Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Niagara Birds

Niagara Birds
by  Black, John E. and Kayo J. Roy
2010, 703pp, ISBN: 9780981148908
Note: Currently, the limited supply of books is available through only the authors.  You can view their website HERE or, go directly to their form to order the book...HERE

Basics:  softcover; potent reference to all 368 species recorded from the region between 1966-2006 plus older records of extreme rarities; 475 high quality color photos of birds and the region's habitats; each bird receives one-half to over a full page of material addressing historical records, habitat, seasonal presence, and some natural history notes; initial 257 pages provide excellent ornithological overview to data, seasonal expectations, and general history
Here is a unique book that should attract the attention of three categories of birders.  One group would be birders familiar with or living in the Niagara region.  Their library would be incomplete without the quality photos and material that so well represents their home turf.  Two, are the record-oriented ornithologists.   This is a great repository of historical records and information.   And, three, are future authors looking for a template or benchmark on how to create a book specializing on the birds of a specific region.

This ornithological reference is thick at 703 pages, containing an account for each of the 368 species recorded from the Niagara region or municipality of Ontario, Canada.  Shown inside are 475 high quality photographs that range from medium-sized to a full page.  The photo of the Wood Duck really jumps out with the vibrant colors of both the bird and the background.  These photos show 306 of the species plus various habitats and environments of the area.  Most of the birds have just a single photo which is typically of the adult male.  Another 23 species are represented by a very good black and white line drawing (e.g., American Redstart, Palm Warbler).  The remaining 39 species not illustrated are typically the accidental or vagrant species; however, a few of these are common birds such as the Black-throated Green Warbler and, I'm glad to not see it, the Rock Pigeon.
The book is divided into four distinct parts, with the bulk of the material (386 pages) dedicated to the species accounts.  Most of these accounts are based on records from 1966-2006.  A few older records refer to notable rarities such as the extraordinary Slender-billed Curlew of 1925.  These accounts vary in length from one-half page to over a full page for each bird.  This material focuses on key natural history aspects such as migrational movements, seasonal arrival dates, breeding, abundance and status, and historical information that may refer to Christmas counts, breeding surveys, and other documented sightings.  For the rarer visitors, specific dates and locations are provided along with references and names of the discoverers.

Besides a photo or two that often accompanies the bird, it was a nice touch to include side notes in the margins of the pages.  Even more information was supplied in separate boxes that gave updates on post-2006 sightings as well as special commentaries to highlight a particular sighting and its story.  These special touches compliment the book's aesthetic look as well as demonstrate the passion and thoroughness the authors put into this book.  They created a book that was more than just an archive of records, but a work that is engaging to read.  Some of the species accounts also include non-scientific perspectives that are entertaining to read.  As an example, the account of "Hannah" the rare Rufous Hummingbird was presented from the viewpoint of the birder whose feeder this rare straggler visited for two weeks.  Another example of a nice tangent is the comment on the origination of the Wandering Tattler's name, another very rare visitor to the area.
Many of the photos come directly from the Niagara region as well as from some of the surrounding areas.  It is quite a collection of superb photos made possible from many contributors.  Only a few of the photographs (e.g., Razorbill, Sooty Tern, Wandering Tattler) could be improved upon in quality; however, that would be a mistake with these particular birds because these particular photos serve a more important role.  They are more valuable as documentation of the actual presence of the bird in the Niagara vicinity.

The next largest section (190 pages) provides a very thorough coverage of Niagara's seasonal nuances and impacts on the birdlife.  Each of the four seasons receives its own chapter of 30-50 pages.  The information contained within each season offers a wide array of ornithological information.  Just to mention a few topics, these include nest box programs; hawk migration; a frequency count for each of 97 species seen during each day of May; nesting, census, and population trends; and a nice assortment of tables and charts.  In all, this book contains 67 charts, graphs, and tables of information.  The self-professed "larophile" will appreciate the section on winter.  Here, the authors provide a nice overview of all the gulls to occur in the area plus a nice 40-year chart showing the yearly abundance of Iceland, Glaucous, and Little Gulls.
There are two other informative sections.  Part One (40 pages) provides a solid overview of the region's natural history, geography, human impacts, and ornithological history.  Part Four (55 pages) concludes the book and gives the reader a nice listing of birding hotspots plus brief biographies of the many people who've contributed to this book. 

