Rich Ditch's Photography Blog

February 11, 2014

Rare Birds of North America by Howell, Lewington, & Russell

Filed under: Birds, Boyce Thompson Arboretum, Gilbert Water Ranch, rarities, reviews — richditch @ 2:06 pm
Rare Birds of North America

Rare Birds of North America

I’ll admit right away that I’ve got a fondness for books, and especially for those about birds. So I’ve accumulated a decent library made up of of a variety of field guides new and obscure, books covering families of birds like sparrows and warblers and hummingbirds and shorebirds, bird-finding guides to places all over the U.S., encyclopedias and other collections of related material.

Once in a while a book stands out from all the others, and Rare Birds of North America by Howell, Lewington, & Russell is one of those. I can’t imagine a serious birder who would not want to own a copy of this beautiful and useful book.

The dust jacket flyleaf gives the stats:

  • covers 262 species of vagrant birds found in the United States and Canada
  • features 275 stunning color plates of occurrence by region and season
  • provides an invaluable overtire of vagrancy patterns and migration
  • include detailed species accounts and cutting-edge identification tips

All this in a clean layout on quality paper of over 400 pages.

I spent my first night with the book skimming through, looking at species I’ve already seen in the field, and the species I’ve chased and not been lucky or skilled enough to see. I’ve even read about the exact birds I have viewed in some of the distribution accounts in the book. For the record these I’ve already seen in AZ are:

Eared Quetzal, Plain-capped Starthroat, Berylline Hummingbird, Rufous-backed Thrush (aka Robin), Aztec Thrush, Rufous-capped Warbler, Flame-colored Tanager, Streak-backed Oriole, Baikel Teal, Blue-footed Booby, Northern Jacana, Nutting’s Flycatcher

And those I’ve seen elsewhere in the U.S.:

White-winged Tern (DE), Whiskered Tern (DE), Wood Sandpiper (CT), Spotted Redshank (NY).

There might be more that I missed. But that’s only 16 species out of the 262 covered in the book so I’ve still got 246 more to go!

I’ve posted  about Rufous-backed Robin before: from the Gilbert Water RanchBoyce Thompson Arboretum, and Anthem north of Phoenix. And about Northern Jacana. And even about Baikel Teal.

But I can’t find any previous posts about the Streak-backed Oriole that returned for three winters at the Gilbert Water Ranch, so here are some of my favorite shots of that bird.

Streak-backed Oriole

Streak-backed Oriole

11/24/2005, Nikon D70, Nikkor 300/2.8 AF-S plus TC20E (2x), ISO 200, 1/250th sec @ f/10

Streak-backed Oriole

Streak-backed Oriole

11/24/2005, Nikon D70, Nikkor 300/2.8 AF-S plus TC20E (2x), ISO 200, 1/200th sec @ f/10

Streak-backed Oriole

Streak-backed Oriole

12/25/2006, Nikon D70, Nikkor 300/2.8 AF-S plus TC20E (2x), ISO 200, 1/100th sec @ f/9

Streak-backed Oriole

Streak-backed Oriole

10/21/2007, Nikon D200, Nikkor 300/2.8 AF-S plus TC20E (2x), ISO 400, 1/400th sec @ f/8


March 16, 2012

Steve Howell’s Petrels

Filed under: Birds, reviews — richditch @ 1:20 pm
Howell Petrels

Petrels, Albatrosses & Storm-Petrels of North America

My personal experience with any of the species covered in this excellent new field guide to Petrels, Albatrosses & Storm-Petrels of North America is limited to a few pelagic trips off the NJ coast and California, plus the unexpected bounty of Tropical Storm Nora that dumped hundreds of storm-petrels along the Colorado River on the western edge of Arizona many years ago. But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the quality of this new book that overflows with information, range maps, and photos of birds that require more work to see than many birders ever encounter. These species are truly birds of the world’s oceans and to see them properly requires time spent on board boats of varying size and stability staring at gray water and distant horizons.

