Book reviews: Birds and bears

Published April 21, 2019, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

By Barb Gorges

Peterson Reference Guide to Sparrows of North America by Rick Wright, c. 2019, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.Birders can be nerdy.

This is a book for sparrow nerds and would-be nerds.

There are three main parts to Wright’s multi-page treatment of each of 76 sparrow species or major subspecies: history of its scientific description and naming, field identification, and range and geographic variation.

Did you know the pink-sided junco (dark-eyed junco subspecies) has Wyoming roots? A Smithsonian collecting trip, the South Pass Wagon Road expedition, made it to Fort Bridger, in the far southwest corner of what is now Wyoming, in the spring of 1858. Constantin Charles Drexler, assistant to the surgeon, collected a sparrow identified as an Oregon junco and shipped it back to Washington, D.C.

About 40 years later, experts determined it was the earliest collected specimen of pink-sided junco and Drexler, who went on many more collecting forays, lives on, famous forever on the internet.

Wright’s feather by feather field identification comparisons will warm a birder’s heart, as will the multiple photos. However, over half of each account is devoted to range and geographic variation. No map. No list of subspecies by name. To the uninitiated, including me, apparently, Wright’s writing rambles. If you would become an expert on North American sparrows, you will have to study hard.

Peterson Field Guide to Bird Sounds of Western North America by Nathan Pieplow, c. 2019, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

It’s here, the western counterpart of Nathan Pieplow’s eastern book I reviewed in July 2017, https://cheyennebirdbanter.wordpress.com/2017/07/24/.

Each species gets a page with a small range map and a short description of habitat. The tiny painting of the male bird (and female if it looks different) is not going to help you with feather-splitting identification problems. It’s just a faster way to identify the page you want if you are already familiar with the bird. 

Each species’ page has diagrams of the sounds it makes, spectrograms. They aren’t too different from musical notation. The introduction will teach you how to read them. In addition to the standard index for a reference book or a field guide, there is an index of spectrograms. It works like a key, dividing bird sounds into seven categories and each of those are subdivided and each subdivision lists possible birds.

Then you go online to www.PetersonBirdSounds.com to listen. I looked up one of my favorite spring migrants, the lazuli bunting. There are 15 recordings. Birds can have regional accents, so it was nice to see recordings from Colorado, including some made by Pieplow, a Coloradoan. If you’ve ever wanted to study birdsongs and other bird sounds, this is the field guide for you. 

A Season on the Wind, Inside the World of Spring Migration by Kenn Kaufman, c. 2019, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

I referenced the advance reading copy of this book a couple months ago when discussing the coming development of the wind farm at Cheyenne’s Belvoir Ranch. It gave me insights into the impact of wind energy on birds and bats.

The larger part of this book is about spring migration where birds and birdwatchers congregate in droves along the southwest shore of Lake Erie.

It’s as much about the birds as it is the community of birders, beginning with those year-round regulars at the Black Swamp Bird Observatory like Kaufman and his wife, Kimberly Kaufman, the executive director, and the migrant birdwatchers who come from all over the world, some year after year.

Even if you know a lot about bird migration, this is worth a read just for the poetry of Kaufman’s prose as he describes how falling in love with Kimberly brought him to northwestern Ohio where he fell in love again, with the Black Swamp, a place pioneers avoided. 

Down the Mountain, The Life and Death of a Grizzly Bear by Bryce Andrews, c. 2019, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Are you familiar with the genre “creative nonfiction”? It means a book or other piece of writing is factual, but uses literary conventions like plot, character, scene, suspense. This is a suspenseful story. We already expect a death, based on the book’s subtitle.

Rancher-writer-conservationist Andrews documents how a bear he refers to as Millie, an experienced mother with three cubs, gets in trouble in the Mission Valley of western Montana despite his efforts to protect her and other bears from their worst instincts.

Don’t turn out the lights too soon after following Andrews into the maze of field corn where grizzlies like to gather on a dark night.

Bird and wildlife books for winter reading & gift giving

2018-12How to be a Good CreatureTry these bird and wildlife books for winter reading and gift giving

This column was also posted at Wyoming Network News: https://www.wyomingnetworknews.com/try-these-bird-and-wildlife-books-for-winter-reading-and-gift-giving. It appeared Dec. 16, 2018, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

By Barb Gorges

Several books published this year about birds and other animals I recommend to you as fine winter reading, or gift giving.

The first, “How to be a Good Creature, A Memoir in Thirteen Animals” is a memoir by Sy Montgomery, a naturalist who has written many children’s as well as adult books about animals.

Montgomery has been around the world for her research. Some of the animals she met on her travels and the animals she and her husband have shared their New Hampshire home with have taught her important life lessons: dog, emu, hog, tarantula, weasel, octopus.

This might make a good read-aloud with perceptive middle-school and older children.

2018-12 Warblers and Woodpeckers“Warblers & Woodpeckers, A Father-Son Big Year of Birding” by Sneed B. Collard III was a great read-aloud. For two weeks every evening I read it to my husband, Mark, while he washed the dishes–a long-standing family tradition.

