Spring migration is in full swing here in the Great Lakes, and your humble birding columnist has been run ragged. Among my recent travels was a stop at Ontario's Point Pelee National Park. It's a small park, but loaded with unique geographic features and plenty of fabulous birds. You'll hear about the actual birds right here in a couple weeks, but for now I want to focus on the birders. One group in particular was out in force.
Point Pelee, like all of the birding hotspots I've visited this month, was full of new and inexperienced birders. That's a great sign that efforts to expand the hobby, as well as awareness about bird conservation, are working. I've spent much of the last week pointing out the song of the Yellow Warbler, the habits of thrushes, and the difference between Tennessee Warblers and Warbling Vireos. Those are all Birding 101 tricks that most of us take for granted, but it's brand new information for thousands of people out there this month with brand new binoculars ' or a pair from the '50's that granddad used in Korea.
I enjoy pointing things out to new birders and helping them with identifications. Most seasoned birders do. It's a tradition of our pastime. Unfortunately, we can't be everywhere all the time.
That's where the latest guide in the Peterson Field Guides series comes to the rescue. The New Birder's Guide to Birds of North America is one of those books I want to carry with me everywhere, not for my personal use, but so I can give it to the next new birder I run into. I'd end up needing a case of the things, but it might be worth it.
I've talked about field guides before. There are guides from David Sibley, Kenn Kaufman, and Richard Crossley. There are field guides from the Audubon Society and the National Geographic Society. Every guide out there is different and they're all serviceable identification aids for a brand new birder. But they lack one thing. They aren't fun. People start watching birds because it's enjoyable and fun, so it's unfortunate that most of the best field guides are, rightly and by necessity, comprehensive and technical. There's no room for levity when you have 500 pages to address the finer points of identification for 720 birds.
The New Birder's Guide doesn't attempt to be comprehensive, leaving space for nuggets of wisdom such as that one advantage to birding with companions is that they may bring better snacks than you have. I dare you to find that wisdom in the latest from David Sibley.
The witty prose is the work of Bill Thompson III, editor of Bird Watcher's Digest and all-around ambassador for the love of birds. Fun is Bill's middle name. (Not really, but you'd think it is if you follow his posts on social media or go birding with the man.)
The front of the book takes a light and conversational approach to dispensing an awful lot of practical information. There's advice about choosing binoculars, dressing properly, and etiquette when sharing a scope. '[G]et a good look, but don't hog it!' It's all the things we want to tell a new birder in the field, in the friendly and welcoming manner we'd like to use, if we only had the time.
Once the introductory wisdom has been served, the book delves into the identification of 300 of the most common birds in the United States and Canada. Sure, it's possible a less common bird will stump a neophyte, but these 300 are the birds that will be seen 99 percent of the time.
The layout of each species profile page is exquisite. There's the range map and photo of the bird as you would expect in a field guide. There's also the description of what to look for and what to listen for. After that, this guide takes that all-important step from lecturing, as most guides do, to truly teaching.
The last section of each species account is headed: 'Remember.' This includes two or three sentences highlighting an important aspect of identification for this bird. For example, the point to remember about Cliff Swallows is that the white forehead and buffy rump are like a headlight and taillight that allow for the Cliffs to be easily picked out from a mixed flock of swirling swallows that lack those marks. For the Whimbrel, we're advised to remember that Whimbrels show essentially no marks in flight. 'They are plain Janes,' according to the book.
Each species also has its own green box headlined with a simple 'WOW!' These are fun and fascinating facts about each bird. They may not aid in identification, but they certainly bring the birds to life. While I wasn't in need of many of the identification tips in the book, quite a few of the WOW! facts were new to me. I had no idea that Black Phoebes, a small insect-eating bird of the West, had been known to snag tiny fish!
As if each page needed anything else, there's still more! A grayscale sketch accompanies each species, showing a typical behavior, like a Lewis' Woddpecker flycatching or Anhingas building a colony of nests. These illustrations are the work of Bill's wife, Julie Zickefoose, an accomplished birder, writer, and artist. Bill gives Julie credit for some of the witty captions throughout the book, as well.
Any field guide can lead a new birder to a proper identification. Some may even do it better for some species than this book can. But I'll bet you my binoculars that a new birder making an identification with this book will remember the bird, the identification tricks, and the natural history far better than had he or she used any other guide on the market. It teaches by showing, and it reminds the reader, literally and repeatedly, to have fun and don't sweat a tough identification.
In a humorous section of the introduction, a list of 'You might be a birder if'¦' is presented. The final line is, 'You might be a birder if you would rather be birding than doing almost anything else. Including reading this book.'
That's true, but I have to admit I really enjoyed reading through the book. And I can't wait to go birding again, mostly so I can run into a brand new birder and hand them my copy of The New Birder's Guide.