Monthly Archives: February 2014

Book Reviews (Feb 2014), Part II


Part I, which includes The World’s Rarest Birds, Lost Animals: Extinction and the Photographic Record, and Birdwatcher: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson can be found here.

Rare Birds of North America by Steve N.G. Howell, Ian Lewington, and Will Russell.

This long-awaited and much-anticipated book “offers the first complete synthesis of the occurrence and distribution of” every vagrant recorded in North American through July of 2011.  These birds aren’t necessarily rare in a global context as with “World’s Rarest Birds” but they are most certainly rare in the United States (not including Hawai’i) and Canada.

The meat of the book is the species accounts, covering 262 species from around the world.   First and foremost – and certainly the most eye-catching aspect – is the artwork.  This book marks North American unveiling of the remarkable artwork of Ian Lewington, and for many readers, it will be the first introduction to one of the best bird artists of our time.  Simply put, the plates are gorgeous.  The birds appear amazingly life-like, yet technically sound.  There is a lot of detail, but they are not exaggerated schematics. In addition to be a sheer joy to look at, they are incredibly accurate and useful depictions that will go a long way in aiding identification, especially in cases where they are  – and fostering appreciation.  For many of these birds, these are the definitive drawings, and in some cases far surpassing the rendition in those species’ “home” field guides.  The traveling birder will gain a lot of information from studying the plates in this book when heading to that respective corner of the world.  Some of the best and most helpful plates are when similar species are painted side-by-side (such as with many of the albatrosses) and/or on adjacent pages (as with Willow Warbler, Common Chiffchaff, and Wood Warbler).

For each species account, there’s a short analysis of world distribution, North American records and their patterns, and a discussion of taxonomy. The catch-all “Comments” section includes discussions ranging from origin and patterns to unanswered questions. Not surprisingly, I enjoyed the various postulations about patterns and provenance. And last but certainly not least is the “Field Identification” section, which might be one of the most important for people who want to find these rare birds.  If you think you have discovered a new state record, this is probably the first place to go to confirm your identification, for example.  I found it quite helpful when “similar species” were thoroughly compared, although at times, I felt that the authors skipped over potential confusion species, especially when those confusion species were very real and regular features of birding discussions (i.e. domestic waterfowl and bona fide Graylag Geese; considering how often domestic geese are reported as true Graylags, it seems ridiculous to claim “Similar species: none if seen well.”)  But these complaints are relatively few.

My one over-arching quibble with the text is simply a pet-peeve of mine: the use of counties as the sole reference to rare bird records.  I have no problem with the specific locations of the records being left out (the ABA Checklist is a quick and easy place to find that info) but it seems to me that counties are one of the least valuable references.  Perhaps out West, where counties are the size of eastern states, this reference is more useful from a geographic standpoint, but in many parts of the East, in our small counties with irregular borders, many birders probably don’t even know what county they are standing in at a given time.  So why not be just a little more specific?  For example, when looking at the entry for Variegated Flycatcher, type in “York   County, Maine” to Google Maps or your favorite mapping website or software.  OK, you have an idea as to where in Maine the bird was.  Now, type in “Biddeford, Maine,” the town the bird was in.  I bet it won’t take much time (especially after reading the intro material!) to picture where this bird probably occurred – that long, narrow peninsula that sticks straight out into the water…yup, that’s where the bird was.  In other words, towns/townships/territories (or counties in unincorporated areas when necessary) provide a whole lot more information and more specifics with little additional information, space, or even typed characters: In this case “Biddeford” is two characters shorter than “York County” but provides a significant amount more of information and relevance geographically.

While the vast majority of the book is the species accounts, the introductory material is far from superfluous. In fact, it should not be missed.  In addition to the utilitarian aspects of using the book and defining exactly what a “rare bird” is, the instructive sections “Migration and Vagrancy in Birds” and “Where do North American Vagrants Come from?” are chock full of useful and interesting information about the mechanisms and geographic origins, respectively, that produces the “Mega” rarities that birding dreams are made of.  The “Molt and Aging” section is a concise introduction to this complicated topic, but one that is often important to identifying vagrants and their origin.