Like Montgomery, Collard is a naturalist and author, though normally he writes specifically and prolifically for children. He lives in western Montana.

When his son is turning 13, Collard realizes he has limited time to spend with him before his son gets too busy. Birdwatching becomes a common interest, though his son is much more proficient. They decide to do a big year, to count as many bird species as possible, working around Collard’s speaking schedule and taking friends up on their invitations to visit.

There are many humorous moments and serious realizations, life birds and nemesis birds, and a little snow and much sunshine. Mark plans to pass the book on to our younger son who ordered it for him for his birthday.

2018-12Wild MigrationsTwo Wyoming wildlife biologists, Matthew Kauffman and Bill Rudd, who have spoken at Cheyenne Audubon meetings on the subject, are part of the group that put together “Wild Migrations, Atlas of Wyoming’s Ungulates.” I ordered a copy sight unseen.

We know that many bird species migrate, but Wyoming is just now getting a handle on and publicizing the migrations of elk, moose, deer, antelope, bighorn sheep, mountain goat and bison, thanks to improved, cheaper tracking technology.

Each two-page spread in this over-sized book is an essay delving into an aspect of ungulates with easy-to-understand maps and graphs. For example, we learn Wyoming’s elk feed grounds were first used in the 1930s to keep elk from raiding farmers’ haystacks and later to keep elk from infecting cattle with brucellosis.

Then we learn that fed elk don’t spend as much time grazing on summer range as unfed elk, missing out on high-quality forage 22 to 30 days a year. Shortening the artificial feeding season in spring might encourage fed elk to migrate sooner, get better forage, and save the Wyoming Game and Fish Department money.

This compendium of research can aid biologists, land managers and land owners in smarter wildlife management. At the same time, it is very readable for the wildlife enthusiast. Don’t miss the foreword by novelist Annie Proulx.

2018-12 Guide to Western Reptiles and AmphibiansThanks, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, for sending me a copy of the newly revised “Peterson Field Guide to Western Reptiles & Amphibians” by Robert C. Stebbins and Samuel M. McGinnis to review. I now know that what friends and I nearly stepped on while hiking last summer was a prairie rattlesnake, one of 12 kinds of rattlers found in the west.

There are 40-plus Peterson field guides for a variety of nature topics, all stemming from Roger Tory Peterson’s 1934 guide to the birds of eastern North America. I visited the Roger Tory Peterson Institute in Jamestown, New York, this fall and saw his original art work.

The reptile and amphibian guide first came out in 1966, written and illustrated by the late Stebbins. In in its fourth edition, his color plates still offer quick comparisons between species. Photos now offer additional details and there are updated range maps and descriptions of species life cycles and habitats. It would be interesting to compare the maps in the 1966 edition with the new edition since so many species, especially amphibians, have lost ground.

CheyBirdsbyMonth_FC_onlyI would be doing local photographer Pete Arnold a disservice if I didn’t remind you that you can find our book, “Cheyenne Birds by the Month” at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, Wyoming State Museum, Cheyenne Depot Museum, Riverbend Nursery and PBR Printing. People tell us they are using Pete’s photos to identify local birds. I hope the experience encourages them to pick up a full-fledged bird guide someday by Peterson, Floyd, Sibley or Kaufman.

Book reviews: Heinrich, Walden, bird i.d.

2018-04booksHeinrich_Naturalist-loEnjoy reading nature writing in three styles: essays, trail guide and guide to field guides

Also published at https://www.wyomingnetworknews.com/houghton-mifflin-harcourt-releasing-three-new-books.

By Barb Gorges

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has three very different new nature books out this spring: a compilation of nature essays; a cross between trail, travel, nature and history guides; and a guide to using field guides.

A Naturalist at Large, The Best Essays of Bernd Heinrich, 2018, $26, 285 pages.

I am a fan of this man who finds so many questions to ask and then looks for the answers, even if it means climbing a tree and waiting hours to see where the ravens come back from, or spending hours watching a dung beetle make its ball.

You’ll recognize Bernd Heinrich’s topics of interest if you’ve read his other books including “Mind of the Raven,” “Racing the Antelope” and “Life Everlasting.”

The essays in this new collection were published in various magazines, mostly in recent issues of Natural History Magazine. So, the book title also means the older Heinrich gets, the better his writing. I agree. If his subjects appeal to you, soil, plants, trees, insects, bees, birds, mammals and how living things cope with the universe, you’ll enjoy this book.

I especially liked his investigation of the mechanics of how yellow iris instantly pop from bud to bloom.

2018-04booksThorson_GuideWalden_loThe Guide to Walden Pond, An Exploration of the History, Nature, Landscape, and Literature of One of America’s Most Iconic Places, Robert M. Thorson, 2018, $17, 250 pages, full color.

This book won’t mean much if you aren’t familiar with Henry David Thoreau, essayist, poet, philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist, tax resister, development critic, surveyor, and historian. Or his two-year experiment begun in 1845 living in a tiny, bedroom-sized house he built himself at Walden Pond, outside Concord, Massachusetts. You may want to first find a copy of his book, “Walden.”

