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 by ear, identify the unseen

2017-7Turtle Rock Trail beaver pond by Barb Gorges

Birds are hard to see, but easy to hear, around this beaver pond on the Turtle Rock Trail at the Vedauwoo Recreation Area in the Medicine Bow National Forest west of Cheyenne, Wyoming. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published July 16, 2017, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Bird by ear to identify the unseen.”

By Barb Gorges

Here on the western edge of the Great Plains, our trees don’t grow so thick that you can’t walk all the way around one to see the bird that’s singing. But it is still useful to be able to identify birds by sound.

I’m a visually-oriented person, so over time I’ve learned to identify our local birds well enough to often figure out who they are as they flash by. I can only identify bird voices of the most common or unique sounding species.

At the big box stores in town, in the garden departments, there is almost always an incessant cheeping overhead from invading house sparrows.

If you get up at oh-dark-thirty on a spring or summer morning in town, you are likely to hear the cheerful “cheerio” of a robin.

Putting up a bird feeder may bring in house finches, with their different chatter. I especially like hearing the goldfinches around the thistle feeder which sound as if they are small children calling questions to each other.

Birding by ear becomes a more important skill in the mountains where the forest is thicker. The Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society’s mid-June field trip was to the Vedauwoo Recreation Area on the Medicine Bow National Forest. We planned to hike the Turtle Rock trail. Since most of Wyoming’s birds are found near water (birdwatchers are most likely found there too), we focused on the beaver ponds.

Some birds, like the flocks of tree swallows flitting across the water, are never hidden away.

But one warbling bird was. It didn’t sound quite like a robin. I went through a mental list of birds that like riparian, or streamside, habitats and casually remarked, “Maybe it’s a warbling vireo.”

Then I realized I could check the free Merlin app on my phone and play a recording of a warbling vireo. Amazingly, it matched.

Yellow warblers are almost always somewhere around in the brush around water at upper elevations too and we could hear one. It has a very loud, unique call. Being bright yellow, it isn’t hard to spot singing in the willows.

There are species of birds that resemble each other so closely—the empidonax flycatchers—that it is necessary to hear them sing to tell them apart.

On the other hand, there are species that sound so much like each other, it causes the problem people used to have telling me and my mom apart on the phone.

For example, robin and black-headed grosbeak songs have a clear, babbling quality, but if you listen a lot while the grosbeaks are here during migration, you can tell who is the real robin.

On the trail, chapter member Don Edington picked out a bird at the tip top of an evergreen, singing away. It was yellow, with black and white wings, like an over-sized goldfinch. Its head had the lightest wash of orangey-red. It was another robin voice impersonator, the western tanager.

Visually, the sparrows are mostly a large brown cloud in my mind. The same can be said for distinguishing, much less remembering, many bird songs. I like birds with easy to remember songs, like the ruby-crowned kinglet, another bird to expect in the forest. It is so tiny your chances are slim of seeing it on its favorite perches in large spruce trees.

After being inundated by Swainson’s thrushes this spring—but all completely mute while they inspected our backyard, it was a pleasure to catch the trill of one on the trail. But then I checked it against a recording on Merlin and realized we had the thrush that doesn’t trill upwards, but the other, trilling downwards, the hermit thrush.

It does help to study the field guides in advance of seeing a bird species for the first time—just knowing which ones to expect in a certain habitat is helpful. Studying bird songs before venturing into the woods again would be as useful.

I need to crack open that new book by Nathan Pieplow, “Peterson Field Guide to Bird Sounds of Eastern North America,” and the corresponding recordings at www.petersonbirdsounds.com.

Except, we’ll only find the species we share with eastern North America. We won’t find our strictly western bird species until he finishes the western edition. But I could work on his technique for distinguishing songs—before I spend too much more time in the woods.

Note: In addition to Merlin and Peterson, find more bird sound recordings at https://www.allaboutbirds.org/, or try https://macaulaylibrary.org. For the latter, try filtering by location to get birds using Wyoming dialects.

2017-07-TurtleRockTrail by Barb Gorges

The Turtle Rock Trail offers a variety of habitat types–and weather–on a mid-June Cheyenne-High Plains Audubon Society field trip. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Bird books worth reading

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

By Barb Gorges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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