Wind farm on the Belvoir Ranch

Be careful what you wish for: wind development on the Belvoir Ranch has its downsides

The prairie is green June 11, 2016, on Lone Tree Creek on the Belvoir Ranch, 10 miles west of Cheyenne, Wyoming. Photo by Barb Gorges.

This edition of Bird Banter was published Feb. 10, 2019, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

By Barb Gorges

            This month marks the 20th anniversary of my first Bird Banter column for the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. I wrote about cool birds seen on the ponds at the Rawhide coal-powered plant 20 miles south of Cheyenne, https://cheyennebirdbanter.wordpress.com/2014/02/12/birding-the-colorado-coast/.

            This month’s topic is also connected to Rawhide. It’s NextEra’s 120-turbine Roundhouse Wind Energy Center slated partly for the City of Cheyenne’s Belvoir Ranch.

           Roundhouse will stretch between I-80 south to the Wyoming border and from a couple miles west of I-25 on west 12 miles to Harriman Road. The Belvoir is within. It’s roughly a two-to-three-mile-wide frame on the north and west sides. All the power will go to Rawhide and tie into Front Range utilities.

            The 2008 Belvoir masterplan designated an area for wind turbines. In the last 10 years I’ve learned about wind energy drawbacks. I wish the coal industry had spent millions developing clean air technology instead of fighting clean air regulations.

            We know modern wind turbines are tough on birds. Duke Energy has a robotic system that shuts down turbines when raptors approach (https://cheyennebirdbanter.wordpress.com/2016/09/13/eagle-safety-collaboration/). Roundhouse needs one—a raptor migration corridor exists along the north-south escarpment along its west edge.

            But in Kenn Kaufman’s new book, “A Season on the Wind,” he discovers that a windfarm far from known migration hot spots still killed at least 40 species of birds. Directly south of the Belvoir, 125 bird species have been documented through eBird at Soapstone Prairie Natural Area and 95 at Red Mountain Open Space. Both are in Colorado, butting against the state line.

           Only a few miles to the east, Cheyenne hotpots vary from 198 species at Lions Park to 266 at Wyoming Hereford Ranch, with as many as 150 species overall observed on single days in May. With little public access to the Belvoir since the city bought it in 2003 (I’ve been there on two tours and the 2016 Bioblitz), only NextEra has significant bird data, from its consultants.

            There are migrating bats to consider, plus mule deer who won’t stomach areas close to turbines—even if it is their favorite mountain mahogany habitat on the ridges. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department can only suggest mitigation and monitoring measures.

            There are human safety and liability issues. The Friends of the Belvoir wants a trailhead on the west edge with trails connecting to Red Mountain and Soapstone. Wind turbines don’t bother them. However, during certain atmospheric conditions, large sheets of ice fly off the blades–“ice throw.” Our area, the hail capital, could have those conditions develop nearly any month of the year.

            The noise will impact neighbors (and wildlife too) when turbines a mile away interfere with sleep. Disrupted sleep is implicated in many diseases.

            Low frequency pulses felt six miles away (the distance between the east end of the windfarm and city limits) or more cause dizziness, tinnitus, heart palpitations and pressure sensations in the head and chest. The Belvoir will have bigger turbines than those on Happy Jack Road, reaching 499 feet high, 99 feet higher.

            A minor issue is the viewshed. In Colorado, the public and officials worked to place the transmission line from the Belvoir to Rawhide so that it wouldn’t impact Soapstone or Red Mountain. What will they think watching Roundhouse blades on the horizon?

            Because this wind development is not on federal land, it isn’t going through the familiar Environmental Impact Statement process. I’d assume the city has turbine placement control written into the lease.

           The first opportunity for the public to comment at the county level is Feb. 19. And in advance, the public can request to “be a party” when the Wyoming Industrial Siting Council meets to consider NextEra’s permit in March.

            NextEra held an open house in Cheyenne November 28. They expect to get their permits and then break ground almost immediately. This speedy schedule is so the windfarm is operational by December 2020, before federal tax incentives end.