Thoreau’s fame helped the state set aside 335 acres as the Walden Pond State Reservation (see https://www.walden.org). And he has inspired many conservationists with words such as, “In Wildness is the preservation of the World.”

Robert Thorson sets up his book as a trail guide and while taking a Thoreau-styled amble around the pond the reader gets a mix of history, natural history, biography and lots of beautiful photography.

2018-04BooksHowell_12STEPS_cvr_choice_loPeterson Guide to Bird Identification—in 12 Steps, Steve N.G. Howell and Brian Sullivan, 2018, $18 152 pages, full-color.

This is a small book full of well-illustrated information that should be at the beginning of every bird field guide.

The intended audience is everyone, the authors say, “We include some things that may be challenging for beginning birders, and others that may seem too basic for those more advanced, but this is intentional.” And that’s why you’ll want your own copy to study over and over.

Step 1 – Make sure you are looking at a bird. What kind? Duck, hawk, songbird?

Steps 2, 3, 4 – Where are you geographically, habitat-wise and seasonally? Despite some birds getting spectacularly lost (and becoming the rarities birders dream of), you can assume a species of bird will show up when and where field guides say it will.

Step 5 and 6 – Is the lighting good enough and the bird close enough to identify?

Step 7 and 8 – Is the bird behaving as its presumed species does? What does it sound like? Getting a handle on birdsong will make you a terrific birder.

Step 9 – Structure–size and shape–makes an easy identifier for birds you already know. Think about those plump robins in your yard. But I would argue it is difficult to use on birds you aren’t familiar with.

Step 10 – Finally, plumage! What color feathers?

Step 11 – Be aware of plumage variations.

Step 12 – Take notes—and photos.

Howell and Sullivan’s book makes a good introduction or review as we fly into spring migration. And you can fit in reading it between field trips.

World birder Noah Strycker to visit Cheyenne

World-record-setting birder and author to visit Cheyenne—and Wyoming—for the first time

Also published at https://www.wyomingnetworknews.com/world-record-setting-birder-and-author-to-visit-cheyenne-and-wyoming-for-the-first-time.

By Barb Gorges

World-record birder Noah Strycker is coming to speak in Cheyenne May 14, 2018, sponsored by the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society and the Laramie County Library (7 p.m., 2200 Pioneer Ave., Cottonwood Room, free admission, open to the public).

Strycker is the author of the book Birding Without Borders, An Obsession, A Quest, and the Biggest Year in the World. His talk, humorous and inspiring, will reflect the subject of his book.

stryckerwithfieldguidesImagine travelling non-stop for a year, the year you are turning 30, taking only a backpack that qualifies as carry-on luggage. At least in this digital age, the maps Strycker needed and the six-foot stack of bird field guide books covering the world could be reduced to fit in his laptop.

Also, it was a year of couch surfing as local birders in many countries offered him places to stay as well as help in locating birds. There were knowledgeable bird nerds everywhere that wanted him to set the world record. First, he used https://eBird.org to figure out where the birds would be and then he looked up http://birdingpal.org/ to find the birders.

Strycker planned to see 5,000 species of birds, nearly half the 10,365 identified as of 2015, to break the old record of 4,000-some. But he hit that goal Oct. 26 in the Philippines with the Flame-crowned Flowerpecker and decided to keep going, totaling 6,042 species.

Strycker is looking forward to visiting Wyoming for the first time. The day after his talk, on Tuesday, May 15, his goal is to see 100 species of birds in our state. This is not an impossible feat at the height of spring migration.

He’ll have help from Wyoming’s best-known birders, Jane and Robert Dorn, who wrote the book, Wyoming Birds.

Robert has already plotted a route for an Audubon field trip that will start in Cheyenne at the Wyoming Hereford Ranch at 6 a.m. and move onto Lions Park by 8:30 a.m. Soon after we’ll head for Hutton Lake National Wildlife Refuge west of Laramie and some of the Laramie Plains lakes before heading through Sybille Canyon to Wheatland, to visit Grayrocks and Guernsey reservoirs.

There’s no telling what time we’ll make the 100-species goal, but we expect to be able to relax and have dinner, maybe in Torrington. Anyone who would like to join us is welcome for all or part of the day. Birding expertise is not required, however, brownbag lunch, water, appropriate clothing and plenty of stamina is. And bring binoculars. To sign up, send your name and cell phone number to mgorges@juno.com. See also https://cheyenneaudubon.wordpress.com/ for more information.

I don’t know if Strycker is going for a new goal of 100 species in every state, but it will be as fun for us to help him as it was for the birders in those 40 other countries. I just hope we don’t find ourselves stuck on a muddy road as he was sometimes.

Anyone, serious birder or not, can enjoy Strycker’s Birding Without Borders, either the talk or the book. The book is not a blow by blow description of all the birds he saw, but a selection of the most interesting stories about birds, birders and their habitat told with delightful optimism. But I don’t think his only goal was a number. I think it was also international insight. Although he’s done ornithological field work on six continents, traveling provides the big picture.

Strycker is associate editor of Birding magazine, published by the American Birding Association. He’s written two previous books about his birding experiences, Among Penguins and The Thing with Feathers.

