Special features

Kenn Kaufman describes his new Field Guide to Advanced Birding

Kaufman, author of several books and contributor of our regular "ID Tips" column, explains what's new in the ground-breaking 2011 edition of his field guide
By Chuck Hagner | Published: 4/6/2011

KaufmanAdvanced2ndEdEvery new book by Kenn Kaufman — author of Kingbird Highway and Lives of North American Birds, originator of the Kaufman Field Guide series, and contributor of “ID Tips,” our regular column on bird ID — is worth noting. But a new edition of A Field Guide to Advanced Birding, his ground-breaking 1990 contribution to the Peterson series, qualifies as an event.

The brand-new Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding, published in April 2011, started out as just an update of the earlier field guide, but along the way, it turned into a completely new book. Eighty-five percent of the material is new, as is the book’s aim, hinted at in the subtitle: “Understanding What You See and Hear.”

Editor Chuck Hagner interviewed Kaufman about the book recently. Their conversation is below. Highlights of the interview appear in the June 2011 issue of BirdWatching Magazine.

I’d like to start by talking about the first guide to advanced birding, then talk about the Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America, and then about the new Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding. Who did you write the Guide to Advanced Birding for?

The intended audience for that Peterson Field Guide to Advanced Birding was anyone who was an active birder. And looking back, it’s hard at this point even to imagine how different the birding world in North America was in the late 1980s compared to now. The options were increasing — Birder’s World Magazine had just launched — so things were getting better. [Laughs.] But for the active birders, if you wanted to identify a challenging bird, there were very few resources available. There were the old Peterson guides. There was the Golden guide. And the National Geographic guides had just come out.

But if you had a challenging bird you were trying to figure out, like an accipiter or an Empidonax flycatcher or something, you had maybe a handful of illustrations in two or three field guides and then you were out of luck. The information just wasn’t there. If you belonged to a bunch of organizations — for example, the American Birding Association had started printing detailed articles on bird identification in their magazine, but aside from that and a few local publications, there weren’t even very many sources for articles. So developing expertise on difficult birds took a lot of time, or you had to dig through publications, or you had to know someone who was already an expert and ask them about it.

Was there agreement on what the difficult species were?

Not any kind of universal agreement. Everyone will agree on things like Empidonax flycatchers or some of the female flycatchers. But beyond that, it became a matter of opinion. And I did the first Field Guide to Advanced Birding partly because I was interested in that stuff, so I had the perfect excuse to run around researching things like jaegers and sparrows for several years. I was working on it for six years. The research was the fun part; writing it was a little less so.

Were you leading field trips at that point? Were you being asked about certain birds? Did it spring from your experience?

A combination of things went into that. During the first part of the time I was working on the book, I was leading for WINGS, and then I moved over to Victor Emanuel Nature Tours. And I was also teaching ID workshops at birding conventions. The first bird festivals were just getting started during that time, but there were local and state ornithological societies that would have annual meetings, and I would go and give programs about bird ID and lead field trips with those. And so I was working on which birds were giving people the most trouble and which birds I had trouble with.

And so working on the book, I started with a much longer list of potential species to cover. I took some out because I didn’t think I could cover them effectively with just text and black-and-white drawings. The Catharus thrushes, for example. Now I don’t think I could do them justice because I still don’t understand Bicknell’s Thrush. [Laughs.] So what wound up in the book was a combination of what I thought was challenging and what I thought I could say something useful about.

AdvancedBirding1stEdAre people still reading it today? Do you still hear from people who are using it?

Amazingly enough, yes. I look at it now, and there’s so much in it that’s out of date that I sort of cringe, but parts of it seem to have held up, and I’m still surprised to see people quoting from it occasionally.

Can you tell me how you made the illustrations and what medium you used and how long you worked on them?

I knew it was going to have to be black-and-white drawings. Any book is a dance between the author and the publisher. When Houghton Mifflin agreed to do the book, they were really taking a chance on it because there weren’t any other advanced guides out there. Now we have all these detailed ID books on different groups of birds, but that sort of thing didn’t exist in the 1980s. So we knew from the start there weren’t going to be any color illustrations; they had to be black and white.

And to be able to control the reproductions, ink drawings were going to work better than pencil drawings. If you do pencil, it’s so hard to get the shading to reproduce properly in print. I knew if I did the drawings in ink, I’d have more control over how it looked in the final product. And I’ve been drawing birds and painting birds all my life, so doing pen-and-ink drawings wasn’t that much of a challenge.

