Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Three Decades on Peabody Street

Blackpoll Warbler

The autumn of 2014 has been characterized by one of the best migrations in years, as far as the number of birds showing up in my backyard, especially warblers and sparrows. The warblers never once appeared at my feeders, at least not while I was looking, but I saw quite a few, especially in August and the first half of September, out my upstairs home office windows—some even gave me wonderful photo ops. As of September 30, there were still plenty of Palm and Yellow-rumped Warblers hanging out, and that week, I was still getting some nice photos of Blackpoll Warblers and American Redstarts, even as I was mostly aiming my camera at the hundreds of sparrows crowding into my lawn where I scatter seed by my back spruce trees and raspberry bushes.

Harris's Sparrow

I’m on a corner lot, but the road along the side was never finished. My house, which started out as a tiny bungalow in the early 1900s, was the first one built on this stretch of Peabody Street, when the road was just a horse path. As the neighborhood grew and the road widened, other houses were set further back. That gives us a tinier front lawn and a bigger backyard than anyone else on the block. A boy born sometime before 1916 planted a small stand of spruce trees in the back of the yard. Those trees and the other grand old trees in the yard were what caught my eye when I walked by in early 1981, looking for an affordable house for sale, and over the years, those trees have anchored my heart here as deeply as the house itself. We started out with raspberries along our side fence. Those suddenly died out, but the very next year, a whole new patch sprouted up in back, planted by birds. So we never feel too upset when they eat raspberries—sharing our territory is part of what nature is all about.

Boreal Owl
I took this photo in Two Harbors--it's the only one on this blog post that wasn't taken right in my yard. I don't have any decent photos of owls from here, but I've seen Eastern Screech-Owl (the rarest one for here, seen and heard in a fall when Frank Nicoletti banded two in Duluth), Great Horned, Barred, Great Gray, Long-eared, Boreal, and Northern Saw-whet Owls. Not a bad list for a regular old neighborhood!

The trees and other plants in my yard are the feature that draws so many cool birds here. Peabody Street runs along the prime migration path through Duluth between Hawk Ridge and Lake Superior. Although this is just a regular, settled, working class neighborhood, over the years I’ve seen an astonishing 7 species of owls for my yard list, along with a couple of Townsend’s Solitaires, one Varied Thrush, and a Rufous Hummingbird that stuck around for 2 ½ weeks late in November 2004.

Viola the Rufous Hummingbird

A blizzard while the hummer was still visiting made me so worried that I left my window wide open so she could come in and warm up a bit. Thanks to the already-opened window, when a Pileated Woodpecker suddenly flew into the box elder right next there, I had perfect photo ops. This was before I was using a good camera, but the bird was so close that it didn’t matter.

Pileated Woodpecker

Great as my yard is, I've never had a lifer here. The closest three times I came were in our first year here. I followed Kim Eckert's directions to find my lifer Boreal Chickadee a bit north of Two Harbors in the summer, when if I'd been patient, I'd have seen the lifer in my own yard that winter. In early winter, Kim called to tell me about Bohemian Waxwings a few blocks away in my neighborhood, which I instantly charged out to see. A few days later, they were in my own mountain ash trees. But the worst case was when Kim called to tell me about some Harris's Sparrows out on Park Point my first October here. I drove out and easily found them, and drove home to find one right under my own bird feeder.

Harris's Sparrow

Even though they weren't lifers here, I've treasured seeing all three of those species in my yard over the years. Bohemian Waxwings used to be here every winter—they're not so reliable anymore. But every spring and fall at least a few Harris's Sparrows show up. And three or four times since 1981, one or more Boreal Chickadees have spent much of the winter visiting my peanut butter feeders.

Evening Grosbeak

One of my favorite yard birds of all has been the Evening Grosbeak. Throughout the 80s and into the 90s, when they were still abundant, I always seemed to have more than most people in town, thanks to my box elders. I'd gone over a decade without seeing more than an occasional single straggler when Russ had surgery in 2011. Our first morning after he came home, out of the clear blue sky, a flock of 16 showed up and remained in our yard for weeks. I haven't seen one here since, but those birds were an astonishingly welcome gift at such a bleak time.

