Book Reviews (Feb 2014), Part II

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Part I, which includes The World’s Rarest Birds, Lost Animals: Extinction and the Photographic Record, and Birdwatcher: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson can be found here.

Rare Birds of North America by Steve N.G. Howell, Ian Lewington, and Will Russell.

This long-awaited and much-anticipated book “offers the first complete synthesis of the occurrence and distribution of” every vagrant recorded in North American through July of 2011.  These birds aren’t necessarily rare in a global context as with “World’s Rarest Birds” but they are most certainly rare in the United States (not including Hawai’i) and Canada.

The meat of the book is the species accounts, covering 262 species from around the world.   First and foremost – and certainly the most eye-catching aspect – is the artwork.  This book marks North American unveiling of the remarkable artwork of Ian Lewington, and for many readers, it will be the first introduction to one of the best bird artists of our time.  Simply put, the plates are gorgeous.  The birds appear amazingly life-like, yet technically sound.  There is a lot of detail, but they are not exaggerated schematics. In addition to be a sheer joy to look at, they are incredibly accurate and useful depictions that will go a long way in aiding identification, especially in cases where they are  – and fostering appreciation.  For many of these birds, these are the definitive drawings, and in some cases far surpassing the rendition in those species’ “home” field guides.  The traveling birder will gain a lot of information from studying the plates in this book when heading to that respective corner of the world.  Some of the best and most helpful plates are when similar species are painted side-by-side (such as with many of the albatrosses) and/or on adjacent pages (as with Willow Warbler, Common Chiffchaff, and Wood Warbler).

For each species account, there’s a short analysis of world distribution, North American records and their patterns, and a discussion of taxonomy. The catch-all “Comments” section includes discussions ranging from origin and patterns to unanswered questions. Not surprisingly, I enjoyed the various postulations about patterns and provenance. And last but certainly not least is the “Field Identification” section, which might be one of the most important for people who want to find these rare birds.  If you think you have discovered a new state record, this is probably the first place to go to confirm your identification, for example.  I found it quite helpful when “similar species” were thoroughly compared, although at times, I felt that the authors skipped over potential confusion species, especially when those confusion species were very real and regular features of birding discussions (i.e. domestic waterfowl and bona fide Graylag Geese; considering how often domestic geese are reported as true Graylags, it seems ridiculous to claim “Similar species: none if seen well.”)  But these complaints are relatively few.

My one over-arching quibble with the text is simply a pet-peeve of mine: the use of counties as the sole reference to rare bird records.  I have no problem with the specific locations of the records being left out (the ABA Checklist is a quick and easy place to find that info) but it seems to me that counties are one of the least valuable references.  Perhaps out West, where counties are the size of eastern states, this reference is more useful from a geographic standpoint, but in many parts of the East, in our small counties with irregular borders, many birders probably don’t even know what county they are standing in at a given time.  So why not be just a little more specific?  For example, when looking at the entry for Variegated Flycatcher, type in “York   County, Maine” to Google Maps or your favorite mapping website or software.  OK, you have an idea as to where in Maine the bird was.  Now, type in “Biddeford, Maine,” the town the bird was in.  I bet it won’t take much time (especially after reading the intro material!) to picture where this bird probably occurred – that long, narrow peninsula that sticks straight out into the water…yup, that’s where the bird was.  In other words, towns/townships/territories (or counties in unincorporated areas when necessary) provide a whole lot more information and more specifics with little additional information, space, or even typed characters: In this case “Biddeford” is two characters shorter than “York County” but provides a significant amount more of information and relevance geographically.

While the vast majority of the book is the species accounts, the introductory material is far from superfluous. In fact, it should not be missed.  In addition to the utilitarian aspects of using the book and defining exactly what a “rare bird” is, the instructive sections “Migration and Vagrancy in Birds” and “Where do North American Vagrants Come from?” are chock full of useful and interesting information about the mechanisms and geographic origins, respectively, that produces the “Mega” rarities that birding dreams are made of.  The “Molt and Aging” section is a concise introduction to this complicated topic, but one that is often important to identifying vagrants and their origin.

