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

Biographies of Roberts and Wilson

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: October 31, 2013 - 1:35 PM

Biographies of men who had much influence on birding here and in North America recently have been published. One details the life of Thomas Sadler Roberts, founder of the Bell Museum of Natural History, the other the life of Alexander Wilson, a Scot recognized by many as the founder of American Ornithology.

Roberts, a medical doctor, was born in 1858, and came to the city as a boy. He was a boy interested in birds. His lifelong interest was recorded in journals that eventually became the basis for the two-volume set “Birds of Minnesota.” It was and remains an essential tool for understanding birds here.

Roberts was here when Passenger Pigeons roosted in city oak trees. He taught the University of Minnesota’s first ornithology class. He and his students rode by streetcar from campus to Lake Harriet for birding fieldwork.

The author of the Roberts book, Sue Leaf, skillfully recreates his time and place, his contributions to ornithology, his work as a physician, and as the force that created our Bell Museum.  

The book takes takes us on a unique history trip. It covers birds, medicine, and the development of Minneapolis as a city, with Roberts as our guide.

The book is titled “A Love Affair with Birds.” It’s the most readable biography/history book I’ve read in a long time. The University of Minnesota Press published the book.

Wilson is the man for whom Wilson’s Snipe, Wilson’s Phalarope, Wilson’s Plover, and Wilson’s Storm-petrel are named. Contrary to what many people believe, it was he, not John James Audubon, who earned recognition as father of ornithology in the U.S.

Wilson expressed his interest in and passion for birds through an extraordinary talent as an artist. The book contains reproductions of almost all of his work with North American birds. He was unusual for his time because he kept notes of his observations. The book quotes from these, offering a sharply focused look at a naturalist’s world more than 200 years ago.

Wilson arrived in Philadelphia in 1794. He traveled widely throughout the country as it existed then, sketching and painting as he went.

Audubon arrived in the country in 1803. He too traveled widely in search of birds to paint. His famous work, including 700 species of birds, was published in two volumes between 1827 and 1839. He did not include the knowledgeable text that made Wilson’s work so valuable. But Audubon’s books, showing paintings of birds life-size, has become perhaps the most valuable of all early work on North American birds.

Audubon sought subscriptions for his book, traveling to England with paintings to seek support. He was successful. Wilson also traveled to find subscribers who would finance printing of his work. He was less successful, but the first volume of “American Ornithology” was published in 1808, an issue of 250 copies.

Wilson and Audubon met in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1810. Audubon was working on his paintings, traveling to find birds. Wilson was seeking subscriptions for his work. He spent part of two days with Audubon, before leaving almost securing Audubon’s signature as a subscriber. Audubon’s business partner at that time discouraged Audubon from signing, and he did not.

That was the first edition of an intended eight. Wilson was working on the final volume at the time of his death in 1813. His work was the first scientific publication in this country.

The book is titled “Alexander Wilson, The Scot Who Founded American Ornithology.” It was written by Edward H. Burtt Jr., and William E. Davis Jr., published by Harvard University Press.

New book on 'seawatching'

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: September 25, 2013 - 9:50 AM

Three pelagic birding trips await me this fall, all from West Coast ports. If timing were different I might have the perfect companion in my bag. That would be the western edition of a new Peterson field guide. The one I'm looking at is the "Peterson Reference Guide to Seawatching: Eastern Waterbirds in Flight." I'm assuming that a western edition is in the works. I certainly hope so. The excellent eastern edition expands and improves waterbird information found in the basic Peterson bird ID books. Here are 600 pages of detail, a massive effort by authors Ken Behrens and Cameron Cox. The book covers 15 waterbird families: cormorants, anhinga, loons,grebes, alcids, shearwaters and petrels, storm-petrels, frigatebirds, gannets and boobies, pelicans, skuas and jaegers, gulls, black skimmer, and terns. 

The book is photo-rich. Birds are shown from many points of view, alone, in flocks, in the air, on the water. Text picks up where photos leave off. Each species is given several hundred words discussing size, structure, flight and flocking, appearance for each sex at key age points, and similar species. 

There is a list of favored places for seawatching. There are records of single-day counts by species. There are quiz questions and answers, a test of your work with the book. The book will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt under sponsorship of the Roger Tory Peterson Institute and the National Wildlife Federation. Publication date and price are not available at this time.

The Birdman of Lauderdale

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: September 3, 2013 - 12:18 PM

 There’s likely a story to be told every time someone returns home from a birding trip, be it across the country or across the street. You just have to recognize it, then share it.

Clay Christensen, the self-styled birdman of Lauderdale, never misses a story.

In a new book, “The Birdman of Lauderdale,” Christensen tells entertaining and informative stories about his life as a birder. He’s a good writer, as well as a good birder and a good observer. He doesn’t miss much.

He begins his chapters with lines like, “The adventure began …., “While walking along ….,” “When I began birding ….”

And then he will capture in clean, personal prose the just-plain-interesting things he saw or heard or thought of. He also has a keen sense of humor.

