Thursday, November 10, 2011

Guia de Aves del Estrecho de Gibraltar

Guia de Aves del Estrecho de Gibraltar
Parque Natural "Los Alcornocales" y Comarca de "La Janda"
by  Cardona, David Barros and David Rios Esteban
2008, 328pp, ISBN: 8460745457
Basics:  softcover, 115 color plates of all 350+ species, monthly migration charts, maps, text on status, identification, and movements, Spanish and English

This book is a melding of an identification guide and of a migrational data reference. There is probably no better geographic and migrational area that warrants such a book as does the Strait of Gibraltar. This book has three key components: plates, identification text, and migration data.
First, the 115 color plates illustrate all 350+ species that have been recorded either passing through or residing in the region. Most of the birds receive multiple illustrations to depict plumage variations. The artistry is good, but still a notch below the European guides by Mullarney or by Johnsson. Depending on your skill level with some of the migrating warblers, you may want to supplement this Gibraltar guide with one of the above mentioned ID guides.
The one paragraph of text given for each bird, in both Spanish and English, covers status, identification, and movements. The status reviews the seasonal presence of the bird along with its frequency. The identification material, ranging from 1-3 sentences, is brief but effective. In conjunction with the plates, the material will help identify all but the more difficult of species. The section on movements addresses which weeks or months a bird is expected to arrive or depart during its migration.
Helping to define this field guide as unique, the are three types of graphics inserted directly onto the plates and the text pages.  These provide information for many of the birds' distribution, seasonal presence, and monthly frequency.  The style of map used is typically seen in a breeding atlas.  Using a grid over a map of the region, each block of the map is specifically colored to represent one of three statuses:  Resident, summer breeder, or winter visitor.  Accompanying this map is a horizontal bar representing the 12 months of the year.  Each month is colored to denote the seasonal presence of the bird. Lastly, a bar-chart is provided for many of the birds to display the intensity or count of birds seen each month.
The first 60 pages of the book provide useful information on ringing/banding, key migration points, 38 photos of habitats, and migration maps. These maps help to pinpoint key spots and routes of migration.
If you plan on birding this notable migration route in Europe, you'll definitely want to take this book with you. The plates and the information provided within make it both useful and valuable.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Birds in Ecuador

Birds in Ecuador: A Photographic Journey
by  Bartley, Glenn
2009, 119pp, ISBN: 9780981321202 
Basics:  softcover; beautiful color photographs of 131 species, short captions with each photo; no   other text 
This is a simple book consisting of just photographs, yet the extraordinary quality of these photos makes the book so much more.  Within this book are 131 species found across four areas of Ecuador.  These areas are categorized as east, west, south, and Sierra. Other than the Sierra, these areas are loosely defined since it is possible to see many of the birds in multiple areas.  However, the birds shown are quite typical for their region. 
What makes these photos so special?  First, they show the highest quality of color, focus, lighting, and pose of the bird.  Each time I flip a page, I’m impressed with the vivid colors that are captured.  The printer of this book did an awesome job.  Every bird is front-and-center in the photograph and not partially hidden by vegetation or shadows.  What also makes the photographs so remarkable is the size of each bird.  Many of the photos take up the entire page of this large format book.  The pages are 9x12 inches. 
I thought I was a decent photographer, but this book demonstrates a new level of skill, patience, and passion.  Ecuador is perhaps my favorite birding location and I’ve taken many photos, so I can understand the difficulty the author/photographer experienced when trying to get the perfect shot to include in this book.  Of course, some luck goes with getting the active upper-canopy tanager to hold still in just the right spot; or, for that frustrating antbird to do the unthinkable which is to come out in the open.  But it also takes patience and skill to be in the right spot at the right time; and, to get those camera settings set properly. 
Within this book you’ll see a variety of tanagers, pittas, woodcreepers, trogons, and hummingbirds.  The hummingbirds are featured most prominently with 34 species shown.  The tanager family ranks second with 17 species.  You must see the photo of the Paradise Tanager on the last page. 
Each photo is accompanied by the bird’s common name along with a brief caption.  The caption may simply identify or describe the bird; or, some captions will include a short commentary about the bird’s habits, distribution, or behavior.  Other than a half-page note about conservation at the beginning of the book, no other text is included, not even an index.  I find the lack of an index to be a minor distraction.  When I want to see the Barred Becard again I am forced to randomly thumb through the pages until spotting it.  Since the hummingbirds are scattered throughout the four regions of the book, finding a specific one can take a little searching.  Come to think of it, if there is no index or table of contents, then why are the pages numbered? 
This book is the prototypical, high-quality "coffee table" book that must adorn any birder's or naturalist's library.  After looking through the pages - many times - this book will leave you wishing to see future works of this photographer for all of Ecuador's birds. I know I'll make note to keep track of his future works. 
This book can be purchased directly from the author at his website HERE for approximately $30 with discounts on multiple copies. – (written by Jack at Avian Review, December 2009)