            It doesn’t seem to me that we—Cheyenne residents—have adequate time to consider the drawbacks of new era wind turbines—for people or wildlife. Look at the 2008 Master Plan, http://belvoirranch.org.  Is it upheld by spreading wind turbines over the entire 20,000 acres, more than originally planned? People possibly, and wildlife certainly, will be experiencing low frequency noise for 30 years.

            At the very least, I’d like to see NextEra move turbines back from the western boundary two miles, for the good of raptors, other birds, mule deer, trail users, and the neighbors living near Harriman Road. The two southernmost sections are already protected with The Nature Conservancy’s conservation easement.            

           What I’d really like to see instead is more solar development on rooftops and over parking lots in Cheyenne. Or a new style of Wyoming snow fence that turns wind into energy while protecting highways.

Bioblitz participants look and listen for birds along Lone Tree Creek on the Belvoir Ranch June 11, 2016. Photo by Barb Gorges.
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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: “Hummingbirds and Butterflies” and “Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding”

Book: Hummingbirds and Butterflies

“Hummingbirds and Butterflies,” by Bill Thompson III and Connie Toops.

Published Sept. 6, 2011, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Improve your bird and butterfly eye.”

2014 Update: Both books are widely available.

By Barb Gorges

Hummingbirds and Butterflies (a Peterson Field Guides Backyard Bird Guide), by Bill Thompson III and Connie Toops, c. 2011 by Bird Watcher’s Digest, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 288 pages, softcover, $14.95.

Bill Thompson always writes with the casual birdwatcher in mind, the person who appreciates birds but is always saying, “Someday I want to know more.” And then he provides the hook.

This time he has concentrated on hummingbirds and his co-author, Connie Toops, brings us butterflies. First, there is everything you wanted to know about hummers, a few myths dispelled (no, they don’t hitch rides on geese during migration) and the basics of putting up a hummingbird feeder (4 parts water to 1 part white table sugar—no substitutes, additions or changes, please, and keep it clean).

But Bill offers not only a field guide to 15 North American hummer species, he has a chapter on plants hummingbirds like and ideas for your garden so you can maximize your views of them feeding on flower nectar.

Connie does the same things for butterflies in the second half of the book, including how to photograph them.

Is this book worthwhile for folks in southeastern Wyoming? Yes, even if we have mostly broad-tailed hummingbirds during the summer in higher country, along with rufous hummingbirds during migration in July. And keep in mind, only 17 butterflies profiled are expected here in the summer months. The plant information is sorted by parts of the country and as you might expect, all of the recommended species would be colorful additions to your yard.

If you already garden, you’ll find what a little tweaking might do to improve your chances of observing butterflies and hummingbirds. And if you don’t garden, you might be inspired to begin with a container of colorful flowers.

Field Guide to Advanced Birding

“Field Guide to Advanced Birding,” by Kenn Kaufman

Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding, Understanding What You See and Hear, by Kenn Kaufman, c. 2011, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 448 pages, flexible cover, $21.

Kenn Kaufman has totally rewritten his 20-year-old guide to advanced birding. It’s not only because he has better ideas for identifying difficult species, but he understands better the kinds of mistakes birdwatchers make, though perhaps the most important lesson for an ardent birder to learn from this book is that sometimes a bird cannot be identified.

Anyone who has mastered identification of the common and colorful birds soon finds that there are groups that are difficult: gulls, sparrows, hawks, shorebirds, flycatchers, swallows and seabirds.

And what about hybrids? Subspecies? Birds with white feathers where they shouldn’t be? Birds that are molting and missing feathers?

While there are chapters for each of the difficult bird groups and a reader might be tempted to jump right to his nemesis species, the first seven chapters of general information are worth studying, especially the list of 14 Principles of Field Identification and the 14 Common Pitfalls.

Study is key to improving bird identification skills, and not just studying books, but going outside and finding more birds, Kaufman points out frequently.