Getting the most from pelagic birding requires a lot of preparation and study of the birds so that fleeting views of gray and white birds can be turned into identifications and checks on life lists. Howell’s book is a great resource for anyone planning a trip at sea to observe these species. At almost 500 pages it is a substantial reference. It is not something I would try to use while looking at a storm-petrel off the rail of a tossing deck – it is just too big and heavy to be easily handled in such a situation, and an expensive book to risk losing or getting wet. On a larger boat or longer trip I’d want a copy to review during periods of inactivity (and if you’ve ever been out off the Atlantic coast you know how long those periods can last),  but even then I’d keep it safe in the cabin as much as possible.

The heart of the book is the abundance of quality photos of these birds. Mostly flight shots (with a few photos of birds at rest on the water and even a couple on land presumably near nests), they show the birds from all angles and with excellent detail. I’ve got to commend the photographers for their skill in capturing so many excellent images. I had briefly thought about including one of my own modest photos of a Black-footed Albatross or a Black Storm-Petrel with this post, but my shots from the 80’s and 90’s don’t come near the quality of those in Howell’s book.

I suspect that two photo technologies have made a large contribution to the quality of the images: auto focus and digital capture. Taking photos of small moving targets from a moving platform can be difficult, and it definitely got easier as auto focus improved on modern cameras (I was still shooting with a manual focus 400/5.6 lens when I was chasing these birds). Digital has three obvious advantages over the days of film: cranking up the ISO to 800 or 1600 or even 3200 (ISO 200 was “fast” for film); large capacity memory cards for digital cameras that can record many hundreds or even thousands of images without needing to be changed out (compared to the 36 shots on each roll of film); the knowledge that each shot via digital is essentially free (film plus processing made every slide cost 25-30 cents) so the photographer can blast away to improve the odds of catching the bird in focus, in good position, and properly exposed while discarding all the failures.

If I was heading to sea today to see and photograph these birds I’d still bring along A Field Guide to Seabirds of the World by Peter Harrison, and leave the Howelll book on shore if the boat was small, space was limited, or rough water was expected. It is much smaller and lighter. It has photos (and even a few paintings where photos weren’t available) from the days of film, and a handy handy section of B&W drawings making direct comparisons of the various tubenoses (a feature missing in Howell’s book).

I can’t imagine any blog such as this doing a comprehensive review of Howell’s Petrels, Albatrosses & Storm-Petrels of North America: it is just too packed with knowledge and other hard-learned information. I recommend this book to anyone interested in these unique birds (and shouldn’t all birders fit that category?). From Princeton University Press, 2012.

May 12, 2011

The Birds of New Jersey review

Filed under: Birds, New Jersey, reviews — richditch @ 10:41 am
Birds of NJ - Boyle

Birds of NJ - Boyle

I was seduced by birds when I moved to New Jersey from Pennsylvania in 1970, and I learned my birds and developed my skills as a birder in the woods and on the coastal plane there. One of my prized resources at the time was a wonderful little 60 page booklet from the Summit Nature Club titled New Jersey Field Trip Guide, edited by William J. Boyle, Jr. That was replaced in my collection of “must have along” references in 1986 by the publication of A Guide to Bird Finding in New Jersey by William J. Boyle, Jr. At just over 500 pages Boyle was able to greatly expand the coverage of the little Summit Guide with more locations, more maps, and more information. This guide included an Annotated Checklist to the birds that was helpful for understanding migration and nesting times. A bonus: the cover and interior artwork are B&W drawings by David Sibley.

So it was a pleasure to find a copy of The Birds of New Jersey Status and Distribution by William J. Boyle, Jr. in yesterday’s mail. This is a new publication for 2011 from the Princeton University Press. The 300+ pages cover all the birds (over 450 species) that have been recorded in NJ, presenting the information on each species in a clean layout that includes distribution maps and often a photo. There’s also a special 14 page section of quality photos of an assortment of species at larger scale than those used with the species accounts. All Bill’s experience with the birds and locations over all the seasons and years is distilled here for easy access by the reader.

It was good to get re-acquainted with the birds of NJ last night, reminiscing about all the time I spent chasing and observing them, the places and habitat they used, and the people I spent time with while doing this. I felt good about the rarities I saw (like the only Rock Wren ever seen in NJ in a photo by Richard Crossley), and all the rarities that have occurred since I moved away in 1994.

