Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Book Review: National Geographic's Birding Essentials

National Geographic's Birding Essentials by Jonathan Alderfer and Jon L. Dunn bills itself as having "all the tools, techniques, and tips you need to begin and become a better birder." This book is in the same vein as Sibley's Birding Basics and Jack Connor's The Complete Birder.

From a design perspective, this book differs from Sibley and Connor by the use of photographs, as opposed to Sibley's drawings or Connor's limited sketches. The photos, provided by some of the best bird photographers around, are outstanding and, for the most part, convey the material in the book effectively.

"Essentials" is broken down into 8 major sections "Getting Started", "Status & Distribution", "Parts of a Bird", "How to Identify Birds", "Variation in Birds", "Identification Challenges", "Fieldcraft", and "Taxonomy & Nomenclature". These basically cover all the bases of the other books mentioned above, in some cases as an equal and in others not as much.

The "Getting Started" section covers the bases such as optics, field guides, and note taking sufficiently. "Status & Distribution" is pretty straightforward. It defines these terms and discusses how they can be used while birding to learn what to expect where and when and also what may be rare.

"Parts of a Bird" really gets down into the nitty gritty. The authors do a terrific job showing and explaining the parts of various different birds including gulls, ducks, shorebirds, sparrows, and raptors. This was a strong point of Sibley's book and tough to top. I prefer the line drawings that Sibley used because they allow you to truly see the different groups of feathers. Although, I prefer the detailed explanation of Birding Essentials.

"How to Identify Birds" takes you through the steps of identification through specific case studies. Topics include judging size, shape, plumage, behavior, and vocalizations. The case studies chosen are perfect. For example, Blue Grosbeak vs. Indigo Bunting is used as an example for judging size and Swainson's Hawk vs. Red-tailed Hawk is used for shape. Some topics include multiple examples. This section of the book really shines and I can see a beginner birder gaining a lot of insight from it.

Next is the "Variation in Birds" section which covers some of the more confusing areas of birding, namely molt, age variation, and feather wear. I've spoken to many advanced birders who tell me that they use Sibley's Birding Basics as a reference for molt and age variation. Birding Essentials does a comparable job explaining these topics, but could use a few more pictures for examples.

"Identification Challenges" discusses the challenges that many other books have tackled before such as terns, female mergansers, and pewees vs. empids. They are brief, to-the-point explanations that don't include photos in all instances. While these will introduce a beginner quickly to some of the challenges they can expect in the field, they are better covered elsewhere in books like The Complete Birder and Identify This.

The "Fieldcraft" section discusses the "how," "where," and "when" of birding. It's well-written, but perhaps should have been placed earlier in the book. The same goes for the "Taxonomy & Nomenclature" section. One big complaint I have is that the authors frequently use family names like "Alcid" and "Emberizid" freely before even covering them in this last section of the book. I fear that complex terminology like this can push away a beginner.

Even as an experienced birder, I enjoyed reading Birding Essentials. I learned a few things and found the photos outstanding. While the book doesn't have the casual and accessible language of Jack Connor's classic or the artistry of Sibley, Birding Essentials makes a perfect gateway for a person who is looking to go from a casual bird observer to a full-fledged birder.

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