Saturday, January 24, 2015

Blood River: the terrifying journey through the world's most dangerous country

"There were setbacks in my research, like the day I received an email from an African explorer who had canoed the headwaters of the Congo decades ago. I approached him to help me with crossing similar territory, but the title of his email told me exactly what he thought of my plan. All it said was 'Death Wish'."

Encouraging words indeed.

At the turn of the new Millennium, journalist Tim Butcher became obsessed with the idea of traveling the length of the great Congo River, retracing the 3,000 km journey made by follow journalist Henry Morton Stanley of 'Dr. Livingston, I presume?' fame.

Prior to this journey, Butcher had been an accomplished war correspondent for The Daily Telegraph and the newspaper's African Bureau Chief and so did not come to this project naively. The book is a captivating read and brings an extraordinary part of the world into sharp focus.

A central theme is the decay of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) into chaos and misery following it's independence. The pace of this downward spiral is almost unprecedented and even someone as experienced in Africa and the Middle East as Butcher is shocked by a reality that would not go a miss in Sci-Fi movie.
I was travelling through a country with more past than future, a place where the hands of the clock spin not forwards, but backwards.
The original title was the less melodramatic 'Blood River: A Journey to Africa's Broken Heart', reflecting the author's sense of profound sadness at the decay of this immense and once sophisticated country.

The awfulness of the current Ebola hemorrhagic fever outbreak in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea has brought some attention to the continued plight of tropical Africa. Last year also saw an outbreak of ebola infections in the DRC but this involved a different virus strain from that ravaging West Africa. The good news was that effective healthcare measures were in place and managed to stop the outbreak quite quickly.

After reading Blood River one can't help wonder what future horror will bring the DRC back into the headlines.
Title: Blood River: The Terrifying Journey Through The World's Most Dangerous Country.
Author: Tim Butcher
Publisher: Grove Press
Publication Date: 2008
Dimensions: 272 pages, maps, line drawings and a few photographs, 5 x 0.8 x 7.8 inches
ISBN-13: 978-0-8021-4433-1
Retail Price: $US 16.00

Bigger and better: The Sibley Guide to Birds 2nd Edition

I had not read any of the press this new addition that came out in spring of 2014 and knew very little about it until a friend let me glance through his copy a few weeks ago. On realizing how much had been added and improved since the two version of the first edition, I immediately purchased three copies so that I could always have one near at hand. This was money well spent. 

I won't go into great detail here but will just mention my chief impressions. The first big improvement is the addition of many new species that were deemed too rare in North America to feature in the first editions. Consequently, there is a lot of useful new information that will appeal to serious birders. The treatments of regularly occurring species have also been enhanced, invariably for the better, with improved notes, new illustrations and updated maps. The quality of the little comments that David has added to the plates is very high, and it is a delight to see in print a lot of the new identification knowledge that's been kicked around over the past few years. In this regard the book is remarkably up to date.

I understand there have been issue with colors in various printings but my copies seemed fine with the glaring exception of the South Polar and Great Skua plates. The former are all too dark and gray while the latter are way too orange. In truth there is far more overlap and these extreme representations are potentially misleading. Some of the new paintings are lovely. I would relish a poster-sized version of the heron heads in their vibrant courtship colors. A few are so-so (Bulwer's Petrel and Black-bellied Storm-Petrel) but do the job.

The continued lack of scientific names for subspecies is a disappointment. I understood the original argument for keeping things simple so as not to put off those just getting into birding but now with the addition of extreme rarities and a greater sophistication overall, I think it's time to bite the bullet and include scientific names for recognizable subspecies. This will really help the user at every level connect to other information sources. For example, it's currently very difficult to match the expanded treatment of the Cackling and Canada Geese with literature and images that easily available on the web that more often use the scientific name. So for instance Sibley's "Pacific" Cackling Goose is not used elsewhere and it takes some digging to link this to minima, which is ubiquitous. Ambiguity is never good and I think there is ample room to include these important names. Likewise, it would be beneficial to add the group names of the various Fox Sparrows without necessarily listing every proposed taxa. My experience is that birders are keen to learn and one can lay out the information in such a way that it is accessible and useful to all levels. Maybe this could be touted as the major innovation in future edition?

