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.
Rare Birds of North America, Steve N. G. Howell, Ian Lewington, Will Russell, Princeton University Press, 2014, hardcover, 428 pages, heavily illustrated, with index, $35.
All bird identification books should be this good.
The two authors and the artist, Lewington, have created a guide to 262 species of birds rarely seen in North America. Their criteria for species is five or fewer North American sightings per year, using records dating to 1950.
The book is lavishy illustrated; Lewington is a fine artist. The text is lavish, too, far more information offered than is found in the usual field guide.
This, of course, is not a usual field guide. Working with 262 species, about one-third the number found in your Peterson or Sibley guides, is a real advantage for the authors, thus a real plus for readers.
Each species is discussed first in a brief summary of where it has been seen. Comment on taxonomy follows, then extensive discussion of status and distribution, comments on sightings, very complete field identification comments, including differing plumages by age, sex, and season, and comments on similar species. Similar species often are illustrated; side-by-side comparisons can be made.
If you seek rare birds or just hope to encounter one on your travels, the authors give you a thorough review and explanation of vagrancy and migration patterns. With many maps and clear text, you can actually plot — well, make a reasonable guess — as to where and when you want to be to see whatever.
There are no other books I know of that offer such extensive analysis.
The book is an enjoyable and educational read for anyone interested in how and why rare birds sometimes show up in odd places, including Minnesota and Wisconsin.
There was a Fieldfare, a northern European thrush, in Grand Marais in 1991, for example, way off its usual paths. A tropical hummingbird called Green Violet-ear spent a few days in LaCrosse in 1998. Another tropical hummer, a Green-breasted Mango, was in eastern Wisconsin in 2007.
Minnesota had a Garganey, a European duck, in 1993. It breeds across northern Eurasia. A Smew was seen in Superior, Wisconsin, in 2000. It’s a boreal breeder from Scandinavia east across Russia. Minnesota has seen more than one Fork-tailed Flycatcher, a resident of South America.
The book helps you understand why this happens and, perhaps, when. The latter makes this a beautifully done wish-list.
Free quick-find warbler identification pages are available from Princeton University Press. There are seven pieces in the set, all downloadable as pdf or jpg files. Each opens as a full-color image 10 by 7 inches. The guides are taken from the book “The Warbler Guide,” a Princeton publication by Tom Stephenson and Scott White. There guides are: warbler faces, birds at a 45-degree view, eastern warblers spring, eastern warblers fall, undertail view, complete under view, and western spring warblers. I downloaded faces and 45-degree-look as pdf files. ID is possible from the images. I think these would be very useful for photographers in particular, when a photo image poses ID questions. Compare your photo with the illustration on your pdf file, both there on your computer screen. If you have the book (and a fine ID guide it is), you have these quick-find pages. Having them on the computer, side by side with your photos, should make the ID effort easier. Go to blog.press.princeton.edu, choose the page for birds and natural history, choose free download quick finders, and download (very fast). Here is the faces guide. This is a reduction from the actual 10x7 size.
The number of Snowy Owls reported in Minnesota is close to 200. Undoubtedly, there are many more owls, uncounted. For instance,a birder has reported talking with a coyote hunter who told her he has seen several Snowy Owls in north central Minnesota recently. He most likely did not report these to the birding email networks. Owl numbers continue to grow. The map can be found at
Owls are routinely being reported near the Twin Cities in Dakota, Wright, Becker, and Anoka counties.
If you go looking, and now you can do that without worry of freezing to death, drive county and township roads slowly. Look at the tops of any objects above ground level. Some of these birds are almost totally white; look closely.
Do not disturb the birds. Do not approach closely. Observation quietly from your car is recommended.
The photo below was taken several years ago at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport. Its flatness resembles tundra, at least for these owls,. Tundra is home habitat for Snowies. Hazardous for planes, Snowies found at the airport are live-trapped and relocated.
Winter finch species, as predicted, are not to be seen so far this winter. Well, a few perhaps, but not many. Certainly not in the Duluth area. The Duluth Christmas Bird Count (CBC) this past weekend found no Pine Grosbeaks, no redpolls, no Pine Siskins, and no crossbills of either species (Red or White-winged). That might be a first. Even if finches don't make it as far south as the metro area, at least a few would be expected in Duluth.
Several weeks ago a Canadian birder offered his annual prediction of finch movement south from northern Canada. He said, in essence, there would be little if any; food would be plentiful in the north. It looks like he was right. The source gathers his information from various sources throughout eastern Canada and Ontario.
Christmas Bird Counts, in case they are new to you, involve a day-long census of bird species seen within a circle 13 miles in diameter. The starting point is the same each year. The date of the event must fall between dates chosen by the National Audubon Society, event sponsor and source of summaries of counts throughout the country. CBCs have been annual events for decades. Comparison of count totals for this species or that, year to year, offer information on the population status of those species.
More than two dozen CBCs are conducted in Minnesota each year by volunteers.
Below, a Pine Grosbeak, one of the reasonably expected winter finches not seen in Duluth during its 20134 CBC.
A friend wrote to tell me that she had covered the perches of her bird feeders with material to keep birds’ feet from contact with cold metal. She has a kind heart. Actually, birds have adaptations to foot muscles, nerves, and blood supply that make damage from cold weather unlikely. While looking for information on this in Cornell Lab’s “Handbook of Bird Biology,” I learned that some birds have fingerprints. The feet of birds like raptors and parrots have papillae, small, nipple-like projections that cover the bottom of the foot. They form patterns that vary from individual to individual, allowing birds of similar appearance to be identified one from another. This is said to be handy in particular for identifying birds of significant value, birds stolen for instance. I wonder if you can scan bird eyes for the same pupil differences used to identify humans. Probably. Generally speaking, at this point in human development we can do way more than we need to do.
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