I must, however, disagree with their use of the term “reverse migrant” in the section “Migration and Vagrancy in Birds” to describe what is more accurately referred to as “180-degree misorientation” or “reverse misorientation” (which the entry confusingly uses in a couple of instances).   Reverse migrant is usually used to describe an entirely different phenomena where birds – from few to massive flocks – undertake a seasonally-opposite movement based on local and current conditions.  For example, a warm spell in the fall might cause thousands of swallows to move north along the west coast, or a cold snap could send Red-winged Blackbirds in a southbound retreat in spring.  These are not “mistakes” by a few as misorientation suggests, but rather a coordinated response to seasonal conditions and its impact on food supplies, regardless of age and experience.

This book is a must-own for any student of vagrancy and rare birds, and it helps to teach everyone how to find more rare birds.  Meanwhile, birders of all levels will simply appreciate flipping through its pages and marveling at Lewington’s artwork and the unbelievable diversity of species that is out there waiting for us.

The Devil’s Cormorant: A Natural History by Richard J. King. (University Press of New England, 2013).

I saved the best for last. In fact, this is one of the best natural (and cultural) history books that I have read in quite some time. Various species of cormorants are found on all continents (yes, including Antarctica) and in all corners of the world, we find these birds to be vilified, hated, and sometimes even cherished.

The author seamlessly integrates fascinating hard science and extensive research with personal anecdotes from his cormorant-centric travels around the world. At the same time, he explores the interaction between humans and these birds.  From the sacred cormorant fishing in Japan to the guano deposits of Peru, we see how cormorants are an important part of some cultures.  On the other hand, from the catfish farms Louisiana to the stocked fishing holes of England, we see how people have come to misunderstand or even downright hate – and often woefully mis-manage – cormorants. The author does an excellent job of remaining objective even when explaining human actions that seem completely insane and inane, but strives to educate the reader about the realities – including when the realities are negative for the cormorant.

During the course of the year, the author follows the life of the Double-crested Cormorants breeding on a small island in Long Island Sound, through all of the trials and tribulations of surviving in a cruel, unforgiving world.  In between, he travels the globes to get to know others species on an intimate level, from spending time with researchers to visiting museums.  I particularly enjoyed his self-deprecating and humorous portrayal of his visit to the Natural History Museum in Tring, England and his travels through the population and species of the “blue-eyed shag group” of the sub-Antarctic, a trip that I have had the privilege of experiencing.

Personally and professionally, I find myself often defending the cormorant, rejecting the vitriol directed towards it. Heck, we even have a giant photograph of the face of a Double-crested Cormorant on our dining room wall: a face that includes a vivid turquoise-green eye – that I feel is one of the most beautiful colors in the world – and the bright and vivid orange facial skin and gular patch that contrasts magnificently with the dark black feathering, the dirty gray and flaky, “ugly-looking” imposing bill.  In other words, I was exceptionally happy when a friend of mine handed me a copy of this book.  It’s a fair treatment of the cormorant – and like most things, when nature is treated fairly, the natural world – including its cormorants – is defended.  I guarantee you will have a new-found understanding and appreciation for this remarkable group of birds.

Of course, most of these titles are available at Freeport Wild Bird Supply, and a shipment of A Devil’s Cormorant has just arrived and is the featured “Derek’s Choice” at the moment.  Also, look for our next installment of “Birds, Books, and Beers” to feature Will Russell, co-author of Rare Birds to take place in early May.  More on that soon.

And speaking of new, “must-have” books, the new and completely updated Sibley Guide is coming out in March!  We’re currently taking discounted pre-orders here at the store.

Scarborough through South Portland: Signs of Spring!

