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.

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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.

Book reviews: Four good guides for great outdoors

insect field guide

Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America

Published May 9, 2007, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Some good guides for days exploring in great outdoors.”

2014 Update: All four books continue to be available.

By Barb Gorges

“Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America” by Eric R. Eaton and Kenn Kaufman, 2007, Houghton Mifflin, 392 pages, flexible cover, $18.95.

The ideas Kenn Kaufman brought to his bird field guide have been applied to this new book to great advantage, especially for someone beginning to study insects.

Four pages at the beginning show photographic examples of every group of insects. Each is color coded to correspond with pages featuring species in that group. Every entry has a full color photo and commentary written by entomologist Eric R. Eaton whose prose is lively, yet succinct.

Kaufman indicates the actual size of insects without numbers. All insects illustrated on one page are in proportion to each other. Whatever insect is featured in the upper right hand corner, next to it is a gray silhouette of that insect life-sized.

On page 35 it took a second to realize the tiny gray smudge was the actual size of a human flea. In another case the silhouette of a lubber grasshopper is much larger, and scarier, than the photo.

One disappointment is that this field guide cannot picture all of the 90,000 known insect species in North America, but it has 2350 photos. You can narrow your search down to a family, perhaps identifying an “Ebony Boghaunter” or “Alabama Shadowdragon.”

The 15-page introduction covers finding insects, their life history and anatomy, identification and classification, conservation, activities with insects and importantly, how to keep healthy and safe while insect watching.

Songs of Insects

Songs of Insects by Lang Elliot

“The Songs of Insects” by Lang Elliot and Wil Hershberger, 2007, Houghton Mifflin, 227 pages plus CD, softcover, $19.95.  

Last year Lang Elliot came out with “The Songs of Wild Birds.” This new book features insects that sing, 77 species of crickets, katydids, grasshoppers and cicadas. While the emphasis is on eastern species, small maps show that 17 range as far as Wyoming.

Each species gets at least two portraits, one on white background and one full page in its habitat. They are all quite wonderful to look at, in a book. In fact, you can order note cards with photos of six of them.

Applied to insects, the meaning of the word “song” is stretched a bit, especially if you consider the “Slightly Musical Conehead” found in southeastern states.

But when you listen to number 11 on the included CD, the “Snowy Tree Cricket,” it brings back memories of late summer evenings.

There is a lot of information about these insects, including how to collect and maintain your own orchestra. You can also find more at www.songsofinsects.com.

Singing Life of Birds book

“The Singing Life of Birds” by Donald Kroodsma.

“The Singing Life of Birds, the Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong” by Donald Kroodsma, 2005, Houghton Mifflin, 482 pages plus CD, softcover, $16.95.

Now out in softcover edition, Kroodsma’s book is a detailed study of birdsong even the casual birder can afford.

Kroodsma gives an account of how he came to be interested in birdsong, how it is recorded, how songs can be compared through transcription into sonograms, and what singing means in the life of a bird.

The CD of birdsong recordings is as enthralling as any story Kroodsma tells in the book. Together, they were awarded the John Burroughs 2006 Medal Award.

 

Why Don't Woodpeckers GetHeadaches?

Why Don’t Woodpeckers Get Headaches?

“Why Don’t Woodpeckers Get Headaches? And Other Bird Questions You Know You Want to Ask” by Mike O’Connor, 2007, Beacon Press, 212 pages, softcover, $9.95.

Most of Beacon Press’s catalog is heavy reading. This is the only book with a cartoon on its cover: Little chickadees hold their wings over their ears as a pileated woodpecker drills a hole in a tree.

Author Mike O’Connor dispenses all of his bird advice with a solid dash of humor. He writes answers to readers’ bird questions for the Cape Codder, his local weekly newspaper.

“Dear Bird Folks: I want to get a new birdbath for my wife. Do you have any suggestions? -Mel”

“A question for you Mel, how big is your wife? She might be more comfortable in a hot tub.”

O’Connor then proceeds to cover the topic of birdbaths with good, honest information, such as, “Animals love to knock over birdbaths and because of this, birdbaths tend to break. You may want to just buy a top and simply place the top on the ground. Birds are used to drinking on the ground (from puddles, ponds, etc.) and they probably rather come to a bath that’s low. Placing a bath on a pedestal is more for the esthetic benefit than for the bird’s benefit. There is nothing wrong with using a pedestal, just remember to buy a few dozen extra tops.”

Having answered scores of bird questions myself, I can admire O’Connor’s thoroughness and realistic approach. Most of the advice is suitable for Cheyenne birdwatchers. However, don’t get excited about purple martins. We don’t have them here. Yet.

And finally, O’Connor reminds Mel to keep his new birdbath clean, “If that is too much work, you could always hire a pool boy to do it. I’m sure your wife wouldn’t mind.”