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Birds of the Huachuca Mountains, Arizona

Birds of the Huachuca Mountains, Arizona
Pacific Coast Avifauna No. 4
by  Swarth, Harry S.
1904, 70pp, ISBN: Unknown

Basics:  softcover; annotated list of 188 species found in the Huachuca Mountains between 1896 and 1903; each bird receives a paragraph discussing status, abundance, seasonality, habitat preferences, and other brief notes on its natural history; birds unique to the area have up to a full page or more of text; an interesting look into ornithological history with old names for the birds and changes in status over time

Okay, this review may be a century late, but the intent is not to hype up sales of this uncommon work, but to draw attention to its historical and scientific value.  In fact, this review would not be possible without the considerable amount of time that has elapsed.  And, this review is to offer a brief before-and-after glimpse of a very popular birding destination in Arizona and to see a few changes in the culture of birding.  To be fair to the reader, this review has morphed into more of a commentary, if not a nostalgic editorial.
Perhaps the most poignant snippet of this book is a single sentence found in its introduction.  When reading the author's matter-of-fact comment, keep in mind your own adventures when you took a leisurely weekend drive to do a bit of birding.  The author's line reads, "In 1896 four of us…made the Huachuca mountains the objective point of a leisurely wagon trip from Los Angeles across the Colorado desert and southern Arizona, and spent three months, from April 25th to July 20th, camped in Ramsey Canyon."

A wagon trip!  A leisurely one, at that, across the desert.  The trip was then followed by a 3-month camping stint in Arizona's desert summer.  Of course, after finishing their bit of birding, there was the leisurely wagon ride back home.  That was one of three trips made by Mr. Swarth and company and was approximately a 550 mile venture -- one way.

Another noteworthy cultural difference generated by a century of change shows up in the brief account of the American Dipper.  Referring to the only sighting of this bird in the Huachucas, Swarth writes, "Several times in the month of August I saw what was probably the same bird, in this place (Ramsey Canyon); but it was so wild as to be unapproachable, and though it never flew to any great distance I was quite unable to get a shot at it."
The passing of a century creates a very different perspective.  While out birding, how many of us have stopped to say, "Wow, this is the only dipper ever known to be seen here.  Let's shoot it."?  Perhaps it's easy today for us to cringe a bit when we hear that, but we do so from the comfort of our 12x50 ultra-bright binoculars and our 1000mm telescopic camera lens.  As most of us probably know, those earlier times of collection were the foundation of our birding knowledge today.  Collection was done with a (mostly) beneficial, academic purpose.  It was how they saw and identified a bird, how they built and preserved the knowledge, and how we've come to enjoy the field guides and websites we so easily peruse in search of that one plumage amongst all those illustrated.

Another intriguing aspect about this window back in birding-time is examining what birds were present in Swarth's era but not today; or, vice versa.  Regarding the Aplomado Falcon, Swarth posed a very familiar question, "Where has the bird gone?"  Referring to his predecessor's account (Charles Bendire) of the bird, the falcon was "Although evidently of quite common occurrence in this region…in 1887, since then they seem to have left the country altogether."  Swarth concludes with a pondering thought I've heard rehashed by today's ornithologists, "What could have caused them to shift their location so absolutely it is hard to surmise."  It is interesting to note that less than 20 years had passed between Bendire's status of "quite common" in 1887 to being absent by 1904.
In a similar outcome, Swarth recounts about the Burrowing Owl stating they "are to be seen in considerable numbers in the various prairie dog towns between the Huachucas and the San Pedro River."  Sadly, neither the owls nor the prairie dogs are to be found in this region in 2010 - if not uncommonly for the owl.