A high level map gives the name and location to 40 of the best birding spots tucked between lakes Ontario and Erie on the Canadian side of the Niagara area.  Each birding site receives 1-4 paragraphs of material that provide driving directions on reaching the location, GPS coordinates, information about the location, and often a short listing of some notable birds that may be possible.  For the reader's benefit, it would have been handy to number each of these accounts to match up with the number used in the map.  It took a little bit of searching at times to find the account for a particular site shown on the map; and, vice versa, to locate an account's location on the map.
There is an abundance of material in this book.  Little is missing and everything included is to be commended.  Only twice did I spot tiny needs for editorial corrections.  One was the inclusion of two photos for the Willet.  The larger of the two photos is not a Willet but a Hudsonian Godwit.  On a nitpicky point, the death date for the Rufous Hummingbird in the margin gives the year as 2004 while the year is listed as 2005 twice in the main body of text.

The massive amount of information that is organized and presented so well plus the wonderful photographs are the culmination of nearly 5 years of the authors' effort and passion.  They've created a respectable piece of work.  My enthusiasm for this book motivated me to state the following to the authors during an e-mail exchange:  "I am quite impressed by not only the quality  photographs and artwork, but the amount of information you provide for each species and for the region as a whole.  Of the books I've examined that focus on a specific area, yours is easily the most thorough and informative."

You will find no better ornithological reference for Niagara and, probably none better for any other specific locale either.  – (written by Jack, shown with sample pages at Avian Review, April 2011)

Monday, April 18, 2011

Birds of New Zealand, Hawaii, Central and West Pacific

Birds of New Zealand, Hawaii, Central and West Pacific
by Van Perlo, Ber
2011, 256pp, ISBN: 9780007287383

BASICS: hardcover; contains 95 mediocre quality plates containing 750+ species across the Pacific Islands; most birds have minimal text for descriptions and identification; a few words are given for the typical habitat and a very brief description is given on the vocalization; a small, sometimes ineffectual, range map is provided for each bird
REVIEW: In a manner similar to other bird books by the author, this book straddles an imaginary line between a field guide and an illustrated annotated checklist.  With its 95 plates, all 750+ species found in the central and western Pacific islands are illustrated in color.  The only notable island chains in the Pacific not included are the Solomons, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, and the Bismarck Archipelago.  In a field guide format, the plates are adjacent to the birds' names and their respective text.  However, the quality of the illustrations as well as the limited depth and amount of text is at the minimal end of the spectrum you'd
expect from a decent field guide.

The plates by the author/illustrator are not bad but, they do look incomplete; or, perhaps more accurately, hastily finished as if it was time to move on to start a new book for another part of the world.  It is readily apparent the artwork lacks fine, smooth detail. The artwork shows a rough, more generalized color patterning.  Although this method can be used to assist with the identification of the bird, it does not lend itself to to reliably identify the bird.  In fact, these are the roughest drawings I've seen in any of van Perlo's works.  These plates are starkly different from what the publisher touts on the back cover which is "…illustrated in stunning detail…".  The only thing stunning was the incongruity of that statement.

Even the author contradicts the publisher's claim.  On page 7, he understandably defends his artistic style by saying, "It is said that the painting in my books is 'a bit sketchy, somewhat fast and loose, not finely finished'".  He then counters with, "…painting each individual feather will give too much information unless the feathers form a pattern.  I also find it difficult to draw straight lines…when depicting the parallel primaries in a folded wing, or perfect circles when forming an eye…"

These plates will still offer some help to identify the bird; but, a confident identification would be more fairly credited to the fact that so many of the birds are island restricted and do not overlap with a similar species.  On the plus side, many different plumages are included to show genders, ages, and races.  The inclusion of extra paintings often creates a very crowded page with small illustrations.  As an example, one of the gull pages is packed with 44 illustrations in an area of only 6.5 x 4.5 inches.

