Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Spot o' Sun

Winter Wrap-up

I’ve become a lot like my cats—
watching the world from a window,
waiting for a spot o’ sun.

Northern cardinal, male
Snow Day

mourning dove in winter

purple finch, female
Ice Storm

purple finch, male

white-throated sparrow

Spot o' Sun
American goldfinch, male

white-tailed deer

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Monday, February 14, 2011

Another bird book?

Hmmm, ...another bird book soon to be gracing the shelves of the bookstores around town—or so I thought, flipping through the glossy pages of the latest from Princeton University Press.
The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds, to be released in March 2011, boldly features the photographic excellence of Richard Crossley, a life-long lover of birds and admitted “twitcher,” as bird chasers from his native Britain are sometimes called. In 640 beautifully mastered composite plates assembled from over 10,000 single digital images, Crossley has created what he hopes will help us become better birders. Another bird book, a revolutionary guide…really?

With technological prowess, Richard Crossley has taken advantage of the digital revolution to create a guide featuring scenes of different habitats loaded with multiple views of the represented bird—“near, far and everything in between.” Close-ups often show the bird in as much detail as if it were perched on your windowsill, while, in the same scene, a flock of the same forages at the distant horizon or flies silhouetted against the sky. There may be dozens of birds in different plumages, different poses, all scattered across the page—and at first glance, I was confused as to what to do with them all! Hidden in tall spikes of teasel or plucking thistle down from messy, matted seed heads, 17 American Goldfinches looked back at me from one page. Isn’t a field guide supposed to show me a nice, clean picture, and point to some clear field mark so I know what to look for?

American Goldfinch
photo courtesy Crossley Books, Princeton University Press

In desperation, I turned to the Introduction.
Crossley implores the reader, “please, please, do read on,” for his description of the Guide and its revolutionary approach are nothing like those of the other guides already stacked on my shelf. Several paragraphs later, the purpose for his new Guide became clear.
Instantly, I’ve become a big fan.

Crossley’s intent is to create an interactive experience—involve a birder of any skill level in the active practice of field skills without their ever having to leave home. By studying the 3 or 4 large, captioned images on each page, the reader should then be able to apply and hone their own skills of observation to successfully identify the age and sex of the smaller images in the background--those more like what would be seen in real life.

Black and white warbler
photo courtesy Crossley Books, Princeton University Press

Warblers peek from beneath leafy boughs, sparrows blend into bushy backgrounds. Learning to look at the size and shape, behavior, probability and color of these stationary birds (which are all miraculously in focus in the composite habitat photograph!) develops in the reader, a skill in seeing, which later can be transferred to experiences in the field. The fact that this guide is a little too large to carry comfortably in a backpack, only reinforces Crossley’s suggestion that it be thought of as a workbook, rather than a reference for birding in the field.

photo courtesy Crossley Books, Princeton University Press

While the photography is clearly center stage in this new Guide, I especially appreciated lengthy sections within the introductory text on bird topography, molt, and a discussion of eclipse plumage! (You’ll be hard pressed to find more than a one-line glossary entry of this in most other bird guides) Alpha codes, the shorthand form of common names used by bird-banders, are included as well, both in the index and within each species account. Bravo!

Barred Owl
photo courtesy Crossley Books, Princeton University Press

Rather than the taxonometric order found in many other guides, The Crossley Guide arranges species according to habitat and physical similarity. What is logical in a practical sense, however, results in some confusing chapter headings, such as Walking Waterbirds or Aerial Landbirds.
For each species account, a distribution map is included. In an effort to more clearly illustrate the bird’s actual size, in addition to its measurement in inches, 16 pages at the beginning of the Guide show smaller photographs of the birds as they compare to each other.

It’s a typical February day here in southern Ohio—lifeless and brown all around. Our spring is still weeks away. But, with my trusty heater blasting warmth toward my toes, I sit and stare at page 203, White Ibis. Afternoon sun has cast shadows onto the rippled water where the long-legged waders stand probing in the shallows of the beach.
In the distance, a couple walks hand in hand toward sunset.
It’s not just another bird book.
It’s an inexpensive birding vacation.

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Friday, February 4, 2011

Have you seen...

In a moment of both delight and dismay, I stooped to pick up a small form barely larger than the clothespins tucked into my pocket, as it lay wet and dirtied in the center of the yard just feet beyond the clothesline.
A little bird, strangely fallen with no obvious explanation as to how it had happened to lay there, motionless in the dampened grass.
I turned it over in my hand, the cold and small, soggy, brown lump.
And felt a wave of regret wash past as I tipped his lifeless head to one side and found a long, slender, recurved bill—my brown creeper.

Brown Creeper

Long past saving, this little winter visitor from the north would become the morning’s study, the star of a bird-in-the-hand moment.
One, that with every regret, left me to marvel at each quiet detail.

His long, thin bill easily picks small insects or spiders from the crevices in the bark, while his stiff and strong tail feathers create a prop, much like those of a woodpecker.

Long hind-toenails are handy for one who spends the day spiraling up a tree trunk, dropping to the bottom of the next tree and climbing upward again.

Cryptically colored feathers and round shape make him look like a knot on the bark as he creeps or like a faded, falling leaf.

Although he may fluff himself against the cold, the brown creeper is easily one of the smallest residents of my winter woods, weighing just a little more than a hummingbird!

"Have you seen...." is an effort to discover the unusual beauty in things not usually appreciated for their beauty.

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