host of the PBS kids’ show Dinosaur Train, the
chief curator for the Denver Museum of Nature
and Science, and a paleontologist. He cites many
studies to back up his beliefs and provides an
extensive bibliography. On the downside, the
reader has to wade through more science than I
feel is necessary.
As a teacher who explores outside with kids
in all types of habitats in all kinds of weather, I
can attest that most young children need no urging to interact with stuff outdoors. As the author
says, “nature is a contact sport.” He encourages
parents to be “hummingbirds” instead of “
helicopters,” allowing children to experience bumps
and bruises, stepping in only when safety merits
(think leaves-of-three and swarms of bees).
The last part of the book is about using technology to connect with nature. While Sampson
advocates creating times to be disconnected from
electronic devices, he is realistic and encourages digital photography and the use of many fine
Better Birding: Tips, Tools &
Concepts for the Field
George L. Armistead and Brian L. Sullivan
Princeton University Press, 2016
The Warbler Guide
Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle
Princeton University Press, 2013
Expert bird watchers appear to have superhuman
powers of observation and skill that can be
humbling to mere mortals. It seems like they can
identify a bird in the back of an open mailbox
when they drive by at 50 miles per hour. But as
the authors of Better Birding coach us, with practice and the right approach, we all can have these
Birders tend to be bibliophiles. Many of us begin
with a simple field guide and, as our bird watching
becomes more serious, so does our reading. These
two books are designed to help take you from
mere mortal to bird-watching guru.
With years of field experience, George
Armistead and Brian Sullivan are uniquely qualified
to lead us on this quest. Armistead, from the
American Birding Association, and Sullivan, co-director of eBird (a global bird tracking database)
at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, have extensive
guiding and teaching experience. They’ve taken
the time to break down and reveal the techniques
expert birders use to make quick and easy bird
Better Birding starts with a 27-page introduction
that lays the groundwork for the reader to tackle
the two dozen bird groups found in the remainder
of the book. The authors promote what they call
“wide-angle birding,” a technique we all use sub-
consciously everyday when making observations
and the method expert birders use hundreds of
times during an outing. Here’s an example:
“When they see a soaring red-tailed hawk
and identify it with the naked eye, they can do
so partly because they know there is often a
red-tailed hawk in that spot, partly because it’s
moving like one, and partly because it just looks
like one. Combine these factors in a split second
(habits, movement, appearance), and you have
reached an identification.”
In the introduction, the authors present tips and
tools such as the importance of understanding bird
distribution, learning songs and how to use record-
ings and playback, tackling feather molt, what
makes a species a species, and more. With quips
like “be the bird, see the bird” and “when you hear
hoofbeats, think horses, but consider zebras,” the
authors conjure a mystical approach to birding. My
only lament is that the introduction doesn’t delve
more deeply into each subject. But the authors do
suggest other resources to continue your quest.
Their wide-angle approach shines brightly
throughout the remainder of the book as they
take the reader through a variety of bird groups.
Although they weren’t able to treat every bird
species in North America, each bird group that is
covered includes a dazzling array of photographs
to illustrate the lessons. Each section begins
with an overview of the bird group that includes
natural history, taxonomy, and identification challenges. A “Focus On” section is comprised of
large images with text overlays pointing out the
important features you should look for as you view
the bird. See a loon on water? Make sure you note
the head and bill shape, neck pattern, scapulars,
wing coverts, and flanks. Bullet lists of “Hints and
Considerations” contain identification tricks, potentially confusing species, useful notes on seasonality
and range, and more. Finally, the “Identification”
section gives an overview of plumages followed by
detailed species accounts for each one.
With so much information packed into each
bird group, I found myself reading them over
and over and learning more each time. Fans of
the northern forest will especially appreciate the
section on the very similar Accipiters, the looka-like fast forest hawks that are devilishly difficult
to identify. Once again, my only lament is that
the authors weren’t able to cover more groups of
birds, such as warblers. While the lessons taught
in this volume lay the groundwork for becoming a
better birder, I hope future volumes with additional
Do si do and say hello
to drummin’ bird. Slow
it down then pick it up.
One and a half and let
her go. It’s right by right
by wrong you go. Turn
to your left and freeze
the doe. Promenade
to the field below.
It may be the last time,
I don’t know. Allemande
right with Mr. Crow.
You can’t go to heaven
when you carry on so.
Yellow rock, red rock,
oh by Joe. Dangle now
outside the know, tim’rous
beastie, beastie, O!
Chard deNiord, From the book Interstate.
© 2015, reprinted with permission of the
University of Pittsburgh Press
bird groups are planned.
Fortunately, The Warbler Guide is an amazing
book that fills this particular gap. With the sweet
songs and bright breeding colors of some 30
species, warblers are the gems on the northern
forest’s crown. Authors Tom Stephenson and
Scott Whittle help readers identify warblers both
by sight and, perhaps more importantly, by song.
The book helps you see the songs using special
graphs called sonograms that are accompanied
by detailed explanations.
If you’re new to birding, The Warbler Guide might
be too much horsepower for you. Then again, it is
so thorough and well designed that, combined with
your newfound knowledge from Better Birding, you
will be poised to be an all-star each spring when
the woods fill with singing warblers.
Although it’s designed like a field guide, at 559
pages and with over 1,000 color photos, you’re
not likely to carry this in the field. But it’s so good
it may find itself riding in my backseat for quick
reference on spring birding trips.
If you are ready to take your birding abilities to the next level, these two books will help
in your quest. But as the authors say in Better
Birding, “…there’s no quick way to become an
expert. Becoming great at bird identification takes
dedication and work.” The birders you admire are
likely to have spent years behind their binoculars
and pawing through books like these.