The text for each bird typically consists of 2-4 lines that may address descriptions, or identification tips, or preferred habitat.  Identification material is not just very scant but is often absent for some of the birds.  Here are complete examples used to describe three different birds:

1) Atiu Swiftlet reads: "Somewhat contrasting paler underparts".
2) Red-necked Stint reads: "Note short bill.  Non-breeding plumage not safely separable from [birds] 48.7 and 49.5, 49.7 and 49.9".
3) Lastly, which plover do you think fits the following description:  "Small; appears slender and rather long-legged.  Without or with very narrow wing stripe."?

Although the number of species in this book (about 750) is less than some other field guides, the huge expanse of territory covered and the relatively few species to be found in a specific island group poses some logistical, if not frustrating consequences.  If you go birding in Tahiti, or Fiji, or Hawaii, you can expect to see maybe 30-40 species in a casual 5-7 day trip.   Anyone unfamiliar with an Amakihi or a Silktail is going to be a bit frustrated trying to leaf through the book to find either bird since the birds are arranged taxonomically and not by island group.

Each bird is accompanied by a range map.  Unfortunately, these maps are small (1 x 1.5 cm) with tiny geographic outlines and symbols.  The eastern half of Australia shown in the maps is only 3mm across.  The vast expanses covered by these maps can make many of these maps relatively ineffective.  The maps often show a constellation of dots representing a chain of islands.  One of those dots might be highlighted to show the bird's presence.  It is probably only the rare person who is geographically savvy enough to recognize which tiny dot is which island amongst the myriad of different island clusters.

Yes, this is the only bird book to illustrate all the birds of Hawaii, and New Zealand, and all the island groups between Pitcairn and Palau.  Alas, that is not necessarily a good thing, just as it would not be good to illustrate all the birds of California and of Denmark into one book, especially when accompanied by weak illustrations and minimal identification material.

This book will be handy to learn what birds exist throughout the Pacific but, I would not make it the single reference for a birding trip destined to one or two  island groups (e.g., Hawaii, or New Zealand, or Tahiti, or Samoa, etc.)  There are much better alternatives for those areas.  In fact, nearly any area of the Pacific has a better alternative book.  If you use this book, be sure to supplement it with one that specializes on the area(s) you will visit.  – (written by Jack at Avian Review with sample pages, April 2011)

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Hawks at a Distance

Hawks at a Distance: Identification of Migrant Raptors
by  Liguori, Jerry
2011, 190pp, ISBN: 0691135592
Basics:  softcover; nearly 600 small color photos show 29 of the expected 34 species of the hawk/falcon family in the US; all photos show the birds in flight and at a distance; a full-page photo is given for 19 of the raptors; 1-3 pages of text on each bird focuses on describing two things:  the bird's flight pattern/behavior and the bird's various plumages

This is a rather unique book that takes the unconventional approach of purposely basing the entire work on not just small, but on tiny photographs.  If that seems unorthodox or even unwise, it is the tiny nature of the photos that is paramount to the aim of this book.  For those of you who've seen the author's previous work, "Hawks from Every Angle", just imagine opening that book again but standing 15 feet away to look at the photos.  If you have not seen it, simply think back to a time when an apparently small raptor soared high in the air and then multiply that experience by 600 more birds of the same smallness; and, then put them all into one book for your identification enjoyment -- and practice.
This book addresses a narrow niche of identification, which is done by providing a myriad of photographs that show a distant raptor from below, above, and head on.  In all, 29 of the expected 34 species in the US are examined. Greater attention is given to 20 of these raptors.  These primary 20 birds are shown with a range of 9 photos (Gyrfalcon) to 79 photos (Red-tailed Hawk) and accompanied by 1-3 pages of text.  The other 9 species have considerably less material with just 1-6 photos and 1-2 paragraphs of text each.  In case you're wondering, the five species not included in this book are Harris's Hawk, Common Black-Hawk, Gray Hawk, Snail Kite, and the more restricted Aplomado Falcon.  These exclusions will be a disappointment to birders of the Southwest since three of these birds are routine sightings in the region.