For the shading, I wound up doing it with a stipple effect — lots of little dots, and putting in more dots where I wanted it to look darker. It was time-consuming, but it made it possible to control the shading pretty accurately.

If you were to describe the changes in the world of birding in the 20 years since that book came out, what would you say?

The No. 1 change is that the amount of information that is readily available has vastly increased. It’s no exaggeration to say that it’s increased by orders of magnitude. There’s vastly more information now. I can remember looking at jaegers, for example, in the 1980s. I went to all the major museum collections in the U.S. and looked at all the specimens of young jaegers, and finding even one specimen of a juvenile Pomarine Jaeger, let alone photographs, was a real challenge. One expert birder even asked me at some point in the 1980s if the Pomarine Jaeger had a juvenile plumage, and now you can go online, and with a few clicks, you can find dozens of photographs of juvenile Pomarine Jaegers. A lot of them are even identified correctly! [Laughs.] So there’s a vast amount of information available online, but there’s also so many different books, and magazine articles have continued to come out — a lot of those can be accessed online now. That change in the birding world really drove how the books differ. In the 1980s, the big challenge was just finding information of any kind; now it’s more of a challenge just to sift through these mountains of information and try to figure out what to focus on.

How then does the Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America that you published in 2000 fit in the progression from the original advanced guide to the one you published this year?

Well, I guess, the first thing I’d say about that is that sometimes you’ll see a publisher describe a bird guide as being perfect for beginners and experts alike, and I personally think that’s nonsense. It isn’t possible for a bird guide to be perfect for all levels of experience. It’s like if you made an analogy to white-water rafting. Is there a river that’s perfect for beginners and experts in terms of white-water rafting? If you pick one that’s exciting enough for the experts, it’s going to kill the beginners.

So I think with the bird field guide, with the basic field guides, you have to start with the sense of whom it’s for. With my North American field guide, I’m pleased to see that it’s carried even by pretty experienced birders because it’s convenient and compact and it’s got all the species in it and what’s there is accurate, but the driving force in decisions I made in putting the book together was that I wanted it to be possible for a first-time birder to pick it up and figure out what was going on. I wanted to make the first step just as easy as possible.

It’s hard for experienced birders to remember what it was like getting started — and then some birders never went through that stage. I was learning birds on my own when I was a kid. If I was looking at little sandpipers at a distance and trying to figure out what they were, I couldn’t see their leg color, I didn’t know how to judge their bill shape; I was just at a loss with these things.

If someone is learning birds from another birder, from an expert who can say, “Well, that’s a Least Sandpiper, and it’s on page 148,” they don’t have to use the field guides to figure the bird out. But not everyone is going to have access to an expert to tell them what the birds are. So I wanted to make my basic field guide something that was totally accessible to someone who was just getting into birds.

KaufmanFieldGuidetoBirdsWas there something in the country or something in the culture that you were responding to when you did that?

Actually, yes. It was partly a response to the way field guides in general were starting to shift. The National Geographic field guide was a huge influence. It may not get the attention that other bird guides do, but it made a huge difference when it first came out in the 1980s.

The main consultants for the National Geographic guide were expert birders, and they were driving the book in the direction of making it something for their friends, for the other keen birders who wanted to have a good, detailed reference to carry into the field. So it was a different attitude from the earlier Peterson guides. And this was a good thing; I’m not saying this in a critical way. For the experienced birders, it was a great thing to have this available.

But Roger Peterson started to respond to this by making his own books more detailed-oriented and more technical. In 1990, the year that my Advanced Birding came out, there was a new edition of Peterson’s western guide. I sat with Roger and discussed these books late in 1990. He was looking very thoughtful and saying, “You know, I think I may have put too much detail into my new western field guide.” And I was stunned by that. How could there be too much detail? And he said, “I realized afterwards that I was thinking too much about what the critics were going to say and not enough about what the beginning birders really needed.”

I think he was being overly harsh on himself, because his guides continued to be accessible and user-friendly. But that was the point where I started thinking about what kind of book would I put together if I were trying to do something that would make the first step as easy as possible.

It’s interesting to me that in the Advanced Birding you wrote: “The word ‘birdwatching’ could mean any number of things, including the simple act of watching a bird, any bird, without knowing or caring what kind it is; but ‘birding’ is generally understood to involve finding and identifying different species in the wild.” And then in the North American guide, you said, “I’m glad to consider myself both a birder and a birdwatcher.” What do these terms mean? Did it have significance then that you would call yourself a birder and birdwatcher?

