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An open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond

New book "Better Birding" lives up to its title

You walk into a Caribou coffee shop. It’s very busy, many customers, small children, music, baristas calling out orders. As soon as you enter you recognize a seated figure in a dimly lit corner in the back of the store, facing away from you. It’s your friend Ann. You know that because this person looks like Ann. The way she holds her head. The way her leg dangles across her knee. The silhouette of her hair. The way she holds her coffee cup. You can’t see her face, but, no doubt, it’s Ann. You just know it.


On the way home, driving I-494, you see a bird flying along the roadway. It perches atop a power pole. You know it’s a Red-tailed Hawk. It has the shape of a Red-tail, it flies like a Red-tail, it perches like a Red-tail. It’s where you would expect to see that bird. Without stopping to use binoculars for a detailed look, you know it’s a Red-tail. You just know it.


The idea behind these stories has been lifted from a wonderful book entitled “Better Birding: Tips, Tools & Concepts for the Field.” It will help you come to know many birds or bird families well enough to skip details and say, “I just know it.”


It takes time and effort. But as authors George L. Armistead and Brian L. Sullivan point out, you can do it, and it will add much pleasure to your birding. Hours in the field paying attention to what you see — shape, silhouette, flight pattern, habitat — and you can just know what you are seeing.


You already do this. You’ve seen enough chickadees to recognize their flight pattern and their active behavior. You recognize woodpecker flight patterns. You know that the bird in the distance climbing down the tree is almost certainly a nuthatch. The large bird foraging in the deep shade at the edge of your garden — surely a robin.


There are many books that intend to make you a better field birder, quicker on identification. None is as good as this book.


I have picked up ID books and gone directly to text and photos. I skip the introduction. I know what I want. I know how to compare bird A to bird B.


This book would have value if you did nothing but read the introduction. The scheme of the book is presented, touching all of the subjects to be discussed and illustrated in pages to come. The introduction is full of guidelines and tips. The authors will teach you how to know.


Illustrated needs a word of explanation: The extensive use of photos is excellent, large sharp images focused on pertinent ID marks. There are Bird A and Bird B comparisons. Seasonal plumage is discussed.


The book opens with loons — Common, Red-throated, Pacific, Arctic, and Yellow-billed. How do you tell one from another when they are flocking up on Mille Lacs Lake (now) before the freeze? Distant birds in winter plumage. You might want to say, loon, and move on. Work with the authors, however, and you can come to know that your bird is a Red-throated, not a Common.


Raptors seen from the Skyline Drive overlook in Duluth in the fall? All species do not migrate at the same time. There is a pattern. Knowing it (Hawk Ridge web page) is important to correct ID. Shape, wing angle, flight pattern: There are people identifying the migrants for the official record who can name a bird, and sometimes sex, when the hawk is a half-mile away. They have learned to see the bird and they know it.


Armistead and Sullivan have written a North American book, but it does not touch all 800+ species. It helps you with those families most likely to present ID problems: Loons, swans, white herons, eiders, curlews, godwits, marsh sparrows, wrens, accipiters, swifts, kingbirds, pipits, longspurs, and several more.


The book is 312 pages with index, heavily illustrated, text clean and well-written, soft-cover, $29.95. Publisher is Princeton University Press. Release date is Dec. 16. Not all birds covered can be found in Minnesota. But the lessons on identification of loons, swans, marsh sparrows, wrens, and black corvids alone make the book worthwhile. Any field birder would benefit this book.

Thousands of Tundra Swans are massing on the Mississippi River

Observers this past weekend reported more than 5,000 Tundra Swans massed in the Mississippi River near Brownsville, Minnesota. That's south on Highway 61, near LaCrosse, Wis., about a 2.5 hour drive from Minneapolis. Between Brownsville and south to Reno, Minnesota, are three viewing decks. Also check the river at Alma, Wisconsin (from the Minnesota side).

The birds move from their Canadian nesting grounds to wintering areas on Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. The river is a place for the birds to rest and refuel. They will be here until driven out by rough weather. Thursday might do it for some of the birds. Friday through Sunday are forecast to be much better days. The birds are worth a trip if you're looking for a weekend adventure.

Take Highway 61 out of Hastings. Look for Bald Eagles along the river from Red Wing south. For information call Wings Over Alma at 608-685-3303.

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