In all, there are nearly 600 color photographs, all of which show the birds in flight. A very nice full-page photo is given for all but one of the primary 20 species covered (no big photo for the Gyrfalcon).  At first glance, the small photos are…umm…tiny.  The majority are between 1 and 1.5 cm from wing tip to wing tip.  But, that feature is the very point of this book.  What the author does is to draw your attention to the subtle, critical features that are present when you know where to look.  With these subtle identification points, you are being shown how to identify the bird not only to species, but often to gender, age, and subspecies for some (e.g., Merlin and Peregrine Falcon).
The text for each bird focuses on only two things:  Flight mannerisms and plumage variations.  Regarding the flight mannerisms, the writing style is straight forward, almost as if the author is standing next to you in the field as he tries to point out the key features when you ask, "What's that speck soaring over there?"  Not surprisingly, much of this information is subjective and garnered from considerable time and experience of observing these birds.  As an example, Merlins are described as "…have stout chests, broader-based wings, and slightly broader, shorter tails."  Another note says, "…have shorter wings and slim, short tails that are typically square-tipped when folded, lacking a taper toward the tip."  Without photos to help demonstrate what this means, this can be difficult to convey to some people -- almost like trying to describe the difference between the musical notes of C-sharp and a D-sharp without making any sounds.

A very nice job is done describing the various plumages which cover ages, genders, races, and phases.  These descriptions often go into fine detail and are typically compared against similar features found in other raptors.  Since the descriptions refer to variously named parts of the bird, it would be wise to become familiar with the terminology by reading the terms defined in the introduction; and, to examine the adjacent photos of a soaring hawk that have the body parts labeled.  As in the author's prior raptor book, the more critical notes are emphasized with bold text.  These are the key features the author believes you should memorize.
Included in the back of the book are 19 separate plates, each showcasing the in-flight shapes of one of the primary raptors (again, Gyrfalcon is not included).  Each "shapes" plate is composed of a busy collage of 40-50 silhouette-like images of the bird.  These show the bird at different angles and with the wings held in different positions.  The images are well organized to help quickly scan over the many shapes and positions possible in the field.

As one small critique, it would have been nice to show the more similar species side-by-side in the color photographs (e.g., Cooper's/Sharp-shinned or Peregrine/Prairie).  This would have helped to see what was meant by describing one bird as being broader, thicker, narrower, more tapered, less squared, etc. than the other.  The current layout requires you to flip back and forth between pages; and, to match up similar poses to get a fair comparison.  However, it should be pointed out that some comparisons are possible with the "shape plates" found in the back of the book.  Although some flipping of pages will still be necessary, at least the two pairings noted above are positioned to face each other on opposite pages.

This book certainly gives a new perspective, and hope, to viewing those "too-far-to-identify" raptors.  The raptor enthusiast and the avid birder who's always trying to expand his knowledge of advanced identification tips will appreciate this book.  However, this book may not be for every birder.  Just because the photos aren't moving and you can stare at them without time limits, the subtleness of the features may still be frustrating.

This book probably should not be considered as a starting point for the typical new birder who simply wants to know the name of that raptor soaring up in the sky.  The difficulty of distinguishing the features of a distant bird may be even more basic than just a kestrel versus a Merlin.  The newer birder may first need to determine if that soaring or zipping bird is a falcon or a sometimes similar dove.  A foundation of observant birding should first have been practiced before trying to absorb what this book attempts to teach.  It's a new facet of material to learn and, for the right birder, will be enjoyed.  – (written by Jack, shown with sample pages at Avian Review, April 2011)

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Field Guide to Advanced Birding

Field Guide to Advanced Birding
Understanding What You See and Hear
by Kaufman, Kenn
2011, 448pp, ISBN: 9780547248325
BASICS: softcover; 550+ medium-sized color photos show identification points noted in the text; 10 pairings of similar species cover 46 species; additional species addressed more broadly in the various chapters; majority of the material focuses on how a birder examines certain groups of birds to become more advanced in his observation skills