The stories average about two pages in length. I was drawn through the book’s 213 pages by anticipation that the next chapter would be as much fun as the last. I wasn’t disappointed.

Reading the book is like going birding with Christensen, then closing the afternoon with a cup of coffee or a glass of beer. He’s good company. He tells sharply seen stories. His book is well done.

Publication will be in October. It would make a great holiday gift.

(In case you don’t know, Lauderdale is a seven-block square municipality near the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota. In the book it becomes Bird Central.)

Beautiful book on raptors

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: August 6, 2013 - 10:02 AM

"The Raptors of Iowa" could just as well be titled "The Raptors of Minnesota." With few exceptions the birds featured in this beautiful slim book from the University of Iowa Press (UIP) are found here as well as to our south. The book, a touch over 100 pages long, showcases raptor paintings by the late artist James F. Landenberger. 


He was best known in Iowa, a birder and teacher who became an artist. There are 32 color plates of his raptor watercolors. He was superb in that medium, judging by this work.There is a touch of Audubon here, Landenberger giving his birds postures and attitudes that convey life and, well, attitude, as did Audubon. The birds have personality. 


Each painting includes appropriate background -- branches, leaves, ground vegetation, prey, cloudy skies. A favorite of mine is the rendition of a pair of Merlins streaking toward the ground. Landenberger captures not only the beauty of the birds but their spirit as well. 


The art is accompanied by brief accounts of the birds' presence in Iowa. There also are four brief essays about Landenberger and about the raptors he loved. 


This is a Bur Oak book, a special set of natural history books edited by Holly Carver at UIP. Bur Oak has issued 33 books, some specific to Iowa, others covering subjects with broader range. 


Included are two books written by Minnesotan Nancy Overcott: "Fifty Common Birds of the Upper Midwest" and "Fifty Uncommon Birds of the Upper Midwest." Both are illustrated by artist Dana Gardner. This pair of books came out several years ago. They remain in print. Amazon has copies, along with a 2013 release by Overcott and Gardner titled "Living a Dream: Bluff Country Offerings," and other Bur Oak books.


Bur Oak Press does good work. These soft-cover books are well made, printed on acid-free paper, and designed throughout to bring pleasure to the eye. Design and content go hand-in-hand. The books by Overcott and Gardner would be excellent additions to a library featuring Minnesota birds.


A beautiful look at the world's rarest birds

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: July 22, 2013 - 11:40 AM

 Bird species in population decline have something in common with cancer. Learning about it is bad news. But, if you don't know, you can't seek a remedy.

In the case of 586 bird species worldwide that are listed as critically endangered or simply endangered, curing cancer is the better bet.

My pessimistic mood stems from review of a newly published book that looks hard at bird population problems. "The World's Rarest Birds" is a beautiful book, distressing subject aside. Hundreds of excellent photos display the glory and wonder of these birds. Photos of some species appear in print for the first time. The text that explains the problems is to the point.

This is a Princeton Press publication, so the excellence shown is not unexpected.

The heart of the book is a species-by-species account, region by region around the world, defining briefly why these birds are in trouble. Basically, as you'd suppose, it's us, one way or another.

BirdLife International, devoted to conservation, lists 10,064 bird species worldwide, 9,934 alive in vastly varying quantities and 130 gone extinct since 1500. The list contains 197 species designated critically endangered and 389 endangered. These are the most-threatened species. Many other species are "vulnerable."

Consider North America. The Eskimo Curlew, a bird once found in Minnesota, and Bachman's Warbler, resident in the southeastern U.S., are possibly/probably extinct. The curlew was last seen for certain in 1963, the warbler in 1988. Habitat change did them in.

Are they extinct or unseen? Impossible to say. And one is pretty much the same as the other. If you can’t find it, it’s good as gone.

In the past 50 years we've lost half of our Snow Buntings, an iconic winter bird here. They're vulnerable, one step below endangered, as are Sprague's Pipits and Rusty Blackbirds. All three species move through Minnesota. Habitat loss is the issue. Habitat is almost always the issue.

The population of Greater Scaup, a duck you can/might see here has declined 75 percent since 1960. Early thawing of its permafrost nesting grounds is one reason for lower numbers.

Look at an issue in the news almost every day: Canada’s extraction of oil from tar sands. The drilling is being done after scraping away boreal forest. The forest is nursery to over 300 species of songbirds and waterbirds. Is this a problem? Sure. If it’s a problem, is it an issue? Does anyone think they’ll stop drilling because of some songbirds?

The Whooping Crane once nested in our state. Early European settlers shot it out, plowed its nesting ground. It is, however, one of the few success stories to be found. Cranes remain endangered, but numbers are growing slowly thanks to an introduction program headquartered just across the Wisconsin border.

This book's authors -- Erik Hirschfeld, Andy Swash, and Robert Still -- make clear our impact on birds. They don’t have many success stories to share. We hit birds from so many directions. 

We know that, don’t we? We just don’t know how to make the world work to the benefit of both humans and other living creatures.

For that reason, this book should be widely read. Take a look at what we're losing. 









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