Jim Williams has been watching birds and writing about their antics since before "Gilligan's Island" went into reruns. Join him for his unique insights, his everyday adventures and an open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond.
First there were the little arrows used by Roger Tory Peterson in his classic and important birding guide book. The arrows marked important identification clues for the bird you were watching.
Then, identification books with photos. Then, better artwork. Today, many books, each seeking to catch your eye and help you find a way to name that bird.
Now, technology has gone one step farther. Or two or three.
Princeton University Press has released a bird-identification app for iPhone and iPad. It replicates in electronic form the recently published book “The Warbler Guide” by Tom Stephenson and Scott Wittle.
It also animates the book, and gives it sound.
The app offers what Princeton calls 3D images. You place fingers on an image of the bird and rotate. You can see the bird from any angle — up, down, profile, three-quarter view, whatever meets your needs. It’s sort of magical, simple and familiar if you are savvy about these devices, a frequent user, but certainly novel when it comes to birds.
There are photos (not all in 3D, but photos from several angles) of male, female, and juvenile plumages. You can view similar species as you view your target bird, make comparisons quickly, on one page. There are photos to help you age and sex the bird. There is text to explain similarities and differences.
There is a clever overview page that shows the bird in silhouette, drawings offering a summary of color pattern, including under-tail view, a map showing broad distribution of the species, and even an image of a tree and bush colored to tell you what part of that vegetation the bird can be expected to use (lower portion of tree, middle, top).
There are excellent range maps, large and well-colored.
And songs? Vocalizations? For the American Redstart, for instance, there are nine offerings: chip call, flight call, and seven types of song. Songs of all North American warbler species are on the same scrolling page, arranged alphabetically, so if you want to make voice comparisons it is easy to do. The app describes the song as buzzy, clear, trilled, or a variation of those choices. Pitch trend — up or down — is shown.
If you would describe the song as having, for example, three sections, click on “three” under the choice “song sections” and all calls having three sections appear alphabetical by species.
You can arrange all of this information by color groups, alphabetical, or in taxonomic order.
The app costs $12.99. The price is less than almost any ID book, and offers much more for your money. Purchase is made at the Apple Store.
A consideration would be convenient use of either the iPhone or iPad as you seek ID help. At home or in the car? No problem. In the field, certainly more convenient with the phone, although the size of the images could be an issue (it would be an issue for me). My purchase was for the iPad version. Will I take the iPad into the field? We’ll see.
Regardless, this is an amazing collection of identification information for our warbler family. If anyone else wants to do this, to publish what they might consider an improvement, they will have to work very, very hard.
Everything you might want to know can be found at https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLG9b0fRtVfA3e1R74BozvgK7x3corNuqx
Below, an image from one of the app's pages. Photos at the bottom illustrate species that might be helpful for comparison. Image is to size for the iPad.
The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar, Martin Windrow, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2014, 302 pages, bibliography, illustrations by Christa Hook.
Tawny Owls, birds of Great Britain larger than screech-owls and smaller than Barred Owls could be thought of as interesting but hardly common pets. Who wouldn’t want to get to know an owl up close and personal? And then again, how might that go?
British writer Martin Windrow kept such an owl, a Tawny that is better described as companion than pet. Windrow and Mumble, his name for the bird, lived together for 15 years. Mumble spent most of that time sharing, for at least the best part of each day, Windrow’s London apartment.
Mumble perched on Windrow’s shoulders, sometimes on his head, tore his newspaper to shreds as it was being read, groomed Windrow’s beard, nibbled at his ears, shared nuzzlings, and soiled his furniture.
The book combines the natural history of the bird as observed and interpreted from behavior in this domestic setting. Mumbles sometimes responds to the outer, natural world, when owl calls penetrate the apartment or a pigeon is seen through a window. Mostly, though, Mumbles expresses her owlness with fascinating behavior as an indoor bird.