Another interesting change involves the Baird's Sparrow.  Birders of southern Arizona recognize that to search for this bird means relying on luck to some extent while walking through specific grassy fields in the winter.  Multiple visits are often necessary for a satisfying view.  For Swarth, he noted, "This species proved to be exceedingly abundant in the spring on all parts of the plain below the Huachucas; even coming up into the mouths of the canyons in places where the ground was a open and free from trees."

On the flip side, other birds we've come to expect as common today were considered noteworthy long ago.  Examples are the Broad-billed Hummingbird which was "extremely rare" with only two known specimens.  The English (aka House) Sparrow appeared to have been exterminated from the region since no birds could be found outside a report from 1886 at Camp Huachuca.  And, the Inca Dove is not even listed.  This bird is a relative newcomer, seemingly dependent on human establishments.
Lastly, the assortment of bird names to have faded from our books over time is interesting.  There is the Ant-eating Woodpecker (Acorn); Arkansas Goldfinch (Lesser); Dwarf Cowbird (Brown-headed); and, the Desert Sparrow (Black-throated).

People's name have come and gone within the naming of several birds.  We no longer recognize Xantus Becard (Rose-throated), Wright Flycatcher (Dusky), or the Scott Sparrow (Rufous-crowned).  Some people's names have been replaced with another's.  Swarth knew it as the Tolmie Warbler but we now credit it as the MacGillivray's Warbler (Oporornis tolmiei).

Lastly, here's a historical bird quiz for you.  This bird is now known by another name and is no longer found in the Huachucas - or even Arizona - in the same status or abundance as once experienced by Mr. Swarth.  Instead, it is now an uncommon bird that may be given "special mention" on the local birding announcements.  What bird is he discussing below?
"I found the Calaveras Warbler to be rather a common migrant in this region, and in the spring at least, occurring in the lowlands as well as in the mountain.  The earliest noted was on April 6th and the last seen on April 25th.  In the spring they were most abundant in the oaks at the mouths of the canyons, but also occurred up as high as 6500 feet.  They reappeared in the fall on August 18th, and until I left, September 5th, were fairly abundant, but frequented rather different localities than in the spring; for I took none below 5500 feet, and they were most abundant along the divide of the mountain, from 9000 to 10,000 feet, where they fed mostly in the flowers and weeds which had sprung up from the summer rains.  Both adults and young were taken at this time, but the old birds seemed to be the most numerous."

It's reading through such material that makes me look at a simple checklist in an entirely new manner.  These ornithologist's of the prior century didn't just "tick and run", moving on to the next lifer.  Instead, they experienced the birds.  They examined them.  Perhaps that tick next to a bird's name means nothing if it's not accompanied by a page of notes.  Maybe I should reevaluate my list and view each tick merely as Step One to ultimately counting that bird as "experienced" versus simply accepting it as being found.
Many older books contain a plethora of excellent information that is not just anecdotal but can be rich in identification and scientific detail that has been forgotten.  Perhaps this is due to us becoming comfortable, if not spoiled, by the excellent field guides available today where quality artwork shows us nearly all the plumages we might encounter.  The ease of these "picture books" makes it too easy to neglect spending some extra time reading and learning from some of the original ornithological masters.

Older bird books may be a little more difficult (or expensive) to find, but some can actually be found as a free download on the internet.  Nearly 40 complete books can be found at this link… 
Scroll down the page and click on the ".pdf" files that begin with "pca".

