Just in case I wasn’t aware that I very badly need to do more birding in the Southwest, a copy of Birding the Southwestern National Parks by former Park Service employee Roland Wauer arrived in my mailbox. Now I find myself checking plane fare to Las Vegas, El Paso, and Los Angeles. This may be one of the most expensive book reviews I’ve ever written.
The book begins, as most birding guides do, with an introduction to the hobby of birding, including the mandatory how-to-get-started instructions. Essential equipment, identification technique, and birding ethics are all covered concisely and accurately.
From there, the focus shifts to the national parks with a chapter titled Parks as Islands. Leading with the example of how integral the parks were in the reintroduction of Peregrine Falcons (after being the last refuges of the raptors during the DDT years), Wauer unapologetically describes the parks as islands of wilderness refuge where a naturalist or birder can see things as they once were. Threats to the parks are addressed as well as thoughts for the future.
Then follows an insert of color plates featuring stunning habitat photographs from some of the park units featured, places such as Death Valley National Park, Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Saguaro National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, and Big Bend National Park.
After that the real fun begins with each park receiving a chapter of its own. As a park is introduced, the author shares a personal birding experience from the locale, often involving a sought-after target bird.
Before getting to the birds themselves, a section headed The Park Environment describes the park itself, its vegetation, topography, climate, and habitats. While all of this information is naturally of interest to birders, it does help give this book more of a natural history flair that many birding guides lack.
But Birding in the Southwestern National Parks is most definitely a book for birders. No time is wasted getting right to the nitty-gritty of the bird life in each of the 17 national park units featured. The common names of notable birds are printed in striking boldface, so a quick skim through a particular park’s chapter will take you right to your bird of interest.
At the end of each chapter, a list of Birds of Special Interest recaps a handful of each park’s best birds, along with tips on when and where to find them. There’s no discussion of rarities, but rather a description of the most interesting birds and most likely birds. On any given trip to a park in proper season, a birder ought to be able to tick off any of the birds mentioned in each chapter.
Birding in the Southwestern National Parks isn’t full of pretty pictures. In fact, there isn’t a photograph of a bird anywhere in the book. Even the White-throated Swift on the front cover is a drawing superimposed on a photograph. This doesn’t necessarily detract from the book, as it should be noted that this is not a field guide, nor an identification aid of any sort. Color photos and drawing aren’t needed to address the where and when of finding birds in parks. Stunning drawings of highlighted birds by Mimi Hoppe Wolf enliven each park’s chapter.
If I could add anything to this book, it would be more phenological data. “Winter” is a somewhat vague term to describe the time a White-crowned Sparrow can be most easily seen in Lake Mead National Recreation Area. Then again, online resources like eBird can fill in this gap when the same data printed on paper would quickly become dated.
If the intent of the author was to spur more birders to visit 17 Southwestern gems of the National Park System, the mission was accomplished with me. Once there, I can’t help but imagine this would be an essential tome for the glove box of your rental car, right beside your field guide.