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 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.