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ABOUT ME - My name is Amy and I'm a birder living in central Florida. On this blog I post book and birding product reviews as well as birder gift ideas and announcements related to my birder gift shop on this site. I also have a personal birding blog called Powered By Birds.
Blog DisclosureUnless otherwise stated, all books and other products reviewed on this blog were purchased or independently acquired by the reviewer. Readers who make a purchase by clicking on links in product reviews or featured t-shirt posts (T-Shirt Tuesday) may result in the blogger receiving a commission or referral fee.
Archive: Book Review
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The Warbler Guide by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle. Published 2013. As reviewed and pictured: Flexibound, 560 pages.
I used to read travel guides cover to cover. They aren’t really meant to be read that way, but I enjoyed planning future holidays so much that I couldn’t help myself.
When I started birding, I began to accumulate books on birding. Unlike the travel guides, I never read a field guide all the way through. With even my favorites, only the introductory sections got my full attention, while the species accounts were browsed through at leisure or certain sections studied only when I needed them.
New this year, The Warbler Guide turned out to be a genuine page-turner for this birder.
Before the species accounts begin, the authors delve into identification tricks and tips, first covering “What to notice on a warbler”. This goes deeper than the typical topographical bird maps found in most guides. A lot of pages are devoted to learning warbler songs, calls, and chip notes, including in-depth instruction on reading and understanding sonograms.
Before getting to the species accounts, there are some great “quick-finder” keys. These are available as independent free downloads from publisher Princeton University Press: Downloadable Warbler Guide Quick Finders. In the book and as separate print-outs they are an effective way to quickly scan for a bird, with several view choices available depending on how much of the bird’s body you managed to observe.
The species accounts themselves are as in-depth as you’d expect in a quality family-only guide. Photos of full and limited views are accompanied by detailed ID tips, including habitat, foraging technique, behaviors, and more. When plumage differences exist between sexes or ages, they are treated independently — with distinctive views and comparison species shared per plumage.
The Quiz and Review section at the back of the book is a great way to use the skills and techniques shared in the preceding pages. A couple of additional quick-finder style indexes are also found towards the back of the book: warblers in flight and warblers in silhouette. All of this and much more make The Warbler Guide an outstanding family-only resource for birders looking beyond their general field guide. I give The Warbler Guide 5 Goldfinches out of 5.
Disclosure: This is my own original, honest review of The Warbler Guide, a copy of which was provided to me free of charge by the publisher.
City of Ravens: The Extraordinary History of London, the Tower and its Famous Ravens by Boria Sax. Published 2011. As reviewed and pictured: hardcover, 206 pages.
Any landmark with as much history as the famous Tower of London should surely have a folklore full of tall tales, exaggerations, and outright lies. In City of Ravens, Boria Sax delves into the convoluted story of a group of “longtime” castle residents: the Tower Ravens.
Superstition says that there must be at least six Common Ravens in residence at the Tower at all times, else very bad things will happen to Britain (ie crown and country will fall).
Author Sax explores the true history of the resident birds, from the popular story of their beginnings in the 17th century, to their documented, known first occurrence in the Tower some two hundred plus years later. In the book we learn about the natural history of Common Ravens in the United Kingdom as we follow the metamorphosis of their legendary status at the Tower.
Though interesting, I thought the language in the book was a bit too academic at times to be a truly enjoyable read all the way through. Some passages were a bit tough to get past, but overall I did like this book. I certainly learned a lot about the famous avian residents of the Tower of London! I give City of Ravens: The Extraordinary History of London, the Tower and its Famous Ravens 3.5 Goldfinches out of 5.
Disclosure: This is my own original, honest review of City of Ravens, a copy of which was provided to me free of charge by the publisher.
Wisdom, The Midway Albatross: Surviving the Japanese Tsunami and other Disasters for over 60 Years by Darcy Pattinson and Kitty Harvill (art). Published 2012. As reviewed and pictured: softcover, 32 pages.