You can find Strycker’s Birding Without Borders book at Barnes and Noble and online, possibly at the talk. He will be happy to autograph copies.

His latest writing is the text for National Geographic’s “The Birds of the Photo Ark.” It features 300 of Joel Sartore’s exquisite portraits of birds from around the world, part of Sartore’s quest to photograph as many of the world’s animals as possible. The book came out this spring.

Raptors popular; new book celebrates them

2018-02BaldEagle-RockyMountain ArsenalNWRbyMarkGorges

A bald eagle is eating lunch at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge outside Denver in late January. The upside-down v’s on the power pole keep it from perching where its outstretched wings would complete an electrical circuit and electrocute it. Photo by Mark Gorges.

 

 

Raptors are popular birds; new book celebrates them

By Barb Gorges

Also published at Wyoming Network News and the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

Raptors were the stars of a late January field trip taken by the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society.

We visited the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge on the outskirts of Denver, only 90 minutes from Cheyenne.

The man at the visitor center desk told us the bald eagles were at Lower Derby Lake. He was right.

Farther down the road we found a bald eagle on top of a utility pole calmly eating something furry for lunch, either one of the numerous prairie dogs or a rabbit. Several photographers snapped away. No one got out of their cars because we were still in the buffalo pasture where visitors, for their own safety, are not allowed out of their vehicles. But vehicles make good blinds and the eagle seemed unperturbed.

2018-02RockyMtnArsenalNWRbyBarbGorges

Several chapter members get out for a better look at a hawk, before the Wildlife Drive enters the buffalo pasture where visitors must stay in their vehicles. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Winter is a good time to look for raptors. They show up well among naked tree branches and on fence posts, though we noticed mature bald eagles look headless if they are silhouetted against a white winter sky—or the snow-whitened peaks of the Colorado Rockies. Our checklist for the Arsenal included rough-legged hawk, red-tailed hawk, and some unidentifiable hawks.

On the way home, we stopped in Fort Collins because a Harris’s hawk, rare for the area, was reported hanging around the Colorado Welcome Center at the East Prospect Road exit. The center volunteers told us all about it—and that we were several days late. But they knew where the local bald eagle nests were and were proud of the other hawks that could be seen right outside the window.

Raptors, generally defined as hawks, eagles, falcons and sometimes vultures, sometimes owls, are a popular category of bird. When our Audubon chapter sponsored the Buffalo Bill Center for the West’s Raptor Experience last spring, more than 100 people crowded into the biggest meeting room at the library to see live hawks, falcons and owls.

Maybe we are fascinated by raptors because their deadly talons and powerful beaks give us a little shiver of fear. Or maybe it’s because they are easy to see, circling the sky or perched out in the open. Even some place as unlikely as the I-25 corridor makes for good hawk-watching. I counted 11 on fence posts and utility poles in the 50 miles between Ft. Collins and Cheyenne on our way home from the field trip.

Since I was driving, I didn’t give the birds a long enough look to identify them. But I bet I know who could—Pete Dunne.

Dunne watches hawks at Cape May, New Jersey, during migration. After more than 40 years, most as director of the Cape May Bird Observatory, he can identify raptor species when they are mere specks in the sky—the way motorists can identify law enforcement vehicles coming up from behind. It’s not just shape. It’s also the way they move.

2018-02BirdsofPreyDunne&Karlson            Dunne is co-author of “Hawks in Flight: A Guide to Identification of Migrant Raptors.” Last year he authored a new book with Kevin T. Karlson, “Birds of Prey, Hawks, Eagles, Falcons, and Vultures of North America.”

This is not your typical encyclopedia of bird species accounts. Rather, it is Dunne introducing you to his old friends, including anecdotes from their shared past.

You will still find out the wingspan of a bald eagle, 71-89 inches, and learn about the light and dark morphs (differences in appearance) of the rough-legged hawk.

But Dunne also gives you his personal assessment of a species. For instance, he takes exception to the official description of Cooper’s hawk (another of our local hawks) in the Birds of North America species accounts as being a bird of woodlands. After years of spending hunting seasons in the woods, he’s never seen one there.

Dunne is even apt to recite poetry, such as this from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Eagle”:

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;

Close to the sun in lonely lands,

Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.

This is not a raptor identification guide, but since there are photos on nearly every page—an average of 10 per species showing birds in all kinds of behaviors, you can’t help but become more familiar with them—and more in awe.

At 300 pages, this is not a quick read, but it is perfect preparation for a trip to the Arsenal or for finding out more about the next kestrel you see.

Watching one bird at a time

2016-05BabyBirdsHMH

“Baby Birds: An Artist Looks into the Nest” by Julie Zickefoose, c. 2016, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Published May 29, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Following individual birds brings new insights.”

 

By Barb Gorges

            There’s more to birdwatching than counting birds or adding species to your life list. The best part of birdwatching is watching individual birds, observing what they are doing.

            Thank goodness it isn’t rude to stare at them.

            While some species may skulk in the undergrowth, most of our local birds are easily seen, even from our windows.

