Bring your birding to the next level

Description and identification of birds, or anything else, can be done in a rote manner with straightforward reference to details. If information about enough details is available, the identification will be accurate. But as humans we hardly ever do that sort of thing. If you ask someone to describe a car they saw recently, they will not refer to the angle of the back end or the overall dimensions or the specific layout of the headlights and tail lights. A person who does not know the make and model may say something like “It’s a hatch back” or “It’s an SUV” and in so doing provide instant reference to dozens of details of size and shape. These phrases are not short cuts: They are references to a meaningful schema of vehicles. There are SUV’s and they are functionally and structurally different from Hatchbacks.

Such categories exist in the birding world as well, but the most accessible categories are too coarse to be useful for identifying birds or talking about the ones you’ve seen. For instance, a duck is a duck, but if that’s as far as we get, we have not gotten very far. When we get down to the level of identifying species of birds, we often need to switch to other reference points that are often biological in nature. We refer to features that are understood as anatomical, evolutionary, developmental, ecological, etc. We see a large dark colored raptor in the distance, and it flies out of our visual field a bit too quickly. We immediately exclude most hawks, based on size, and osprey based on wing shape. It could be a vulture, but more likely a golden eagle or a bald eagle. Ultimately, the difference between these three will involve an understanding of Eagle ontogeny and development in relation to molting. One could simply add “immature bald eagle” as a kind of proxy species and learn its markings, or one could understand eagle evolutionary biology, anatomy, and developmental patterns. The former seems easier, but it isn’t, and it wont’ really work because “immature eagle” is more of a process than a nice clean category, and because we would need to make up “proxy species” for everything, because all birds have developmental patterns, undergo seasonal changes, many are sexually dimorphic, and so on. For most ducks we would need to have four, five or six proxy species, for example. It may be much easier to learn the principles of molting and the overall life history parameters for ducks in general, raptors in general, song birds in general, gulls in general, and so on. And, when we’ve done so, we’ve done something else as well: We’ve learned all kinds of cool stuff about birds!

The Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding (Kaufman Field Guides) is one way to bring your birding to the next level. Here, look at this conversation:

“Hey, look at that duck. It looks like a mallard but maybe it’s a wood duck.”

“I think it might be a wood duck because this time of year I think this might be what wood ducks look like.”

“Huh”

How boring. And, inconclusive. Now, try this conversation on for size:

“Hey, look at that duck. It looks like a mallard but maybe it’s a wood duck.”

“Wood ducks that were hatched this year are going through their first molt right about now. What you see here is the plumage pattern of a first year male duck transforming over into the plumage it will have over the winter.”

“Cool!”

“That other duck right next to it that looks totally different? That’s also a male wood duck in its first molt but a bit farther along.”

“Wow! Really cool!”

What a difference!

The Kaufman guide, not to be confused with the regular bird guide by the same author (Kaufman Field Guide to Birds Of North America – 2005 publication.), has several chapters on what I would call “advanced birding theory” followed by several chapters on how to deal with each of several taxonomic groups. You know how most bird books have one or more diagrams showing the basic topography of a bird, so when the book says “green eye stripe” you know what an “eye stripe” is? Well, the Kaufman guide has pages and pages describing what this really means biologically, as a function of how feathers are distributed on the body, how feathers grow and are replaced, how their appearance changes as they wear out, and how the whole thing varies across types of birds. The guide discusses flight, habitat, song, and getting down below the species level. The taxonomic categories are fairly specific (e.g. sandpipers, gulls, medium-sized terms, woodpeckers, tyrant flycatchers, etc.) Each of these sections focuses on the particulars of that taxonomic group, guiding you through the biological knowledge you need to really understand what you are looking at.

The book challenges you. This is one of the few bird books where you’ll see a set of images of four birds, all similar looking but of different species, with a discussion of how there’s no way to tell these suckers apart, and in the end, the author doesn’t tell you what they are! Why? Well, that’s the point! You can stare at baby gulls for as long as you want, and check out all the bits and pieces that look like field marks, but you’re still never going to know what you are looking a unless you observe the adults, the habitat, know the range, and when push comes to shove, don’t take your eyes off the thing until it grows up!

Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding addresses the question of identification by field marks vs. identification by gestalt, apparently a fairly current ‘debate’ among birders. To me, the debate is a bit off the mark: Birds are animals, and their identification to species in the field is a matter of their biology, including what they look like (and what they don’t look like) as well as what they are doing (or not). Just the right field mark is all you need. Sometimes. Other times, you need to understand the behavior, the timing, and the geography. Drive down any dirt road in the African Savanna at night. Birds will come flying out of the potholes right in front of you. They will have a distinctive marking, dark and light stripes in strong contrast. Their behavior is utterly unique to a certain kind of bird. In a given area there is only one species that will be doing what they are doing. Any one of those approaches will ID the bird, but all three will give you a richer experience, as you parse out the biology of the creature. When an accidental warbler flies into your view you will need those field marks, but it is quite possible that the elimination of the usual suspects from your list of what the species might be may very well come from knowing the habitat preferences of the warblers in your area at that particular time. The Kaufman guide can be used as a learning tool to make this kind of birding, informed and multi-faceted observation, your way of doing it.

I got this book a few weeks ago but it has taken me this long to get a review out because every time I put it down somebody steals it, takes it off somewhere, and covets it. Yeah, it’s good.

Comments

  1. #1 Benton Jackson
    April 20, 2011

    I’ve bought too many bird books this year already, but gave in when I kept seeing it on my Amazon recommendations. It’s been a good year for birdwatchers suckers.

  2. #2 plumbing
    April 21, 2011

    This is one of the few bird books where you’ll see a set of images of birds and just describe everything about it including the habitats and range. I do think that its a very worth while book to buy and read.

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