Who knew identifying birds could be so simple? All you need are these insight-filled fold-out guides from photographer Kevin T. Karlson and ornithologist Kevin J. McGowan, of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Karlson is the co-author, along with New Jersey Audubon vice president for education Dale Rosselet, of the new Peterson Reference Guide to Birding by Impression (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015). In it, he encourages birders to start the ID process not with traditional field marks but with an assessment of size, body shape, structural features, and behavior, and then, if there’s still time, to move on to feather details, general coloration, habitat use, and vocalizations. (We published an excerpt, about sparrows, in our April 2015 issue, and we reviewed the book in June 2015.)
In his quick-reference guides to waterfowl, shorebirds, and eastern and western raptors, the advice is the same. Instead of pointing out field marks, he provides concise descriptions of habitat and status and combines hard-won insights about relative plumpness, slenderness, length, pointiness, and droopiness with multiple photographs, at least two and as many as seven per species. Taken by Karlson himself and carefully positioned on the page to invite comparison, they reveal distinctions not just between species but between adults and juveniles, males and females, and breeding and nonbreeding birds.
McGowan, the project manager for distance learning in bird biology at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, takes a similar tack in his three-part series, in which he addresses waterfowl only. “Spots, stripes, and other small markings can be important for the identification of many types of birds,” he writes, “but they’re not very useful for waterfowl.” The birds usually are simply too far away.
More useful, he says, are the patterns of dark and light, often bold patterns of black and white, that mark swans, geese, most dabblers, diving ducks, sea ducks, mergansers, even Horned Grebe, Common Loon, and American Coot. In each ID guide, revealing black-and-white renderings accompany traditional full-color illustrations of each species. They make plain that the color white is most important. “Is there white? If so, where is the white?” McGowan asks. “If you can answer that question, you can identify your duck.”
Cornell Lab of Ornithology Waterfowl ID Series: The Basics, Dabbling and Diving Ducks, and Sea Ducks and Others (three foldout guides), by Kevin McGowan, Waterford Press, $7.95 each
Raptors of Eastern North America: A Comprehensive Guide to All Species, by Kevin T. Karlson, Quick Reference Publishing, Inc., $7.95
Raptors of Western North America: A Comprehensive Guide to All Species, by Kevin T. Karlson, Quick Reference Publishing, Inc., $7.95
Shorebirds of North America: A Comprehensive Guide to All Species, by Kevin T. Karlson, Quick Reference Publishing, Inc., $7.95
Waterfowl of North America: A Comprehensive Guide to All Species, by Kevin T. Karlson, Quick Reference Publishing, Inc., $7.95
Read more reviews from our December 2015 issue
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