            Every morning I check the view out the bathroom window and often there’s a Eurasian collared-dove sitting in the tall, solitary tree two yards down. By March I was seeing collared-dove acrobatics. The males, like this one, like to lift off from their high perches and soar in a downward spiral. I’m not sure what that proves to the females, but one of them has taken up with him.

            I saw them getting chummy one day, standing together on the near neighbor’s chimney cover. I can imagine their cooing reverberates into the house below. Then they kept taking turns disappearing into the upright junipers where last year they, or another pair, had a nest.

            But one day I caught sight of a calico cat climbing the juniper. The branches are just thick enough that I couldn’t see if the cat found eggs. Eventually she jumped out onto the neighbor’s roof and sauntered across to an easier route down to ground level.

            More than a month later, I have not seen the calico here again, but have seen a collared-dove disappearing into the juniper once more. I’ll have to watch for more activity.

            If I were authors Bernd Heinrich or Julie Zickefoose, I would be making notes, complete with date, time and sketches. I would be able to go back and check my notes from last year and see if the birds are on schedule. I might climb up and look for a nest. And I might do a thorough survey of the academic literature to find out if anyone has studied the effects of loose cats on collared-dove populations.

            However, most of us have other obligations keeping us from indulging in intense bird study and we don’t sketch very well either.

            But Heinrich and Zickefoose do. Heinrich is liable to climb a tree (and he’s no spring chicken) or follow a flock of chickadees through the forest near his cabin in Maine. Zickefoose, who has a license to rehab birds at her Ohio home, can legally hold a bluebird in her hand.

            Both have new books out this spring which allow us to look over their shoulders as they explore their own backyards.

2016-5OneWIldBirdHMH

“One Wild Bird at a Time: Portraits of Individual Lives” by Bernd Heinrich, c. 2016, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Heinrich is known for his books exploring many aspects of natural history (my most recent review was of “Life Everlasting”). His new one, “One Wild Bird at a Time: Portraits of Individual Lives,” has 17 birds, one chapter at a time, in a loose seasonal arrangement. He has also portrayed each species in watercolor, directly from sketches he’s made in the field. This is sometimes as close as his own bedroom where he was able to rig a blind when flickers drilled through his cabin siding and nested between the outer and inner walls.

 

            Though Heinrich is professor emeritus, his writing style is pure, readable storytelling.

            Zickefoose’s goal in her new book, “Baby Birds: An Artist Looks into the Nest,” is also somewhat encyclopedic. From the woodland surrounding her home, she was able to document nestling development for 17 species. Finding a songbird nest, she would remove a nestling every day to quickly sketch it in watercolors, feed it and return it. Her drawings are like full scale time-lapse photography. Don’t try this at home unless you are a licensed bird rehabber.

            Although she has handled lots of birds in the course of her work, following individual nestlings gave Zickefoose an insight into how those of different species grow at different rates—ground nesters are the fastest.

            Either of these books can serve as inspiration for becoming a more observant birdwatcher, but they are also great storytelling, with the benefit that the stories are true and full of intriguing new information.

            If you find a nest this spring, consider documenting it for science. See www.nestwatch.org. The site’s information includes lots of related information, including plans for building nest boxes.   

Bird book reviews: Weidensaul and Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle Jan. 31, 2016, “Two books suited for winter reading.”

“Owls of North America and the Caribbean,” by Scott Weidensaul. Part of the Peterson Reference Guide Series published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, hardcover, 333 pages, $40.

“The Living Bird, 100 Years of Listening to Nature,” by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Gerrit Vyn, photographer. Published by Mountaineers Books, hardcover, 200 pages, $29.95.

By Barb Gorges

Two bird books of note were released last fall because they would make perfect holiday gifts, and now I’ve finally read them.

“Owls of North America and the Caribbean” is by Scott Weidensaul, whose previous book about migration, “Living on the Wind,” was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

This book concentrates on a group of birds that he has spent nearly 20 years researching. Surprisingly, there are 39 owl species to write about. Half occur south of the U.S., in Mexico and the Caribbean. Twelve of the northern owl species are regularly seen in Wyoming.

The accounts of the Caribbean owls are each only three to four pages long since little is known about them. Our familiar, comparatively well-studied owls have 12-15 pages each.

This is not a field guide, though lavishly illustrated with wonderful photos. Instead, each account sums up what is known about a species: length, wingspan, weight, longevity, range map, systematics, taxonomy, etymology (how it got its name), distribution by age and season, description and identification by age, vocalization, habitat and niche, nesting and breeding, behavior and conservation status.

In a reference like Birds of North America Online, this information is reduced to tedious technical shorthand, but Weidensaul makes it readable, injecting his experience and opinion. Of the snowy owl’s description, he says, “If you can’t identify this owl, you aren’t trying.”

I’ll admit, I haven’t read this book cover to cover yet. I looked up the owls I’m most familiar with, learning new information, and now I’m curious about the others.

One drawback: there is a reference map naming the states of Mexico, but not the states of the U.S. or the provinces of Canada, or the Caribbean countries.

However, all the information presented makes owls more intriguing than ever.

The second book, “The Living Bird,” is a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and photographer Gerrit Vyn to mark the 100th anniversary of the lab.