Evening Grosbeak in box elder tree

My box elder has given me wonderful photo ops for other kinds of birds, too. Many of the hummingbirds that dine at my window feeder then head straight to the tiny twigs right near the window, allowing me to watch them preen, stretch, and rest. The various fungi and lichens on the branches add color and texture to my photos even as they signal a warning that the tree isn’t going to last forever.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

But I try not to fret about it—when we moved here, my mother-in-law cautioned us that we should cut down that very tree immediately because it looked so old and precarious. That was 33 years ago. Now the tree and I are both a bit past our prime. I’ve lost 2 of the spruce trees in back, our birch tree is losing ground, and the elm tree that sprouted in 1983 and got big had to be cut down a few years ago because of Dutch elm disease. Several of the branches on the cherry trees Russ planted are dead now, too.

We’re developing plans to plant more trees next year, but little by little the yard is changing. My goal, as always, is to adapt to those changes while keeping the yard a safe haven for the flood of birds passing through. I try to be generous spirited, but really, everything I do to help those birds directly improves my quality of life, too. Home is where the heart is, but in my case, that’s in large part because home is where my birds are.

Scarlet Tanager


Friday, September 26, 2014

Bird-Killing Glass on the Vikings Stadium? Just Say No.

Vikings Poster
(These are the remarks I'll make at the protest on September 27 about the bird-killing design for the proposed Vikings stadium.)

For many years, I was a wildlife rehabilitator, licensed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Minnesota DNR to help injured songbirds. A disturbing number of the birds I received in spring and fall were suffering from head and spinal trauma from hitting windows. As I held birds that weighed barely a third of an ounce—you could mail three warblers with a single postage stamp—I could feel how heartbreakingly fragile they are, and also how despite their tiny size they embody some of the most thrilling elements of football: athleticism, endurance, and the physical and mental strength to overcome overwhelming odds.

Blackpoll Warbler

I’d look at a tiny Blackpoll Warbler in my hand and think about how every single Blackpoll Warbler ever seen in Minnesota during fall had come down here from its birthplace in the far reaches of Canada and Alaska—many had already traveled well over a thousand miles, and assuming that this one didn’t get killed, it would make its way to the Atlantic coast and then strike out over the ocean, averaging over 1800 miles on a non-stop flight to South America. Yes—non-stop, beating those tiny wings millions of times over treacherous waters without rest or food or the encouragement of fans or a coach, all the way to South America.

These birds are tiny but sturdy—those who aren’t gobbled by predators or killed in tragic collisions can lead surprisingly long lives. One of those Blackpoll Warblers banded as an adult in Alaska was retrapped, alive, when he was over 8 years old—his tiny little body had lasted more than twice as long as a typical NFL player’s career, and he was still going strong.

These little birds have pluck and guts, but no protective gear. They lead lives independent of us people—never asking for a dime, virtually never even visiting a feeding station or a birdbath. All they ask is that we let them go their way. That is not too much to ask, is it?
We didn’t used to appreciate the dangers of glass to birds. One of my friends, ornithologist Daniel Klem of Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania, started researching the issue at the start of his career in the 1970s, and everything he has learned about bird-window collisions has made it abundantly clear that this is a most significant peril for migrating birds. For decades his was the only voice out there talking about the dangers of glass, but in the past decade more and more ornithologists have done the research and affirmed just how treacherous glass is. We can’t do very much at all about all the glass in existing structures, which is known to kill on the order of a billion birds a year. But now that we know better, why are we even considering sticking 200,000 square feet of shiny new glass right smack in the heart of a critical migration path?

The Twin Cities has a long history of being a safe haven for birds, with our Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge and our world-class bird rescue facilities—the Raptor Center and the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. People look to us to solve bird problems, not to create them.

