Thursday, April 5, 2012

Book Review: How to Be a Better Birder

Princeton University Press recently sent me a review copy of the new book How to Be a Better Birder by Derek Lovich.

Improving birding skills is a subject near and dear to my heart. I was wondering if any new information really could be said about this subject that hasn't already been covered by excellent recent similar titles (see my previous post, Advanced birding means learning the basics, which introduce Kaufman's Advanced Birding, Sibley's Birding Basics, and Alderfer and Dunn's Birding Essentials).

Frankly, I was confused when I started reading--I wasn't sure where it was going--it was more story than instruction. However, it became increasingly more interesting and useful when it tied up introductory chapter titles such as Birding by Habitat, Birding with Geography, and Birding and Weather with the culmination in Chapter 5 of Birding at Night--an excellent how-to primer of using NEXRAD weather radar on the web to observe bird migration in real time. This book cleared up the questions I had about this subject--and made me excited to delve into it a bit more.

For instance, since getting heavily interested in photographing birds in 2007 I started noticing an interesting phenomenon. On those mornings I stayed home because the rainy spring weather would be poor for photography, other birders were out discovering great birds! I should have been listening to Lovich's rule of thumb from the chapter on birding and weather: "if it begins to rain in the middle of the night during migration, go birding in the morning!"

The skills taught in this book--namely a knowledge of habitat, geography, and weather--will make one a better birder. But these are only part of a birder's fieldcraft skill set. Other than an overview of "the whole bird and more" in Chapter 1 (what, but not really how) this book doesn't discuss identification topics at all. The identification of birds by ear, identification of birds in flight, external anatomy, and molt are topics not well understood by many birders. From the title I was expecting this book would discuss these topics as well. A subtitle such as "Find more birds using habitat, geography and weather" would have cleared my initial confusion over the main subject of this book.

Now that I've got that out of the way...

Following chapters covering conservation and citizen science, Lovitch again picks up the habitat, geography, and weather theme to discuss his passion. The author uses his knowledge to pick weather patterns and locations to search for specific rarities.

The book closes with Patch Birding, becoming intimately familiar with a nearby area, birding it weekly. Of course, use your knowlege of habitat, geography, and weather to first select a good patch, then to search for new birds in your patch.

This was an enjoyable book to read, but it isn't a reference book that you'll want to return to over and over. If you want to explore the topic of birding by habitat, geography, weather, and NEXRAD, then this book is a good start.