From time to time I start to get the idea that I’m becoming a pretty good birder. When that happens, all it takes is a quick trip to the fall lakewatch at Whitefish Point here in Michigan to set me straight.
Watching the counters as they scan Lake Superior is a good lesson in what I don’t know about birding. See those black specks a few hundred yards out? Red-necked grebes. At least that’s what the seasoned lake watchers tell me. At this distance, plumage isn’t visible. The counters are relying on a bag of tricks that seems like magic to quickly identify these waterfowl.
But, as with most magical notions, someone comes along and pulls back the curtain, revealing that lake watchers are actually just normal human beings with a highly refined skill set. That’s what Ken Behrens and Cameron Cox have done with the new Peterson Reference Guide to Seawatching: Eastern Waterbirds in Flight.
For the purpose of this guide, “seawatching” refers to observation and identification of migrating waterbirds wherever they happen to be flying. In these parts, that often means the shores of the Great Lakes, but it could just as easily be the Mississippi River, a ridge in Montana, or the actual sea.
The book opens with an introduction that explains some of the mechanics unique for identification of waterbirds in flight. Plumage, the old standard of every field guide, takes a backseat in this endeavor. Size and shape are of paramount importance. Factors such as the structure of a flock and fidelity to flight lines, things you’ll rarely think about in regular birding, suddenly become critical. By the time you get to the individual species accounts, you’re keenly aware that this is as different from any other birding as shorebirding is from warblering.
The species accounts are the heart of Seawatching. Each species is treated with anywhere from two to several pages. Stunning photographs appear throughout each account, some illustrating important identification points and others serving merely as eye-candy. Range maps tailored specifically to seawatching accompany each species account. The maps include details about pelagic migration and other factors of particular interest to an observer at typical seawatch sites.
For those familiar with the popular Shorebird Guide by O’Brien, Crossley, and Karlson, the photographs and captions in this guide are similar. Photos often have some bullet points about relevant identification clues in the photo and all are tagged with a location and month. Many photos include more than one species of bird for comparison, one of the selling points that made The Shorebird Guide so popular. The authors’ senses of humor are sprinkled throughout. A photo of a Bonaparte’s Gull with a noticeably smaller Little Gull is captioned with “Little Gulls are really small!” On the following page they open the discussion of Ross’s Gull with “Ross’s is not a gull, it is the gull; more legend than actual being!” With more than 600 pages of technical seawatching instruction, a little levity is welcomed!
The book closes with a section titled “Where to Watch.” This includes short blurbs about 47 seawatching sites in eastern North America, from one of my favorite birding spots (L’anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland) to spots you’d never think of as watch sites (the Mississippi River). The national parks are well represented here with sites in Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, Dry Tortugas National Park, Gateway National Recreation Area and the national seashores of Assateague Island, Cape Hatteras, and Gulf Islands. Some of the locations have tables of record and average counts for various species.
Overall, I think the Peterson Reference Guide to Seawatching is something most intermediate and advanced birders will want to have. It has a somewhat high sticker price ($35) for a field guide, but it’s worth every penny.
One caveat that should accompany it, though, is that it is not for beginners. While it demystifies what might seem like magic at first, it is still a very technical volume and presumes a good working knowledge of birding as a prerequisite. The amount of information can be overwhelming. I’d say it should be labeled for intermediate to advanced birders, though beginners will certainly benefit from it if they keep from being discouraged by the identification minutiae discussed at length.
Behrens and Cox, both professional birding guides and sometimes seawatchers, say their goal is to spur an interest in waterfowl watching similar to the explosion in raptor-watching that came out of the migratory hawkwatches. I think they’ve succeeded. Your next trip to the lakeshore will be immediately more rewarding with Sewatching as a reference in hand. This book – and years of intense practice on windy shores – might make you the next official seawatcher at Assateague Island!