I can’t imagine that any of the Vikings players or their thousands of fans want the new stadium to kill birds. I’m sure none of the Minnesota taxpayers footing half the bill for the stadium want it to kill birds. If this is an issue of money, the cost of using bird-safe glass is insignificant compared to the cost of the stadium itself.  I don’t understand how it can be an issue of esthetics. There are plenty of places to see the Twin Cities skyline. When people go into the stadium, shouldn’t the point to see the Vikings? How exactly do the thuds of crashing birds and the sight of dead and dying creatures littering the ground around the stadium fit into any reasonable person’s sense of aesthetics?

This issue is as clear as bird-killing glass. Just say no.

Blackpoll Warbler

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Peabody Street Bobwhite

Northern Bobwhite

On September 24, I got a phone call from a neighbor down the block saying that she had a funny looking bird—she thought it looked like a tiny quail—in her yard. I charged right over, and sure enough, a female bobwhite was walking around her lawn, eating grass seeds and being pretty calm around us.

The Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas shows only three tiny blocks where Northern Bobwhite are probably or definitely breeding, all in the extreme southeastern part of the state near the Mississippi River and Wisconsin border.

Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas map for Northern Bobwhite

Between genuinely wild birds and constant releases of pen-raised birds, they were abundant enough that hunters harvested 13,000 in 1927. Ring-necked Pheasants were introduced to Minnesota in 1905, and hunting seasons on pheasants first opened in 1924. As that species reached its peak population during the 40s and 50s, the mass of hunters lost interest in the tinier, less hardy quail, and the DNR stopped augmenting the population in 1952; quail hunting in Minnesota ended in 1958. An organization called Minnesota Quail Forever works hard to keep track of them and raise awareness of this lovely species’ plight. According to their website, it’s estimated that no more than 1,000 bobwhites live in Minnesota today, all in Houston, Fillmore, and Winona Counties.

I saw Northern Bobwhite quite a few times in 1975 during my first year of birding, when I took a field ornithology class at the Kellogg Biological Station near Kalamazoo, Michigan, and on and off since then, but in the places where I used to see them most, in some refuges and parks in Florida, they are few and far between now. I took one of Kim Eckert’s Minnesota Birding Week trips to Texas for my Conservation Big Year, and we saw a couple of good sized groups.

Northern Bobwhite

Throughout the United States, bobwhites are doing poorly. They’re one of the most rapidly declining but formerly common species, showing precipitous declines throughout their range.
Breeding Bird Survey trend map showing in red where Northern Bobwhite are declining most rapidly.

Breeding Bird Survey trend for Northern Bobwhites in United States


If bobwhites are in so much trouble, what the heck was one doing on Peabody Street, so very far from where they ever lived? Bobwhites are raised in captivity as food for zoo animals and captive raptors, and for training retrievers and in field trials. The Duluth Retriever Club had a big Labor Day Weekend Field Trial, on Lester River Road not too far from my neighborhood—I think the poor little thing broke free, but now unless someone takes her in, she’s pretty much doomed. A few years ago, bobwhites apparently staged their version of the Great Escape from one of these events, and suddenly they were being found in lots of neighborhoods. This female is the only one I’ve heard of this year.

Northern Bobwhite

I watched her wandering through the well-manicured lawn for twenty minutes or so, and I took photo after photo. The light wasn’t great, but she was close enough to give me not just a lot of cool shots but the best photos of female bobwhite I’d ever taken. Unfortunately, she wasn't close enough to actually catch her.

Northern Bobwhite

These plucky little birds appeal to something deep within me, so I’m filled with joy whether I’m seeing wild ones on their natural range or one intrepid escape artist hundreds of miles north of where any bobwhite should be. It’s hard for me to reconcile bobwhite being a game species, but anyone who lives right under Hawk Ridge has to be a little understanding about predation of all kinds. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that this little girl finds a helping hand somewhere.

Northern Bobwhite

Ovenbird Rescue

Ovenbird

On September 18, I got a phone call from a WXPR listener named Joan who was in the midst of a bird emergency. A tiny bird—she suspected a warbler—was sitting lethargically near her house, and she didn’t know what to do. I asked her to email me a photo so I could verify its identity, and sure enough, it was an Ovenbird—nationwide, one of the top three victims of collisions with human structures, especially windows. Ovenbirds don’t visit feeders—the one just happened to be passing through Joan’s neighborhood, and her window just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.