I think it had more significance around 1990 than it does now. We may have been trying to distance ourselves from the passive or gentle approach and say, “Yeah, we’re hard-core. We’re going birding,” but now after another 20 years of birding and birdwatching, I don’t see that much of a difference.

I’ve reached the point where running around trying to see how many species I could see doesn’t seem that interesting to me. I’ll do big days maybe once or twice a year, but I’m more likely to go out and spend time looking at something in detail. And especially for someone who wants to learn to identify birds more accurately or in more depth, there’s a huge amount of value in spending more time looking at or listening to each bird. So I might sum it up by saying that if someone wants to be a really good birder, they have to spend more time birdwatching.

So who is the reader that you had in mind when you wrote the new Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding?

This was written for anyone who goes birding or birdwatching with a serious desire to know what they’re seeing or what they’re hearing. I acknowledge the fact that there are people, including some of our neighbors, who are perfectly content to watch the birds at the feeder without knowing what kind they are, and obviously, there’s nothing wrong with that. But for anyone who is birding and trying to put names on things, it makes it much more enjoyable if you can actually identify what you’re finding. Identifying birds involves understanding what’s going on at a superficial level. But if you want to know what you’re seeing and know what’s going on, it helps a lot to absorb basic information about the bird.

Kenn_Kaufman-220Why don’t you tell me in broad structural terms how this book is different from the original one?

OK, maybe I could introduce this best by saying that after the first Advanced Birding came out, I taught a long series of intensive bird-ID workshops that would go on for a full day or several days. The way I did these, it wasn’t just lecturing about things or going out and telling people, “This was such-and-such.” We did most of the teaching outdoors, and I tried to teach by asking questions and leading people to figure out what they were seeing and what was going on and devising ever more pointed or more effective questions to get people going on this kind of path. I rapidly realized that a lot of the challenge, or a lot of the trouble people had, wasn’t because they couldn’t remember what the field marks were; it was more a matter of not understanding what was in front of them.

One simple example might be a Laughing Gull in winter plumage standing on the beach: Rather than say, “What is this bird?” or “Look, here’s a Laughing Gull,” we would say, “Tell us: What can you see about this? What do you notice?” And people would say, “Well, it has a black tail.” And in fact the adult Laughing Gull has a white tail and black primaries. It was standing there with its wingtips folded, and the wingtips were completely hiding the tail, so they were seeing the wingtips back there.

Understanding the parts of the birds was one aspect; understanding things about the state of the plumage would be another — that is, seeing a bird in worn plumage so that the markings were faded. The most important thing is to recognize what condition the feathers were in. Or seeing a bird that’s gotten its feathers stained. Being able to step back and analyze what’s going on and say, “OK, the blackish area on its face is not part of its normal pattern. That’s something that happened to it.” Understanding what was going on with the birds was the key element.

The new book has seven introductory chapters that give people a way to approach understanding what they see. Was that a response to what you saw in the workshops?

Yeah, in the first edition — the book is so different now that it seems weird to call them first and second editions — in the first book, there was one introductory chapter and four chapters scattered throughout that were introductions to various groups. The other 30 chapters focused on specific ID challenges.

In the new book, there are 21 chapters that are introductory or overview-type chapters and only 10 that focus on specific ID challenges. That comparison alone, I think, shows that it’s changed substantially.

For some people, that may not be what they want. They probably prefer to have quick notes on how to ID all these difficult things in 25 words or fewer. But the whole point of the new book is not to be the quick field reference, but to be a series of short courses on how to understand all different groups of birds so as to improve a person’s overall birding skill.

How did you go about picking the general family groups that are in the new guide?

I just looked for situations where there was something useful that could be said about them. There’s no chapter about identifying vireos, for example, because there’s nothing about the vireos as such that makes them different from learning other types of songbirds.

But there is one on warblers and sparrows.

Yeah, the chapter on sparrows is one that’s based pretty close on a chapter from the original book — the idea of recognizing sparrows by breaking them down through the genus that they’re in.

The sparrows can be tremendously confusing for new birders: You go out and find this little streaky thing, and it’s one of 30-plus species of sparrows. So being able to figure out what group it’s in — to be able to say, “Well, it’s one of the Ammodramus types” — makes it much easier. Rather than saying, “Oh, it’s one of these 30,” you could say, “It’s one of these five sparrows.”