It’s rather uncommon for an individual wild bird to be so well known that it becomes a media sensation, but that is what happened (again) earlier this month when a very special Laysan Albatross known as Wisdom successfully hatched an egg this breeding season. Why is she so famous? Wisdom was first banded as an adult bird back in 1956 — making her at least 62 years old in 2013. She is the oldest known living wild bird.
Wisdom has survived all of the threats facing a wild bird in the world today, and then some. She has flown at least 2 million miles during her lifetime. She has probably laid over 35 eggs, raising many chicks to fledge. For the last six years (and likely much longer), she has nested on Midway Atoll. She and her precious chick survived the destructive earthquake-triggered tsunami of 2011.
This remarkable bird is the subject of a wonderful illustrated children’s book, Wisdom, the Midway Albatross. The book, subtitled Surviving the Japanese Tsunami and other Disasters for over 60 Years, tells Wisdom’s story and spells out many of the man-made and natural threats that she has faced and overcome. Wisdom’s remarkable story is accompanied by beautiful watercolor illustrations.
The theme of the book is survival, with threats ranging from plastic pollution in the ocean and scary stormy weather explained in simple but scientifically accurate language appropriate for young children. The environmental message is especially very clear without being too overbearing. The conclusion to each interlude is always the same – the positive message that Wisdom has survived.
I think this is a great picture book with a positive message to share with children. I give Wisdom 5 Goldfinches out of 5.
Disclosure: This is my own original, honest review of Wisdom, a copy of which was provided to me free of charge by the publisher.
How to Be a Better Birder by Derek Lovitch. Published 2012. As reviewed and pictured: softcover, 192 pages.
I haven’t been out birding as much as I would like lately. That means it has been very good time to catch up on my bird reading. What better place to start than this book with its no-nonsense title?
Unfortunately for me, the last weeks have not been my first birding drought. During times like these, I start to feel like I’ve read a lot more about birding than I’ve actually done it. Therefore, a few concepts covered in How to Be a Better Birder were very familiar to me – at least in theory, if not already in practice. The book is divided into nine chapters, covering topics like Birding by Habitat, Birding with a Purpose, and Patch Listing. Lovitch covers all the bases for anyone looking to improve their craft, no matter the personal birding goals.
There’s no denying the wealth of resources available to birders online. This is true of any pastime (or anything at all) today, I suppose, but still it’s refreshing to read a book where the author embraces these sources rather than pretending they don’t exist. Lovitch does a great job of explaining topics using real-world personal examples while offering links to websites for further study. This is perhaps most evident in the chapter which covers Birding and Weather. Here, Lovitch provides detailed instructions on how to use several different online sources to further understand how weather patterns impact bird movements (a topic much too great to be discussed in depth in the book) and how to use modern tools to plan birding outings no matter where one is located.
I was also especially interested in the last chapter in the book, which covered Patch Listing. Patch listing is something I have really come to embrace since moving to Florida last year. This last chapter in the book ties together all of the skills and concepts laid out in the previous chapters, and spells out how they can all be applied to local patch birding to improve a birder’s overall skill.
Lovitch writes in a familiar tone which makes even the most technical topics easy to follow and understand. Each chapter discusses skills that build upon previous concepts, tying everything neatly together in the end. I feel like I learned some new general skills, and I am looking forward to trying out some of the weather/radar and other topics just as soon as I can get out regularly birding again!
I enjoyed reading this book and highly recommend it to other birders who want to go further in this hobby. I did find a few editorial errors (typos, unclosed parentheses, etc) a bit distracting, for which I am deducting a half star. Therefore, I give How to Be a Better Birder 4.5 Goldfinches out of 5.
Disclosure: This is my own original, honest review of How to Be a Better Birder, a copy of which was provided to me free of charge by the publisher.
Birds of India by Richard Grimmett, Carol Inskipp, and Tim Inskipp. Published March 7, 2012. As reviewed and pictured: softcover, 528 pages.
In early 2006, Arthur and I visited Rajasthan in India for a much-too-short 20 days. We were interested in visiting both cultural sights and natural wonders, but we weren’t into birds as much as we are today. During our tour of the Rajasthan region, we visited a few nature reserves and saw some amazing birds, but in the end our list of species seen there totals a rather pathetic-by-“birding”-standards 55.