Dr. Daniel Klem, who since the 70s has spent his career researching the issue of birds colliding with windows, found that about half of the birds that hit windows are killed. Some die immediately, some by predation while in a dazed condition, and a great many from internal trauma, especially head and spinal injuries that may not manifest for hours or even days after. So of the ones that fly off, seemingly as good as new, some do end up dying, but some recover, and the least we can do is try to improve their chances. That means taking dazed birds out of harm’s way. 

A few years ago during fall migration, a Yellow-rumped Warbler collided with a downstairs window right next to where I was working. Started, I jumped up and saw it on the ground, blinking, even as a Blue Jay swooped in and grabbed him. To respond so instantaneously, the jay must already have learned to associate the smack of a bird on glass with an easy meal. But even when a savvy corvid doesn’t happen to be right there, the longer a collision victim sits helpless, the more likely some opportunistic predator or scavenger will come by and dispatch it. So the quicker we can get collision victims out of harm’s way, the better their chances of being among the 50 percent who survive.

But what can we do to help? First we must try to figure out if the bird has any obvious injuries. If it’s hopping away from you with a drooping wing, it needs immediate attention from a professional rehabber. (How to find a wildlife rehabilitator near you.)

Joan’s bird didn’t show any obvious injuries—it was simply dazed, due to a probable concussion. So I told her to line the bottom of a shoebox with paper towels, make a few air holes, and put the Ovenbird inside. Paper towels are not slippery like bare cardboard or newspapers would be. The impulse of many people is to put injured birds near a stove or other heat source, but it’s easy for adult birds to get heat stressed, so it’s best to put the box in a quiet place where the temperature is comfortably cool, not hot. Darkness and quiet will help it rest. If a bird is too dazed to even try to elude you, it’s too dazed to eat or drink, so don’t worry about providing food and water yet.

Take the box outside every 15 or 20 minutes during daylight, or as soon as you hear scratching or fluttering, to check on it. If the bird flies away, all is well. If it needs more time, take the box back in. Sometimes you’ll find it dead—a heartbreaking end, but you’ll know you at least did your best. Don’t release it after dark. Warblers do migrate by night, but it takes time for an injured one to replenish its body fat before it can travel, and except when migrating, songbirds spend most of the night sleeping. If it doesn’t fly off in the morning, it may have injuries that need professional help. (How to find a wildlife rehabilitator near you.)

Joan followed my instructions. Her little Ovenbird didn’t try to take off at all that day, but the next morning she sent me an email that read: 
Good news!  When I opened the shoebox outside under some low hanging pine boughs our little patient looked "bright eyed and bushy tailed" as they say.  He started scratching around in the leaves. 
I left him there for a little while since it was a very protected area, and when I came back he was gone. He looked much more alert and strong so I am hopeful that his overnight rest allowed him to recover sufficiently to survive.
I love happy endings.

To minimize crashes of birds visiting our feeders, it’s always wisest to place the feeders right on or within 3 feet the windows—if birds still don’t notice the glass and take off and collide with the window, they won’t have enough speed to injure themselves. Feeders placed far away from the windows—at least 20 or 30 feet—can also be safe because at that distance, the birds are more likely to key in on the whole house than the windows.

Pileated Woodpecker


Feeder placement doesn’t make a bit of difference in the case of Ovenbirds and other insectivores that just happen to be in our yards. To protect all birds, one approach is to break up reflections in the glass using closely spaced decals or special tape on the outside of the glass. The American Bird Conservancy sells a special tape designed specifically for this purpose. Another approach is to get screening or netting on the outside of the window, as taut as a trampoline and set 3 or more inches from the glass.

Some effective bird-friendly windows:

Here's some window screening on a Rowe Sanctuary window, designed by The Bird Screen Company:

Bird Screening

Bird Screening

The huge window overlooking the bird-feeding station at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is bird-safe thanks to the taut netting covering the window.