Then they become much more manageable. When you start by looking at the shape of the bird, the habitat that it’s in, whether it’s by itself or in a flock, the way it behaves when it’s approached — you’re rapidly putting it into one little group among the sparrows, rather than starting off by saying, “Well, does it have a stripes on the crown?”

Kaufman-Principles

In the original book, your first principle was “Check every field mark.” And then “Learn the common birds,” “Consider shapes,” “Learn to see details,” “Consider molt and wear,” “Avoid the common pitfalls,” “Question authority,” “Don’t let it get you down,” and, finally, “Document the problem bird.” And some of those are in the new book. But there, the first one is “Learn the common birds.” And then “Consider shapes.” And then “Learn natural groupings of birds.” Is that a change? How did the principles come about for the new book?

The principles that I had in the first edition were based on things that I had been doing while leading groups in the 1980s, and they seemed to work pretty well, so I kept a lot of the same ones for an expanded chapter in this edition, but I added some and tried to give more specific examples about the pitfalls of ID, the problems we can fall into.

Starting with natural groupings of birds seems like an obvious place to start learning about birds, but many people have to be told to do that.

I think it’s a really important thing, and it hasn’t gotten that much emphasis in the past. With the first Advanced Birding, I did it with sparrows but didn’t talk about it that much with other families of birds. In this new edition, there’s a lot more of that.

For example, in the chapter on terns: For a while, a lot of the terns were lumped into the genus Sterna, so looking at the genus didn’t help that much. But recently, the genera have been separated out again, so I have this whole section talking about the different genera and the characteristics of them. When you see a tern, rather than say, “Well, it’s one of these 15 species,” you can narrow things down quickly by putting it in a particular group.

Likewise with the shorebirds. I go through a lengthy description of the different groups of shorebirds. Likewise with the waterfowl, putting ducks into different groups. And with the warblers, even talking about the different groups of warblers helps to make them make sense. So there’s much more of that in this book than there was in the first Advanced Birding.

Kaufman-Terns

What would be the best way to learn to recognize family groups?

I might counter that with saying that family groups aren’t always the most useful way of dividing things up. We keep seeing family groups being reshuffled. For example, longspurs and Snow Buntings are no longer considered to be anywhere near the sparrows; they’re off in their own family, around the beginning of the warblers, which makes no sense at all. [Laughs.]

I keep thinking about groupings of birds, trying to put them in groups, is an important exercise, and that’s something better learned with books. There’s an awful lot of stuff you can learn best out in the field, but I think birders should get in the habit of always looking at the scientific names. I talk about this in the Introduction. If the last name is “sandpiper,” that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. But if it’s in the genus Calidris, that tells you it’s in a certain group of sandpipers, and you can expect to compare it to others that are placed in that same genus. I think that’s really important.

Certainly, it’s a good thing for birders to look at books and think about groupings within the genera. For example, among the warblers, within the group of warblers that are considered genus Dendroica, there’s a little group of birds that are more closely related — the group of Black-throated Green Warbler, Townsend’s Warbler, Hermit, and Golden-cheeked — and thinking about that as a distinct group is useful too, because they’ve got similar songs and call notes and so on.

There’s a danger in that: If you look at pictures and say, “Well, these birds have similar markings, so I’m going to think of them as group,” they may not be at all related. They may not be similar under field conditions. So it’s tricky, but part of the learning process is doing things like this that may not work out so well.

There are other interesting additions to the principles. In addition to learning natural groupings of birds, I see “Expect to see variation” and “Understand the difference between absolute field marks and relative field marks.” And also considering context and considering behavior, but with qualifications. I see that you added “but don’t rely on it completely.” What are the limitations of considering context and behavior?

It’s so useful to think about the typical habitat and the time of year and where the bird is in the habitat, that sort of thing. And that’s so useful for getting 90 percent of the way through an identification. But there are enough exceptions out there that you can’t rely on it 100 percent because the birds will always trip us up. [Laughs.]

I’ve seen this over and over. Consider dowitchers. If you see these long-billed birds standing around at the edge of the water, a group of them standing there and probing, you know they’re dowitchers. Something like a Wilson’s Snipe might be similar in shape, but its behavior is so different that you wouldn’t see it doing that.

Just last month, I photographed a group of six Wilson’s Snipe standing close together at the edge of a pond and probing in the mud and acting exactly like dowitchers. So, you know, the birds don’t read the books. [Laughs.] So 99 percent of the time you could see a group of birds like that way off in the distance and say, “Yeah, they’re dowitchers.” But there’s always the possibility — we always need to double-check ourselves.