I must, however, disagree with their use of the term “reverse migrant” in the section “Migration and Vagrancy in Birds” to describe what is more accurately referred to as “180-degree misorientation” or “reverse misorientation” (which the entry confusingly uses in a couple of instances).   Reverse migrant is usually used to describe an entirely different phenomena where birds – from few to massive flocks – undertake a seasonally-opposite movement based on local and current conditions.  For example, a warm spell in the fall might cause thousands of swallows to move north along the west coast, or a cold snap could send Red-winged Blackbirds in a southbound retreat in spring.  These are not “mistakes” by a few as misorientation suggests, but rather a coordinated response to seasonal conditions and its impact on food supplies, regardless of age and experience.

This book is a must-own for any student of vagrancy and rare birds, and it helps to teach everyone how to find more rare birds.  Meanwhile, birders of all levels will simply appreciate flipping through its pages and marveling at Lewington’s artwork and the unbelievable diversity of species that is out there waiting for us.

The Devil’s Cormorant: A Natural History by Richard J. King. (University Press of New England, 2013).

I saved the best for last. In fact, this is one of the best natural (and cultural) history books that I have read in quite some time. Various species of cormorants are found on all continents (yes, including Antarctica) and in all corners of the world, we find these birds to be vilified, hated, and sometimes even cherished.

The author seamlessly integrates fascinating hard science and extensive research with personal anecdotes from his cormorant-centric travels around the world. At the same time, he explores the interaction between humans and these birds.  From the sacred cormorant fishing in Japan to the guano deposits of Peru, we see how cormorants are an important part of some cultures.  On the other hand, from the catfish farms Louisiana to the stocked fishing holes of England, we see how people have come to misunderstand or even downright hate – and often woefully mis-manage – cormorants. The author does an excellent job of remaining objective even when explaining human actions that seem completely insane and inane, but strives to educate the reader about the realities – including when the realities are negative for the cormorant.

During the course of the year, the author follows the life of the Double-crested Cormorants breeding on a small island in Long Island Sound, through all of the trials and tribulations of surviving in a cruel, unforgiving world.  In between, he travels the globes to get to know others species on an intimate level, from spending time with researchers to visiting museums.  I particularly enjoyed his self-deprecating and humorous portrayal of his visit to the Natural History Museum in Tring, England and his travels through the population and species of the “blue-eyed shag group” of the sub-Antarctic, a trip that I have had the privilege of experiencing.

Personally and professionally, I find myself often defending the cormorant, rejecting the vitriol directed towards it. Heck, we even have a giant photograph of the face of a Double-crested Cormorant on our dining room wall: a face that includes a vivid turquoise-green eye – that I feel is one of the most beautiful colors in the world – and the bright and vivid orange facial skin and gular patch that contrasts magnificently with the dark black feathering, the dirty gray and flaky, “ugly-looking” imposing bill.  In other words, I was exceptionally happy when a friend of mine handed me a copy of this book.  It’s a fair treatment of the cormorant – and like most things, when nature is treated fairly, the natural world – including its cormorants – is defended.  I guarantee you will have a new-found understanding and appreciation for this remarkable group of birds.

Of course, most of these titles are available at Freeport Wild Bird Supply, and a shipment of A Devil’s Cormorant has just arrived and is the featured “Derek’s Choice” at the moment.  Also, look for our next installment of “Birds, Books, and Beers” to feature Will Russell, co-author of Rare Birds to take place in early May.  More on that soon.

And speaking of new, “must-have” books, the new and completely updated Sibley Guide is coming out in March!  We’re currently taking discounted pre-orders here at the store.

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One thought on “Book Reviews (Feb 2014), Part II

  1. Pingback: Birds, Books, and Beers Series: Richard King, author of The Devil’s Cormorant, 4/18 | Maine Birding Field Notes

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