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.

Posts about Bird books

Sibley's second edition -- a fine field guide

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: June 1, 2014 - 11:05 PM

David Allen Sibley’s new book, “The Sibley Guide to Birds,” second edition, is a fine book. I like it. I have one. I use it.

Why? I like Sibley’s artwork, first of all. I do find the text helpful. I even like the range maps (more on that in a moment).

Artwork: Birding is a visual game, to state the obvious. I believe that most people choose a field guide based on their reaction to the illustrations. You either like the art/photos or you don’t. I don’t believe that attraction to text or anything else overrides reaction to the art.

My first field guide was the Peterson, eastern version. Of course, when I bought it there were but two real choices, Peterson and the “Audubon Land Bird Guide: Birds of Eastern & Central North America From Southern Texas to Central Greenland” text by Richard Pough, illustrations by Don Eckelberry, the title alone worth the purchase. Eckelberry drew his birds with more flare than Peterson. Eckelberry’s birds were shown in realistic poses; they had movement.

Peterson’s art won the day, however. As a beginner, I loved the little arrows that pointed to the critical field marks on his perfect profiles.

I never went to a bookstore to buy a field guide, and made a choice based on text. No. It’s how you feel when you open the book and look at the pictures.

Over the years I've acquired about three dozen other field guides, some general for North America, some east only, some west, and others for warblers, raptors, shorebirds, and seabirds. 

I have these because I thought I would find them useful.  In most cases they have been, if only now and then. The book in the bird box in the van, though, and the one on my desk, those are Sibley’s. Because I like his artwork. 

 Sibley’s painting pleases my eye. Plus, of course, his illustrations, the text, his maps, they all do the job.

Of the other books, one stands out: Crossley’s, that strange guide with pages of flying, perching, swimming birds. He has given each species a display page filled with photos of that bird in every conceivable pose. If you take photos, and come home with birds unidentifiable because you missed the best shot, Crossley likely has a picture — on purpose — that mimics yours, clueing your ID.

About those range maps: many book designers, when they come to range maps, choose to delineate nesting, wintering, permanent, and migration territories in soft pastel colors. They lean heavily on subtle shades of brown and red and green. I do not see those colors well, my eyes, like those of about six percent of American men, short-changed on red/green receptors. Those range-map colors cannot be told one from another, making the maps pretty much useless.

Sibley’s designer, however, or maybe Sibley himself, has chosen brighter, bolder colors with a greater degree of separation. Hooray for him. It’s another reason he’s my favorite. 

Birds and your garden -- a new book

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: May 18, 2014 - 9:23 PM

Birdscaping in the Midwest: A Guide to Gardening with Native Plants to Attract Birds, Mariette Nowak, University of Wisconsin Press, soft cover, 335 pages, index, heavily illustrated, $34.95

About once a year I receive for review a book purporting to guide birders to a yard/garden/landscape that attracts birds. This book, “Birdscaping in the Midwest,” is the first to deliver fully on the promise, plus more. 

It covers far more topics than other books I’ve seen, in greater detail, with better text. It has illustrations not only beautiful (check the Tufted Titmouse photo on page 161) but also helpful. It has diagrams that show you not only which plants to use but how to place them in a garden for best effect. There are lists for everything, and sources for everything, the latter including books and websites.

If the book was a bird it would be a big bird. If it was a flower it would be a gorgeous flower.

The author, Mariette Nowak, is a professional, leader of a native plant and landscape group and for the Lakeland Audubon Society in Milwaukee. She is a public speaker on landscaping, native plants, and birds. Before retirement she was director of the Wehr Nature Center within the Milwaukee County park system.

The book offers an education on native plants and birds. It would be interesting even if you have no plans for a garden. However, once you’ve page through it, the urge to make a plan and find a shovel could be strong. 

Here is the table of contents: 

Birds and Plants: an ancient collaboration, going native, the case against exotics.

Gallery of Bird-habitat Gardens: photos.

Native Habitat for Birds — the basics: getting started, planning and design, site prep and planting.

Bird-habitat Gardens for Specific Birds: gardens for hummingbirds, prairie birds, migratory birds, winter birds, and birds of the savanna, woodlands, wetlands, and scrublands. Plus birdbaths and water gardens.

Midwestern Plants that Attract Birds: trees, shrubs, vines, wildflowers, ferns, grasses, sedges, and rushes.

Maintaining and Enhancing Your Garden, with information on bird housing and bird feeding, and advice on solving problems should they occur.

Have you ever bought a packet of assorted wildflower seeds? I have. Bad idea, Ms. Nowak tells us. She writes of tests that have shown the average such packet to contain as much as 30 percent exotic-plant seed (you don’t want these!), and germination rates as low as 40 percent. The author advises buying seed from nurseries that specialize in native plants.