Kaufman-Sandpipers

In your opinion, do you think that we use our binoculars too much, or that we rely on them too much?

I think — that’s a good question, I really appreciate that. I think maybe we use our binoculars too much to identify birds and not enough to study birds. Often, I think, walking around in an area where I’m familiar with stuff, I can recognize practically everything, even at moderate distance, without binoculars, but I think we could all stand to spend more time looking closely at birds, even something that’s relatively close to us, spending extra time watching it. I think, and I may have said this in the book, birders may spend 95 percent of their time looking for birds and only 5 percent of their time actually looking at birds. I think the No. 1 thing that a person could do to increase their skill at recognizing birds would be just to spend a little bit more time looking at the bird or listening to a bird after it’s been identified.

One of your principles is “Listen!” How does that fit into becoming a good birder?

Well, I think it’s essential. I mean, sound obviously is more important in some habitats than others. But even in wide-open habitats, like when I’m standing out with a scope and looking at a whole flat full of shorebirds, I often find the unusual or unexpected birds first by hearing them call, rather than seeing them first.

There’s a real difference between active listening and passive listening. The people I’ve known who were best at identifying birds by sound were intently listening all the time. It’s so easy to take things for granted. You know, you hear something familiar, you hear it all the time, so you’re not really listening. Then, if someone asks, “That constant chirping in the background, is that House Sparrow or House Finch?” you stop and realize, “Well, I’m not sure. I’ll listen more carefully.”

Then again, you’ve also listed variations in voice as one of the pitfalls. Why is that?

Because the variations are frequent, and some birds are incredibly good at sounding like other birds. Some examples are too obvious even to mention — starlings doing their Eastern Meadowlark or Greater Yellowlegs calls. Even among birds that aren’t commonly considered to be mimics, you get these cases of birds learning the wrong songs (because with the songbirds, there is this element of learning), and occasionally, for whatever reason, a bird will do a perfect rendition of a different species. So especially with something that may be unusual or out of range, if you hear something, you have to track it down.

The new guide uses photos, color photos, mostly. Were any of the images retouched? Did you do any adjustment to them at all, using Photoshop, outside of silhouetting?

Not nearly as much as in the previous books. I could say this is the first time I’ve illustrated a book with photographs. With my first bird guide, the idea was to show an idealized view of a bird, so I didn’t have any qualms about changing the photos in a variety of ways to make them look the way I thought they should. This time, I wanted to show birds with all their warts, so I didn’t do as much editing. There are examples — on page 403, for example, there’s side-by-side illustrations of adult male and one-year-old male Cape May Warblers, and those are both based on the same photograph. But for the most part, I did very little editing on the photos, and in some of them, I didn’t even take them out of the background.

What is lost and what is gained when you go from a book that is illustrated with pen and ink to one that is illustrated mostly with photos?

This ties into something I’ve talked about a little bit in the book: the perils of picture-matching. The better the picture is, the more likely a person is to expect the bird to look exactly like the picture, so there’s less actual thought and analysis that goes on. If you’ve got a line drawing, a pen-and-ink drawing of a bird, people realize that they have to make a translation between this living, moving, colorful thing in front of them and the line drawing on the page. But where you have a detailed color painting or photograph, the reader may subconsciously be lazier about it and say, “Well, this is what it looks like, so I’ll just look for something that matches this picture.”

Kaufman-Molt

I think I was surprised that your book was mostly a book to read, rather than a book to look at pictures in.

Yeah, I know that’s bucking the trend because people don’t like to read. [Laughs.] There are things that can’t be conveyed effectively in pictures. I think maybe one of the sections of the book that I’m happiest with would be the section from page 117 to 121, where I talk about geographic variations in birds and subspecies and what they mean. In that five pages, there’s no picture at all; it’s just text. But I spent a lot of time thinking carefully about how to explain what a subspecies is, what does that mean. Every field guide that’s out there treats geographic variation to some extent, whether it’s showing different subspecies and putting the scientific names next to them or some other approach, or mentioning that they look different in different areas. Yet the vast majority of birders don’t understand what it’s about. There’s a disconnect or problem with interpreting what we’re seeing, or interpreting what the field guide says.

Is there something bigger at work, a larger message to be taken from this guide? Does it have something to do with bird conservation and creating a consensus for conserving birds on the continent and in the world?