This is already a fairly chunky book and it's almost too big to carry in the field. Many experienced birders believe this to be a good thing because it encourages advance study, although whether that sentiment is true in reality is another matter. Quite honestly, I would welcome an even larger format version (as was done with the Collins Guide) to see the illustrations better and perhaps have room for even more notes and come to think of it, scientific names for subspecies!

In summary, this remains very useful (arguably essential) item for anyone birding in North America. Without a doubt it's a substantial improvement on the already superb first edition and everyone should upgrade their copy. Of course the book is not the last word in bird identification and readers should use it alongside other guides, magazine articles, and of course the ever more abundant web resources.

Title: The Sibley Guide to Birds, Second Edition
Author: David Allen Sibley
Publisher: Knopf
Publication Date: March 2014
Format: Flexibound softback, 624 pages
ISBN-10: 030795790X 
ISBN-13: 978-0307957900

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds

Photo-based bird identification guides ('photoguides') have had mixed fortunes and few, if any, have really become the definitive reference for their coverage area. The chief problem is that it is hard to adequately portray a species with just a handful of images. Birds look different under different conditions, individuals vary, and of course many species wear multiple plumages at different times in their life and/or show regional differences. For this reason, a lot of synthesis must go into producing good field guide paintings, not only summarizing the physical features but also capturing the 'essence' of the species. Painted plates do not necessarily replicate every detail of the feathers but rather try to gel that visual information into a realistic representation and distill much of the individual variation. In a well crafted plate, the birds are arranged carefully to highlight useful differences whether it be the thickness of a supercilium or the contrast between mantle and neck. The much loved Sibley guide (North America) and the equally loved Collins Guide (Europe) have been very successful in this regard and currently maintain the #1 spot on each continent.

The new digital age has challenged attitudes towards visual images. No longer is a photograph considered an immutable record. It is something that can be shaped and adapted for a purpose. With Adobe Photoshop and other software it is now commonplace to manipulate images for one reason or another. Blemishes are swept from the skins of movie stars to make them more appealing and to sell something. Troublesome branches or missing wing tips can easily be removed or added to nature photographs to create instant masterpieces. The power of digital manipulation also has great potential in terms of disseminating information. With relative ease, one can create images that could never occur in life and use them to impart reams of complex information. The new tome from Richard Crossley does just this; very carefully building a series of montages from huge numbers of reference photos to show the salient identification features of more than 600 species that occur on a regular to scarce basis in eastern North America.

As in the Sibley Guides, Crossley sets the western edge of the Great Plains (prairies) as the boundary between eastern and western North America. So all the expected Eastern species are present but too are quite a few 'Western' species such as Clarke's Grebe, Pygmy Nuthatch, Bushtit, Black-throated Sparrow, extending the usefulness of the book. Perhaps "TCIDG: 3/4 of NA Birds" would be a more accurate title? Joking aside, a 'TCIDG: Western Birds' is rumored and although there will be extensive overlap with the current volume, complete coverage using the 'Crossley method' will be a welcome thing. If this is the case, then presumably the more widespread species (such as Savannah and Song Sparrow) will be given a fully westernized treatment, depicting the fascinating but under-appreciated regional variation.

Physically, the book is well made with a stout binding and a useful extension of the cover that serves as a place mark. Some commentators have lamented the size and heft of the book but quite frankly I think this is a good thing. Like Crossley, I am a strong believer that field guides should rarely be used in the field. The car, camp site or motel maybe but when you have birds in front of you, having you head buried in a book is the last thing you want to do. 'Field' refers to birds in the wild, not books in the wild. As Crossley explains on Pg. 25, you will be a better birder if you go into the field as well prepared as possible, you will see more and understand more. If you don't know what something is, then take notes or sketches or try to photograph (digiscope) the bird for later study.

The fact that Richard Crossley took the majority of photographs used to build the montages is quite astonishing and the blending of the images into the 'scenes' is skillful. Some are too complicated perhaps but considering the number of plates the overall quality is impressive. Richard and I had fun once sitting in a bar comparing our favorite plates. Interestingly my favorites were not his by any stretch, a reflection of the very personal aesthetic component to this book.

