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 review: “Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America”

Peterson field guide

Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America

Published Oct. 7, 2008, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “New Peterson’s Field Guide has it all together.”

2014 Update: This field guide is still available. There are so many field guides to the birds of North America. Check out a few from your library and compare them when you are trying to identify an unfamiliar bird. Chose the guide you like and buy a copy of the most recent edition.

By Barb Gorges

Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America, by Roger Tory Peterson, 2008, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 544 pages, $26.

This year publisher Houghton Mifflin celebrated the 100th anniversary of Roger Tory Peterson’s birth with a brand new edition of his flagship birding field guide. Without Peterson, who died in 1996, the updating took the skills of six people.

In 1934, Peterson was the first to publish a field guide for identifying birds. Before that there were books about birds, but the descriptions were so thorough, from beak to toe, it was hard to find what set one species apart from another.

Peterson was inspired by an Ernest Thompson Seton story in which a character was able to identify ducks at a distance using their easy to see markings. As a trained artist, Peterson could make simple illustrations of birds showing their color pattern—just what the modern birder needed who wanted to bird with binoculars rather than a shotgun.

The Peterson technique has since expanded to hundreds of natural history titles including field guides for identifying everything from shells to stars.

If you grew up using one of the famous blue or green-covered “Peterson’s,” you’ll soon realize this isn’t the same old, same old. This one is titled “Peterson Field Guide to the Birds of North America.” That’s right. The eastern and western guides have been combined.

It’s about the same thickness, but each page, 6 inches by 9 inches, has 23 more square inches than previous editions– hardly a book to slip in a pocket anymore.

I’ve always had a problem using Peterson’s. The second western edition (1961) had all the plates of bird illustrations in the middle of the book and all the range maps at the end, unlike the Golden Guide of the same era where all information for a species was on the same page.

The third western edition (1990) finally put the pictures and descriptions together, but left the maps at the back of the book.

When I opened this new Peterson’s, I was looking not only for improvements, but innovations over other recently published field guides.

I looked up “Mountain Chickadee.” First is the family description which characterizes the size and behavior of chickadees and titmice and lists what they eat. It mentions the family’s worldwide range, which few other North American field guides do. Also, the family name appears on the bottom of each page, color coded for speedier referral.

In this larger format all six chickadee species are on one page, with their trademark (yes, actually trademarked) arrows pointing at the important field marks that distinguish each from the other. All the portraits seem more detailed than the last edition’s, but that’s because they’ve been digitally enhanced. The birds are bigger, which is good for those of us fighting the need for reading glasses.

Finally, there are thumbnail range maps right next to each bird’s description so those cryptic, written range notes, oversimplified and heavily abbreviated, are gone. A picture is worth a thousand words, after all. The larger maps, with notes, are still in the back.

Also new, in the heading for each species, is an abundance rating. How common is the mountain chickadee within its range and preferred habitat? “Fairly common.”

Continuing the third western edition’s tradition is the habitat description—good for people out in the field working i.d. the other way around and searching for a species. The voice descriptions are more detailed, harking back to the first western edition. And when appropriate, names of similar species are listed.

One of the recent improvements in field guides is a one page index of bird names. In this guide it is inside the front cover rather than in the back which makes it much easier for right-handers to balance the guide while consulting the index.

Inside the back cover are all of Peterson’s original silhouettes for shorebirds, roadside birds, etc.

And here’s what no other major bird field guide has so far: 35 video podcasts. Even before you buy this book, you can go to and download these to your iPod or watch them on your computer.

Other sources have excellent free online bird information in a species by species format. These videos have family overviews that complement the field guide. I recommend also watching the videos with birding tips and Peterson’s biography. Bill Schmoker, a bird photographer from Colorado who spoke at a Cheyenne Audubon meeting once, is listed in the credits for many of the videos.

Field guides just keep getting bigger and better. For one, we know more about birds than we did when Peterson published the first edition of his eastern guide. And also, technology keeps improving, whether printing books or providing digital information.