Well, I think that’s really perceptive on your part. It’s a tenuous connection. At the end of the index, I put in a brief note suggesting that you can’t be an advanced birder unless you’re also supporting bird conservation.

A couple of things made me think that. One was when you wrote about how there are “tens of millions of people in North America who enjoy birds at a casual level and who will never become highly skilled birders” and that that was OK. And then you talked about the responsibilities of expert birders to birdwatchers who are just starting out. And that’s where I started thinking there might be a reason why that would be a good thing.

Well, this is partly a result of the fact that I spent most of my time for the last 20 years trying to get people into birdwatching or natural history at a very basic level. I was trying to act as a recruiter, trying to get people to take the first step, to start noticing birds and nature. So turning around and writing a detailed book on advanced identification almost seems like going in the opposite direction.

But throughout this book, in talking about identification, I talk about understanding the birds in order to identify them more correctly, more accurately. For example, when you start talking about recognizing sparrows partly by the habitat that they’re in, it’s understood that you have to be valuing their habitat. Talking about the way birds look different at different times of the year — because the timing of the wear on their plumage or the timing of their molt ties into the timing of the other things that they’re doing, like their migration and their nesting and so on — you have to think of them as living creatures that are fitting into their surroundings, not just as a collection of field marks or a checkmark on the list. In everything about this, I was encouraging more of a three-dimensional view of birds and how they fit into their surroundings, and I think that level of understanding is what I would consider to be the real sign of an expert, not just the person who can recite the most field marks.

But at the same time, there is going to be only a relative handful of people on this continent who have this kind of detailed knowledge, and there are obviously a lot of threats to bird populations. You can take all the people who can describe the molt of the tertials on the Dusky Flycatcher, and you wouldn’t have enough people to elect the mayor of even a small town, let alone enough people to affect actual policy on a larger level.

So whatever we do — and I love looking at these obscure problems of bird identifications — whatever we do, we have to make sure we don’t discourage people who enjoy birds at a more basic level. We need to have millions of people who just love the birds in their backyard, who appreciate having birds around, and who maybe recognize that there’s a connection between birds and habitat or birds and a healthy environment. That’s what’s the most important thing. It doesn’t matter to me if we leave some birds unidentified or misidentified, but we have to encourage and support people who care about birds at a basic level.

Eye-OpenerYou had written about a Blackburnian Warbler for our magazine in October 2002, and about how it was able to stop a crowd of people on a city sidewalk, and you had this opportunity to open a number of people’s eyes to the beauty and fragility and also the strength of the bird. Is that the reason why it’s on the cover of this book, or is there another reason?

Well, no, that’s a big part of it. Blackburnian Warbler has, it’s a bird that has popped up for me a number of times at critical points in my life, and finding that bird on the city sidewalk was a pretty amazing experience. It was not a situation where I expected to be able to share the beauty of wild birds.

Is there something about the book that you would want to talk about that I haven’t asked you about?

I would encourage people to give it a shot in terms of going in and actually reading parts of it. It’s not designed for quick reference in the field; that’s not the point. And it’s not really for looking things up afterward. It’s more a matter of reading through for preparation, for understanding what we’re seeing in the field.

More of a conceptual approach.

For me, the main attraction to a lot of what’s in there is not a matter of “This will make it possible for you to identify this bird,” but rather, “This is something that’s really cool.” For example, if we’re looking at sparrows and realizing that some of these sparrows are in their brightest, most elegant-looking plumage in the winter, and then, when it gets to be breeding season, they’re looking ratty, it’s like, “What? What were they thinking? What’s the point of all that?”

Everything in this book is related to identification one way or another, but so much of it has to do with the fascinating ways that birds live, and the rest of it is what I’ve learned after struggling to learn to identify hummingbirds or struggling to identify shorebirds.

You know, if you were a beginning birder and you were trying to figure out the sandpipers and we were out birding together, this is what I would tell you about: “OK, let’s look at these size comparisons here” or “Well, let’s watch this feeding behavior.”

I think you’re explaining the subtitles and why they’re different. The first book was “Birding Challenges and How to Approach Them.” The new book is “Understanding What You See and Hear.”

If I could, I would like to go out birding with everyone. Let’s just go out and look at birds and listen to them and see what they’re doing and talk about these fascinating creatures and how they fit into their surroundings. But since we can’t all do that, I hope people will consider reading this book, and maybe some of the same kind of three-dimensional experience comes across.

Sounds excellent.