Book review: How to Be a Better Birder

by Greg Neise on July 17, 2012

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.



How to Be a Better Birder (Paperback)

By (author): Derek Lovitch

This unique illustrated handbook provides all the essential tools you need to become a better birder. Here Derek Lovitch offers a more effective way to go about identification--he calls it the "Whole Bird and More" approach--that will enable you to identify more birds, more quickly, more of the time. He demonstrates how to use geography and an understanding of habitats, ecology, and even the weather to enrich your birding experience and help you find something out of the ordinary. Lovitch shows how to track nocturnal migrants using radar, collect data for bird conservation, discover exciting rarities, develop patch lists--and much more.

This is the ideal resource for intermediate and advanced birders. Whether you want to build a bigger list or simply learn more about birds, How to Be a Better Birder will take your birding skills to the next level.

  • Explains the "Whole Bird and More" approach to bird identification
  • Demonstrates how to use geography, habitats, ecology, and the weather to be a better birder
  • Shows how to bird at night using radar, collect conservation data, develop patch lists--and more
  • Offers essential tools for intermediate and advanced birders
List Price: $19.95 USD
New From: $7.98 USD In Stock
Used from: $0.01 USD In Stock

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  • Ian Gardner

    Great article! I’ve thought about reading a few books such as Sibley’s or Kaufman’s guides to better birding. But I haven’t made the effort to find them in the local library or purchase them. You’ve motivated me to look into these guides to improve my birding skills. I consider myself a confident birder and don’t have trouble IDing expected birds in my area, but I just had an experience with a vagrant bird that was about 2,000 miles from expected. I didn’t pick up the clues to it being a rare bird, but my friends knew immediately. Although experience is what fosters the majority of learning, I hope these books can point me in a better direction when I’m in the field.

    Although, I do have one complaint in your article: “effects” should be “affects” in the 5th paragraph, 3rd sentence.

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