A new book on birding with a strong Maine flavor has arrived in bookstores. The book is “How to Be a Better Birder” and the author is our own Derek Lovitch. Derek is a professional bird guide and with his wife Jeannette runs Freeport Wild Bird Supply. Many of the photographs in the book were taken in Maine and many of the examples Derek uses to illustrate particular points were based on Maine observations.
Published by Princeton University Press, this paperback book is about 200 pages long and is a bargain. The book is intended for intermediate to advanced birders who wish to hone their field skills and to better appreciate the ornithological spectacles around us.
The first chapter is on Advanced Field Identification based on what Derek calls the “whole bird and more” approach. This chapter is not a discourse on subtle field marks to distinguish confusing flycatchers, fall warblers or gulls but rather a presentation of an approach that will allow you to identify more of the birds you seen, even those seen from the rear as they fly rapidly away from you!
To become proficient at any activity, we all know the mantra: practice, practice, practice. Derek urges us to really study all the birds we see, including the most common birds around us. He also suggests that a more holistic approach to bird identification may be a more fruitful way to go about the process of identifying a bird. Focus on the whole bird, not just the critical identification feature (the feature that has an arrow pointing to it in the illustrations in some bird guides). This holistic method is the basis of the “whole bird and more” approach to bird identification.
Derek argues that we should not throw out the field-mark approach but rather add to it the admittedly more subjective yet powerful holistic approach. By becoming intimately familiar with birds, we can often recognize them at a glance without seeing a particular field mark. It’s the same process as picking out people you know in a crowd; you just know them when you them.
Derek discusses the value of this holistic approach to the identification of migrating hawks and pelagic birds. He urges us to work on identification of warblers and sparrows by silhouette. Fellow Maine birder Luke Seitz provides some great line drawings of the outlines of different genera of sparrows.
The chapter on Birding by Habitat shows how being a better botanist can make you a better birder. Knowing the particular grasses particular sparrows prefer makes it possible to find Nelson’s Sparrow and Saltmarsh Sparrow in Scarborough Marsh or a Lincoln’s Sparrow at the Dragon Field in Portland.
Birding with Geography gives great advice for finding migration hotspots for birds. Monhegan Island figures prominently in the examples.
In Birding and Weather, Derek shows that knowledge of basic meteorological principles and an eye on the weather map can make us better birders.
In other chapters, Derek discusses birds at night and their identification by using radar images, freely available on the web, and by identifying the distinctive nocturnal vocalizations of migrants.
One chapter is a case study at Cape May, New Jersey where Derek used the skills and techniques he describes in the book to better appreciate the migration in October.
You have to check out this unbelievably cool website: http://hint.fm/wind/ This site is a dynamic map of the wind direction and strength across the United States. Moving lines indicate the direction the wind is blowing and the rate at which the lines move is proportional to wind speed. This website will be of great use to birders in deciding when a good time to go birding during spring or fall migration. This website provides a tool to put into practice the information Derek Lovitch provides in his book.
[First published on April 15, 2012]