In a 10- by 11-inch format, there is plenty of room for Vyn’s art, the heart of the book. Some birds portrayed life-sized practically step off the page. All of the 250-plus photos are available as individual prints through www.gerritvynphoto.com.

It would be easy to ignore text of this book, except for the name recognition of the contributing authors.

If you missed CLO director John Fitzpatrick’s inspiring presentation at Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society’s 40th anniversary banquet in 2014, you can read it here as the introduction, “How Birds Can Save the World.” The age-old human attraction to colorful creatures that fly makes us notice bird reactions to environmental degradation. And in Fitzpatrick’s additional essay, in stories of rehab success, we find that when we help birds, we help ourselves.

The essay by one of my favorite authors, Barbara Kingsolver, hit home. She was a child forced to accompany her parents on birding field trips. But despite her best efforts to rebel, birds have come to be important to her, as I hope they have to my children, who attended many bird events in their early lives.

Scott Weidensaul also has an essay, more of a golly-gee-whiz list of cool things you might not know about birds (including some I didn’t), titled “The Secret Lives of Birds.”

The other major essayists are Lyanda Lynn Haupt, a naturalist and author who examines how birds inspire us, and Jared Diamond, an ardent birdwatcher who is famous as the geographer and author who wrote “Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.” He projects what coming decades will hold for birds, after decades of population declines.

There are also three essays written by Vyn about his exhilarating photographic expeditions. Three short profiles include a citizen scientist, a researcher, and an audio recordist. CLO is known for its extensive library of recorded bird songs and other sounds of nature, thus the second part of the book’s title, “100 Years of Listening to Nature.”

After perusing the photos, I could still barely concentrate on the text. But afterwards I enjoyed the photos again and the photo captions. Written by Sandi Doughton, they add insight. The photos themselves are laid out in a thoughtful, coherent way.

Altogether, this is a book to enjoy, a book to inspire, and maybe it is even a book to cause you to take action.

Read now, before spring migration, when you abandon books for binoculars.

“Fastest Things on Wings, Rescuing Hummingbirds in Hollywood”

Fastest Things on Wings

“Fastest Things on Wings” by Terry Masear

Published Aug. 30, 2015, Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Hummingbird rescue reveals beauty and mystery”

Book review: “Fastest Things on Wings, Rescuing Hummingbirds in Hollywood,” by Terry Masear, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015, 306 pages, indexed, $25 hardcover.

By Barb Gorges

Terry Masear has a soft spot for hummingbirds, yet has survived the hard realities of rescuing and rehabbing them for 10 years.

Her new book is destined to wet your eyes now and then, as well as open them to the beauty and mystery of hummingbird life. She talks about her work in this interview by email. You can also listen to her NPR interview at http://hereandnow.wbur.org/2015/07/28/hummingbird-rescue-masear.

First, we should note in Cheyenne, hummingbirds typically visit only during migration, nesting at higher elevations.

Q. How is your 2015 season going? How about your success rate? Any favorite stories from this year?

A. Southern California hummingbird rehabilitators admit over 500 injured and orphaned birds into rescue centers annually. I release between seventy and eighty percent of my intakes. Due to promotional events for the book, I could not participate in hands-on rehabilitation this year, but I answered 2,000 calls, saved 200 birds over the phone, and sent another two hundred to rehab centers in the Los Angeles area. I helped rescue a pair of Allen’s nestlings that got entangled in a bizarre drama between their mother and her frustrated hybrid daughter (named Rosie by webcam viewers) from last year. This fascinating event, along with footage of several webcam nests and fledges this year, can be seen on Bella Hummingbird clips posted on YouTube.

Q. Have you noticed the drought affecting your hummingbird work?

A. The drought is leading to more mite-infested nests. But we have been able to save and keep most of these nestlings in their natural environment by having finders dust the nests and chicks with diatomaceous earth, which in no way deters the mothers from continuing to feed their young.

Q. What makes bird rescue in Hollywood different from other places?

A. Los Angeles has a larger and more diverse hummingbird population than any city in the world. Females often nest in backyards and near houses, which leads to encounters with humans and makes rescue more necessary. We see seven species–Allen’s, Anna’s, black-chinned, rufous, Costa’s, broad-tailed, and calliope— in rescue. Rehabbers also believe the Allen’s and rufous have hybridized in Southern California as we are noticing extensive rust coloration in many young males.

Q. What makes hummingbird rescue different from other bird rescue?

A. Hummingbird babies are extremely high-maintenance. They have to be hand fed every 30 minutes for 15 hours a day until they fledge and can be feeder trained. So a lot of bird rescue centers refuse to take them, which is why private rehabbers stay busy.

Q. What are the biggest hazards for hummingbirds in L.A.?

A. Tree trimmers and weekend gardeners are by far the greatest threats to young hummingbirds. So we are trying to educate the city and private citizens to refrain from trimming trees in the spring when birds are nesting. Also, a lot of well-meaning finders pick up grounded fledglings and carry them home, which takes the young birds away from their mothers who are still feeding them. Other dangers to hummingbirds include windows, domestic cats, termite tenting, and weather hazards like heavy wind and torrential rain.