The link to this particular book just discussed is:

Go find an old bird book.  The information you read, with both detail and changes of knowledge, may surprise, impress, or entertain you. Below is a short list of some older titles.
I’ve listed several older bird books below…
1) Birds Recorded from the Santa Rita Mountains in Southern Arizona by Bailey (1923)
2) Arizona and Its Bird Life by Brandt (1951)
3) Birds of Pine-Oak Woodland in Southern Arizona and Adjacent Mexico by Marshall (1957)
4) The Birds of Arizona by Philips et al. (1964)
5) The Distribution of the Birds of California by Grinnell (1944)
6) A Distributional List of the Birds of California by Grinnell (1915)
7) Wilson's American Ornithology by Brewer (1840)
8) The Birds of New England by Samuels (1870)
9) Key to North American Birds by Coues (1872)
10) Birds of the North-West by Coues (1877)
11) Birds of Eastern North America by Maynard (1881)
12) New England Bird Life, Volumes 1 & 2 by Stears (1883)
13) Ridgway's Manual of North American Birds by Ridway (1887)
14) Handbook of Birds of Eastern North America by Chapman (1895)
15) Birds of the United States and Canada by Nuttall (1903)
16) Handbook of Birds of the Western United States by Bailey (1904)
17) Field Book of Birds of the Southwestern United States by Wyman (1925)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Photo Quiz (& Answer)

Forgive the deviation from the typical birdbook format; but, I wanted to share the below photos of a rather unique bird I encountered today (22 June 2011).  This bird was photographed at Oak Flats Campground (N33.307500  W111.050830  Elevation 3913 feet) in Pinal County, Arizona, USA.

Needless to say, this is a leucistic form of a bird that typically breeds in the area.  This particular individual fledged here earlier this summer.  It was also interesting to note this morning an adult plumaged male of this species which was showing notable leucism on the chest, throat, and crown.  I presume this individual was the contributing father.

I will post the answer on July 2nd (see below).

And, the answer is a...Vermilion Flycatcher (Pyrocephalus rubinus). This is one of two leucistic birds that fledged in the area. To see photos of a different all white individual at another location in Arizona in 2009, take a look at this link...HERE.

11 Photos of Quiz Bird

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Field Guide to Tristan da Cunha

Hidden Gem
Field Guide to the Animals and Plants of Tristan da Cunha and Gough Island
by  Ryan, Peter
2007, 162pp, ISBN: 1874357331
Rating:  1  2  3  4  5

Basics:  softcover, 430 color photos of birds, mammals, plants, insects, and marine life;  descriptions and natural history

This book easily fulfills a wish I've had for many years which to see a field guide to these very remote islands in the southern Atlantic. Besides the islands noted in the book's title, it also covers the nearby Inaccessible and Nightingale Islands. This book has three strengths: Quality color photographs, brief but thorough text on the species, and a well-rounded assortment of fauna types.

The fauna types are broken into 6 sections, all with color photos.  These sections are the following: Island Setting (30 photos), Plants (159), Birds (107), Mammals (26), Terrestrial Invertebrates (21), and Marine Life (86).

All bird and mammal species found on or around the islands are shown with very good photographs. Of course, this includes the seven (some say only six) endemic birds. For the endemic birds, these are by far the best collection of photos I've seen. Additionally, this is only one of three books I know of to show photos of all the endemic birds (see Shirihai's and Sinclair's books).

The photos are equally good for the insects, especially the flightless moths. Terrestrial plants and marine life have a great variety with clear, colorful, and large photos.

Text for each bird is typically one paragraph in length.  As one would hope,
the endemic species receive extended accounts.  The material provides a nice description that addresses plumage variations between genders and the few races that may be present.  Additional material is give for "Behavior" which consists of migration times, nesting, breeding habits, diet, and some descriptions of vocalizations.  A few more sentences cover distribution, population, and conservation.  Similar but often more brief material is given for the birds, mammals, and fish.

I especially appreciate the three pages that discuss tourism to the island and the logistics of getting to the islands and staying there. In short, anyone wishing to visit Tristan da Cunha must set aside a minimum of 5 weeks due to travel requirements and to ship availability.

This is a great book on Tristan da Cunha and will certainly be enjoyed by anyone who's wanted to learn about these little known islands.