I decided to blog about my birding outing today, if only to give people a little hope that spring is around the corner. As temperatures plummet once again this week, perhaps the knowledge that spring migration has actually begun will provide a little comfort…and warmth.

Phil McCormack and I birded from Scarborough Marsh into South Portland today, enjoying a very spring-like day (highs in the mid-40’s) and some great birding. A few “new arrivals” and continuing wintering species combined for a respectably tally of 54 species without trying – and with ending our birding at 1:30.

We began on the Eastern Road Trail. Within mere seconds of saying to Phil, “I expect some early migrant waterfowl like pintail and Gadwall today,” three drake Northern Pintails came cruising by. I love the look of pintails in flight; they’re so elegant.  The long tail, thin neck, and long, relatively narrow wings suggest a miniature loon, and they have one spiffy pattern. The sense of spring really kicked in when a Killdeer sounded off and came cruising in to an exposed muddy bank – my first of the spring, and a bit on the early side considering the abundant snow cover.

A pair of Gadwall (first of the year – although they were actually southbound) flew over Pine Point, as did at least one Snow Bunting.  Twenty-eight Common Loons were in the channel, while over on Western Beach, the dredging operation was pumping sand onto the beach, collecting a nice concentration of gulls.  Sifting through them yielded two 1st-winter Iceland and 1 1st-winter Glaucous Gull.  American Robins – overwintering birds, not northbound spring migrants – were widespread today, with a high count of 50-75 around Seavey’s Landing.

Rounding the north side of the marsh, we checked a couple of neighborhoods for frugivores, before arriving at Kettle Cove.  At Two Lights State Park, a raft of 150 Black Scoter loafed offshore, with 18 Harlequin Ducks in the surf.  A Porcupine at the edge of the parking lot was the star of the show, however.

Ten more Harlequin Ducks and a Northern Shrike (an immature; my 6th of the winter) at Dyer Point were signs of the continuing winter, but a Black Guillemot in full breeding plumage was suggestive of the advancing season.

Moving into South  Portland, a Red-bellied Woodpecker was among the usual denizens at Trout Brook Preserve, but Mill Creek and Mill Creek Cove were hopping!  286 Mallards and a growing legion of American Black Ducks were joined by a single drake Green-winged Teal, our third “FOY” of the day!  Meanwhile, the gull turnover in the cove eventually amounted to eight 1st-winter Iceland Gulls and two or three 1st-winter Glaucous Gulls.

But perhaps our last stop provided the “bird of the day:”
lunch…the fried chicken and waffle from Hot Suppa!

Book Reviews (Feb 2014), Part I.


I don’t usually review books in this blog, but there has been such a plethora of offerings recently that deserve a word or two. We are most definitely in the Golden Age of bird books, from field guides to natural history tomes to coffee-table picture books. Like many birders, I read a lot more in the winter, and this winter has provided ample opportunity to stay inside with a good book – at least between visits with Snowy Owls and white-winged gulls! This is what I have been reading of late.  I’ll post it in two parts.

The World’s Rarest Birds by Erik Hirschfeld, Andy Swash, and Robert Still (Princeton University Press, 2103).

Wow, simply wow. Sobering and inspiring, exciting and depressing, this is a comprehensive treatment of the 590 Endangered and Critically Endangered species from around the globe – the world’s rarest birds. Increasing awareness is the first step to improving the conservation odds of many of these poorly-known and highly imperiled species.

515 photographs plus 75 paintings cover each species, and each species entry includes estimates of population size, threats, and a paragraph of interesting and important natural history information. It’s impressive to just flip through the pages and marvel at the wonders of avian diversity, but then to step back and contemplate the myriad of threads that will dictate whether or not future generations will have these birds to marvel at.

Each biogeographic region begins with a stunning photograph before getting to work, with pages dedicated to geography, conservation challenges (general and specific), threatened bird hotspots, and a summary of the most threatened bird families. The introductory material to the book is equally chock-full of valuable information, including yet more stunning photography, discussions of each of the threats, and calls for conservation.

