Tag Archives: book

Review – “The World’s Rarest Birds”

The World's Rarest BirdsThere are books that are a struggle to get through, books that are forgotten the moment the last page is read.  There are the rare books that you may read cover-to-cover multiple times.  There’s another class of books that to me truly fit under the category of “coffee table book”, books that you will occasionally pick up and casually browse through.

The World’s Rarest Birds” by Erik Hirschfeld, Andy Swash, and Robert Still, squarely fits in the last category.  The World’s Rarest Birds is a follow on project to the “Rare Birds Yearbooks“, publications that highlighted the 190 most threatened birds in the world, those considered to be “critically endangered”.  The World’s Rarest Birds is an effort to expand on the idea of the Rare Birds Yearbooks. The book is based on the periodic assessments by BirdLife International and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), assessments that provide summaries of the world’s bird species and their conservation status.  This book highlights critically endangered and endangered species from the May 2012 assessment, as well as a number of species whose status is poorly known, for a total of just over 600 species.

The book’s format is very straightforward, with introductory segments that talk about the concept of the book and the specific threats faced by bird species.  The majority of the book, however, is devoted to “regional directories”, sections devoted to summaries of endangered bird species from each of the continents and Oceania. Each species has a paragraph that describes the species, its range, and conservation threats.  Distribution maps are included for each species, and most of the species have corresponding photographs.

And what photographs they are! As a bird photographer, I can certainly appreciate a good bird photograph, and understand the tremendous effort that must go into capturing high-quality photos of the world’s rarest bird species.  The book is a true delight to page through, with the small photos accompanying most of the species accounts interspersed with large, gorgeous, full- or partial-page photographs.

This isn’t a book that you’ll sit down with and read cover-to-cover.  While the regional presentation does attempt to help maintain a semblance of a “story” to the book, it does indeed fit the category of “coffee table book”, one that you’ll keep in a handy spot and reference from time to time, a book you can page through and enjoy with a cup of coffee or while you watch TV.  The World’s Rarest Birds is book you’ll be glad to own, particularly if you have an interest in bird conservation and enjoy high-quality nature photography.

Book Review – Birds of North America and Greenland

Birds of North America and Greenland - Norman Arlott

Birds of North America and Greenland by Norman Arlott - A useful, very portable illustrated checklist

One thing birders can never seem to have enough of…bird books!   I typically only ever have one field guide with me when I head out, but I DO admit it’s not always the same field guide.  Sibley’s is still the guide I tend to carry the most, but unlike some birders, I really don’t have a clear preference for one guide, or even whether the guide is based on photographs or illustrations (something I know will invoke some serious arguments among some birders).  So, in the spirit of adding yet another book to my rotating, traveling collection, I picked up the “Birds of North America and Greenland”, by Norman Arlott.

This book is in a little bit of a different category than your standard field guide like a Sibley’s.  The Birds of North America and Greenland is offered as an “Illustrated Checklist”.  What’s the difference, you ask, between a field guide and an illustrated checklist?  For one, this book is VERY portable.  While I like Sibley’s, to me it’s just too big to actually carry in the field, so if I’m out hiking, a bigger guide like Sibley’s inevitably stays in the car.  Not so with this book, as it’s much smaller and lighter weight than a Sibley’s.  It something I could easily see myself carrying in the field for a day of birding, and that factor alone makes it a useful book for me.

The book achieves the smaller size through more judicious use of illustrations, and both less text and smaller font text than you’ll find in many guides.  The guide has over 100 color plates with very clear illustrations.  Don’t look for the level of detail you’ll find in a heftier guide though.  Illustrations are often limited to two per species, often showing both male and female if plumages are different.  Some plates do also have flight illustrations, with the pages for raptors, for example, providing very useful (but small) illustrations of raptors in flight.  The text is also less extensive than many field guides.  Text is typically limited to one sentence each for 1) Field Notes, 2) Voice, 3) Habitat, and 4) Distribution.   One negative of the format for me is the presentation of the typical distribution maps found in field guides.  Distribution maps for North America are included for every species, but they are extremely small.  They are also tucked in on the far right edge of the left-side page, next to the binding.  With both the small size and tight location next to the binding, it’s difficult to practically utilize the maps in the field.  In fact, when I first opened the guide, I didn’t even notice the distribution maps, they’re that difficult to see and use.

With a smaller format, less text, and smaller and fewer illustrations than a larger guide like a Sibley’s, what is the place for this book on a birder’s bookshelf?  To me, the book has three primary niches: 1) A small, high-quality guide to carry when portability is a key concern, and 2) A guide for more advanced birders who don’t need the extra “coddling” that a larger, more detailed guide may provide.  It’s not that the guide isn’t useful for a beginning birder, as I certainly think the book would be useful for beginners as well.  However, the guide has limited space for text outlining detailed identification keys, with illustrations also lacking visual queues or references pointing to key identification keys.  For a more experienced birder, that may be less of an issue. 

I’ve been birding for about 11 years now.  When I first started birding and didn’t know a Downy Woodpecker from a Pileated Woodpecker, I would have found this guide very useful, especially given the ease of use while in the field.  But I also may have occasionally needed a more detailed guide that DID coddle me a bit more.   As a more experienced birder now, I can easily see myself carrying this guide alone in the field, something I could easily stash and carry, and have on hand in case I did need a quick reference.

Princeton University Press advertises the book as an “Illustrated Checklist”, but don’t let the name fool you.  It’s more a “lite” field guide.  If portability is a key issue, this is a wonderful, concise, and useful guide that birders will find very useful while in the field.  If you’re a more experienced birder and don’t need the extra detail of a Sibley’s guide, you will also find this guide extremely useful.   The “illustrated checklist”, Birds of North America and Greenland, definitely fills a niche on a birder’s bookshelf, and for a very reasonable $15.95, it’s a book I can heartily recommend.

"The Big Year" – First movie still

The Big Year

Owen Wilson, Steve Martin, and Jack Black from "The Big Year", playing the roles as three very competitive birders.

If you haven’t read the book “The Big Year”, you’re missing a real gem.  It doesn’t matter if you’re a birder or not, you’ll enjoy the book.  However, if you ARE a birder, you will really appreciate the humor the book has to offer.  Yes, there’s definitely some self-deprecating humor in terms of how seriously birders take their hobby, but it’s still a must-read.  They have released the first still photos from the movie, one of which is shown above.

The book is a true story about three very different birders, each of which is undertaking a “Big Year”.  For a North American “Big Year”, birders try to see as many bird species as possible over the course of a year.  The birds must be seen within official boundaries of North America, which means select locations that happen to get rarities for the North American region are must-visit for folks doing big years.  In the book, the three birders take trips to the ends of North America in search of rarities (Know where Attu island is? You might if you’re a birder!!), as well as making sure they are able to tally all the more common birds.   That often means dropping everything and flying halfway across the continent when some rarity is spotted.
The movie could go a few different ways, but with THIS cast, I have no doubt that the movie will have a healthy dose of humor at the expense of birders.  That’s perfectly alright by me, as one of the things that does turn me off a bit about birders is the competitive nature some birders seem to have (yes, there is definitely a competitive component to birding in some folks minds!!).   I love the cast choice, and can pretty much guess which actor is playing which role.  Should be a lot of fun when it comes out…October 14th I believe is the open date.