Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Improving on a masterpeice

Like many birders I have long enjoyed thumbing through field guides from exotic locals, marveling at the stunning avian wonders that can be seen there. This day dreamy habit has generated a strong interest in field guides and their relative strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps not surprisingly, there is a considerable range in quality in field guides. A good field guide enhances your birding experience; a bad one can lead to considerable frustration. If I had to rank the field guides I have read in terms of quality, I would say that beyond any shadow of a doubt, the best ever produced, to date, in my humble opinion (IMHO), is the Birds of Europe by Lars Svensson, Peter Grant, Killian Mullarney and Dan Zetterström (first published in 1999). Naturally, therefore, I was delighted to learn that a second edition has now been released! I should add though that, at the same time as being delighted, there was a little trepidation that they might have messed with a good thing – fortunately that fear was unfounded as overall the GISS of this new edition is much the same as the first!

The second addition is, in a nutshell, an improvement on a masterpiece. The same superb illustrations and ingenious format, cramming in an extraordinary amount of information in a small amount of space and presenting the reader with a wealth of tools to improve field identification. Killian Mullarney and Dan Zetterström’s illustrations are truly remarkable in their accuracy and beauty and the way they seem to capture the GISS of each species along with the intricate details of plumage and structure.

Allow me to illustrate this with an example — I have added a scan of the illustrations of the European Honey Buzzard. As you can see there are 18 different illustrations for one species crammed into half a plate. The level of detail in both text and illustration is extraordinary and so many of the variations in plumage of this highly variable species are accounted for. Compare the photo I took of this species on the right with the plate and see how identification and ageing and sexing (the bird in this photo is a darker juvenile – note the dark eye among other features). Very few field guides can match this level of detail! If any of thee pictures in this post seem too small to be legible, click on them for a larger version.

Another feature I love about the Birds of Europe is the way they compare and contrast similar species or common versus rare species from various angles and postures. Look at the illustrations for the North American vagrant Spotted Sandpiper (sorry for the poor quality scan). In a tiny amount of space they capture the GISS and illustrate all the subtle difference that enable separation from the Common Sandpiper, which as the name suggests is common in Europe.

Likewise look at this full plate on the three species of golden plovers. Again, so many points of comparison in plumage, posture, age, sex, on the ground versus in flight – you name it! I also love the way they frequently include a “zoomed out” picture that portrays the way one might see the species under field conditions – in this case compare the illustration of a feeding flock with my photo of a loafing flock of European Golden Plovers. These “small” pictures really help one in learning and appreciating GISS. The “floating captions” with the picture also serve to direct the reader’s attention to the key points.

But perhaps above all, is the just the truly extraordinary quality of the illustrations themselves. To illustrate this allow me to juxtapose the illustrations of two North American species, Greater Yellowlegs and Lesser Yellowlegs in the Bird of Europe and the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. In both cases these two species occupy half a plate and these two field guides are very similar in size. You might expect the North American guide to have more detail or better portray the species but as far as I am concerned, in terms of “capturing the species’ likeness”, quality, detail, comparative merit, and utility in the field, the Birds of Europe is the hand-down winner. In addition to the comparison between these two species, you’ll also notice the comparison with other potentially confusing species, Common Greenshank and Wood Sandpiper, on the same page (in addition to the more detailed treatment of those European species on previous pages) and other useful extras like a size comparison (as viewed from a distance) with a very common species, Common Redshank.

Another useful comparison is these plates of North American Thrushes (Birds of Europe on the left versus National Geographic on the right). Both are excellent for field identification but again the European guide does at least as good, and in my opinion even better, a job of the North American vagrants as the American guide does. The Birds of Europe also makes several comparisons with Song Thrush (not necessary in North America). Small wonder I often keep a copy of the Birds of Europe with me as I bird around the North American continent!

But is this new edition worth buying if you have the old? I would say yes — there are enough good changes to make it worth owning. Of course, this includes treatment of the various splits that have occurred since the publication of the first edition and, clearly, the taxonomic treatment is consistent and carefully considered. The text has been updated and the results of various recent publications as they pertain to field identification incorporated, especially if you are a “larophile” (lover of gulls) – there is a lot of new information on gulls! The maps have also been improved where relevant; for example, I was happy to see that the new map for Rock Partridge had been corrected to show the southern Italian population. Some of the drawings are redone and others added (love the new half plate on scops owls!), with about 16 extra pages from the first edition. The Nearctic Wood-Warblers have been redone by Killian Mullarney in a style that is much more consistent than previously (in the first edition the two plates by Larry McQueen were in a different style than the rest of the book). As always, the additions and changes are treated with superb precision and care (perhaps only the illustration of Yellow Warbler is a little below the usual high standard in terms of capturing the GISS).