One frustration with this book is that there are more than a few photos of unidentified birds. The caption might say the four gulls pictured could be identified as five or six different species if compared to various field guide illustrations, but there is no key in the back to check to see if you can identify them correctly. And sometimes Kaufman’s sentences get long and twisty because some bird i.d. problems are as much about the exceptions as they are about the rules.

A lot of information is packed into this book and it can be overwhelming.

But Principle 14 says you don’t have to take on all of the challenges. You can note merely “Gull sp. (species).”

Kaufman says, “As long as you’re not causing serious disturbance to the birds, their habitat, or other people, there is no ‘wrong way’ to go birding.”

Amen.

Book Review: “Flights Against the Sunset,” by Kenn Kaufman

Flights Against the Sunset

“Flights Against the Sunset,” by Kenn Kaufman

Published Aug. 28, 2008, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Bird-lovers memoirs are tear-jerkers.”

2014 Update: Still available, new or used.

By Barb Gorges

Flights Against the Sunset: Stories That Reunited a Mother and Son By Kenn Kaufman, Houghton Mifflin, 2008, hardcover, 225 pp., $24.

Kenn Kaufman documented his teen years as an extreme birder in “Kingbird Highway” and has settled in as author of birding field guides and magazine articles.

This time, he is writing a memoir, relating his birding adventures to entertain his dying mother.

We learn in this small book that he did his best to keep his birding persona from his family, as young people do when they are establishing their separate identities. He didn’t share much of his birding knowledge and adventures with his family.

For years Kaufman gave short shrift to his mother’s tentative claims to have heard a chickadee in their nearly treeless, suburban Kansas neighborhood, but a lot can change in 30 years. You might need a hankie for some of the narrative between the essays.

Many of the 19 essays are adapted from Kaufman’s column in Birdwatcher’s Digest magazine. A couple, like “The Birder Who Came in from the Cold” might strike you as tall tales.

My favorite essay goes a long way towards explaining boys I knew in junior high, though their obsession was engineering rather than birds.

Imagine being a 13 year-old girl and meeting a boy from your class after school who can’t talk coherently about the latest TV episodes because he won’t tell you there’s no TV at his house. He admires your hair and says the color reminds him of a buff-breasted sandpiper. Yikes, he used a b-word!

And then, just when first base might be in view, he isn’t paying attention at all. He won’t mention he’s trying to identify the singer of a buzzy warbler song that he knows would make him the envy of the local Audubon members.

Other essays take the reader to Venezuela, Peru, the Amazon, Kenya, Mexico, across our country and into Kaufman’s own neighborhood.

The book is great to read aloud, just as Kaufman must have for his mother.

Book reviews: Scott Weidensaul and David Allen Sibley

Birder's Miscellany

“The Birder’s Miscellany,” by Scott Weidensaul

Published Aug. 22, 2002, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Bird books cover similar turf in different ways.”

2014 Update: All three of the books mentioned can be found for sale on the Internet or through used book dealers.

By Barb Gorges

One of the pleasures of travel is visiting used book stores, especially in university towns and large cities.

Buying secondhand books saves money, but it also gives me a chance to acquire books sometimes too obscure for the local bookstore or library to carry, such as one I found in Albuquerque, N.M., last month.

“The Birder’s Miscellany, A Fascinating Collection of Facts, Figures and Folklore from the World of Birds,” by Scott Weidensaul (Simon and Schuster, 1991) is a slim 135 pages.

I was attracted to the title as well as the name of the author. Last winter I read Weidensaul’s “Living on the Wind, Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds” (North Point Press, 1999). I started out with the public library’s copy, but soon determined I needed my own, both because I enjoyed the writing style and because it’s a good reference.

Unfortunately, “The Birder’s Miscellany” is out of print, but you may be able to find a copy through Barnes and Noble or Amazon’s out-of-print sections of their Web sites, or through an online catalog such as bookfinder.com.

