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10 books about birders, conservation, Wood Ducks, and more

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A male Wood Duck on Horn Pond in Woburn, Massachusetts. Photo by Michael Rossacci
A male Wood Duck on Horn Pond in Woburn, Massachusetts. The species is the subject of the book With Wings Extended. Photo by Michael Rossacci

The November/December 2020 issue of BirdWatching features reviews of the following 10 books, including personal tales from birders; conservations stories about Wood Duck, Atlantic Puffin, and more; an identification guide; and a book for aspiring nature artists.

Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder, by Julie Zarankin, Douglas & McIntyre,Field Notes from an Unintentional Birderby Julie Zarankin, Douglas & McIntyre, 2020, paperback, 256 pages, $18.95.

The list of authors who can say that their first book received praise from birding legends Kenn Kaufman and Scott Weidensaul must be exceedingly short. One member of such a club, so to speak, is Julia Zarankin, a Toronto-based writer whose work has appeared in newspapers, literary journals, and magazines (including BirdWatching). Kaufman lauded Zarankin’s new book, calling it a “sparkling memoir” that “tells a deeply personal story that manages to shine a light on universal themes.” And Weidensaul wrote: “By turns hilarious and moving, it traces Julia’s journey — almost against her will — into the world of birds and birding, where she ultimately finds a reflection of herself in the feathered migrants to which she becomes enthralled.”

Zarankin fell into the birding world in her mid-30s. She writes well about her first outings as a new birdwatcher, with a group of experienced birders, and how intimidating they were. People were calling out names of ducks that Zarankin didn’t recognize, and she was feeling deflated. But on the way back to their cars, she saw a male Red-winged Blackbird — “nearly blinded by the unexpected vermillion patches on the blackbird’s epaulets” — and was immediately enthralled. 

Zarankin takes readers on her birding journey — a birdathon at Point Pelee, volunteering with banders, and other experiences. Along the way, she tells stories about the joys and sorrows of life, from her family’s emigration from Russia, to the failure of her first marriage, to her unease with hair salons. She reminds us that our personal lives and our birding exploits weave together to make us who we are. 

Learn more about Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder on Amazon!

Saving America’s Amazon: The Threat to America’s Most Biodiverse River System, by Ben Raines, NewSouth Books,Saving America’s Amazon: The Threat to America’s Most Biodiverse River Systemby Ben Raines, NewSouth Books, 2020, cloth, 200 pages, $29.95.

I was surprised to learn in this book by Ben Raines, environmental journalist and filmmaker, that Alabama’s Mobile-Tensaw Delta has the most biodiverse forests and aquatic ecosystems in North America. Its species of fish, crayfish, salamanders, mussels, snails, and turtles outnumber those from anywhere else on the continent, yet they remain little known and are under siege. In his richly illustrated book, Raines persuasively argues that time is running out for the state to save its magnificent natural heritage.

Learn more about Saving America’s Amazon: The Threat to America’s Most Biodiverse River System on Amazon!

Diary of a Young Naturalist, by Dara McAnulty, Little Toller BooksDiary of a Young Naturalistby Dara McAnulty, Little Toller Books, 2020, hardcover, 228 pages, £16 (approximately $20).

In September 2020, 16-year-old Dara McAnulty of Northern Ireland received the 2020 Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing — a top literary honor in the U.K. — for his debut book. And in 2019, he earned the RSPB Medal for Conservation for crusading against raptor persecution and biodiversity loss. Dara, who is autistic, writes beyond his years about his connection to nature and wildlife. The book chronicles a year of his nature observations at his home patch alongside his perspective as teenager juggling exams, friendships, and a life of campaigning.

Learn more about Diary of a Young Naturalist on Amazon!

Bird Is the Word: An Historical Perspective on the Names of North American Birds, by Gary H. Meiter, McDonald and WoodwardBird Is the Word: An Historical Perspective on the Names of North American Birds, by Gary H. Meiter, McDonald and Woodward, 2020, paperback, 448 pages, $39.95.

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This book covers the names of roughly 800 bird species, explaining who named them and why they chose the names they did. It is “a record of the rich nomenclature of bird names of the past 500 years, along with insights of the contributions that numerous naturalists have made to North American ornithology.” Author Gary Meiter also includes many sidebars, including an exchange of dialogue about crows and blackbirds in the film The Birds and the words plume hunters used for egrets more than a century ago.

Learn more about Bird Is the Word: An Historical Perspective on the Names of North American Birds on Amazon!

Birds of Paradise and Bowerbirds: An Identification Guide, by Phil Gregory, illustrations by Richard Allen, Princeton University PressBirds of Paradise and Bowerbirds: An Identification Guide, by Phil Gregory, illustrations by Richard Allen, Princeton University Press, 2019, hardcover, 416 pages, $45.