This new book is an extension and not a replacement of the author's earlier book "Advanced Birding" from 1990.  The subtitle of this new book (Understanding What You See and Hear) is a clue to the different angle taken with this book.  Although it offers some focused identification material on similar species, the amount is significantly less than the previous book.  Instead, the majority of this book gives us a broader view of the birds.  It also points out key areas of difficult-to-identify groups of birds that must be examined to develop a more advanced focus of birding.
This book provides detailed identification notes on 10 distinct pairings of similar birds, making up 46 species (e.g., scaup, loons, Accipiters, Empidonax).  In contrast, the prior book has 29 distinct pairings covering 88 species.  All the birds mentioned in this newer book are also found in the original book.

Within this book are over 550 small to medium-sized color photographs used to show key points mentioned in the text.  These photos show the entire bird or, sometimes just the head, wing, or bill to help concentrate on the emphasized details.  Another 30 black-and-white illustrations used to show additional ID points are scattered throughout the chapters.

It seems the mission of this book is to serve as a primer to learn what is necessary to become an advanced birder.  It discusses the "theory and practice" so the birder has the tools to independently discover the finer identification points rather than to simply disclose to the reader what those ID points may be.  Basically, you're being given the "theory" to each grouping of birds so you can apply it to your own birding experiences in the field.
Regarding the various grouping of birds, nine of them address identification at a broader level without the specific comparison of similar species.  This material gives the reader advice on what should be examined to aid in a bird's identification.  Sometimes, nuggets of ID pointers are given on a particular species, but these are interspersed throughout the broader spectrum of material and may not stand out unless you read the section intently.  Fortunately, many of these nuggets are typically used as a legend underneath a photograph to demonstrates what the author is discussing.  So, what else will you find in this broader, more generalized (but still useful) material?  I'll use the 30-page section on the gulls as an example.

Instead of pairing similar species next to each other, this chapter discusses the many variables and complexities the birder will encounter when tackling the identification of gull plumages.  The author advises the birder to first practice on and to become familiar with the more common species at hand.  This does not mean just learning what to call them but to become more intensive in the studying of the many facets of the bird's feathers, wing shape, head, etc.  To develop a more advanced skill with identifying gulls, the author recommends paying particular attention to key physical aspects of a gull, regardless of species.  These include body structure, facial expression, bill shape/color, head shape, wing shape and pattern, color of the eye, eye ring, and legs, etc.
To demonstrate the complexity of gull plumages, a very nice series of 19 photographs shows the age progression of a Ring-billed Gull from juvenile to full adult.  Additional material discusses the complex plumage sequence of the gull family in general, often giving brief examples of a particular species.  A warning is also given about new knowledge that sheds light on the molting complexity.  Familiar terms used today to describe gulls (e.g., 2nd year) may not actually reflect the bird's true age.

Lastly, the section on gulls provides a nice overview and several examples of the truly frustrating event of hybrid gulls plus giving a good overview of the Herring Gull complex.
My favorite section of the book is the 41 pages and 63 photographs dedicated to 12 species of Empidonax flycatchers.  This chapter delves into great detail, supported by multiple photos of each bird.  Another 29 photos zoom in on just the underside of the beak to show the critical pattern plus known variations.

A few other highlights of this book should be pointed out such as the 22 pages that review the warblers, which is done in a manner similar to the section on gulls; another 7 pages dedicated to the fall Blackpoll, Bay-breasted, and Pine Warblers; 14 sonograms to help aid the description of warbler songs; and, a full page on the enigmatic Timberline Sparrow, currently treated as a subspecies of the Brewer's.

Emphasizing the book's focus to help develop a birder into an advanced birder, the first 135 pages provide extended material on anatomical terminology, molt, behavior, voice, and principles of identification.  All of this information is necessary to help the birder become both a more keen and an aware observer.  Anyone who's wanted to know how to take that next step to becoming more knowledgeable about a particularly frustrating group of birds will certainly want to have this book at home.  It is not really a field guide to be toted in one's back pocket, but it is a great resource to examine before and after those birding forays. – (written by Jack at Avian Review with sample pages, April 2011)