This book is a must-have for all birders and any nature lovers who care about conservation and appreciate the wonders of biodiversity. And hopefully, inspire you to act to keep this list from getting any larger.

Lost Animals: Extinction and the Photographic Record by Errol Fuller. (PrincetonUniversity Press, 2013).

In contrast to The World’s Rarest Birds, this is not directly a call to action. For these 28 bird and mammal species, it is too late. They are gone. Extinction is forever. One could easily get depressed from reading this book, and it is a real challenge to fight off some tears, especially when reading the supportive text that explains the circumstances of the species extinction and the last known photos. The photographs are evocative, and Errol’s engaging and accessible text tells a small part of the species story for posterity.

I particularly appreciated his blunt but accurate assessment of the false report of the rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Hope is a great thing, but hope is not science.  I sure do hope that this bird still exists, but there’s no scientific evidence that it does. False hope is not always helpful, and takes conservation attention – and funding – away from the existent species that need it the most.

The final section of the book is an appendix which features artwork of some of the birds featured in the book whose photographs are of low quality.  There is something about a photograph – an actual moment in time caught forever on a piece of film – that is more haunting than colorful artwork showing a species in its full glory.  Considering many of these birds are painted by referencing specimens (which in some cases added to the journey to extinction) doesn’t help, either.  However, some of the art is truly fantastic, and historical in their own right…and certainly part of the stories of these lost species.

It’s important to learn and understand history so that we don’t repeat it. There are 590 species in The World’s Rarest Birds that could conceivably end up in the next edition of this book. Are you willing to let this happen without a fight?  I for one, most definitely am not.  Lost Animals can be taken as nothing more than a history book summarizing some of what is lost.  Instead, I hope you will be motivated by it and help to prevent a second volume.

Birdwatcher: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson by Elizabeth Rosenthal (The Lyons Press, 2008).

Yes, this is an older book, but one I simply never read until recently when a friend passed on a copy. Roger Tory Peterson (RTP) was a revolutionary. Without him and his field guide(s), many of us would not be birders. Like many birders, I started with a “Peterson’s,” and he was the single inspiration for the next several generations of birders, bird artists, and field guides.

Exhaustively researched, the other chronicles the life of this great man. In addition to being an artist, birder, and photographer, he was also an inspiring conservationist.  Like me, if you consider yourself a “fan” of RTP, you need to read this book to find out more about his remarkable life.

Unfortunately, I found it a real challenge to get through, despite my desire to learn more about him. The book is overwhelmingly a compilation of quotations from people who knew RTP or were inspired by him. While this was quite interesting, I found the extensive use of quotes – including nearly page-sized block quotes with small italicized font – a bit of a challenge to read and follow. More paraphrasing and synthesis of the quotes in the author’s gentle prose would have made this an easier read.

I was also left looking for a deeper dive into RTP’s creative process, including how he goes about his art, his chosen materials, and his philosophies. I also felt the bias in the book was slightly overwhelming, such as what at times felt like an attempt to give RTP nearly sole credit in beginning the conservation movement (yes, he was a large part of it, especially in an indirect way) and the book basically blew off his critics and detractors as mere “haters,” which for the most part is unfair.

RTP is worth knowing, understanding, and appreciating – and this book will definitely help you do that.  My criticisms are mostly based on a style preference, and although I found it very hard for me to read and get “into,” the wealth of information kept me motivated to the end.

In Part II, which I will post next week, I’ll review Rare Birds of North America and The Devil’s Cormorant.

Gull Identification Workshop Wrap-Up

You may have noticed that my blog has been a little quiet in the last couple of weeks.  Mostly, that has been due to my birding being mostly about photographing gulls every chance I get! And in between, accumulating and sorting photos from friends.  What was planned to be a 95-slide PowerPoint program became an exhaustive (literally), 180+ slide dissertation.  Not only was I impressed by how many people signed up, but how many stayed until the bitter end – even though I strongly urged people who were new to this to depart before the section on Thayer’s Gulls and hybrids!

