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Laura Erickson discusses her guide to the birds of Minnesota

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A Pine Grosbeak keeps watch at Sax Zim Bog, Minnesota.
Pine Grosbeak at Sax Zim Bog, Minnesota, by Jeff Weymier.

Our bookshelf sure is filling quickly!

A guide to the birds of Pennsylvania stands next to a guide for New York, which leans gently on a guide to New Jersey, while equally handsome guides to Florida, Colorado, California, and Arizona rest alongside.

Each volume comes from the New York-based publisher Scott & Nix Inc. and the American Birding Association. Each features the excellent photographs of Brian E. Small. And each is written by a well-known expert birder who knows the birds of his or her state well.

Better yet, thanks to the August 2016 publication of the American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of Minnesota, the list of authors now includes Laura Erickson, author of our regular column “Attracting Birds.”

Laura recently agreed to answer a few questions about the field guide and her home state. Our questions and her answers follow. — Chuck Hagner, Editor

The American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of Minnesota, by Laura Erickson.
American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of Minnesota, by Laura Erickson, Scott & Nix Inc., August 2016, 368 pages, $24.95.

How long have you lived in Minnesota? How long have you birded there?

Laura: I moved to Duluth from Madison, Wisconsin, in March 1981. As we carried boxes into our house, I could hear Evening Grosbeaks calling from our box elders and saw a Bald Eagle flying overhead, so I guess that’s when I started birding here.

What type of reader did you have in mind while writing? Birdwatchers only or non-birders too? And is it for beginners only? When traveling birders think of Minnesota, they think of Snowy Owl, Black-backed Woodpecker, Pine Grosbeak, and other northern specialties — each is included in the field guide.

Laura: I wrote it for people interested in figuring out how to identify birds on their own, whether or not they consider themselves birdwatchers, and for more experienced birders who might be new to birds in Minnesota. I did try to include the birds people would associate with Minnesota, and ones birders from out of state ask me about when they’re headed here.

In the introduction, you write that 436 bird species have been recorded in Minnesota, and that 316 are regular, 39 are casual, and 81 are accidental. The field guide describes only 302. How did you decide which species to include and which to omit?

Laura: I’d have loved to include all 436 species, but that would have produced a very heavy and bulky book! It was tricky trying to judge how likely it would be that someone would be able to find a species on his or her own. I did include a few unlikely but cool and iconic species, especially of our western prairie area.

Minnesota is one of the few places where Smith’s Longspurs turn up regularly on fall migration, if you’re looking in the right place at the right time, so I wanted to include it, even though luck is still involved in finding one. But I left out Burrowing Owl, listed as Endangered in the state, because there hasn’t been a sighting in several years. I didn’t want to disappoint readers with an expectation of seeing a bird that is, at least right now, extremely unlikely to be found.

A few casual species are included (White-faced Ibis, Sabine’s Gull, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, White-eyed Vireo, and perhaps others). How did you decide which to include?

Laura: White-faced Ibis occurs most years, Sabine’s Gull appears virtually every autumn in Duluth, and when a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher does appear, rare as it is, it often sticks around so people can “chase” it. Plus, it’s darned pretty.

However, I didn’t include White-eyed Vireo as an individual entry — it seems too unlikely that most people could find one on their own. But as with several other unlikely birds, I did mention it on the species entry for Blue-headed Vireo, because both species have white wing bars and yellow flanks.

An Ivory Gull visits Duluth, Minnesota, January 2, 2016.
Ivory Gull in Duluth, Minnesota, January 2, 2016, by Terry R. Crayne.

I looked immediately for Ivory Gull (an accidental species) but didn’t find it. Was it difficult to omit a species, albeit an unpredictable one, that had attracted so much attention to the state recently?

Laura: I didn’t include several gulls because gull plumage varies so much by season and age that each species would need at least a two-page spread to show the most common possibilities. I did mention the more likely suspects. People see Thayer’s and Iceland every year, but working out the tricky ones takes more resources than a general field guide, and at least in Duluth, where the rarer gulls are seen most regularly, the gull watchers are very welcoming and helpful.

But it was painful to leave out Ivory Gull. The one that appeared on New Year’s Day 2016 was my own lifer, and I spent so much time watching it that I badly wished I could include it. Then again, if one appears again, its rare status will be underscored by the very fact that it isn’t in the field guide.

In the introduction, you write that the guide includes “birds we’re most likely to encounter birding on our own.” What does the phrase “on our own” mean? Without guides? While fishing or hunting? Gazing out the back window?

Laura: I wrote the book to help people figure out an unfamiliar bird at home or afield, specifically birding, or doing anything else, but without an experienced mentor or field-trip leader there to help. No matter what our experience level, the vast majority of birds we find in Minnesota would be in the book.

What is the timeline for writing a field guide like this? When did you start writing? How much time did the ABA give you to turn in a manuscript?

Laura: Scott & Nix co-founder George Scott asked me to write it in September 2014, so it was just about exactly two years from inception to publication this August. The writing was very slow at first. I had never before thought about writing a field guide, and it was daunting!

Every time I thought about how badly I wanted to live up to the standards of genuinely great field guide writers like Chandler Robbins and Roger Tory Peterson, or thought about the immediate critical reviews of every new field guide since theirs, I became frozen with self-doubt. If I’d stayed focused on my fears of not measuring up, I’d still be struggling with the first pages.

So I tried to focus on how I’d learned each species back when I was starting out — which features of each species were most useful and which features added to my confusion. I tried to remember what I’d say about each species on a bird walk to help participants learn it.

It was slow-going, but I finished the writing and major re-writing by November 2015.

Contributing Editor Laura Erickson.
Contributing Editor Laura Erickson.

About Laura Erickson

Laura’s column “Attracting Birds,” about attracting, feeding, sheltering, and understanding birds, appears in every issue of BirdWatching. She is the author or co-author of many books, including Into the Nest: Intimate Views of the Courting, Parenting and Family Lives of Birds (2015), National Geographic Pocket Guide to Birds of North America (2013), and The Bird Watching Answer Book (2009). In 2014, she became the fourth BirdWatching contributor to receive the American Birding Association’s highest honor, the Roger Tory Peterson Award.

Read Laura’s Birding Blog. Originally Published

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