Sure, I’d like to be a better birder! Who takes up any hobby endeavor with no desire to keep becoming better at it? Half the fun is continually learning new ways to have fun with your hobby.
So I was excited this spring to see a book titled How to Be a Better Birder released from Princeton University Press. That the author was Derek Lovitch, a veteran of the national birding scene, as well as some of my favorite haunts in Michigan, was even more incentive to dive into this book and see just how good I could be.
After a quick glance at the book’s cover, my first response was, “This is not your grandfather’s birding.” You see, the man on the front cover has a Painted Bunting on his head, but the lenses of his binoculars have radar images(?) and weather maps(!).
In our grandfathers’ days you didn’t use NEXRAD to bird. You also didn’t stand in shopping center parking lots in the middle of the night to listen to flight calls of nocturnally migrating birds. And you certainly didn’t have an iPhone with which to submit your sightings to eBird.
No, in the good old days, you identified a bird using the newest methodology from your trusty Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds. You memorized the field marks that identified one bird from another, and you generally did it in daylight. Today, Lovitch describes what he likes to call the “whole bird and more” approach. Field marks still matter, but as only one small piece of the puzzle.
None of these new methods is any secret to skilled birders from the “in-crowd,” but to a weekend feeder-watcher with a brand new pair of binoculars, this book is like learning the secret handshake.
When you’re just learning the ropes it can seem like the experts have some kind of magical ability to always be where the best birds are. You drive out to a couple state parks, visit the beach, see a few common birds and call it a day. That evening, you check out your state’s birding list-serv and see that Frank Birdsalot visited seemingly similar sites in the same area and saw four times as many birds, including a first-ever state record of Snowy Plover.
Is Frank just that lucky?
Maybe, but he’s also likely just a better birder, which is what you’ll hopefully be after reading this book.
Being where the birds are is the theme running under everything discussed in the book. After all, with a good field guide and a little practice, anyone can identify a bird once it’s in front of you. The trick is getting the birds in front of you.
The chapters Birding by Habitat and Birding With Geography give the basics of “where” to be to see the birds. Whether it’s this beach versus the one three miles down the coast or this end of the small field versus the other end, location makes all the difference. For Lovitch, who occasionally works as a guide, that difference can be between happy clients that got three new lifers or merely satisfied clients that had a good day of birding.
The next two chapters address the “when” of birding. Birding and Weather and Birding at Night were the two most interesting chapters for me. I’ve known for a while how certain weather events affect birding, but I’ve never had anyone suggest I pick up a basic meteorology textbook until Lovitch did so in Chapter 4.
I don’t think I’ll ever look at a weather map in April or May the same way again. Night birding is definitely one of the advanced skills in a birder’s repertoire. Nocturnal flight calls can be extremely difficult to distinguish from one another. It also helps to know that birds in nocturnal migration call more when there’s a lot of confusing light – hence the trip to the shopping center parking lot.
Birding at night can also mean sitting at your computer watching the weather radar. Lovitch explains in pretty good detail how to distinguish birds from rain and other clutter on NEXRAD radar images. Once you can see the birds on radar, you know exactly when and where to be to see them in the flesh and feather once day breaks and they head for the trees to fuel up for the next night’s flight. This might be why you were sitting on the shore seeing a handful of assorted migrants, while Frank was a few miles away counting warblers by the hundreds. Frank checked the radar.
Once you’ve read these chapters and hopefully become a better (more skilled) birder, the next step is to become a better (more scientifically productive) birder. Birding With a Purpose addresses the myriad outlets for your personal birding data as contributions to citizen science. What better way to use your newfound skills, than to give back to the birds?
The book closes with a chapter on vagrants, one that might just make you the author of the next report about a first-ever-bird for your state, and then a final chapter about a few days of birding in New Jersey that pulls all the lessons together.
How to Be a Better Birder seems best suited to the seasoned beginner and intermediate birder. It’s an eye-opener to the new age of birding, for sure. Lovitch has a conversational style that’s usually easy to read. Sometimes he heads down more than one tangential path before sauntering back to the main point, and there are a couple typos, but by the end you should feel like you just spent a few days birding with a guy who's really excited about helping you be a better birder. And that’s what it’s all about: learning, improving, and enjoying every minute of it.
Traveler Postscript: I read this book before and during the first part of a recent birding trip to Theodore Roosevelt National Park and the prairies of North Dakota. I had predicted (using my own proprietary algorithm) that a highly successful trip would net me 18 to 20 new lifers. I came home with 29. Coincidence? Who knows, but I sure was thinking about weather, geography, and habitat more than ever before.