Now, even a masterpiece cannot be perfect and, unfortunately, some of the inconsistencies that weakened the first edition have also crept into the second. There are still inconsistencies in the treatment of rarities and vagrants as to whether or not they get included in the main section of the guide or get relegated to the appendix (in which case quite a few are not illustrated). There has been some shuffling of species, especially the introduced ones, with species like Mandarin Duck and Wood Duck moved from the main section to an appendix, but not nearly enough for consistent treatment.

North American readers, many of whom, like me, consider this book a highly valuable resource, will be frustrated that there has still been no effort for consistency in nomenclature. Some Holarctic species are given both British and American English names, e.g. under Lapland Bunting the text reads (Am: Lapland Longspur), and after Slavonian Grebe in brackets we see (Horned Grebe) but many others still lack this “courtesy” such as Goosander, Guillemot and Kentish Plover (Common Merganser, Common Murre and Snowy Plover respectively).

It is wonderful that the book treats new splits so well, but an oversight was made in not indicating their former names or what they were split from. For example, a person who had the first edition and who wanted to compare Little Shearwater will not find it anywhere in the second edition (not even in the index nor anywhere in the text nor is there any table of splits or additions) unless they already know to look for Macronesian Shearwater.

Typesetting is expensive, so perhaps the authors wanted to make some of these changes but space or cost meant sticking with the old. On the whole though, a great amount of care has gone into improving most aspects of this guide and I am delighted to conclude that the very best modern field in the world (IMHO) is now even better! Looks like I am going to need two copies again – one for the book shelf and one for the glove compartment! Maybe it’ll help me find a European stray (in Manitoba not too likely but hey…).

Friday, March 19, 2010

Boreal Owl portrait

The Boreal Owl, a.k.a Tengmalm’s Owl, is one of the most secretive residents of the boreal forest and always a real thrill to see. When a species has a different name in British and American English like this it is often a clue that the bird has a Holarctic distribution, as is the case with this species, found in both the Nearctic and Palearctic realms.

About a month ago, I had the good fortune to photograph this Boreal Owl in southeastern Manitoba, Canada. This generous individual posed for a beautiful portrait while sitting in a Jack Pine in the afternoon light – irresistible!

This next shot is a crop of the bird’s face as they hunt. The intent expression may make you think the bird is looking at something but actually they are listening to something under the snow. If you study this photo you can see the stiff dark feathers of the facial disk that help focus sound to the asymmetrical ears… below the photo I add a scan of a drawing from Owls of The World by Claus König, Friedhelm Weick, and Jan-Hendrik Becking that shows the asymmetrical ears. The different position of the ears means that sounds arrive in one ear a fraction of a second earlier than the other. The shape of the face with the stiff feathers of the facial disk focusing the sound towards the ears (much like the operation of a satellite dish) and the separation of the face into two halves helps with enhancing these subtle differences in perception. These adaptations result is hearing so precise that these owls can hunt prey they cannot see, for example they will plunge into the snow and come up with a vole than was moving in their tunnel, heard but unseen to the owl. Often when owls appear to be turning their head and looking down, they are adjusting the position of their “sound receptor”, i.e. their face, to help pinpoint a prey item before making the plunge. In the last post, I mentioned other adaptations in the wing feathers that allow them to fly quietly so that they can use their powerful hearing while hovering over a source of sound…

This owl was hunting near a feeder. Sometimes near the end of winter Boreal Owls seem to come out of the boreal forest for foraging opportunities. In this case, fallen seed under the feeder meant an opportunity for this owl. Evidence from Scandinavia suggests that males stick closer to their breeding territories whereas female disperse further to help them survive the winter – a strategy sometimes referred to as partial migration. This photo shows the owl preening at dusk, getting ready to hunt!

This last shot shows the owl flying off the feeder. It also shows my fallibility – although I was trying hard to get some flight shots, I missed the focus on this occasion. I might have to wait quite a while before another such opportunity comes my way!

Larger version of the first photo at:

Monday, March 8, 2010

Northern Hawk Owl in flight

I promise to get back to posting about my trip to Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala soon. Meanwhile, however, I can’t resist sharing this flight series of a Northern Hawk Owl flying off the perch and hovering over the sound of a potential prey item under the snow, before calling off the hunt (this time I guess it wasn't worth the hunt) and returning to the perch.

Northern Hawk Owls, and other owls, have some wonderful adaptations for hunting in this fashion, including the comb-like projections on the outer primary feathers that reduces the noise of wind drag, making their flight virtually silent so when they hover over the sound of a vole under the snow they don’t get distracted by the sound of their wings.

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