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

A beautiful look at the world's rarest birds

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: November 18, 2013 - 9:21 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. 






Excellent help with warbler ID

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: July 10, 2013 - 2:34 PM

 Roger Tory Peterson never was going to paint images of the underside of warbler tails from six different points of view.

That in essence describes the detail and value to be found in a very useful and well-done new birding field guide: “The Warbler Guide” by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle. Published by Princeton Press, the book contains hundreds (thousands?) of photographs of warblers from many points of view, including directly beneath the bird (a more common viewpoint than you might think). And much more.

Warblers are notorious for giving the observer fleeting and partial views. Field guides on the shelf today, regardless of the number of images offered, ultimately give you one option: extrapolate species from the fragments of information available.

Stephenson and Whittle, using photos taken by dozens of photographers, offer you much better ID odds. They accompany the photos with clearly written descriptive text that focuses point-by-point on the major identification marks. Photos of and text describing similar species offer comparison assistance should confusion arise.

Vocalizations are treated in great detail. Sonograms present visual representation of what you hear.

The book has range maps and migration charts showing usual wave patterns (early, middle, late). These are good range maps, colors strong and very visible, one from the other. (Some books go unnecessarily subtle.)

The market for identification guides has grown almost exponentially in the past two decades. That seems to have spawned a drive for differentiation, one book from another, that has worked to the benefit of us all. This book is a fine example of that. It certainly expands the information available in any single books on warbler ID.






New field guide to raptors

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: May 3, 2013 - 1:16 PM

 In stores now is Richard Crossley's newest field guide to birds: The Crossley ID Guide -- Raptors. It's similar to his first field guide, but better. It deals with a family of birds well suited for his idea of setting many photos of a species against a large photo background.

His first book covered all of the bird species of eastern North America. This book deals solely with raptors. Crossly's initial effort, published in 2011, was called revolutionary for the way it presented its photos. Each species was presented on full pages with multiple photos, birds seen from every conceivable point of view. Crossley wanted to duplicate your field experiences.

The raptor book makes the most of this idea. Raptors are often, perhaps most often, seen flying. Crossley's photos of birds in the air -- birds soaring and gliding and swooping -- would be better only in video. The book's photos do match what you see in the field; they are very pertinent. There are raptors near and far, high and low, raptors perched, raptors overhead.

Raptors are special because it's possible to make accurate identifications at a distance, when plumage details are not easily seen. How are the bird's wings set? Is it bulky, or slender, large head or small? The physical attributes of the bird, perched as well as aloft, can spell its name. Crossley has captured this well. His idea really works with raptors.

Supporting the hundreds of fine photos is text on each species, the particulars similar to what you can find in other guides but more extensive. There are range maps. And if you want to hone you raptor ID skills, Crossley provides several pages of quiz photos. They show a mix of raptor species in various poses at various distances, what you might see in the field. This is a wonderful idea, a true test. He does provide answers, for which I was grateful. (I need raptor work.)

Crossley's had collaborators for this effort, well-known raptor experts Jerry Liguori and Brian Sullivan. All of the photos used were taken by these three men. 

"The Crossley ID Guide -- Raptors" is soft cover, 285 pages, extensively illustrated with double-page photo spreads, glossary index, $29.95. The book is another in the fine series if bird guides published by Princeton University Press.

Below is one page of the two-page spread for Cooper's Hawk. 






Two books on owls

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: February 10, 2013 - 11:44 PM

Owls of the World, a Photographic Guide, Heimo Mikkola, Fireside Books Ltd, hard cover, 510 pages, heavily illustrated, with maps, explanatory text for each of the 249 owls species covered, index, and suggestions for further reading.

Someone has seen each of the owls shown in this book, obvious by the photos (and the museum specimens used when photos of live birds could not be found). I wonder if anyone has seen them all? Owls are found world-wide, except for Antarctica. Two-thirds of the species live in the southern hemisphere. Most are forest-dwellers, susceptible to the rampant deforestation seen today. Many species are threatened.


From the owl photos you can see that, basically, an owl is an owl is an owl. They are different, however, in size, coloration, food habits, and habitat preferences. Distribution of some species might be surprising. The Burrowing Owl, for instance, occasionally seen in Minnesota, and fairly easily found on prairies to our west, is resident into South America all the way to the tip of the continent. 


Our Great Horned Owl can be found in South America. The range of the Great Gray Owl, eagerly sought in northern Minnesota by birders seeking to fill life lists, has a range that stretches across Scandinavia and Russia. Snowy Owls, making a small incursion south from their polar range this year, are circumpolar in distribution. 


Owls have long been regarded as omens of impending ill fortune, if not death, according to the author. Those low or screaming voices coming from the forest were not welcomed. Today, Mikkola says, we should welcome owl calls as evidence of their continued presence. It is the silent forest that speaks of ill fortune.




Twelve Owls, Laura Erickson and Betsy Bowen, University of Minnesota Press, soft cover, 68 pages.This book on owls is local, its Minnesota focus but one of several ways this book so charmingly differs from a purely scientific, world-wide outlook. 


Two of our most accomplished artists -- Laura Erickson, Duluth writer, and Betsy Bowen, Grand Marais artist -- have combined talents to give us "Twelve Owls," a guide to the owls native to our state. 


The artwork, from cover throughout, could be deceiving, tagging this book as a "picture book" meant for young readers. Hardly. The beautiful illustrations compliment the highly informative text. 


"Nature’s Filthy, Feral, Invasive, and Unwanted Species"

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: January 28, 2013 - 8:30 AM


“Trash Animals: How We Life with Nature’s Filthy, Feral, Invasive, and Unwanted Species.” That’s the title of a new book soon to be on the shelves of the Hennepin County library. The library’s summary of the book tells us that the various authors, each examining one species, will contrast the reality of the animal with “assumptions widely held about them.” We will be challenged to “look closely at these animals, to re-imagine our ethics of engagement” with them.

A good premise, a useful book I’ll bet, but what an awful title. If the essays are to polish the reputations of these critters, it’s misleading. Either they are trash – and no animals are – or they aren’t. Nor are they filthy, or necessarily unwanted.

The book tells us we regard pigeons, carp, wolves, coyotes, gulls, magpies, prairie dogs, other animals, and, in my case, squirrels, with less than an admiring eye. I suppose someone ill-informed and unfamiliar with wildlife could so consider. Speaking for birds, pigeons, the entire broad family of gulls, and the clever and well-dressed magpie -- all are beautiful animals, each with its own place in our birding history, on our lists, in our guidebooks, and sometimes in our aspirations.

All God’s children have a place in the choir, as the song goes. In most cases, we have created invasive and unwanted species and whatever negative images exist by introducing animals to places they don’t belong. We alter habitat to give competing animals lesser chance at prosperity. If there is a trash issue here, we should examine our careless behavior with non-native species and our disregard for the needs of native species. That’s the trashy part.

The book is being published by the University of Minnesota Press.

A Rock Pigeon, below, our garden-variety pigeon, a beautiful iridescent bird that is not trash in any way. Watch a flock of pigeons wheel through the air. Consider the wonderfully odd way they walk, head bobbing with each step. Why, and how do their eyes adjust to the constant focal change? Or, enjoy their company by tossing them bread crumbs or popcorn on your next visit to a city park. Few bird species are as accepting of us.







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