I’ve listed several related books below…
1) Origin of the Land Birds of Tristan da Cunha by Rand
2) The Complete Guide to the Antarctic Wildlife by Shirihai
3) A Guide to the Birds of St. Helena and Ascension Island by McCulloch
4) Albatrosses, Petrels and Shearwaters of the World by Onley
5) Identification of Seabirds of the Southern Ocean by Onley
6) Seabirds: An Identification Guide by Harrison

7) Seabirds of the Tropical Atlantic Ocean by Watson
8) Field Guide to the Birds of Southern Africa by Sinclair (ISBN 0869774352)

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Os Beija-flores do Brasil

Welcome to the first segment of books I'm introducing as "Lesser Known Gems".  These are books I've deemed to be noteworthy but may be somewhat obscure or unfamiliar.  These are hidden gems that will be appreciated by the bird book aficionado.

Os Beija-flores do Brasil
by Grantsau, Rolf
1988, 233pp, ISBN: 8520801005
Basics:  hardcover; large format (11x8 inches) contains 37 good color plates of 85 species found in Brazil; 229 large illustrations show male and female as well as various subspecies; 89 b&w line illustrations show nests and young along with detailed diagrams of wings, tail, feathers, or head to compare similar species; 18 b&w photographs show habitat types and some species; text focuses primarily on giving concise descriptions of each species as well as the genders and subspecies; identification keys to all species and subspecies are provided for each genus; 14 full-page maps with outlines of provinces and major rivers show locations of sightings for all species; 5-7 species are included per map; all text is in only Portuguese

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

National Geographic Mini-guides

Field Guide to Birds: (insert state's name here)
by National Geographic
2004 - 2006, about 270 pages each
Basics:  softcover; 12-volume series of small (6 x 4 inches) photo guides with about 270 pages; each book addresses 160-170 of the states' more commonly seen or notable birds of which 125 are shown in very nice photographs; geared towards the casual or beginning birder and towards any birder that may like nice photos; basic text covers description, habitat, and behavior; 4-colored range map provided for each bird

A set of books can be alluring, sometimes more so merely because it is a "set" that is involved.  Something created in a "set" implies that collecting should take place; thus, we (at least, I) buy them.  This quirky obsession is probably shared to some degree by other birders who practice collecting habits through the maintenance of a yard list, a state list, a life list, a hit-by-the-car list, or some other variation.

National Geographic has created a set of books, a dozen to be exact, where each introduces the reader to birds of a particular state.  Each book carries a similar title -- "Field Guide to Birds: (insert state name here)".  The dozen books actually cover 15 states.  Three of the books address two states each (e.g., AZ & NM, WA & OR, NC & SC).  See a map below of the states included within these books.

What's shown inside these small-sized books? 
Each little book, or booklet, contains 160-170 birds (about 30-40% of all birds found in the state).  Only 125 are shown with a photograph.  These 125 "core" birds are displayed in a single, good quality, color photograph that covers between a half and a full page.  Nearly every bird is shown by only one individual which is typically the adult breeding male.  Although this can help make for a colorful book, it also acts as one of the elements preventing this book from being a complete field guide for any state.  Besides showing only 30-40% of the state's birds, these books show only 20-40% of the plumages one could expect to see in the field.

The remaining 50-60 species not shown in a photo might be deemed as "token" inclusions.  These additional birds are illustrated in tiny (2-3cm) color drawings tucked in the lower corner of the page.  These extra birds are typically a species similar to or reminiscent of the one shown in the adjacent photo.  Examples would include pairings such as Summer and Scarlet Tanager; Common Yellowthroat and Yellow-breasted Chat; or White-crowned and White-throated Sparrows.

New Jersey
As one might expect, many of the same species are shown in several different books.  This is notable for wide ranging birds such as the Yellow-rumped Warbler and Red-winged Blackbird.  However, it should be pointed out the exact same photo for many of the birds is recycled through different books.  At the extreme, 63 of the photos in the New Jersey book are also found in the New York book.  That's half of the photos.  To me, this equates to buying one-and-a-half books for the price of two.  I recognize the financial and logistical ease of doing this, but it would have been nice to at least provide us with different photos of the Northern Cardinal or the Slate-colored Junco or the other 61 birds.  There are so many other good photos that could have been displayed.

What's included in the text for each bird?
For each photographed bird, general material is provided that covers field marks, behavior, voice, habitat, and regions of the states where the bird is typically found.  The field marks are relatively simple, short comments aimed at providing a minimal description to the novice birder.  Where appropriate, descriptions are given for each the male and female plumages.  A few other comments are usually provided on particular behaviors such as nesting, food, displays, or vocalizations.  A few short lines also address habitat.