A big part of the enjoyment of this book is the collection of quality photos. Most of these are the work of Kevin Karlson, who served as Photo Editor for the book. Every active birder in NJ since the 70’s knows Kevin’s work. The number of shots of rarities that Kevin has managed to capture are impressive and show his dedication to chase after so many fleeting opportunities, and his ability to get shots in very difficult conditions at times.

But even with Kevin’s drive there are some species where he must not have been able to get to the bird in time as we see other photographers credited sprinkled throughout. As a photographer I always pay attention to these names, and I see a number of old friends represented in the book. I wish there was a single page that listed these other photo contributors where anyone could tell quickly whose work is included.

There are two other minor issues with this book. The first is that I find the colors used for status on the maps are a bit garish. The other issue is that I’d like to see bar graphs showing seasonal occurrence for each species. I find these graphs very informative and useful in the site guides for other locations.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the birds of New Jersey. If I still lived in NJ I’d have two copies – one for reference on the shelf at home and one that was always available in the car.

March 30, 2011

Two recent bird books

Filed under: Birds, reviews — richditch @ 6:32 pm
Hawks at a Distance - Liguori

Hawks at a Distance - Liguori

I think the personalities that lead so many of us to seek out new birds for our various lists (life, state, yard, year, etc.) also play a large role in the growth of our personal birding libraries. I’ve just added two new identification guides to my library:

  • Hawks at a Distance, by Jerry Liguori, and
  • The Crossley ID Guided to Eastern Birds, by Richard Crossley

Both are veteran birders with extensive experience in New Jersey and elsewhere, and both are published by Princeton University Press. Both fall into the current trend of using photographs instead of drawings or paintings.

Other than those few traits these guides have little in common.

Liguori’s book takes on a large task in trying to incorporate all the “tricks” learned from thousands of hours of actual observation of distant hawks in the field. The best way to learn this, of course, is to put in the time in the field watching the birds and slowly gaining knowledge on each species after it has been studied repeatedly under all field conditions. Distilling this knowledge into a single book of less than 200 pages is an immense task.

Liguori does a respectable job of this through photos of each species covered, showing the birds in various flight positions six photos per page. The birds are shown small in each image – about what you’d get with your Nikon or Canon if the hawk just filled the central focusing spot. I know what you’re thinking: there are a lot of us with hard drives full of shots like this that we took in the excitement of the moment even though the bird was too far away for a quality image. It turns out these make decent images for Liguori’s ID narrative. The images used are a good representation of the effects of viewing the hawks at a distance, where fine detail merges into areas of color and overall shape and posture take on primary importance.

The only real issue I have with Liguori’s Hawks at a Distance is the missing species. I don’t see any mention of Common Black Hawk, Gray Hawk, or Harris’ Hawk – not a problem for the majority of hawk watchers along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts or the Mississippi flyway. But if you are a birder in Arizona as I am this is a serious omission. I’d also like to see more coverage of White-tailed Kite – it gets less than half a page of text and only two images. Plus, its regular occurrence in much of central and southern Arizona is unacknowledged.

The Crossley ID Guide to Eastern Birds

The Crossley ID Guide to Eastern Birds

Crossley has taken on a much more imposing challenge: completely redefine what a bird identification guide is. Crossley’s novel approach is to create photo montages for each species, filling each page with an often overwhelming collection of photos of a species taken both near and far over a typical habitat image. The purpose of this approach is to show each species in a variety of conditions and distances to simulate actual field conditions. It is an intriguing concept and I was anxious to actually see the book, but my immediate reaction to it was confusion at all the visual clutter. For me this simply does not work very well.

Even though Crossley’s book is an Eastern guide it is rather large and heavy, and definitely not a book I can imagine anyone taking with them into the field. As a result it will spend time in the car or back home on the reference shelf. For an experienced birder who already has a good selection of field guides and other bird books I can’t imagine just when anyone would turn to this book to assist in any identification question.

Just when I was ready to write this review I happened to have lunch with a visiting novice birder from the east who surprised me by bringing up Crossley’s book in our conversation. His impression of Crossley’s guide was a lot more positive than my own. He indicated that he found the habitat photos very helpful in his early stages of learning where each species might be seen and thought that the real world lighting used for many of the images was also helpful to him.

So, Crossley’s novel approach isn’t for everyone, but it might be just the ticket for many beginning birders wanting to learn more about where to look for certain species and what they might encounter while doing so.

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