The window glass is on the inside of the framing, and the netting on the outside, far enough from the glass to work like a trampoline if birds do hit.



These windows at the Quarry Hill Nature Center in Rochester, Minnesota, are angled downward. Birds at the nearby feeding station see ground, not sky or trees, reflected, so don't fly toward the glass.


The EPA lab in Duluth, where my husband works, was a constant source of avian mortality during migration until people working there started covering the windows with netting in spring and fall. This has worked effectively for many years.




The view from inside is still quite nice.



Some birds do start noticing glass when they can spend time near it. Watch this young Evening Grosbeak figure it out. It could still easily collide with glass, just as people do when a glass door isn't properly marked, but not one of the Evening Grosbeaks visiting this window feeder collided with my windows.


This Black-capped Chickadee knows to tap on the window to catch my attention if s/he wants a mealworm.

Black-capped Chickadee peeking in my window waiting for mealworms

Friday, September 19, 2014

Fruit-eating Birds


Cedar Waxwing

The Duluth-Superior area is so well known for our hawk migration and the amazing appearance of jaegers along Wisconsin Point every fall that we don’t pay enough attention to other cool birds passing through. Right now the most exciting birds in my own neighborhood have been the hordes of waxwings and thrushes descending on mountain ash trees and other fruit-bearing trees and shrubs. Up at Hawk Ridge, we can watch waxwing flocks numbering two or three to up to 40 or 50 passing through. Waxwings are shaped a bit like starlings, with triangular pointed wings, but are smaller and weigh less than half of what starlings weigh. That extra mass makes starlings powerhouses in flight, as you can see if you’ve ever seen a huge flock of them wheeling about in the sky—those YouTube videos showing enormous bird flocks forming bizarre shapes are starlings. Cedar Waxwings fly in a far more delicate, buoyant way. Their flocks seem to move in a much more leisurely fashion, and the way each bird shifts position relative to the others makes the flock appear to be gently swirling through the sky.

Lovely as flying waxwings are, I love being where they set down for a spell in convivial feeding groups. Of course, there are degrees of conviviality. There can be 20 or 30 Cedar Waxwings in a single mountain ash, but seldom will there be more than 2, and usually just one, per cluster of berries. I don’t think I’ve ever seen waxwings pass berries to one another in fall—their mission seems entirely about devouring as many as they can, laying on fat deposits that will help them over days of scarcity come winter.

Cedar Waxwing

This week I’ve been hearing waxwings wherever I go in my neighborhood or up at Hawk Ridge, and Thursday I spent a little time in my yard and my neighbor’s taking photos. The flock I spent time with included a lot of young birds, which have streaked breasts and a somewhat shaggier crest than adults.

American Robin

Swainson's Thrush

The waxwings are in the company of thrushes as well. Most are American Robins, but a good number of Swainson’s Thrushes have also been hanging out this week. The thrushes seem rather meek and mild—when I’ve watched a waxwing fly to a branch near a Swainson’s Thrush, the thrush always flew off to another branch. The American Robins are the bullies of the crowd—several times I’ve watched one fly straight toward a waxwing or Swainson’s Thrush at high speed. Instantly the smaller bird flies off, leaving a good bunch of berries to the robin.

Even though virtually all the birds in these trees right now have been Cedar Waxwings, Swainson’s Thrushes, and robins, I keep looking through all the branches in hopes of an outlier—a Red-eyed Vireo is often flitting about in the same trees, presumably eating a berry or two to sweeten its usual buggy fare. Nashville Warblers and American Redstarts were among them there earlier in the week, but they seem to have left with the drop in temperatures. The one time I had a Townsend’s Solitaire in my yard was during fall migration, mixed in with a flock of robins and waxwings. Hope springs eternal.

With or without outliers, watching and photographing just the common species has been delightful. September is one of the months that could use an extra week or two, just to pack in all the wonderful bird activity. But it always ends after 30 days, just as the berry supplies inevitably dwindle—in just a couple of days, the birds almost completely stripped my favorite mountain ash of its berries. Just as the birds are grabbing for all the berries they can, while September is here, we’ve got to grab for all the gusto we can.

