An ingenious workbook for birdwatchers, plus guides to owls and rare birds
The editors of BirdWatching magazine review the books Finding Your Wings: A Workbook for Beginning Bird Watchers, Field Guide to Owls of California and the West, and Rare Birds Yearbook 2008.
Published: February 22, 2008
|Finding Your Wings: A Workbook for Beginning Bird Watchers (Peterson Field Guides) by Burton Guttman, Houghton Mifflin, 2008, 224 pages, 150 drawings, 75 photos, $14.95, paperback.|
The small, mostly brown bird flew into view a few seconds at a time, giving me brief glimpses. As it went about its business that day many years ago in a grassy field on the shore of Milwaukee's harbor, I did what any beginning birder would do: flipped madly through a field guide.
I knew the bird was a sparrow, but try as I might, I could not determine its species. I gave up in frustration. Looking back on it now, I see that it makes perfect sense that I whiffed on the ID. Beginners armed only with binoculars and a field guide rarely know how to look at an unfamiliar bird in hopes of correctly identifying it.
But if I had had Burton Guttman's Finding Your Wings, the outcome might have been different. Guttman, a professor of biology at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and a longtime teacher of birding workshops, has written a much-needed book.
Not only is it a guide to becoming a better birdwatcher (not unlike Pete Dunne on Bird Watching or Sibley's Birding Basics), but it's also a workbook that encourages you to answer questions, take quizzes, study silhouettes, and draw birds. Guttman stresses that he wants us to write in the book, and he provides plenty of blank lines for scribbles. "The act of writing," he says, "of doing something, is an important aspect of learning."
The book is designed to be a supplement to the Peterson field guides. Many of the exercises refer to illustrations in the eastern and western guides by page number, so you'll need your own copy to follow along. In his chapter on plumage and topography, for example, the author challenges you to "describe the head of a Clay-colored Sparrow" (page 59) and to explain the differences in the wings of the Brown Thrasher, Gray Catbird, and Northern Mockingbird (page 64).
Guttman also presents several skill-building field exercises: Find common birds and study their forms and postures (page 20), study water birds such as ducks, loons, and grebes (page 35), and watch how Blue or Steller's Jays fly (page 80). The exercises are fun and instructive.
As its subtitle makes clear, the book is pitched for beginners. Indeed, by heeding its advice, such as the title of chapter four, "Easy Birds First," I might have saved my newbie self the stress of the unidentified sparrow on the lakeshore. And unless your last name is Kaufman, Sibley, or Dunne, I'll bet you'll find this book useful, too. ID exercises in the second half challenge you on female birds, raptors, shorebirds, gulls, and -- you guessed it -- sparrows. Excuse me while I go sharpen my pencil. -- Matt Mendenhall
Matt Mendenhall is associate editor of Birder's World.
Field Guide to Owls of California and the West by Hans Peeters, University of California Press, 2007, 326 pages, 154 illustrations, 19 maps, $19.95, softcover.
This new book will be exceptionally useful to anyone who likes owls and hopes to learn about or find them, especially in the western states. Introductory sections explain the birds' vision and hearing, how they hunt and avoid predators, when and where to look for them, and which species are in trouble. Then the 19 owls found north of Mexico are described in detail: field marks, voices, habitats, flight styles, and more. We like the plates best of all, since they depict the owls in rich detail on clean white pages, perfect for close study.
Rare Birds Yearbook 2008 edited by Erik Hirschfeld, MagDig Media, 2007, 276 pages, £18.95 (approximately $37), softcover.
This directory of the world's most threatened birds, produced in collaboration with BirdLife International, is brand-new and will appear annually. It features up-to-date accounts of all 189 species listed as critically endangered by the World Conservation Union. Alongside sobering population numbers and lists of threats and necessary conservation actions are stunning up-close photos submitted by birders from around the world: a Laysan Duck in a swarm of flies (page 88), a flower-pecking Juan Fernandez Firecrown hummingbird (page 201), a Philippine Eagle (page 217), and many more.
If you're like us, you like to read about birds almost as much as you like watching birds. To make it easier for you to obtain good bird books, we've partnered with online bookseller Amazon.com. Read about a book in "Bookshelf" or any other part of our website, and if it interests you, click on the title to buy the book.