Each of these birds is accompanied by a range map of the state.  Four different colors in the map represent breeding (red), winter (blue), migration (green), and year-round (purple).  Additional information on location includes references to a few local sites where the bird may be found.  This often lists specific names of places such as "Marsh Creek State Park"; or, perhaps a more generalized area like "Pocono Mountains".  Sometimes, the location is more generalized such as "in forest, woodlands, and suburban parks everywhere."

Regarding the tiny birds painted in the corner of the page, the briefest of notes is provided to draw attention to their similarity to the adjacent photographed bird.  These notes provide a few descriptive comments along with maybe a note or two on their habitat and range.

Is it worth buying all 12 books?
Unless you're into collecting bird books, there is probably no strong reason to purchase all twelve.  I say this because even with all twelve at hand, they will not help identify all the birds of the US.  But, that was not the designed purpose of these books.  Although nowhere is it stated as such, there seems to be two key aims for each book.

One, is to provide the beginning or casual birder a highly attractive series of photographs that would hopefully capture the person's birding interest as well as to strengthen it.  Two, is to show many of the more commonly seen birds that may be encountered and to provide information on how to identify the birds.  If those were the two aims, then National Geographic did a good job.  If they weren't, well, they're welcome to use my thoughts for marketing.

Who will appreciate these books the most?
Arizona - New Mexico
This guide will appeal more to the casual or novice birder.  It will also be useful to those people who take a fascination with the common local birds that visit their feeders or birds that may be seen during a walk through a local park.  I recommend giving this book to a beginning birders to encourage their interest without overwhelming them with the hundreds of species (and thousands of plumages) that exist.  Start them off easy with this simplified but attractive guide.

You should consider this compact book to be a beginner's guide that will serve as a nice "first book" for the newly indoctrinated birder.  For the more experienced or even semi-serious birder with a greater focus on identification, the limited scope of this book may be disappointing.  If a more complete identification is the goal, there are other photo-guides that show all the species plus multiple plumages for gender, age, seasons, and race.

These books are not the perfect field guide but they are a great practice tool for anyone beginning their foray into the birding world.

How do these compare to the other set of state-oriented books by Tekiela?
Tekiela's Arizona
Stan Tekiela has created a sort of mass production machine with photo guides dedicated to each US state.  As of 2011, he's created a small bird book for all but 5 states (NV, NH, RI, VT, WY).  Plus, he has many more on mammals, herps, trees, and flowers.

These books are very similar in nature to the National Geographic books; however, Tekiela's books show more species for the state. Like National Geographic, they display only one plumage which is typically the adult breeding male.

One distraction with Tekiela's books is the "cookie cutter" approach with some birds.  As an example, the widespread Yellow-rumped Warbler is shown in many books which is to be expected.  However, it is the "Myrtle" race that represents this species, even in some of the western states where the "Audubon's" race dominates.  This same mistake is done to other species/subspecies as well.  To me, it gives an appearance of simply rotating pictures a bit and producing a new cover to the book with a different state's name.  Ah, but that does sound familiar with the 63 photos shared between the New Jersey and the New York books mentioned earlier!

The text is similar and is geared towards the beginning or casual birder.  I've found these books to be a handy and appreciated gifts for kids.  The photos are attractive and they're simple enough to start them off learning the birds.  Even the non-birding parents will enjoy the photos.

What states have a book?
Below is a map showing the 15 states that have generated 12 books.  The pink-shaded states are those that have been coupled together into a single book.

The selection of states does a pretty good job of (a) hitting the major variations of the avifauna in the US and (b) covering the populated areas of the country that may be interested in purchasing the books.  The complete list of books is as follows:

Arizona & New MexicoCalifornia
Maryland & D.C.
New Jersey
New York
North & South Carolina
Washington & Oregon

All of these books are nice little works. They're attractive, easy to thumb through, and, I think, provide just the right amount of information to appeal to those friends of yours who've not (yet) purchased their own set of binoculars but have expressed some interest when asking you  about what you find so interesting about "birding".