Swainson's Thrush

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Hawk Ridge Update

Check out the events for this year's Hawk Ridge Weekend. I'll be speaking about all the fun I had on my Conservation Big Year on Friday night, and leading a boat tour of the St. Louis River on Saturday morning.
Broad-winged Hawk
Roosting Broad-winged Hawk

On September 15 and 16, 2014, I was behind on several projects and was stuck at home. But northwest winds, clear skies, and something deep in my bones kept telling me things would be hopping at Hawk Ridge. I live in the neighborhood right below the ridge, but often miss seeing many raptors on the big flight days, though I can usually tell a day is good by the songbird activity in my yard.

White-throated Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow

Monday, birds were really moving about. I couldn’t spend too much time looking out the window, but did spot a Black-and-white Warbler, a couple of American Redstarts, and a Palm Warbler in addition to a dozen or so White-throated Sparrows. I didn’t need to look out to be aware of lots of Blue Jays—their squawking not only told me they were around but that one or two Sharp-shinned Hawks were cruising down Peabody Street.
I checked the count via the website at Hawkridge.org that night, and 6,622 hawks had gone by—the biggest day so far this season. As usual when the count is so large, the vast majority of the birds—over 5,500—were Broad-winged Hawks.

When we have a big day like that, the following morning is often quite good, too. That’s because the birds coursing through at the end of a big day have to land somewhere for the night, so are usually seen taking off the next morning. Back in the 90s, the morning after a September day when the count was over 20,000, I got phone calls from three different kids working at supermarkets, telling me about the huge numbers of hawks circling over the parking lots. Dark pavement is first to warm up as the sun climbs in the morning sky, so the first useful thermals of the day often develop over parking lots and highways. On the biggest days of all, hawk numbers are highest at midday, but so is their flight. You’ll see fewer birds but they’ll be closer during early and mid morning.

Tuesday held to that pattern. Mike Furtman posted beautiful photos he took Tuesday morning on facebook. But powerful winds kept the numbers lower—those winds break up the thermals. By day’s end, the total was 801, with the Broad-wing count at 329—an order of magnitude lower than Monday, but darned respectable.

Young Broad-winged Hawk flying over Hawk Ridge
Soaring immature Broad-winged Hawk

Wednesday started out with light winds from the southwest. When I woke about 6:15, I spotted a thrush outside my window in the semi-darkness, and a few minutes later, the first bird I spotted from my office window was a hummingbird. I couldn’t get away immediately, but headed up to Hawk Ridge at 10 am for a couple of hours. The counters were busy tallying small kettles of Broad-wings and flocks of Blue Jays and the occasional small flock of Pine Siskins, and I got busy photographing a Lapland Longspur who showed up at the main overlook and stuck around the same spot for a long time while people took pictures. Unfortunately, the last photos I’d taken were in a dark setting and I had my ISO set to 2500, but the bird was so cooperative in such perfect light that the pictures turned out not too bad.

Lapland Longspur
Lapland Longspur at Hawk Ridge!

The wind shifted to the east and the temperature dropped dramatically right about at noon when I had to leave anyway. I’d had a great day, and the final count ended up being 2,941, with the Broad-wing total at 2,451—less than half of Monday’s numbers, but thrilling nonetheless.

Anything can happen in mid-September—sometimes we have single-day counts well into 5 digits, but it’s always hard to predict. Our current Broad-wing total for the season is now over 16,000. This weekend is Hawk Ridge Weekend, and the weather may not be ideal, but when the winds shift to the northwest again, we could get a humongous day. Or not. Whatever happens, birding up at Hawk Ridge in September is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get, but it’s certain to be sweet.

Lapland Longspur
Lapland Longspur casting an eye to the sky. Looking for hawks?