Q. All things considered, do you think hummingbird feeders are good for hummingbirds?

A. As long as people keep them clean, sugar feeders benefit hummingbird populations and, along with introduced vegetation, have allowed species like the Anna’s and rufous to expand their ranges considerably.

Q. Which is more difficult, dealing with emotionally distraught callers that have found an injured or abandoned hummingbird, or dealing with the birds?

A. Of course, serious injuries present challenges for the rehabber and some losses will haunt you. But ask any rehabber on the front lines what the most difficult part of their work is and they will say dealing with the public. The majority of callers are compassionate and caring, but a certain percentage does not have the wildlife’s best interests in mind. Some callers don’t want to make any effort and will let helpless nestlings die if rehabbers don’t show up immediately. Others insist on keeping young birds as pets. When we explain why they cannot do this, legally or in good conscience, some get abusive. These conversations strain the patience of even the most forgiving rehabber, especially during peak season when the pressure is on.

Q. Record keeping is required for your permit, but are you also keeping notes that helped you write this book—all the anecdotes about particular birds and their personalities and challenges?

A. As far as overall intakes and releases, my records are pretty precise, so I referred to those when writing “Fastest Things on Wings.” And through these records I can recall certain birds because of their unique histories. Other remarkable characters, like Pepper, Gabriel, Iris, and Blacktop, are easy to remember because their stories are so extraordinary.

Q. A PhD in English doesn’t necessarily translate into being able to write a riveting story, as you have. What writing experience did you have before writing this book?

A. I taught research writing at UCLA for years and wrote a textbook for ESL students. Five years ago, ironically, I wrote a nonfiction book about a unique and mysterious experience my husband and I had with our cats. While I was trying to sell that manuscript, editors kept asking about hummingbird rehab, which led to this book.

Q. Were you out on book tours this spring and summer, and if so, who held down the fort?

A.

I have been doing book signings and interviews all summer, which is why I could not do rehab. But my phone hasn’t stopped ringing for six months, so I’ve been deeply involved in the rescue business. And as exhausting as it is, I miss the powerfully rewarding experience of rehab and can’t wait to get back to it.

Book review: “Mountains and Plains,” by Dennis Knight

"Mountains and Plains" cover

“Mountains and Plains, The Ecology of Wyoming Landscapes,” by Dennis H. Knight, George P. Jones, William A. Reiners and William H. Romme.

Published April 8, 2015, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s Opinion page, “A must-read for all.”

Mountains and Plains, The Ecology of Wyoming Landscapes, second edition, by Dennis H. Knight, George P. Jones, William A. Reiners, William H. Romme, c. 2014, Yale University. Published by Yale University Press with assistance from the University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute. Softcover, 404 pages, $45.

By Barb Gorges

Blame the pine beetles for decimating pages of the first edition of Dennis Knight’s book, “Mountains and Plains, The Ecology of Wyoming Landscapes.”

Blame the wolves, sage-grouse and climate change and all of the other changes and new information since the book was published in 1994.

They caused Mr. Knight, University of Wyoming professor emeritus of the botany department, to give up four years of his retirement to write the second edition, published at the end of 2014.

He had help this time from three colleagues, George Jones, associate director of the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database at UW (where the book’s royalties are going); William Reiners, professor emeritus, UW; and William Romme, professor emeritus, Colorado State University, an expert on Yellowstone’s ecology.

Despite its academic authors, “Mountains and Plains” is not intended as a textbook, though this book should be required reading for everyone graduating from UW, just as is the course in the U.S. and Wyoming constitutions.

“The book was written for non-scientists who are interested in Wyoming’s environment, natural resources, and some of the controversial land management issues that decision makers are facing at the present time,” Mr. Knight said.

“My co-authors and I tried to provide an easy-to-read synthesis of peer-reviewed ecological research for people who don’t have the time or inclination to read the journals themselves.

“We hope the book is useful for those who enjoy spending time outdoors as well as teachers, students, and private, state, and federal land managers.”

How readable is this book? A background in the natural sciences is helpful.

But that can be overcome with familiarity with any of Wyoming’s landscapes, forest, grassland, sagebrush, sand dunes, alpine, meadows, wetlands, or the landscapes like Yellowstone, the Black Hills or the Laramie Basin described in special chapters.

Any curiosity about Wyoming’s landscapes will make this book a real page-turner, even if you don’t know what occasional words like “herbivory” mean. Check the Internet.

My recommendation is to flip through, enjoying the new, full-color photography until you find a compelling subheading, maybe “Aspen Forest,” on page 196.

Find out where aspen trees grow and why. Find out why they spread by sprouting from roots rather than growing from seed. Did you know aspen bark has chlorophyll and can photosynthesize?

But the ecologist, and that is what Mr. Knight is—as well as a botanist—asks what happens to aspens after a fire. What causes different results in different locations?

What triggered SAD, sudden aspen decline, beginning in 2000? What are the implications for us and other animals and other plants? What techniques have land managers tried to maintain current aspen abundance?

If some of the book’s statements seem hard to believe, look for the superscript number indicating the footnote at the back of the book that cites a study.