It’s worth finding this compendium of odd facts and figures to answer questions such as, “What’s the biggest bird?” That answer, says Weidensaul, needs to be qualified.

The heaviest and tallest living bird is the ostrich (350 pounds, six feet). The heaviest bird that can fly is the mute swan (up to 50 pounds). The bird with the longest wingspan is either the marabou stork of Africa, or the wandering albatross of the Southern Hemisphere (12 feet).

Did you know the domestic turkey’s heart rate at rest is 93 beats per minute, compared to 480 for the blue-throated hummingbird? In flight, that hummer from Mexico has 1,200 heart beats a minute.

Besides exploring the range of physical attributes, Weidensaul also explores bird behavior and birds in folklore and history in a style that invites reading his book cover to cover.

Sibley Guide to Bird Life

“The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior,” illustrated by David Allen Sibley

In contrast, the 600 pages of the “The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior” (Knopf, 2001) could be used to press a few wildflowers, and though just released last year, it was already available at a Boulder, Colo., used book shop in June.

It is a companion to “The Sibley Guide to Birds” (Knopf, 2000), which, compared to all other field guides, has excellent illustrations of each species’ various plumages, but no information about behavior or habitat, two things which sometimes help clinch identification.

Evidently David Allen Sibley was saving that stuff for the second book.

I thought “Bird Life and Behavior” might be similar to another book I have, Kenn Kaufman’s “Lives of North American Birds,” but it isn’t.

For this second volume, David Allen Sibley is the illustrator and one of the three editors. The other two, Chris Elphick and John B. Dunning, Jr., along with 46 other expert birders and biologists, contributed articles for the text.

Where Kaufman systematically provides a photo and an account for each species, this book starts with a 120-page introduction to basic ornithology, including biology, behavior patterns and bird conservation issues.

This first section is more technical and thorough than Weidensaul’s book, but not as much fun to read.

The remainder of “Bird Life and Behavior” is divided into 78 chapters, one for each North American family of birds, from “Loons” to “Old World Sparrows.”

Any birds pictured are meant to illustrate a particular bit of information, so when the text refers to a species you aren’t familiar with, you may have to grab a field guide.

If you want to know more about mountain bluebirds, for instance, you look in the table of contents for “Thrushes.” Otherwise, back in the index, under “Bluebird, Mountain,” you are referred to pages 459-60, 461 and 464.

The first reference compares mountain bluebirds to the other bluebirds, stating that they “occur at high elevations, throughout the western mountains, often in recently burned areas.” We also learn that they like to winter in open, arid grasslands and that their populations have benefited from the increasing numbers of nest boxes provided.

After finding the specific references to mountain bluebirds, you can read the whole chapter for general and comparative information about thrush species (including the robin) under various subheadings: taxonomy, habitats, food and foraging, breeding, vocalizations, movements, conservation and accidental species. Each chapter is set up the same way.

The thrush chapter is written by John Kricher and in the “Author Biographies” section you can read his list of credentials.

As with any encyclopedic tome, I’ll be reading this new Sibley guide, bit by bit, as questions come up. And bit by bit, I hope its overwhelming amount of information will seep in and stick to my brain.

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.”

Bird field guide choices many

Peterson field guideSibley field guideSmithsonian field guideStokes field guideNatl Geographic field guideGolden field guideKaufman field guidePublished April 5, 2001, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Field guide choices now are many. Years ago, you pretty much had a choice between Peterson’s and Peterson’s.”
2014 Update: In addition to new editions of the field guides mentioned, we also now have “Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America” by Ted Floyd, 2008, Collins. We’re waiting for the western version of the “Crossley ID Guide – Eastern Birds” by Richard Crossley.

By Barb Gorges

Field guide: A reference book small enough to be carried outdoors yet comprehensive enough to answer most identification questions for a group, such as birds, mushrooms, rocks, etc.