I found the excessive hype ("[r]evolutionary….first book to accurate portray all the key identification characteristics….bird like the experts…") that accompanied the launch of this book more than a little tiresome. The hard sell even carries over onto the back cover of the book. These statements simply promise way too much and ultimately does the author and the book a disservice. There is no magic formula for becoming an expert birder, it takes time and practice. Although the Crossley Guide serves up the information in a way that is different and perhaps refreshing, one still has to digest it and work at it through long hours in the field.

It will be interesting to see whether the TCIDG and other photoguides ever fully displace more traditional guides. I suspect not and would actually recommend using the book side-by-side with Sibley or similar. Already many people use the internet in this fashion, calling up collections of photographs to pair with the more instructional illustrations in field guides or identification articles. I've had the book for about a year now and will confess it is not the first text I turn to when I need information or what to identify a mystery bird. This is not to say that I don't dip into it on a regular basis, because I do. Sometimes I just want to take a fresh look at a group of birds or rekindle my search image of a particular species. In this regard the guide is ideal, better perhaps than painted plates.

In summary, this is a very well-made book and every serious birder in North America (if not beyond) should own and use a copy. I disagree that this approach works for entry level birders, there's just too much information in one dollop. Although the critical differences between similar species are captured and judiciously shown, it takes a trained eye to notice these differences. In this regard the now dated approach pioneered by Roger Tory Peterson and others of paring things down to a minimum and using arrows to point to the key features has its advantages. However, I do think the Crossley approach will revolutionize photoguides. Creating montages using photographic images allows the author to impart more of their expertise than a simple lattice of square panels.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Hawks at a Distance: Identification of Migrant Raptors

On first shake, the identification of North American birds of prey (hawks, eagles, accipiters and falcons) might not look like too much of a challenge. If you toss in Black and Turkey Vultures which look and migrate in a similar fashion to true hawks, there are only twenty widespread species across the continent, with a handful of less common species restricted to the southern borderland, the tip of Florida or specialized areas such as coastal California and the Grand Canyon. Moreover, some species are highly distinctive, Swallow-tailed Kite being an obvious example.

However, as with many bird groups, things become more complicated the closer you look. One soon discovers that extremely familiar species such as Red-tailed Hawk comprise five discrete populations (Eastern, Western, Harlan's, Fuertes, and Florida), and there is considerable individual variation within each of these populations. Some common species can be darn hard, Cooper's Hawk and Sharp-shinned Hawk are familiar to every North American birder but are notoriously difficult to identify reliably (and I stress reliably). So 'hawks' represent a deep well for the identification enthusiast and there is a thriving market for innovative texts on field identification.

In 2005, Jerry Liguori published a slim but very informative book called "Hawks from Every Angle: How to identify raptors in flight". This was designed for the enthusiasts who gather at hawk migration sites in the spring and fall to watch passing birds. The new book "Hawks at a distance" is similar in design and content but raises the bar a notch by focusing on identification of the 'core species' when viewed from a greater distance, thereby mimicking the more typical experience of a hawk watch. One of the mantras of skilled bird identification is knowing the common species as well as possible. This is achieved through hours of deliberate study and continuous practice. Expert birders spend just as much time looking carefully at common birds as they do looking at uncommon ones, something that beginning birders often forget.

"Hawks at a distance" considers 28 species, chosen on their likely occurrence at migration watch points across the Continent. Northern Hawk-Owl, Barn Owl, Short-eared Owl and Common Raven are thrown in for good measure because they are occasionally mistaken for accipiters, falcons or small buteos. Each species treatment begins with a beautiful full page 'portrait' photo (no brainer identifications) and then moves to the world of pepper dots on a blue sky. The text describes the species from the perspective of a distant view, discussing shape, the way the wings are held in a glide, wing beat cadence and so on. This is followed by sets of six image of birds in flight and arranged by age or sex. A paragraph length legend explains the take home messages evident in the pictures. One minor criticism is that the locations and dates are not given for any of the photographs. I can't help thinking how much more accessible this information would be in the form of video. Either to walk us through the points or to actually show the different flight styles or the way soaring birds rock from side to side. Style of movement is an important aspect to identification that is difficult to communicate and is absorbed by real world experience.

