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)

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