But studies in journals aren’t always easily available, so you can ask your question at the book’s website, www.mountainsandplains.net.

Rather than wait another 20 years for the third edition, the website started updating the book’s content in December. New studies are producing new information, but also, when the climate changes, and the way people interact with the landscape changes, ecologists must keep up.

I would add our state legislators to Mr. Knight’s list of recommended readers. This is especially so for the ones who will be on the committee studying how the state can wrest control of federally owned lands in the state—despite being an unpopular idea with 70 percent of Wyoming citizens–and the other federal land owners, the U.S. citizens living in the other 49 states who might also enjoy this book.

Mr. Knight’s epilogue sums up the whole idea of the book: that society needs to heed what ecologists know:

“Humans have been a presence in this part of the biosphere for a short time—most of the plants and animals existed a million years or more before Homo sapiens arrived—and we are still learning how to make a living from rugged western landscapes.

“As Aldo Leopold wrote in 1938, “the oldest task in human history (is) to live on a piece of land without spoiling it.” Learning to live gently and sustainably, to be good stewards, requires an understanding of both human nature and the nature of ecosystems.”

Barb Gorges writes the monthly bird and garden columns for the WTE. “Mountains and Plains” is available at the Wyoming State Museum store, the UW bookstore and from major online booksellers.

Birds in fiction need facts too

Below Zero by CJ Box

The hero of Wyoming author C. J. Box’s mystery series is a Wyoming game warden.

Published Jan. 2, 2011, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Birds in fiction need facts, too. Local author C.J. Box may write fiction, but his Wyoming-based books should still reference wildlife that is actually found in Wyoming.”

2015 Update: Check out these author websites: http://www.cjbox.net, http://us.macmillan.com/author/jonathanfranzen, http://www.markobmascik.com.

By Barb Gorges

“Below Zero” by C.J. Box

“Freedom” by Jonathan Franzen

“The Big Year” by Mark Obmascik

Cheyenne’s national best-selling crime novelist either needs to do more scenery research or needs to make a rare bird report. In “Below Zero,” C.J. Box’s hero, Joe Pickett, is hiking into the Hole in the Wall, Butch Cassidy’s famous hideout, and the description includes bluebirds and cardinals.

Cardinals are rare in Wyoming and no observations have been documented for Johnson County, where the Hole in the Wall is located.

If Box were from back east, cardinal country, I would say he added a splash of color to the scenery using a species he was familiar with. But Box is a Wyoming native, so he needs to contact the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s non-game bird biologist and report the cardinal if he saw it while researching the novel. Apparently Pickett, the fictional game warden, was too busy looking for trip wires to realize what he’d seen.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan Franzen’s novel features the plight of an endangered bird and the man trying to save it.

Can an author mention any but the most common birds in fiction or can they give unusual birds enough context so non-birdwatcher readers will understand their significance? In “Freedom,” a literary novel by Jonathan Franzen which I just finished reading, cerulean warblers are a bit more than scenery—they and their predicament, diminishing habitat, are both metaphor and plot device. And a main character is identified as a birdwatcher to explain his anti-social tendencies.

Realistic fiction has to be more believable than real life, it seems. Would it be believable that on the November Audubon field trip in the middle of Cheyenne we saw a Cooper’s hawk knock a mallard drake on its back, less than 50 feet from where we stood at the railing at the edge of Sloan’s Lake in Lions Park? They don’t usually go for ducks.

Of course, if it were fiction, we’d only include the anecdote to illustrate character or to move the plot along. I was all for leaving the duck, seemingly close to death, for the hawk. Pat wanted to tip it over onto its feet and Art tipped it. Fifteen minutes later it was walking with an occasional stumble. I suppose the three of us were characterized, even though we are not fictional: I think hawks deserve to eat, Pat is a retired nurse and Art has handled a lot of gamebirds.

The Big Year by Mark Obmascik

Mark Obmascik’s non-fiction book about compulsive birders was later turned into a movie.

Some of the best storytelling I’ve read recently was about real birds and real birdwatchers: “The Big Year, a Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession,” by Mark Obmascik, the featured author at this year’s Laramie County Library Foundation’s Booklover’s Bash.

In 1998 three men independently decide to break the record for the number of bird species seen by one person in one year in North America. It takes them half a year to realize they are competing against each other.

No Hollywood scriptwriter could come up with such craziness as these men risking their lives in storms on Attu, the farthest west point of Alaska, where lost Asian bird species blow onto our continent.

In fact, the story is so crazy that Hollywood bought it and made it into a movie to be released early in 2011, starring actors you’ve heard of: Owen Wilson, Jack Black and Steve Martin.

What I like about Obmascik’s writing is how deftly he explains the birding world without bogging down the story. He knows what needs to be explained to non-birders because he was one, yet he understands birders, too, having recently become one.

For nonbirding authors of fiction, adding avian color to realistic fictional scenery is simple enough. Check a recently published field guide and then call the local Audubon chapter for confirmation on exactly what time of year and on what kind of bush your chosen bird species might be seen. Millions of birdwatchers, who tend to be well-read folks, will appreciate your effort.