At the rear of the book we find an extensive collection of gray scale images showing multiple views (46 or so) of each species in near silhouette. These remind me of the outlines of small Eurasian eagles that I traced from books as a kid, hoping to one day see these species for real at an exotic watch point or mountain range in the Mediterranean or Asia Minor. I stuck the tracings to the ceiling above my bed hoping to soak the slight differences in shape every time I opened my eyes. Liguori's montages are a very useful reminder of the visual challenges that North American birds of prey pose. Remember what I said about Sharp-shinned and Cooper's Hawks? Just looking at the panels of these two species arranged on opposing pages (172-173) sends a shiver down my spine. The eye eventually notices the differences but they are subtle, not evident at every angle and difficult to capture in words. I'd be interested to know if these montages show many different individuals or are generated from runs of shots taken in sequence. Regardless, an aspiring hawkwatcher would do well to spend some time in the pre-season carefully working over these powerful images to get their eye in.

The book begins with a quirky but thoughtful forward by Pete Dunne who considers the progress in North American field guides from the stand point of viewing and identifying birds from ever increasing distances. It is probably intuitive to most birders that shape and posture become increasingly important as birds get further but Dunne makes the valuable point that plumage details also transform, spots becoming lines, streaking becoming dark patches and so on. This is something that David Sibley incorporated into his field guide paintings.

We are certain moving into a new phase of North American birding, with greater emphasis on understanding and applying gestault identification criteria rather than relying on details that can only be seen at close range. There are plenty of other bird groups that could do with a similar treatment, waterfowl being an obvious example. More of this when I discuss 'The Crossley ID Guide' in a future posting.

'Hawks at a distance' is a neat little book and valuable reference.

Title: Hawks at a Distance: Identification of Migrant Raptors
Author: Jerry Liguori
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 2011
Dimensions: 216 pp., 6 x 8 1/2 inches
Artwork: 558 color photos, 896 halftone photos, 2 tables.
List Price: US$19.95 (paper)
ISBN13: 978-0-691-13559-5

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Helping the people of Haiti through birds

The authors of The Birds of the Dominican Republic and Haiti (2006 Princeton University Press) have collaborated with Green Mountain Digital to create an iPhone app that combines artwork from the field guide and recordings from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Macaulay Library. Some 58 species are featured.

The Birds of Haiti and the Dominican Republic app costs US$9.99 and is available from the iTunes Store. Importantly, all proceeds from sales will be donated to Habitat for Humanity and Partners in Health to support the continued disaster relief efforts in Haiti.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Birds of Europe: Second Edition

The wait is over! The much anticipated and much delayed 2nd edition of the Birds of Europe is finally out. Known to many as the 'Collins Bird Guide' but published in North America by Princeton University Press as the more fitting 'Birds of Europe', this is handy-sized book sets the bar for field guides, both in terms of the superb illustrations and phenomenal amount of information packed within its covers.

When rumors of a new edition first began to circulate, I naively assumed that it would amount to little more than a reprinting with some minor corrections to the maps and so forth. After all, how could such a superlative guide be improved? Glancing through the new edition the changes aren't immediately obvious but there are changes, many changes.

The first edition was published in 1999 after a difficult, decade-long gestation but was immediately and justifiably heralded as one of the most impressive bird books ever produced. Since then it has been published in no less than 13 languages and sold more than 700,000 copies - a 'Da Vinci Code' in bird book terms. So why the new edition? As Killian Mullarney explained in a perspective published in the March 2010 issue of Birdwatch magazine, "Gratifying as it was to receive such a positive reaction, as one of the authors I was acutely aware of where many weaknesses lay and the huge potential for making it that people were actually using the book in the field, the list of things in need of attention grew longer and longer". Almost by definition guide books are works in progress and should evolve and I am no fan of the reissues of the Peterson Field Guides for this very reason.

So what cries out for updating in the Birds of Europe? Naturally some of the plates needed improving but according to Mullarney, the main impetus was to keep pace with (a) changing taxonomy, (b) improved understanding of some ID challenges and (c) the fact that some vagrants have become sufficiently regular in Europe that they now deserve fuller treatment. Case in point, Caspian Gull (Larus cachinnans), which is now much better understood in terms of its field identification and as a consequence appears to range much more widely and more regularly across western Europe than was realized. The new plate which shows 13 versions of the bird is a gem.

