Friday, May 13, 2011

Birds in Place

Birds in Place
Habitat-Based Field Guide to the Birds of the Northern Rockies
by  Icenoggle, Radd
2003, 380pp, ISBN: 1560372419
Basics:  softcover; a general guide to birds in the Rocky Mountains across 7 states and provinces; 264 species shown in color photos of variable quality; birds arranged into 21 different habitat types; majority of text is dedicated to natural history aspects; a general description is given for each bird along with a 4-color range map; 95 nice color photographs show various habitat types; each habitat chapter is introduced with 3-6 pages that discuss the vegetation, ecosystem, associated birds, weather, etc.
A clue to the key difference about the unique approach taken by this bird guide is found in its subtitle: " Habitat-Based Field Guide".  The book is divided into 21 different habitat types, each showing its respective assortment of birds.  In all, 264 species are shown in about 285 color photographs of varying quality.  These photos show a single bird, typically of just the breeding male.  Another 95 photos offer some very nice images of the many habitat types one can find in the Rockies.
At first thought, habitat might seem like a handy way of arranging the birds.  Somewhat like a local field guide that shows just the birds of a particular park or a county, why not show just the birds found in a particular habitat in which you may be birding?  The answer is, callously, "Because it doesn't work very well"; especially when compared to existing field guides.  This is due to four critical points.

One, just as the author acknowledged in the introduction, is "most birds occur in multiple habitats."  This is even more true during the several weeks in each of spring and autumn migration.  In this book, a bird is shown in only one habitat.  Consequently, if you see a dull grayish flycatcher in the "Moist Douglas-Fir" habitat, it must be a Hammond's, right?  No.  It would be equally inaccurate to say if you're not in that habitat then it must not be a Hammond's Flycatcher.

A second reason the book's organization is problematic is due to the number of species listed with each habitat.  At least seven habitats are shown with fewer than ten (10) species.  The "Aspen Parkland" has only three while the "Whitebark Pine Forest" has only a single bird.  What should we do when we realistically see 10-15 species in the Whitebark Pine Forest?  This leads us to point #3.

The layout of the book prevents us from comparing similar species or, even species in the same family.  Since one family of birds can be scattered throughout the book (e.g., warblers), you must sift through many pages to compare or read about the similar species.  Compounding the issue is an index that departs from the normal practice of alphabetically listing birds by group/family (e.g., Warbler: Nashville, Townsend's, Yellow, etc.).  Instead, the index alphabetically arranges the full name of each bird, splitting up like members of a group.  This means American Redstart is at the beginning of the index, Yellow Warbler is at the end, and Nashville Warbler somewhere in the middle of the 264 birds.  You must now search for the word "warbler" line by line to see on which page a warbler can be found.  However, you must be aware some warblers are actually called by a different name such as "redstart", "waterthrush", "ovenbird", "chat", or "yellowthroat".  This will work against the casual birder.

The fourth reason this format may pose issues is you must be more-than-familiar with the identification of habitat types.  When you're out birding in the Rockies (especially for the first time), can you easily discern if you are in a "Dry Coniferous" vs. "Cedar-Hemlock" vs. "Moist Douglas-Fir" vs. "Spruce-Fir" forest?  If you don't recognize the exact habitat, you'll be looking at the wrong set of birds in the book.  If you see a mystery flycatcher in the Montane Shrubland, the Sage Shrubland, the Dry Conifer Forest, or in the Meadows (the book shows no flycatchers for these habitats), how do you find and identify the bird in this book?  Your only options are (a) to flip through all 362 pages of other habitats until you see something that looks right or, again, (b) you peruse through the index for the word "flycatcher" to find each bird's corresponding page.  Keep in mind some flycatchers are called "pewees".  You'll need to search for that word, too.  Oh, and "phoebe".

The account provided for each bird offers a general description of the male and female.  Additional material, typically a paragraph each, is given for feeding, habits, nest, voice, primary habitat and, "other habitats".  The natural history material is the focus of each bird's account, making up about 80% of the information provided.  The photographs show some species nicely such as the Lewis's Woodpecker, Bobolink, and Chestnut-backed Chickadee.  In contrast, they also shows many others rather poorly.  This is due to the birds being photographed at a distance, making them very small in the photo.  As an example, inside its 2-inch photo you will see a tiny Snowy Owl, Winter Wren, Brewer's Sparrow, or Pygmy Nuthatch, all of which are less than 9mm.  This means they're small enough to be obscured by just the eraser at the end of your pencil.  The photo of the Ruffed Grouse is barely recognizable.  Besides being small, it is severely shadowed, silhouetted against the snow, and looks like a stick.  Perhaps it was meant to be an example of natural camouflage.

Also accompanying the species account is a decently sized range map that shows an area from NW Wyoming to the Oregon coast and north to the southern half of British Columbia and Alberta.  With four different colors, the maps show the general range of the bird for winter, migrant, breeding, and resident.  Complimenting the map is a horizontal bar showing the relative abundance of the bird in each month.  The width of the bar denotes the abundance and the colors used matches the color scheme found in the map.
Introducing each of the 21 habitat chapters is a nice 3-6 page overview of the vegetation characteristics that make up the relevant environment.  This information discusses its climate, various plant species, and other natural history notes.  These introductions typically contain the best, as well as largest, photos.  At least 2-4 photos are provided, giving the reader a nice image of the habitat's typical appearance.

Will this book allow you to identify the birds?  Yes, for some of the easier birds; but, not with confidence for many of the others.  In the field, you will encounter many plumages other than just the breeding male pictured in this book.  Some photos simply don't show the bird well, such as the Plumbeous Vireo with only its head sticking out of the nest or the itty-bitty Dusky Flycatcher that shows us only a distant belly and face.  In fact, I'm not sure this is actually a Dusky, (head shape and dark bill) but the tiny photo doesn't allow us a chance for a true identification.  One clearly misidentified photo is the full page, very nice shot of a non-breeding plumaged Wilson's Phalarope on p374.  It is mislabeled as a Pectoral Sandpiper.

Perhaps contrary to what my review may infer, this is a delightful book if…if the reader has an enhanced interest in the natural settings in which birds are found.  I recommend this book to those people who are more oriented towards an all-outdoor perspective with a casual interest in the birds they encounter along the way.  Essentially, this is a nice book to learn what birds may be associated with a habitat, but it is not an efficient nor effective means of learning to identify all the birds found in those habitats.

Too many birds are missing from each habitat that would be seen and, it's cumbersome to quickly maneuver through the book in search for a particular bird or its possible similar species. Perhaps a more fitting title of this book would be "A Guide to Northern Rocky Mountain Habitats and Some of Their Associated Birds in the Breeding Season". – (written by Jack, shown with sample pages at Avian Review, May 2011)

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