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.

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Following flock to Colorado Field Ornithologists’ meeting

Unknown flycatcher

Here’s a candidate for the next Jeop-birdie quiz. Photo by Mark Gorges.

Published Sept. 21, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Following flock of birders to Sterling was fun.”

By Barb Gorges

I wasn’t sure what to expect when Mark and I decided to attend the annual meeting of the Colorado Field Ornithologists. The group’s name sounds so formal.

Their 51st annual meeting was held over Labor Day weekend in Sterling, Colorado, only two hours southeast of Cheyenne. Like other conventions, it included talks, vendors and a banquet with a keynote speaker, but unlike other conventions, there were dozens of field trips.

I worried I might feel out of place, even if the information on the website, http://cfobirds.org/, assured me that beginning birdwatchers were welcome. CFO is all about the study, conservation—and enjoyment of birds.

Enjoy we did. Our first trip leader, CFO member Larry Modesitt, not only patiently explained field marks for common birds to several trip members who needed help, but he was also able to discuss the finer details of flycatcher fall plumage with one of the other members who surveys birds for a living.

CFO takes birding quite seriously. Each day, 14 field trips left every 10 minutes beginning at 5:20 a.m. One even started at 4 a.m.

Each field trip had a designated leader who contacted all of their trip participants at least a week in advance to discuss routes, carpooling, rest and lunch stops, and even how much to reimburse drivers for gas.

Our third trip leader, Nick Komar, also a CFO member, consulted with other people on what had been seen where we were going, and then worked hard to help us find those birds.

It was while visiting a designated birdwatching bench along the South Platte River at the Brush State Wildlife Area that our group saw warblers in clear view, all in one bush, six to eight at a time: Wilson’s, orange-crowned and yellow-throat. They were flitting about gleaning bugs, sparkling like yellow ornaments. At the other river overlook nearby, we found a plethora of woodpeckers: a redhead family, several red-bellied woodpeckers, a hairy woodpecker and yellow-shafted flickers.

While our first trip was filled with flycatchers and our third highlighted woodpeckers and warblers, the second, with Mark Peterson, was about shorebirds.

The whole idea for Sterling as a convention site was to catch the shorebird fall migration. Usually, the CFO annual meeting is planned around the spring migration. This was only the third time for a fall gathering. The keynote speaker was John Dunn, co-author of the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, and shorebird expert.

But all the lovely summer rains keeping the prairie green around Cheyenne and Sterling kept the reservoirs full. And when they are full, there is no shore, no bare sand or mudflats for shorebirds to pick over. But we got lucky and found muddy shores at a small pond at the Red Lion SWA—and shorebirds.

Shorebirds are right up there on my list of difficult-to-identify species, partly because I don’t see them often and partly because I see them in migration when they aren’t very colorful. I thought John Dunn’s after dinner talk on shorebird identification might help. But it was definitely over my head.

However, if I keep looking at shorebirds in photos and in the flesh, eventually my identification skills will improve. Luckily, there was no quiz afterwards.

There was, however, a quiz the afternoon before: Jeop-birdie. Categories, among many, included identifying famous ornithologists, poorly photographed birds and types of bird nests. Very entertaining.

Larry Modesitt told me CFO began because Colorado needed an arbiter to sort through claims of unusual bird species seen in the state (Wyoming has a rare bird records committee). Many members also belong to Audubon.

CFO also supports bird research. A number of the papers given Saturday afternoon were partly supported by CFO funding. Many looked at facets of bird life that once understood, such as the impact of oil and gas drilling noise on nesting birds, might make it easier to make land use decisions.

It isn’t easy walking into a group of 200 unknown people, but when they are all dressed like me, in field pants, sun-protection shirts or T-shirts printed with birds, large-brimmed hats and binoculars, it’s less intimidating. It’s very easy to start a conversation with “What field trip are you going on tomorrow?”

And after birding together, sharing exciting bird observations, many faces become familiar over the course of the weekend.

Next year, the convention will be in Salida, Colorado, first weekend in June. Now, there’s a spot I might pick up some new life birds.

Gosh, did I just sound like a dyed-in-the-wool, serious species-nabbing-twitcher? Yikes!

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.”