The photos below do not do justice to the beautiful printing work of this book. I have included them to give readers an idea of how the pages are laid out and a general idea of the quality of the artwork, which is very, very good. Unlike my rather drab photos, the actual pages of the book pop with their white backgrounds and detailed color images.
Ever since that trip, I have longed to return, because I just love Indian culture, Indian food, Indian people. Naturally, I’d spend more time looking for birds the second time around. In the meantime, I have the fabulous new updated Birds of India to fuel my birding dreams and to help me create a wishlist / itinerary.
The guide covers the birdlife of the entire Indian Subcontinent, and is subtitled “Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives.”
Besides the standard how-to-use-this-guide information at the start of the book, there is a helpful section describing subcontinent specifics such as major habitat types, climate, and conservation threats to the birds covered in the guide. A map shows the impressive number of BirdLife International Important Bird Areas of the subcontinent; there are 465 in India alone.
The bulk of the book consists, naturally, of species accounts. There are a whopping 1,375 species listed, illustrated, and described. The text accounts are accompanied by range maps on the same page, with the color plates opposite – the best layout for a guide meant to be used in the field. Identification details are listed, with vocalization and habitat/habits listed separately for each species. Details about taxonomy and alternative names are also noted separately when applicable.
Although illustrated by nineteen different talented artists, the color plates generally fit together seamlessly. The backgrounds are uniformly white, with little foliage or other habitat information included in the illustrations.
The paintings themselves are detailed and mostly very pleasing to study. I did have a little problem with the plates illustrating the swift families as well as the martin and swallow families. The images seem a little “rough” to my eye, and I wish they were a bit larger on the page to show more detail.
Appendixes list a further 80+ vagrant species (also illustrated) and 30+ doubtful species. A single handy index lists both scientific (italicized) and common species names.
Birds of India is another fine field guide from publisher Princeton Field Guides. The quality of the color plates and the amount of detailed information packed into this relatively compact field guide make this a top title for anyone interested in birds of the Indian Subcontinent and a must for any birder traveling to the region. I give Birds of India 4.5 Goldfinches out of 5.
Disclosure: This is my own original, honest review of Birds of India, a copy of which was provided to me free of charge by the publisher.
In the Company of Birds by Linda Johns. First published 1995. As reviewed and pictured: hardcover, 122 pages.
I’ve never had a pet bird, or had more than short visits with pet birds of friends or family. Over time in 2010 and 2011 I was lucky enough to spend some time with the education birds at Flint Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation. These birds are absolutely not pets, but as a volunteer handler I had the chance to get to know them, just a bit. I have seen more experienced handlers in the company of these majestic raptors, and I am amazed at the relationships that can develop between human and bird. I can only hope to become as well-acquainted with avian friends as my fellow volunteers were.
Author Linda Johns is fortunate enough to have gotten to intimately know many avian friends. In her book In the Company of Birds she tells of some of her feathered companions, both pets and rehabilitation patients, many of whom share her home with her for an extended period. Pigeons Desmond and Molly, along with regular resident roosters Bubble and Squeak (raised from chickhood), are joined at various times by a starling, a duck, a grackle, an owl, and others. The stories of these individual birds are intertwined as the birds grow up and some transition from patient to wild and free visitor.
The detailed stories of the birds’ personal lives are fun to follow. Bubble and Squeak’s coming of age tales are a particular joy to read. Not all rehabilitation stories have happy endings, and the author honestly shares her successes and well as her failures. While I enjoyed reading about the various birds, their unique personalities, and about the hilarious predicaments in which the author frequently finds herself as a result of her avian charges, one part of the book fell a bit flat with me. Besides being an author and wild bird rehabber, Linda Johns is a fine artist, and throughout the book she presents avian situations as inspiration for her artwork. I couldn’t really follow the paragraphs where Johns translates her connection with the birds to her artwork, even when said artwork is reproduced in the pages of the book. These ties between bird spirituality and artwork didn’t come up so frequently to sour me on the book completely, though.
In the end I found this to be an enjoyable slice-of-rehabber-life read, and I give In the Company of Birds 3.5 Goldfinches out of 5.