Monday, September 15, 2014

Book review: The Warbler Guide


Last summer, the Princeton University Press released a book by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle, The Warbler Guide. When I first read about it, I admit I rolled my eyes thinking, “Not another one!” My library already included four field guides specifically about warblers. They’re all good in one way or another, but I don’t usually consider field guides to families to be useful, especially for beginners, because they don’t show similar but unrelated birds that can be confusing. (The great comprehensive guides to families are a different story.) The Peterson guide to warblers is wonderfully comprehensive, but even that one is worthless in the field when someone is starting out and isn’t sure whether a particular bird is a flycatcher, vireo, kinglet, or warbler. But it’s very true that birders of all levels are drawn to warblers, and anything that makes identifying them easier is a Good Thing, and the publishers sent me a free copy, so I opened it. And WHOA! The Warbler Guide is a game changer.

The 137-page section that starts the book is a brilliant tutorial in the basics of warbler identification—both by sight and sound—using a methodical, objective approach that would benefit anyone studying any group of birds. It so thoroughly covers identification both by appearance and vocalizations that I want to highlight the two sections separately.

Warbler Appearance

In their “Topographic Tour,” Stephenson and Whittle use brilliant colors to outline different feather groups and body parts within a nice color photo, rather than using a simple line to point out the general area of what could be a large or small structure not so easy for beginners to figure out. David Sibley in his Birding Basics used black-and-white line drawings, and Kenn Kaufman in his Advanced Guide to Birding brought it to the next level with black and white outlines next to actual photos to show the particular feather groups and body parts, but Stephenson and Whittle bring this clear-minded approach to the next level.



The 40-page section on things to pay attention to when looking at warblers is rich in photos showing each feature on different species and, where pertinent, on similar non-warblers. Bill shape and length, eye rings, eye lines, length of the tail and how relatively long or short the undertail coverts are—all these features and more are thoroughly covered, and reading this section will make anyone more able to discern a bird’s important features. The section is rich with photos clearly comparing and contrasting each feature on different warblers and non-warblers. There is also a section on aging and sexing warblers—and the authors show how this is fairly straightforward with some species but virtually or completely impossible with others. They use wonderful drawings by Catherine Hamilton to illustrate points more clearly understood and compared with drawings than photos.






There are also nine two-page spreads called visual finders.



These pages are an absolute treasure, and are, amazingly, all available as free PDF downloads on The Warbler Guide website, though I personally wish the publishers would also sell eastern and western versions as laminated, folded guides. These visual finders show all the species together so you can make a quick guess before thumbing through the species pages. One shows all the warbler faces in profile, another the whole body in profile, a third the side profile from a 45-degree angle, when we see more of the underside and less of the upper body, and a fourth from directly beneath. They repeat the full body profile views with another 2-page spread limited to eastern species in spring, another for them in fall, and have a single 2-page quick finder for western species. Finally, they use Catherine Hamilton’s drawings to compare close-up views of the under-tails of every eastern and every western species.

Of course, the meat of the book is in the 354-pages of species accounts. These include a wide array of photos of each bird with comparison photos of similar-appearing species, listing all the bird’s features and highlighting with a check the features that in and of themselves are diagnostic. For example, if all you can see on a warbler hidden by foliage is a bit of its undertail, but notice black “arrowhead” markings on a white background, you for certain are looking at a Black-and-white. Some straightforward warblers, such as the Black-and-white, are covered in 6-pages, while those with more plumages or which can be easily confused with others, such as the Blackpoll, can have as many as 10, and the Yellow-rumped, which has different plumages for eastern and western forms, is covered in 12 pages.

The Warbler Guide is the perfect book for learning warbler plumages—stunningly beautiful, and fun as well as instructive. And it goes above and beyond that, with the most comprehensive coverage of warbler sounds I’ve ever seen. 


Vocalizations

I absolutely love The Warbler Guide's thorough coverage of visual identification. But the book is a game changer in another way, too, providing the best tutorial in learning bird songs and calls I’ve ever seen, with liberal use of spectrographs of sounds, called sonagrams, throughout.

