Sunday, July 12, 2015

Book Review: Birding by Impression

Birding by Impression: A different approach to knowing and identifying birds. Kevin T. Karlson and Dale Rosselet. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Boston/New York. 2015. Hardcover. 286 pages.

There are many field usable clues to a bird's identity other than the patternistic "field marks" put forward by Roger Tory Peterson in 1934. Thus, this new entry in the Peterson Field Guide series, Birding by Impression tackles bird identification using size, shape, behavior, and then adding plumage patterns and general colors, as well has habitat and finally vocalizations.

Rather than covering all North American species, this book covers groups of bird orders, up to perching birds, then covers the various family groups in the passerine order. In each of these chapters some specific identification problem is solved using Birding by Impression (BBI).

One fun learning tool is the inclusion of 219 photo quizzes. Wonderful!

Having trouble separating juvenile Black-bellied Plover, American Golden-Plover and Pacific Golden-Plover? It's there on page 96-98, following the general Plovers information. Do you understand the concept? Turn to the appendix for the photo quiz answer to Figure 89.

This is an informative book. And if one really puts in the study, there is much to be learned here. For instance, I learned that the crown of Rusty Blackbird is more rounded than Brewer's Blackbird.

Vocalizations are first on my list of how I both notice and then identify birds. However, it is included last in this book. The statement that "duck vocalizations rarely play a role in the ID process" is simply not true for puddle ducks. Mallard, gadwall, pintail, wigeon, shoveler, Green-winged Teal, Wood Duck all have unique calls that give them away as they fly overhead in the morning fog or sound off from their concealment in the marsh. Visit any hunting store and find duck calls for each of these.

Flying is the defining means of locomotion for most birds. We see more birds in flight than sitting still. Yet many birders have not been taught to identify birds in flight. So the nearly complete lack of flight style information (except for storm-petrels) was just sad. The description of the difference between crows and ravens in flight was right on. But there was really nothing on the differences between swallows in flight that help make their high-in-the-sky animated silhouettes instantly recognizable to species. And nothing on the distinctive flight styles of the different sparrows as they flush away from you off the road edge. Not only were descriptions of flight style lacking, but there were no instructions or terminology. It's as if the authors think that birds cannot be identified in flight.

In many ways, this book is preceded by the works of Kaufman's Field Guide to Advanced Birding (2011) (size and shape, habitat, behavior), Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion (2006) (habitat, behavior, flight, vocalizations), and Alderfer and Dunn's Birding Essentials (2007) (size, structure, shape, plumage pattern and color, behavior, flight, typical movements, feeding behavior, voice).

The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America (2010) uses to good effect shape perched and shape in flight, as well as plumage, habitat, and voice. This under-appreciated work gives one a good idea of what is possible in a field guide that uses Birding by Impression in combination with traditional plumage descriptions.



I have thought quite a bit about the technique or methodology that I personally use to identify birds. First and foremost I locate and identify more than half the birds I encounter by voice (exceptions being seabirds, gulls, diving ducks, and distant shorebirds and raptors) Then I observe shape. Thirdly, I use flight style to identify flying birds before using any plumage characters. I guess its time to organize all my notes and finally create that "how to" manual for identifying birds in flight.

Birding by ImpressionGreg's methodology
1SizeVocalizations and other sounds
2ShapeShape
3BehaviorFlight style
4Plumage patterns and colorsSize
5HabitatBehavior
6VocalizationsHabitat
7Plumage patterns and colors
8Status and distribution