There is a particular article discussing a Minnesota yard, one cursed with buckthorn. The removal and replacement is clearly and thoroughly discussed. I read this with interest. I’m in the midst of buckthorn removal, given the almost 100 percent viability of every seed in every berry, a project that might last a lifetime.

The book would be valuable for a gardener who has no pointed interest in birds as well as birders, even those who don’t garden but want to know more about habitat, a key to finding birds. I suspect it would lead either in the direction of the other. There is almost as much information here about birds as there is about plants. This book deserves a place on the shelf next to your favorite bird guide book.

David Sibley here next week

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: March 26, 2014 - 11:02 AM

Artist and author David Sibley will be here Wednesday, April 2, to talk about the new edition of his book “The Sibley Guide to Birds. He’ll speak at the Bell Museum of Natural History The event is co-sponsored by the Bell Museum and The Bookcase in Wayzata. A copy of the $40 book is included in the event’s ticket price: $45.50 for individuals, $65 for a couple. Both prices include tax and a small handling charge. Tickets can be purchased at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/583888

An interview with Sibley about birding and his book can be foundon the cover of today’s StarTribiune Variety section.

Artist, author David Sibley to speak at Bell Museum

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: March 5, 2014 - 5:16 PM

Artist and author David Sibley is coming to Minneapolis to talk about the new edition of his book “The Sibley Guide to Birds." He’ll speak at the Bell Museum of Natural History  at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 2. The event is co-sponsored by the Bell Museum and The Bookcase in Wayzata. The museum is located at the University of Minnesota.

The second edition of his famed guide will be in stores March 11. A copy of the book is included in the event’s ticket price: $45.50 for individuals, $65 for a couple. Both prices include tax and a small handling charge. Shelf price of the book is $40. 

Tickets can be purchased at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/583888

The new edition has larger illustrations, digitally remastered for quality. The text has been expanded to include habitat information and voice description. Sibley offers tips on finding birds in the field. There are over 600 new paintings, including illustrations of 115 rare species, and illustrations in some cases of regional plumage differences. More than 700 maps show winter, summer, year-round ranges, migration routes, and ranges of rare species. 

Poignant records of lost animals

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: March 17, 2014 - 4:39 PM

“Lost Animals: Extinction and the Photographic Record,” Errol Fuller, Princeton University Press, 2013, hardcover, 255 pages, illustrated, $29.95.

The animals going extinct today are so much more fortunate than the animals that went extinct, say, 100 years ago.

They are apt to be better remembered.

Today we can capture in photographs memories of what we are losing. We can easily keep the lost ones on record, in mind. We are so able to document our folly.

That was not the case until fairly recently. Equipment was a factor, probably the factor. No one was able to photograph the sky-darkening flocks of Passenger Pigeons, the flocks that, we are told, took  days and nights to pass a single place.

We can’t form a true mental image from the words, “We are told.” We need the experience or the photo of the blackened sky to help us comprehend the loss.

There are photos of Passenger Pigeons. You’ve perhaps seen the sad, poignant photos of Martha, the last of her species as she waited in the Cincinnati zoo to put a period on her story. 

Author Errol Fuller gives us a book filled with poignant images in “Lost Animals: Extinction and the Photographic Record.” He has collected photo images of 28 animals gone extinct. There are many more extinctions, of course, but few photo records of what is gone. 

Some of the photos are quite good, others dark and blurry. Particularly good are the black-and-white photos taken by James T. Tanner of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers encountered in the 1930s as he studied these birds in Louisiana. There are several images of a young bird, looking almost playful, obviously unaware of its future.

Most of the animals discussed in the book are birds. For all of the animals Fuller provides interesting, brief accounts of how and why these animals went extinct, who had photos, and how he found them. He offers important footnotes to extinction history. The answer to the question why, incidentally, turns out to be habitat loss more often than not. Apparently, we haven’t learned much from our history.

I found the emotional content of these photos surprising. There is a difference between reading of an extinct animal and seeing them here. Fuller shows us what we’ve lost.

Because some of the photos are of marginal quality, Fuller has included in an appendix artists’ illustrations of these 28 animals. They are lovely, colored paintings and drawings. They are not nearly as powerful as the sometimes crude photos he offers us.

(Note on Ivory-billed Woodpecker: Some people say there are more recent photos of that bird, albeit blurred, distant images best viewed with imagination. Fuller believes this species to be dead and gone, any photos in absolute need of imagination. He mocks people who say they have seen the bird as recently as 2002. Some of us believe — hope — he sooner or later will be proven wrong. The hunt does continue.)


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