Many people find these graphs of sound scary and confusing. My trusty Golden Guide, the field guide I used in the 1970s when I started birding, is the only field guide I’ve ever seen that uses sonagrams.

GoldenGuideChickadee.jpg


I suspect that the reluctance of people to figure them out kept other field guide authors from using them. I intuitively grasped many of the concepts of sonagrams from the start, because I can read music, but it would have been enormously helpful for me when I was starting out to have read The Warbler Guide’s 38-page tutorial, and also to have been able to see a lot of sonagrams for each species, to better grasp the many different songs a single species can produce. This tutorial explains how to go about learning warbler songs, interpreting the sonagrams while listening to the exact corresponding sound via “The Warbler Guide Song and Call Companion,” available as a download for $5.99 via thewarblerguide.com.



I downloaded the Companion, which has over 1,000 short sound files, and set it up in iTunes to play each sound on repeat until I advanced it manually to the next sound. Then I read the introductory section about learning warbler sounds while sitting at my computer with iTunes open. This was the perfect way to get a visceral appreciation of how to interpret the spectrographs of bird sounds, and to get a far clearer, more objective understanding of what to listen for while identifying bird sounds than what field guides traditionally show. Even if you can’t afford the $30 Warbler Guide, I strongly recommend checking it out of a library, paying the $6 to download the songs, and doing that tutorial. Learning what to listen for on warbler songs will make distinguishing the songs of other families much easier, too.

After the basic tutorial on how to listen to warblers comes what the authors call their “Song Finder,” in which they group the sonagrams of similar sounds together, so you can see the spectrographs and read their clear explanations of the differences while you listen to the sounds.



After you’ve gone through that amazingly in-depth but enjoyable tutorial, you can head straight to the individual species accounts. Just as The Warbler Guide provides visual comparisons for each bird, it provides sounds, too. The song treatment is extraordinary, covering the different types of songs, call notes, and nocturnal flight sounds for that species along with similar-sounding vocalizations from other species—again, downloading that sound download provides extraordinary in-depth coverage for each species. I would not recommend trying to read and listen to the entire Warbler Guide: after the initial tutorial, I’d prioritize the species by which you want to learn first.

I got a free review copy last year, but love the book so much that I paid for a second copy when the authors were at the popular Ohio birding festival, The Biggest Week in American Birding, this year, so I could get it autographed.

Most of the early fall warblers have passed through the north woods now, though as of September 15, there is still a good variety out there. This would be an excellent time to start reading The Warbler Guide and listening to the companion guide while you get more comfortable identifying Palms, Yellow-rumped, and whatever others are still hanging out. And spend a rainy afternoon or evening on that tutorial at the beginning. Then keep thumbing through those species accounts now and then throughout the winter, and by next spring, you’ll be identifying warblers like a pro. You’ll be so glad you did!


THE WARBLER GUIDE
Tom Stephenson & Scott Whittle
Drawings by Catherine Hamilton
Paper Flexibound | $29.95 / £19.95 | ISBN: 9780691154824
560 pp. | 6 x 8 1/2 | 1,000+ color illus. 50 maps.
eBook | ISBN: 9781400846863 (Available July 7, 2013)
Pub date: July 24, 2013

Also, what sounds like a great app for The Warbler Guide will be coming out in time for Christmas. I can’t wait to see it!


Picky Picky Picky

Most of the warbler photos in The Warbler Guide were shot with flash. Based on my observations of my education owl Archimedes when people take his picture in various lighting situations, and on my observations of songbirds at various birding destinations when photographers use flash, I don’t think flash bothers birds much, or even at all, in daylight. But the bright dot or weird reflections in the birds’ pupils on some of the photos did bother my aesthetic sensibilities. The most egregious case was their photo used to illustrate a Canada Warbler’s eye ring. The weird and large white reflection in the pupil could confuse beginners about what and where the eye ring is—I wish they’d photoshopped that out. The Canada Warbler photo they use to illustrate its bill size and shape would have been a better choice for showing the eye ring. The fact that this is the only thing about this entire wonderful guide that I take issue with is pretty darned impressive.