Mumbles was raised by a breeder, never knowing freedom beyond walls. Well, except for twice when the owl managed to put itself outdoors, free to go, returning each time to what was familiar. The bird responded to its nature in unnatural conditions, giving the author and us insight into what the life or a wild bird might be.
Windrow is a writer by profession, and a good one. This is not the sappy or sad story that tales of captive birds can be. You will know much about this individual owl and owls in general after reading of Windrow’s adventures. He shared his life in an unusual way, and shares that with us as an entertaining and informative read.
Mumbles dies at the end of the story, as birds of her age will do. Windrow misses her enormously. Readers will miss her, too.
The mention of Caesar in the title, by the way, refers to a plaster bust that Windrow kept in his apartment, a favorite roosting place for Mumbles when she wasn’t atop a door or exploring the cavities behind books on shelves.
A book describing birding opportunities in Minnesota’s 75 state parks and recreation areas is in final proofing stage, with publication hoped for March. This will be a must-have for anyone birding beyond their backyard.
The title is “Birds of Minnesota State Park,” the author Robert B. Janssen. He spent 11 years making multiple visits to the parks, to cover both nesting species and migrants.
All of the parks are here, from Beaver Creek Valley State Park deep in the southeast corner of the state to Zippel Bay State Park on the shore of Lake of the Woods. Parks are arranged by counties within the state’s four biomes: tallgrass prairie, tallgrass aspen parkland, hardwood forest, and pine forest.
Janssen’s text covers habitat of each park, pointing out landscape features that can offer particular birding opportunities. He describes in general the bird families likely to be seen, along with particular areas recommended for close examination for particular species.
The book is fat with maps showing park locations, and details within each park — trails, campsites, water access, parking, and more. Many bird species of particular interest appear in color photos.
The book has 218 pages plus index. The American Birding Association Code of Ethics for birders is included.
Janssen is author of “Birds in Minnesota,” a guide to the distribution of 400 species of birds in Minnesota. It was issued in paper by the University of Minnesota Press in 1987, and remains in print. It can be considered an essential for serious birders here.
“Birds of Minnesota State Parks” will be published by the Minnesota Division of State Parks and Trails. It will appear under the guidance of Carrol L. Henderson, who guides non-game wildlife programs for the Department of Natural Resources.
The comprehensive bird lists found in the book are available online at mn.dnr.gov
There’s not been much innovation in the design of birding field guides from Peterson forward. With the exception of Crossley’s book with its Cineramic and odd presentation of birds in every posture and pose, guide books have been pretty much cut from the same template forever.
There is an exception, a new guide from Princeton University Press that takes a fresh look at combination of illustrations and text, a change that makes very good sense. The subject of the book is a little off the useful track in Minnesota, being the well-done second edition of “Birds of New Guinea,” but that’s beside the point.
The authors — or the designer if there was that specific person — have paired bird illustrations with facing pages containing abbreviated text with range map, enough information to answer the pressing question — what am I seeing.
The second half of the book contains the expanded versions of this information — the details on size, status, plumages, habits, voice, and range. This is where you go for the more discussion of what you might have seen on today’s trip into the field.
This design offers the reader a more convenient book. It's a good idea.
Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology Since Darwin, Tim Burkhead, Jo Wimpenny, and Bob Montgomerie, Princeton University Press, hardcover, 524 pages, illustrated, notes, references, index, two appendixes.
“Ten Thousand Birds” examines contributions and advances in the science of ornithology since Darwin, and the people who made them. Work is presented in various categories of study: origin and diversification, ecological adaptations for breeding, form and function, instinct, behavior, sexual selection, population, and a look forward. One appendix lists some histories of ornithology, the other offers a list of 500 ornithologists, living and dead. This is an impressive examination of work that continues. It is written for birders, not scientists. It won’t help with identification, but it will greatly expand one’s knowledge of the animals that provide us with so much pleasure.
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