How to be a Better Birder
Princeton University Press
I’ve been birding ever since I moved to the West Coast nearly 20 years ago. Back then my strategy was pretty basic. My first field guide was a National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America (I think I might still have that now battered book somewhere) and essentially I headed to a local park or green space and walked around trying to figure out the birds. It was a great deal of fun and I learned quite a lot on my own.
I wish that I had had Derek Lovitch’s How to Be a Better Birder when I was starting out—while this book doesn’t offer all the answers, it does provide birders with a number of interesting strategies that they can use to find birds and better identify them when they do. Reading it has given me a much better understanding of how birds behave (particularly during migration) and how habitat, geography, and weather systems can “produce” target species.
The book is organized around different aspects of systematic birding and interconnected strategies that will help you better find better birds. Lovitch emphasizes a “whole bird approach” in which he encourages birders to take a more careful look at species in the field. Rather than simply relying on using field marks detailed in most guide books, he suggests looking at behaviour, shape and size, what the bird is doing, and what type of habitat it is in. Thorough note taking and record keeping are also stressed as well as practice.
A chapter is devoted to using habitat to both find birds and to help identify them. Some examples are given, but the main idea is to become more aware of what species can be found where and why. Finding an Alder Flycatcher is a lot less likely than finding a Willow Flycatcher when searching a willow wetland that occurs within the range for both species. While this example is fairly obvious, Lovitch describes other microhabitat differences for other birds that are quite fascinating. Again, several examples are given which provide good starting points for birders to dig a little deeper into the habitat requirements of local birds and narrow their choices when confronted with hard to separate species.
The majority of the book is focused on ways to use knowledge of geography (like migrant traps, and range maps), vagrant behaviour (mirror migrants), and how birds react to weather systems. There is a little bit of repetition in the chapters that deal with weather forecasts and using radar to predict where migrant birds will show up but the concepts are intertwined. I’ve never looked too closely at weather forecasts but after reading this book I’m definitely going to give it a try. Fortunately, Lovitch outlines the steps that he follows when consulting forecasts and radar images and provides several relevant examples and a case study of how it works (and why it sometimes doesn’t—which was really a reinforcement of what happens when you don’t do your homework!).
Tying into the the idea of record keeping is the idea of citizen science and contributing to bird research. This section of the book is more of a overview of ways to become involved (and continue learning) through participation in Christmas Bird Counts, Breeding Bird Surveys and other volunteer projects. Lovitch also recommends patch birding, keeping a list of a local “patch” and visiting it frequently to monitor changes in bird populations. It’s a great way to become familiar with more common birds and hopefully turn up something a little more unusual.
Overall this is an excellent book for beginning and intermediate birders. It is very easy reading and I think that it would appeal to younger birders just starting out. Lovitch works in many examples of how to use his strategies to know “what to expect, when to expect it, and where to expect it.” How to Be a Better Birder is a starting point and many references are provided for readers to follow up on ideas in more detail. While the book was generally well written, it was a little repetitive in places and the overuse of exclamation marks was a bit grating.
I would have liked to have seen more examples based on the west coast. Most of the book is focused on locations on the eastern seaboard so readers in western North America may feel a little shortchanged. Fortunately, birders will still be able to apply what they’ve learned in their local areas wherever they are.
The book is visually appealing and well laid out, aside from the illustrations and maps by Luke Seitz. I’m not sure if they were meant to have a “field book sketch” look or if that was simply how they were reproduced, but they feel unfinished. Several of the maps have inconsistent shading that looks to be applied with pencil crayon and then scanned. It’s a minor detail, but noticeable, and some readers will find it distracting.
Depending on where you live, I’d suggest you consider borrowing a copy of the book before purchasing it. For east coast birders this book will be very relevant and might be worth a place on your bookshelf. Birders in other parts of North America might want to borrow it from a friend or library before purchasing it. You’ll be able to apply what you learn locally and the additional resources are useful. I’ll be passing this free review copy on to a beginning birder in the area and hopefully he’ll become a better birder because of it!