As Mullarney recounts, a number of the original taxonomic decisions were not universally accepted and this will be the case with the 2nd edition. Some of the 'upgrades' from subspecies to full species will come as no surprise. Madeiran Firecrest (Regulus madeirensis) for instance gets the promotion, as does Taiga Flycatcher (Ficedula albicilla). Indeed, more than 30 taxa are elevated to full species. Although many were well differentiated subspecies in the first edition and received fairly decent treatments, other new species are less well known. I'd never heard to Maghreb's Wheatear (Oenanthe halophila) but quickly discovered that it was formerly lumped with Mourning Wheatear (O. lugens), a handsome 'pied' wheatear resident in the barren mountainous of North Africa.

For the most part, the new plates are as good as, if not superior to, the original artwork. I have always felt that Mullarney and Zetterstrom have very complementary styles that give the birds a natural but crisp look and accurately portray the shapes and postures. One significant criticism is that many of the new plates are not well integrated into the existing structure. For example, Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis) is separated by 14 pages from Greater Scaup (A. marila), the only species you'd really need to compare it to. Depictions of Common/Black Scoters (Melanitta nigra/americana) and Velvet/White-winged Scoters (M. fusca/deglandi) are similarly partitioned. As Mullarney explains in the Birdwatch article, this unfortunate arrangement came about because of limited communication and cooperation between the authors/illustrators (a candid admission) and other production issues. I'm sure nobody associated with the project is happy with the outcome but the flaw is not fatal and certainly better than no 2nd edition at all.

As a birder, I prefer to see birds set against their natural habitats and have a weak spot for the artful vignettes included in many of the plates. The new paintings of Laurel Pigeon (Columba junoniae), an endemic to the montane forests of several of the Canary Islands is particularly successful in this regard and the original Caucasian and Caspian Snowcocks set majestically on snowy mountain ridges are still as good as ever.

To sum up: I strongly recommend this guide to anyone with more than a passing interest in birds. Even if you don't have plans to bird in the area of coverage (Europe, North Africa or the Middle East), the guide has much to offer. North American birders will find plenty of familiar species as well as valuable information on regular vagrants. I also recommend the guide to all as an example of what a field guide should be like.

Now we begin the wait for the release of the large format edition!

Title: Birds of Europe: Second Edition
Text and Maps by Lars Svensson
Illustrations and Captions by Killian Mullarney and Dan Zetterström
Publication date: 2010
North American Publisher: Princeton University Press
Dimensions: 416 pages, 5 x 7, 3,500+ color illus., 848 maps
Retail Price: US$29.95

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in New York State

"Thump!" That was the sound made by the new 'Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in New York State' when it arrived in the post this morning. Edited by Kevin McGowan and Kimberley Corwin, the book summarizes the findings of the second installment of the New York State Breeding Bird Atlas Project that began in 2000. The first iteration, "The Atlas of Breeding Birds in New York State" edited by Robert F. Andrle and Janet R. Carroll, was published in 1988 and summarized field work conducted between 1980 and 1985.

At 696 pages, the book is much heftier and more solidly produced than I was expecting. The cover has a gorgeous painting of a Merlin by artist John Perry Baumlin. The 2nd Atlas project coordinate by a steering committee chaired by Valerie Freer, marshalled more than a thousand volunteers who conducted summer-time surveys in more than five thousand 'atlas blocks' that covered most of the state. Each breeding or likely-breeding species - 244 species in all - has a map summarizing the data from the 2nd atlas project (2000-2005) and a often a second map documenting the perceived changes in the new data compared to the 1st project (1980-1985). The editors and a team of regional experts have written essays discussing the status of each species. Additional chapters describe the methodology, overall results, habitats, land use, conservation, history of New York birding and ornithology. Appendixes cover the rare breeders as well as an updated table of the seasonal timing of breeding.

Title: The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in New York State
Authors: Kevin J. McGowan and Kimberly Corwin
Publisher: Cornell University Press
Publicaton Date: December 2008
696 pages, 8 1/2 x 11, Full color throughout: 25 paintings, 245 halftones, 258 tables, 164 charts/graphs, 512 maps.
ISBN: 9780801447167
Retail Price: US$59.95