But I still like the feel of the green, cloth-covered 1941 western edition. It is slim, but with the dense feel that promises so much. I like its creamy, uncoated pages of text and simple, schematic bird drawings.            Maybe someone could put a nice green cloth cover on one of those new fangled, hand-held electronic “bird finder” contraptions.

The measure of success of the new Peterson’s bird guide will be not how many copies are sold, but how many battered copies lie next to binoculars in years to come.


Book reviews: Bird books by Peterson, Howell and Dunne

Peterson field guide

Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Western North America

Published July 26. 2010, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Summer reading list for birders.”

2014 Update: All three books are classics and readily available.

By Barb Gorges

Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th edition, by Roger Tory Peterson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.

Two years ago the “Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America” was updated and combined Roger Tory Peterson’s eastern and western guides into one volume for the first time. This spring the information was published in separate guides again.

The publishers must have decided it was easy enough to cater to both birders who like the entire continent in one book and birders who like the regional field guides which are divided by the 100th Meridian, vertically bisecting the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas and Texas, and cutting off the Oklahoma panhandle.

Unfortunately, in the western edition, the individual species range maps cut off half the continent so you can’t get a feel for continent-wide distribution when a species has one.

Cheyenne is frequently visited by eastern warblers during spring migration and while the western guide has their pictures and descriptions, no range maps are provided to give you an idea how far away their normal range is.

If you live out here in the middle of the continent and you want a Peterson guide to birds, famous for its trademarked field identification system and Roger Tory Peterson’s classic illustrations, go for the big one, “Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America,” only $6 more than this new $20 western guide.

You’ll get a more complete view of our birds and be able to use it wherever you travel in North America– and get more muscles carrying it.

Molt in NA Birds

Molt in North American Birds

Molt in North American Birds, by Steve N. G. Howell, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.

Part of the Peterson Reference Guide Series, this book addresses molt, the process of birds growing new feathers. It’s a confusing topic, but necessary for identifying birds beyond their characteristic breeding plumage.

When do birds grow new feathers, pushing out the old worn ones? Do all birds have different winter and summer plumages? Can they fly when they are molting wing feathers? What causes a molt cycle to begin? When is the best time to molt?

All birds molt, but not the same way or as often, which is why there is now a 267-page book to explain it. What’s even more confusing is that there are different systems used to talk about molt.

Howell has written 67 pages explaining the different classification systems as well as bird molt strategies. Once you’ve digested those pages with the help of Howell’s clear writing style, move on to the bird families such as the gulls, champion molt artists.

Even if you aren’t particularly interested in molt, this book is jam-packed with bird photos, almost all taken by Howell himself in the last five years. He leads birdwatching tours for WINGS, Inc., is affiliated with the Point Reyes Bird Observatory and lives in California.

Bayshore Summer

Bayshore Summer

Bayshore Summer, Finding Eden in a Most Unlikely Place, by Pete Dunne, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.

Following his book, “Prairie Spring,” a three-month tour of the Great Plains, Pete Dunne has decided to stay home for this installment in his seasonal series.

Dunne is the director of the famous Cape May Bird Observatory in New Jersey.

The Bayshore is southern New Jersey, where summers are marshy, hot, humid and swarming with insects.

Dunne provides a fascinating trip through an area mostly unfamiliar even to folks going to the Jersey Shore.

He explores the intricate relationship between the 400-year-old human adaptations to nature, and nature’s adaptation to man when he tries his hand at harvesting salt hay or goes out with the watermen to pull crab pots.

The heart of the red knot problem (knots are shorebirds) gets Dunne and his photographer wife, Linda, immersed in tidal flat mud. Later, he catalogs the many kinds of insect and arachnid agony locally available. He is a wallflower on a party boat searching for weakfish. He expounds on the Jersey tomato and why the state’s nickname is “the Garden State.” And he spends a night with a state game warden on a stakeout for a habitual deer poacher.