For us bird watchers in the Rocky Mountain West, Roger Tory Peterson’s “A Field Guide to Western Birds” has long been a standard. Published in 1941, it was the first book with a systematic approach to bird identification and small enough–at 4½-by-7 1/4 inches and 300 pages–to drop into a pocket, squeeze into a pack or throw onto a dashboard.

Twenty-five years later the Golden guide came out, about the same size, but including all of North America–very handy for us living on the eastern edge of the West.

Golden was an improvement on Peterson’s, because cheap modern color printing allowed bird pictures, descriptions and range maps to be printed on the same page: one-stop-look-up.

Another twenty years later, in 1983, we got the National Geographic guide. More drawings for each species of juveniles, females plus obscure species made it measure 5-by-8 inches and 460 pages. Audubon came out with the first photographic guides for Eastern and Western birds, but no one I know uses them as a primary guide.

In the last five years interest in bird watching has skyrocketed, and so has the number of general field guides. (I haven’t room to mention all the specialty guides for groups of species or particular locations.)

First was Stokes in 1996, followed by the American Bird Conservancy’s radical guide organized by bird feeding behaviors, National Geographic’s third edition and Peterson’s third edition of the Western guide.

Last fall everyone was talking about advent of “The Sibley Guide to Birds.” At 9½-by6½ inches and 544 pages, it would be huge for a field guide, but doesn’t pretend to be a “field” guide.

Advanced birders love the way David Allen Sibley distinguishes details such as the five populations of horned larks and various feather molts of other species. He spent years sketching birds up close while they were being banded.

I like the range maps and the thumbnails comparing similar birds in flight, but for the casual birder, 26 variations on the dark-eyed junco may be overwhelming.

I once identified Kenn Kaufman, author of my favorite “Lives of Birds,” at an Audubon conference without being close enough to read his nametag because I noticed the flock of binocular-wearing females surrounding him. He’s one of few bird book authors with his picture on the back cover–and it doesn’t need digital enhancement. He does, however, use digital technology to improve the bird photos in his new field guide, taking away misleading shadows and cropping distracting background.

Kaufman’s guide has the usual accouterments: quick index by generic name, color coded pages, introduction to bird watching basics and comments on habitat and voice for each species. His range maps are exceptional. Not only do they depict summer, winter, year-round and migration ranges in different colors, but where a species rarely occurs or is rare, the colors are paler.

The only disconcerting thing for a veteran field guide user is that Kaufman deviates somewhat from organizing his book in ornithological order. His color-coded table of contents had me stumped when it listed “medium-sized land birds,” but immediately following was a photographic table of contents to show what he meant.

I still check off my life birds in the back of a first edition Golden guide my mother gave me in 1973. I bought the next edition in the 1980’s and it’s still the one I grab for field trips.

Now a new Golden edition is out. Names are updated, descriptions have been reworked by new authors and a quick index has been added–though they forgot the check boxes in the regular index. What I wish they had added are state lines in their range maps. It was one thing to bird in the corner of the country formed by lakes Superior and Michigan back in my youth, but it’s pretty hard to eyeball Cheyenne’s location in relation to the Canadian and Mexican borders.

So, had I researched the newest field guides sooner, I probably would have chosen copies of Kaufman’s as the prizes for the Audubon Award winners from the school district science fair this year.

Oh well. I just hope when I start hinting that I’d like Kaufman for Mother’s Day, my family understands it’s for the range maps, not the back cover.

A Field Guide to Western Birds, Roger Tory Peterson, 1998, Houghton Mifflin.
All the Birds of North America, American Bird Conservancy, 1997, Harper Perennial.
Birds of North America, Golden Field Guide, 2001, St. Martin’s Press.
Birds of North America, Kenn Kaufman, 2000, Houghton Mifflin.
Field Guide to the Birds of North America, National Geographic Society, 1999, National Geographic Society.
The National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds (western volume), 1994, Knopf.
The Sibley Guide to Birds, David Allen Sibley, (National Audubon Society), 2000, Knopf.
Stokes Field Guide to Birds, Western Region, Donald and Lillian Stokes, 1996, Little Brown.