A trip to New Guinea and Australia in search of birds-of-paradise and bowerbirds may not be in the cards for many of us, but we can all pick up a copy of this lavishly illustrated and authoritative book to learn more about these incredible birds. In the book, 20 years in the making, Phil Gregory, an ornithologist, tour guide, and author of Birds of New Guinea, covers 108 recognized taxa from the two groups and includes photos, range maps, and notes on taxonomy, identification, ecology, and more. 

Learn more about Birds of Paradise and Bowerbirds: An Identification Guide on Amazon!

Ireland Through Birds: Journeys in Search of a Wild Nation, by Conor W. O'Brien, Merrion PressIreland Through Birds: Journeys in Search of a Wild Nationby Conor W. O’Brien, Merrion Press, 2020, softcover, 200 pages, $25.

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Conor O’Brien, a birdwatcher since he was a boy, takes readers on a birding adventure around his home country in this unique blend of natural history and travelogue. Each chapter recounts his stories about 12 of the rarest and most elusive birds in Ireland: Grey Partridge, Corncrake, Great Skua, Hen Harrier, Jack Snipe, and others. Not only does he describe the birds and the landscapes they call home, but he also explores Ireland’s rich history. 

Learn more about Ireland Through Birds: Journeys in Search of a Wild Nation on Amazon!

Draw Like an Artist: 100 Birds, Butterflies, and Other Insects, by Melissa Washburn, Quarry BooksDraw Like an Artist: 100 Birds, Butterflies, and Other Insectsby Melissa Washburn, Quarry Books, 2020, paperback, 112 pages, $19.99.

Here’s a wonderful new visual reference for student and aspiring artists, scientific illustrators, and anyone who wants to improve their art skills. Featuring 600 sketches, the contemporary, step-by-step guidebook demonstrates fundamental art concepts like proportion, anatomy, and spatial relationships as readers learn to draw a full range of winged creatures, all shown from a variety of perspectives. Each set of illustrations takes readers from beginning sketch lines to a finished drawing.

Learn more about Draw Like an Artist: 100 Birds, Butterflies, and Other Insects on Amazon!

With Wings Extended: A Leap into the Wood Duck’s World, by Greg Hoch, University of Iowa PressWith Wings Extended: A Leap into the Wood Duck’s Worldby Greg Hoch, University of Iowa Press, 2020, paperback, 190 pages, $35.

Minnesota conservationist Greg Hoch introduces readers to the Wood Duck, a bird they probably recognize but may not know well. He illustrates the complexities of wildlife and habitat management for the species, which once was presumed headed for extinction. He takes readers through the life stages of what is largely considered the most beautiful duck in the world. Hoch blends historical literature about the species with modern science and also shows how our views of conservation have changed over the last century. 

Learn more about With Wings Extended: A Leap into the Wood Duck’s World on Amazon!

The Puffin Plan, by Stephen W. Kress and Derrick Z. Jackson, TumblehomeThe Puffin Planby Stephen W. Kress and Derrick Z. Jackson, Tumblehome, 2020, hardcover, 184 pages, $16.95.

Five years ago, we recommended the book Project Puffin (also by Steve Kress and Derrick Jackson), the story of Kress’s work restoring Atlantic Puffins to islands in the Gulf of Maine. The Puffin Plan is a version of the story aimed at kids age 12 and up. Illustrated with lots of photos and maps, the book describes the puffin restoration work — raising chicks in coffee-can nests, transporting them to Maine, and then waiting — for years — to see if they’d come back. Spoiler alert: They did.

Jackson, an award-winning columnist formerly with the Boston Globe, received third place in our 2020 BirdWatching Photography Awards for his photograph of a puffin carrying “a healthy load of hake” in its bill.  

Learn more about The Puffin Plan on Amazon!

Birder on Berry Lane, by Robert Tougias, CharlesbridgeBirder on Berry Laneby Robert Tougias, Charlesbridge, 2020, hardcover, 224 pages, $19.99.

When a person with a birder’s finely tuned senses for nature and wildlife owns a three-acre yard in a typical Connecticut suburb, he is going to see and hear things that typical homeowners will miss. And when that birder is also a writer, well, you get a lovely book like Birder on Berry Lane. Robert Tougias, who previously published Birding Western Massachusetts and a book about cougars, writes about a year in the life of his backyard, noting the presence of birds from January through December as they feed, nest, and stop over in his woods, streams, and meadow.

Learn more about Birder on Berry Lane on Amazon!

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Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall is the editor of BirdWatching magazine and BirdWatchingDaily.com. You can reach him at [email protected].

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