There are several things you need to do to be a better birder. Some of these things can be handled by just tossing money after the problem. Better binoculars, more books, that sort of thing. If you use those tools well they will improve your abilities as a birder. But the most important thing you can do is probably to consciously want to improve yourself and to go and learn stuff pertaining to that. And, to do that, knowledge is important bus so is approach, perhaps methodology is a good word.
There really are three or four aspects to being a better birder that could be viewed very differently, and we’ve talked about the knowledge-based aspect here before when discussing Kaufmann’s Field Guide to Advanced Birding and one of my favorite bird books, The Birder’s Handbook. In the former, you learn much more about anatomy and behavior that one usually finds in bird guides at the general bird-level, in the latter, more of that but in a much more species specific, and bio-theoretical framework. This makes sense because the former is written by an expert birder, and the latter by biologists.
But now we have a new player on the scene: Derek Lovitch’s How to Be a Better Birder. This is a lovely, well written and pretty well illustrated guide that focuses, in my view, mainly on one thing you can do to improve your birding: Pay attention to and exploit your knowledge of CONTEXT. Seriously. Consider the following chapter headings that represent about half the book: Birding by Habitat, Birding by geography, Birding and Weather, Birding at Night. Place, ecology, location, time of day, conditions. That is all context. Of course, it is not sufficient to tell you to pay attention to context. Lovitch makes the argument for each of these aspects of context, discusses what to look for, what to pay attention to, what to learn more about.
But it isn’t all context, it is also nuts and bolts. Lovitch starts out his discussion with a wonderful example of advanced field identification, in a sense, of a common species, the American Black Duck. Apparently this duck is an occasional visitor to Norway, and while on a birding expedition there, his Norwegian colleagues asked him of numerous details about the duck trying to pin down their own identifications. But, even though Lovitch sees this bird every time he goes outside (they are common where he lives) he really couldn’t honestly answer most of their very detailed questions. So, when he returned to his Maine home, he spent some time very closely studying these ducks, learned a great deal more about their physical features and variation, and even wrote a blog post about it (the true certification that someone is an expert!).
With respect to identification, Lovitch is a believer in the “Whole Bird” approach — his version of this is the “Whole bird and more” approach. This is getting away from the field mark approach and leaning more to the gestalt, with field marks as key tests of the gestalt-generated hypotheses as to what a particular bird is.
I like this book. I think it will help me learn How to Be a Better Birder.