Tales of a Low-Rent Birder by Pete Dunne. First published 1986. As reviewed and pictured: softcover, 157 pages.
Pete Dunne’s Tales of a Low-Rent Birder is subtitled 19 Flight of Fancy by America’s Second-Best-Known Bird-watcher. The book’s forward comes from the best-known birder of the time, Roger Tory Peterson. Low-Rent Birder republishes 19 essays and articles which first appeared in birding newsletters and magazines from 1977 to 1985.
While I have thoroughly enjoyed other Dunne works, I found the 19 pieces in this book to be hit or miss, with more misses than hits. I love the poetic style he uses for factual essays, as in the wonderful “Overflight,” which recounts an epic day of shorebird surveying over Delaware Bay via small aircraft. I could feel the excitement in the plane when staggering numbers of birds were spotted on Moore’s Beach. Dunne also has a fantastic way of infusing humor into birding stories. I enjoyed “Birdathon ’83 — A Saab Story” — but then I’m a sucker for an exciting Big Day tale. Another enjoyable piece is “First-Year Bird,” which remarkably brings the reader in to the intimate world of a young and struggling Red-shouldered Hawk, without anthropomorphizing her at all.
Whether told with tongue in cheek or not, the non-fiction essays are by far the most enjoyable in the book. However, several of the fictionalized tales fell flat for me. There is “SVAT,” a fantastical story about the Species Verification Attack Team, a division of PABLUM, the Pure American Bird Listers Uber-Membership. At nearly 23 pages, its one of the longer stories in the book. With bad German accents and ridiculous character interactions, this was a struggle to read in its entirety. “The Legend of Jesse Mew” is another unsuccessful piece. Here we learn the story of a legendary Peregrine Falcon spotter, a man whose eyes are deformed, “the result of incalculable hours spent looking into the sun for towering Peregrines.” Another goofy fiction tale that I just didn’t enjoy at all.
So while I would gladly give a 5-finch rating to several stories, others barely warrant 1. Overall, then, I give Tales of a Low-Rent Birder 2.5 Goldfinches out of 5.
My birding library grew by leaps and bounds in 2011, with a high number of books acquired and a very short list of books traded out. In 2011 I only managed to review 11 books (out of a goal of 20) and got rid of less than that. *gulp!* Here’s where those 11 came from, and where they are now.
Received from publisher [4/4 remain in library]
Received via PaperBackSwap or BookMooch [1/4 remain in library]
The Atlas of Birds: Diversity, Behavior, and Conservation by Mike Unwin. First published 2011. As reviewed and pictured: softcover, 144 pages.
The Atlas of Birds is an engaging book that covers a huge amount of information on bird diversity and distribution, avian life cycles, bird conservation, and much more, in a relatively small volume.
The book is divided into eight parts, each filled with short two-page articles on a wide range of bird topics. The subjects are covered generally, with specific examples emphasized by photographs, maps, charts, and illustrations.
The information is interesting and presented in a visually appealing way and in a comfortable tone, and in this way the book is a great introduction to a wide variety of avian topics. However, it is just an introduction and many of the short articles will surely leave most engaged readers wanting more.
For example, just two pages devoted to the entire life cycle of all birds (“From Egg to Adult”) is surely not enough, though the specific examples (paternal care of Emperor Penguins, Mallefowl incubation chambers, etc) are truly interesting and informative.
That said, as someone with a huge and still growing interest in almost all things avian, I really enjoyed going through this book. Many of the bite-size articles prompted me to seek further information. In my case it’s easy to turn to other books already in my library; others could just as easily turn to the Internet for further exploring on most of the topics presented in the book.
The Atlas of Birds is a great introduction to a huge range of topics related to birds, including life cycle, habitat, distribution, and conservation. Young or budding birders will appreciate the short articles and engaging graphics; more experienced bird lovers will enjoy the variety of topics presented in an appealing way. I give The Atlas of Birds 4.5 Goldfinches out of 5.
Disclosure: This is my own original, honest review of The Atlas of Birds, a copy of which was provided to me free of charge by the publisher.