Come Sunday morning, 13 people joined me for the field session of the two-day workshop – no doubt reduced by the 12-degree temperatures that greeted us to start the day. We began with close studies of the various ages of Ring-billed Gulls at Back Cove…aided by a little “incentive,” of course.
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Sorting through Herring Gulls was up next, and then we made our way over to the Fish Pier in OldPort, for some “real” gulling.  And it did not disappoint. The endless variation of “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gulls was readily apparent with eleven 1st-winter, two 2nd-winter, and 2 adults – many of them close and in direct contrast with each other. A total of three 1st-winter Glaucous Gulls were added to the mix, along with ample opportunities to practice aging Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls.
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I really couldn’t ask for anything more…well, I could, and of course, did. And shortly thereafter a particular gull-of-interest put in an appearance. Widely being reported as a Thayer’s Gull, this odd individual was a bird I wanted to study closely (Jeannette and I only saw it in the distance on Tuesday), and it was indeed a very instructive bird for a gull workshop.  Having been looking at thousands of gull photos over the last two weeks, I have been a bit negligent with studying and addressing this bird.  Besides, I had not seen it in the field and even some very good photos are of secondary value to time with a bird in the field.

Doug Hitchcox got some decent photos of the bird on Sunday, but the best photos to date have been from Noah Gibb. I will therefore use these photos as our reference.




One of my take-home messages during my workshop is that a good “guller” has to be able to say “I don’t know,” and leave some individuals as “Gull sp.” This is probably the best answer to this bird, but what I think we can say is that this cannot be “counted” as a Thayer’s Gull.

For better or for worse, Thayer’s Gulls on the East Coast receive extensive scrutiny.  Birds that would be passed over in coastal California are analyzed to death in New England. Likewise, birds that look like “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gulls on the West Coast get extensive scrutiny, while here in Maine we pass some of these off as typical variation.  And I think this is a good thing – rare birds are rare, and vagrants to opposite coasts should warrant extreme care.

Therefore, this current rash of “Thayer’s Fever” – a common affliction of East Coast gull-watchers – needs to be tempered a bit. There is a reason that there are only two accepted records ever in Maine of this challenging, and variable, species. Therefore, extreme caution is necessary when placing this desirable label on funky gulls.

Like the Shawmut Dam gull reported by many as a Thayer’s a few weeks ago, I believe that the Portland “Thayer’s” is well outside the range of variation of what we can accept as a bona-fide Thayer’s Gull on the East Coast.  While there are a number of characteristics that suggest this bird could be a Thayer’s, there are a number of significant “strikes” against it.  While I think the Shawmut Dam birds suggests a Iceland-Thayer’s intergrade (I am not going to get into the muddled and controversial taxonomy here today), the Portland bird looks to me more like an abnormally dark-winged “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gull. Sure there could be Thayer’s genes in there…which there probably are in all Kumlien’s Gulls . . .oh wait, I said I wasn’t going to get into taxonomy.  Never mind.  Moving on.

So where was I? Oh yes… while the dark secondary bar (and upon closer inspection showing a distinct contrast between dark outer webs and pale inner webs) and the similarly distinctly two-toned outer primaries are important Thayer’s features, there are a serious amount of non-Thayer’s like features shown by this bird. Again, like the Shawmut Dam bird, there are just too many things “wrong” with this bird to safely label it a Thayer’s Gull, in my opinion.