Dunne makes you feel all the summer sweat and all the itches, so maybe you’ll want to save this small book for next winter or your vacation in cool mountains. Despite the discomforts of his climate descriptions, it makes me want to visit the Bayshore myself, but maybe before Memorial Day or after Labor Day.

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.

Red-bellied Woodpecker is rare visitor

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker. Photo courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife Service

Published Feb. 7, 2002, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Immigrant or visitor, red-bellied woodpecker finds food here.”

2014 Update: Records for Laramie and Cheyenne shown in are the only ones for Wyoming, but don’t include this observation.

By Barb Gorges

Birds are illiterate, at least in the usual sense. However, the most successful, longest-lived birds are very good at reading signs in their environment to avoid danger and locate food, shelter and the opposite sex.

Birds do not read field guides.

A red-bellied woodpecker was seen in January in Cheyenne several times by three different people.

I was a little skeptical when I got the first call. I’ve never seen a red-bellied woodpecker, which despite its name, is recognized by its black and white striped back and the red on the top of its head (male only) and back of its neck.

Jane and Bob Dorn, authors of “Wyoming Birds,” list only two records of the species in the state. One was January 1993 in the latilong that contains Douglas and the other May 1992 in the Cheyenne latilong.

For the purposes of bird records, the state is divided into 28 latilongs, each measuring one degree of latitude by one degree of longitude.

Red-bellieds are birds of the southeastern United States which have gradually increased their range to the north, and now, apparently, to the west.
In the 1961 edition of his western bird guide, Roger Tory Peterson mentions red-bellieds are casual to Colorado, meaning a few records, but they don’t merit an illustration. The Stokes’ 1996 western edition doesn’t mention them at all.

“The Sibley Guide to Birds,” 2000 edition, shows the westernmost boundary of the red-bellied’s range approximately at the 100th Meridian, that magical line of longitude marking the difference between eastern and western species of biota in North America.

The 100th Meridian slices vertically through the middle of Nebraska, a mere 250 miles east of Cheyenne. What’s that distance to an eastern bird with a decent set of wings?

This winter’s visitor could be here by some accident of weather–and that would have to be some accident to get the wind to blow out of the east long enough.

It’s more likely the intervening Great Plains, thanks to all the mature windbreaks, can now host a species dependent on large trees full of bugs and seeds and fruit.

How many other red-bellieds have visited Cheyenne birdfeeders without being recognized as unusual? How many have met disaster shortly after arriving, such as plate glass windows, storms, loose cats and natural predators, and are never seen by bird watchers?

Chances are we’ll have more reports of red-bellied woodpeckers, if only because the number of bird watchers continues to increase.

In this month’s issue, National Geographic used the estimate of 63 million bird watchers in this country alone to justify launching their own birding magazine.

What will happen to our red-bellied visitor? We must assume, until proven otherwise, that there’s only one since only one female has been seen each time.

It could survive the winter quite well using the three well-stocked backyard feeding stations it has already found.

It’s not a seasonal migratory species, and it may not be inclined to move in the spring, so it could become a resident.

And, compared to its stronghold in the southeastern U.S., it doesn’t have as many species of woodpecker competitors out here.

However, a few observations of red-bellied woodpeckers in Wyoming won’t change the “accidental” status of the species until there are breeding records.

If the conditions that allowed one member of the species to find its way here stay constant, chances are more will follow and then breeding could happen.

Birds are opportunists. Short of being dropped here by the wind, a bird wouldn’t travel to Cheyenne if it hadn’t read signs along the way for favorable conditions for survival.

Whether it becomes a resident depends on finding enough of the habitat it is used to, or adapting to what is available.

It’s about the same for the rest of us coming to Wyoming from elsewhere. Except we people have the ability to make things more like our old homes, so we tend to plant trees, diminishing the grasslands and their species.