s solitaire gives from the top of a tree in winter, I find that Pieplow categorizes it as “cheep,” higher than a “chirp” and more complex than “peep.” It’s going to take a while to train our ears to distinguish differences.

2017-3WarblerGuide            “The Warbler Guide” by Tom Stephenson and Scott White, c. 2015, Princeton University Press and The Warbler Guide App.

Spectrograms are a part of the 500 pages devoted to the 56 species of warblers in the U.S. and Canada.

The yellow warbler, whose song we hear along willow-choked streams in the mountains in summer, gets 10 pages.

Icons show its silhouette (sometimes it can be diagnostic), color impression (as it flies by in a blur), tail pattern (the usual underside view of a bird above your head), range generalization, habitat (what part of the tree it prefers) and behavioral (hover, creep, sally, walk).

Then there’s the spectrogram comparing it to other species and maps show migration routes and timing, both spring and fall. We can see the yellow warbler spends the winter as far south as Peru.

Forty-one photographs show all angles, similar species, and both sexes at various ages.

The companion app, an additional $13, has most of the book’s content, and lets you rotate to compare 3-D versions of two warblers at a time, filter identification clues and listen to song recordings.

This is a good investment for birding in Cheyenne where we have seen 32 warbler species over the last 20 springs.

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Birding by app

img_5252Published Feb. 12, 2017, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Birding by app: new adventures in tech”

By Barb Gorges

Mark and I finally made the jump to smart phones last month. Our children are applauding.

What I was really looking forward to once I was in possession of a smart phone was eBird Mobile. My daughter-in-law, Jessie, was using it when we birded together over the holidays. It means that you can note the birds you see on your phone while you are in the field and then submit them as an eBird checklist.

The second day I had my phone, I went to eBird.org to find out how to downloaded it (in the Help section search for “eBird Mobile”). It’s free. If you aren’t signed up for eBird already, it will help you do that for free also. Then I prepared for a trial run birding out at F.E. Warren Air Force Base with Mark.

Because we are rather miserly with our monthly data allotment, I chose to use the app offline while in the field. But because I was establishing a new birding location for the mobile version, I established it while I was at home and could use our Wi-Fi.

The preparation for offline means you are downloading an appropriate checklist of birds possible for the area. Otherwise eBird Mobile will give you the world list, 10,414 species, to scroll through.

As we birded, I scrolled through the much shorter list of local possibilities and added the numbers of each species seen as I observed them. At the end of the trip, I hit the submit button.

However, on my next eBird Mobile attempt it was bitterly cold. Recording birds while holding a pencil in a mittened hand works, but it was too cold to risk a bare hand to manipulate the touch screen, though I have since invested in “touch screen” gloves.

The mobile app can’t do everything the regular checklist submission process does, like attach photos. But that upgrade may be coming soon. Meanwhile, you can edit your mobile-produced checklists on the eBird website whenever it’s convenient.

I’ve also downloaded the free Merlin Bird ID App, http://merlin.allaboutbirds.org/ and tried it. I told Merlin where I was, what day it was, how big and what color the bird was and where it was (ground, bush, tree, sky) and up popped a photo of the most likely candidate, other possible species, general information and bird song recordings.

Both of these apps are Cornell Lab of Ornithology projects. Both are designed to get more people excited about birds. More data collected means more understanding, and more understanding means better conservation of birds.

The lab has even more up its sleeve. At a recent meeting, staff from far-flung places gathered to discuss making animated migration maps that will allow zooming in on particular locations. Recently, Audubon and CLO announced eBird Mobile is available on the dashboard of select Subaru models. That’s an update I wouldn’t mind seeing the dealer for.

CLO employs a lot of tech people. Job openings on the eBird website list required technical qualifications. Preferred qualifications include “An interest in birds, nature, biology, science, and/or conservation helpful.”

So maybe it doesn’t surprise you that our son Bryan, with a degree from the University of Wyoming in software engineering–and exposed to birdwatching from birth–has become not only a birder, but in October moved to Ithaca, New York, to work for CLO.

He can bird to and from work, walking through the famous Sapsucker Woods. He tells us the winter regulars include many of the same species we see in Cheyenne. However, he says he sees four kinds of woodpeckers: downy and hairy, which we see, but also red-bellied woodpecker and pileated woodpecker, eastern birds.

Surrounded by serious birdwatchers all week, perhaps on weekends you would be forgiven for picking up a different hobby. But no, on the Martin Luther King holiday, everyone from Bryan’s office went up near Seneca Falls and found snowy owls, a gyrfalcon, northern shrike and thousands of snow geese.

The next weekend Bryan and Jessie went back and found two more snowy owls and three kinds of swans.

eBird can help me predict the height of spring migration in Ithaca and I hope to time Mark’s and my visit accordingly. But we must fit in one last trip to Texas to visit our younger son, Jeffrey, before he and his wife move to Seattle for new jobs.

If your children aren’t moving back to Cheyenne, at least let them live in interesting places.