First and foremost, there’s the Portland bird’s incredibly white overall appearance. While a first-summer or some 2nd-cycle Thayer’s can look this pale overall, this bird IS a first-cycle bird.  Since no second-cycle feathers are evident (the bird has a very uniformly-marked plumage typical of a bird less than a year old) and none of the feathers suggest any abnormal wear, we cannot call this anything other than a 1st-cycle bird.  It is not overly worn, and bleaching would affect all of the most-exposed parts of the bird – like the mantle, upperwing, and especially the primaries (and it is those primaries that are abnormally dark, not pale). The mostly-dark bill is also highly suggestive of a 1st-cycle bird, as is the fairly dark eye. Perhaps that is a bit of an over-simplification, but for now, that should suffice.

With that (fairly well) established, we can look at this bird more closely.  Again, those outer primaries and “picket-fence” secondaries are very Thayer’s-esque. Unfortunately, the similarities pretty much end there. The bird is not very big, and similar in size to most of the “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gulls we see it with.  It is also has the somewhat short and thin-billed appearance, with a gently rounded head and large eye that are typical of Iceland Gulls; this bird does not get any subjective gestalt points.  More importantly, in my opinion, are more tangible issues, from head to tail (and in no particular order of importance):
–          The overall pale appearance to the entire bird give that “white” impression at a distance; Thayer’s (THGU) usually look “dirtier” or even “brown.”
–          The pale face doesn’t have that nice dark smudge that we like to see on THGU.
–          The bill is clearly becoming pale at the base already.  The pattern looks good for Iceland (ICGU), and is certainly on one end of the bell curve for THGU.
–          The tertials are wholly marbled, and look perfect for ICGU.  “Classic” THGU show mostly dark tertials with marbled distal ~1/3rd or so.
–          On the folded wing (and on some flight shots), the primaries definitely have dark outer webs, but they also have a pale fringe that not just rounds the tip, but continues down the length of the most of each feather’s outer web. That is more consistent with dark-winged “Kumlien’s” Gulls.
–          While the tail is mostly dark, the bases are fairly extensive white with lots of marbling.  The extent of marbling is a good fit for ICGU.

While absolutely none of these factors eliminate a THGU on their own, the sum of all of them taken together makes for a most unusual THGU.  Considering the range of variation in “Kumlien’s” ICGU combined with hybridization – and by some accounts extensive intergrading – put this bird well outside the possibly-artificially-delineated box that we currently label a Thayer’s Gull.  At the very least, this is far short of a bird that could be “good enough” to constitute a third state record.

Can you see why I was so impressed that so many people stayed to the bitter end of my program on Saturday (and Sunday, for that matter!)?  So there, I said it – the OldPort mystery gull is not a “good” Thayer’s, despite the wishes of many-a-birder!  Sorry.

So anyway, after the Fish Pier, we ventured over to Mill Creek Cove in South Portland.  Two more 1st-winter Iceland and a 1st-winter Glaucous were present (some are all likely birds we saw on the other side of the harbor) to reinforce our new-found skills.
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And finally, some of the group joined me for a field trip extension over to Westbrook to look for the “Westbrook Gull,” a bird that, as I explained in the workshop, still defies identification and therefore is also quite instructive. Unfortunately, it was not present today (I see it less often on the weekend), but we finished up with a great showing for here of 4 Iceland Gulls (three 1st-winter and 1 2nd-winter) with the Herring and Ring-billed Gulls near the falls.  Meanwhile, while we did look at other birds all day, the open water behind downtown Westbrook yielded the surprise of the day – a pair of Ring-necked Duck that has just been found by Colin Chase.  Whether they are southbound, northbound, are somewhere in between, this was a great winter find, and a nice way to bring our workshop to a close.

Some people added Iceland and Glaucous Gull to their life list this day – and I think one person deleted Thayer’s Gull from their life list! – but more importantly, everyone left with a little more knowledge about how to identify gulls, and more importantly, hopefully a new-found appreciation for these remarkable, adaptable, and successful creatures.

With the success of this weekend (and some refinement due to the slide show portion of the program), I think it is safe to say that you can look for this workshop again in the future.  Until then, good gulling everyone!