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Field & Street

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The ideal way to learn about birding is as the pupil of a master. Sixty some years ago, the young men of the Bronx County Bird Club, a group that included Roger Tory Peterson among its members, had Ludlow Griscom as idol, teacher, and gadfly. Griscom was the first master of birding, the first ornithologist to substitute skilled eyes and ears for the shotgun that had served Audubon and his successors as the principal tool of field identification.

Here in Chicago, masters such as Charlie Clark and Amy Baldwin passed along the knowledge they had gained through years in the field to interested young people.

The publication of Peterson's first field guide in 1934 made some of the expertise of the masters available to a mass audience. Still, the game grew only gradually for several decades. The atmosphere was clubby. Active birders all knew each other. The masters led field trips and passed the lore down to the novices.

That tidy structure has collapsed in the past 10 or 15 years. The popularity of birding has grown so much and so quickly that there are simply not enough masters to go around. Publicize a bird walk and you may get 80 or 90 people trailing along behind a single leader, most of them outfitted with binoculars inadequate to the task of idendtifying a crow at 50 yards, and most of them getting nothing more from the experience than vague rumors of the sighting of birds they have never heard of.

Fortunately, the field guides are better than ever. The absolute beginner can advance quite rapidly if he studies his Peterson and spends enough time in the field. But one of the lessons you learn out in the field is that some birds have never read the field guides. Many of them are doubtful cases, ambiguous creatures, avian transvestites that look like one thing from one angle and like something completely different from another angle.

Identifying the difficult birds, the birds whose identification requires more knowledge than a field guide can hold, is a master's most important function. With masters in short supply, and the market for bird books so large, book publishers are beginning to fill the void. Several specialized guides to difficult groups such as hawks, gulls, and pelagic birds have been published in the past few years. These are generally written in the sort of terse, almost telegraphic style usually associated with Sears catalogs. They assume an audience that must read them rather than an audience that might want to read them.

Happily, Houghton Mifflin has now published an advanced guide that is both useful and fun to read. Written by a New Jersey birder named Jack Connor and titled The Complete Birder ($8.95 paper; $17.95 cloth), it is anecdotal and often funny, Filled with splendid information for the birder who wants to move beyond the field guides, it is also engaging enough to attract curious readers who are not yet into the game.

Connor opens his book with some autobiographical information. His mother was a birder, and throughout his childhood he was taken along on birding trips and given every opportunity to absorb her knowledge. Naturally, he passed up this chance. He confesses to remembering nothing of what his mother told him. He didn't become a birder until he was in his late 20s and a married man. This gives me hope for my daughter. Right now, she thinks looking at birds is duller than diagramming sentences, but maybe she will come around.

Connor devotes his second chapter to a discussion of binoculars and spotting scopes, the basic tools of the trade. His accounts of these are as clear as any I have ever read. If you are shopping for optics, by all means read this before you enter a store. He not only explains the meaning of the mysterious numbers stamped on binocular barrels, he also points out how they affect your birding, what you gain with more magnification or roof prisms or wide fields of view, and what you lose.

His conclusion is that while there is no single ideal binocular, the Leitz and Zeiss roof-prism models are the best available. They are also the most expensive, with prices ranging from around $600 to around $1,000, depending on the current relationship between the dollar and the deutsche mark. If you can't come up with enough to bring home a pair of these Uberglasses, drop down to Nikon, Bushnell, or Bausch & Lomb. Whatever you get, spend as much as you can. Nothing affects your enjoyment of birding more than the quality of your optics.

From optics, he moves on to a lucid and entertaining discussion of acoustics: the songs and calls of birds. These are tough for everybody but a few musicians with very quick ears and strong memories for any sound they hear, but they are worth learning, not only for the birds they will help you find, but for the frustration they will help you avoid. I have spent many an aggravating hour on May mornings trying to track down elusive singers in the treetops only to discover, when the singer finally came into view, that I had been hunting a yellow-rumped warbler or Nashville warbler, or some other common species I had already seen 18 times that day. Connor explains sonograms--graphic representations of bird song--and offers some mnemonics to help you remember songs. The best mnemonics, he points out, are really silly sayings, because silly sayings are easy to remember.

If you really study birdcalls, you can get into the most rarefied form of birding known. You can't do this in most of the Reader's circulation area because there is too much ambient noise in the city, but if you have a house in the country, wait for a pleasant night in May or September, pour yourself a glass of something cold, and go sit in the yard. If you listen carefully, you will probably hear tiny "chips" and "clicks" from the dark sky overhead. These are the noises that flocks of migrating birds make--presumably to stay in touch with each other in the dark--and really skilled acoustic birders can identify these calls well enough to name the species as they pass. Even if you can't name the species, the sounds give you some sense of the majesty of migration, of the movement of tens of millions of birds across entire continents.

Connor reviews the things we know--and the far more numerous list of things we don't know--about the phenomenon of migration. His chapters on migration and on winter and summer birding are applied ecology and ethology, the facts that birders need to know about how birds behave and how they fit into their environments.

I particularly liked his discussion of irruptive behavior. Residents of tundra and taiga, such as the snowy owl, the northern shrike, and the various northern finches, move south into the United States in winters when their food supplies run low. Many texts on the subject talk of these irruptions as if they were locked into perfectly regular and predictable cycles. The information that birders have gathered through the past few decades shows that things ain't quite that simple. Food shortages in the north may be quite local. Snowy owls from around Moose Factory may irrupt into the midwest in one year, and the next year, owls from Ungava may head for New England.

Connor advises birders to wait until late in the winter to look for irruptives. In November, the owls and finches are on the move, but by February, they have usually settled into a winter territory where they can be found every day.

The bulk of Connor's book is devoted to the five groups of birds most obdurate in their refusal to look like the pictures in the guides. The groups are wood warblers--especially those in fall plumage--shorebirds, hawks, gulls, and terns.

The first problem with wood warblers is getting a good look at them. They are usually hidden in the leaves of trees and shrubs, and they move very fast, so even if they step out where you can see them, they don't stay long. Connor quotes an anonymous "novice birder" who complained of a warbler: "At first I couldn't see it, and then it disappeared." That about sums it up.

Shorebirds present the opposite problem. You find one on a beach, get as close as you dare, and then study it. Then you look at your field guide, and then you study the bird a little more, and look at your field guide again, and you still don't know what it is. You'd like to be able to say "I think it was a Baird's sandpiper, but it flew before I got a good look at it," but you can't say that because the damn thing won't fly away. It just keeps poking around in the sand looking enigmatic.

Hawks are hard because each individual bird, especially among the young, has its own variation on the species's plumage pattern. All birds show some individual variation, and no bird actually looks just like the paintings in the field guide, just as nobody--with the possible exception of Oliver North--looks exactly like the faces on a Marine Corps recruiting poster. But the differences between hawks of the same species are so great and so varied that size, shape, and flight behavior become the principal clues to identification.

Gulls may be the most difficult group of all. Herring gulls, for example, pass through nine distinct plumages on their way from childhood to adulthood, and, as Connor points out, "There are more plumage variations within most gull species than there are between species."

Connor advocates a careful, analytical approach to all these difficult groups. He supplements his text with tables that lay out the significant characteristics, the clues that separate one species from another.

The real test of any birding book is whether it makes you want to go birding. Connor's work passes that test with ease. Armed with all the new information he has given me, I am eager to go forth, confident that no sandpiper can stump me, no gull can leave me wondering. The fact that I can believe that--even though I know it is not true--is a tribute to the excellent job he has done.

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