When I first got my hands on Derek Lovitch’s How to be a Better Birder, I dug in with a bit more zeal than I usually have for a birding how-to book. This is because I have had the idea of writing a similar thing myself, so…
First of all, I like the way he writes … as if he’s sitting there next to you in conversation (although, there are about 20% more !! than I think is necessary. But hey, I’m a curmudgeon.) In the first section, he introduces us to gestalt, or GISS (General Impression Size and Shape). He then takes it a step further, in what he calls “the whole bird and more approach, which is using clues beyond the field-guide approach—beyond simply what the bird looks like. Things like what’s it doing? What kind of habitat does it prefer? Did it make any sounds?
Lovitch uses personal examples and walks through them in an easy manner … this almost seems too simple to be about advanced field identification. But this isn’t Kaufman’s Field Guide to Advanced Birding, or even Sibley’s Birding Basics (both excellent books … and Lovitch sings the praises of Sibley’s little treasure, which it so deserves). He doesn’t go into this year’s preferred methods for distinguishing Empidonax flycatchers or jaegers. What he does do, is give you birding techniques and an approach that will help you get the most out of guides like Kaufman’s. It’s not so much a “how-to” as it is a “what-to-do” … and I like that.
Birding by habitat and birding by geography are both chapters that explain things you might already know, or have guessed, if you get out in the field often. But having them explained well—things like microhabitat—ensures you think about them. For instance, in May in my neck of the woods, the Chicago lakefront, if I want to find a Clay-colored Sparrow, I know where to look. Or rather, I know what to look for: dandelions. Clay-colored Sparrows are suckers for them, and if you know the little patches of the park where the giant riding mowers can’t reach, you’ll find the Spizella sparrows. This is my example, but Lovitch uses a similar field with a set of micro-habitats to illustrate the point. It’s one of the things that good birders always have floating about in their heads. And that really is the gist of much of this book: concepts to keep in your head that you can apply to almost any situation.
Where How to be a Better Birder really starts to shine is when Lovitch gets into birding and weather, and using Doppler radar to predict movements of migrants. This is really good stuff. He goes into how to read weather maps, how weather effects migrants, how to read radar images. Did you know that using the radar tools available on the interwebs, you can not only see large movements of night-time migrants, but you can also tell which way they are headed and how fast? After you read the chapter Birding at Night, you’ll know how to do that.
The book finishes with an overview of citizen science, and how you can participate (Birding with a Purpose), my reason for living (Vagrants), and an introduction to (Patch Listing). Each chapter builds upon lessons from earlier sections—the chapter on patch listing, for instance, returns to the sparrow field— and the holistic approach is satisfying. I finished the book as I began, feeling like I just had a conversation with a birding buddy.
How to be a Better Birder is a must-have for anyone that takes their birding seriously. The one area that wasn’t really touched was personal ethics, initially leaving me thinking the book could have been titled, How to Bird Better … but maybe I’ll hang on to that for myself and go all zen on you.
If you haven’t got it already, pick this up now. Then sign back in to the comments and thank me.