Book Review: “Offshore Sea Life ID Guide: East Coast”

Ever since I learned about pelagic trips, I’ve had them on my wish list. And until I get the chance to see petrels, guillemots, and shearwaters in person, I’ll happily read through my new copy of the Offshore Sea Life ID Guide: East Coast by Steve N.G. Howell, a seabird expert, and Brian L. Sullivan, an eBird project leader.

Offshore-Sea-Life-East-Coast-cover-197x300This new guide, along with the Offshore Sea Life ID Guide: West Coast, was recently published by Princeton University Press. The eastern guide covers 39 bird and 21 mammal species, and the western guide covers 43 birds and 22 mammals. Because the guides is geared toward offshore species, it doesn’t include animals such as loons, Harbour Seals, and sea ducks that you can see just off shore. The Offshore Sea Life ID Guides cover the sealife to be found farther out in the pelagic zone, more than a mile from the shoreline.

I have many ID guides for birds, but none for whales, dolphins, or flying fish, so the new volume gives me extra incentive to study up on the species I don’t know as well. The guide is meant to be a handy resource for on- and off-shore pelagic trips; it’s very thin so it can fit in a larger jacket pocket or take up little space in a backpack.

One of my favourite parts of the book is the Quick Page Finder on the inside cover. The book begins with an introduction of the oceanic environment, followed by an explanation of location abbreviations and a glossary. The species accounts for Marine Mammals come first, followed by Seabirds, Sea Turtles, Flying Fish & Squid, Billfish, Sharks, Seaweeds, and other sea life. The last page includes species codes, scientific names, and the index. The back cover has a map of the east coast, south of Canada to the tip of Florida and as far east as Bermuda.

Here’s the species account for Jellyfish:jellyfish640h

Because views of marine mammals in the wild tend to be brief and limited to tails, dorsal fins, and flippers, the book’s focus is on those key features to help identify whales and dolphins. Of course, you have a better chance with seabirds to see the entire bird, but between a rocking ship and similar plumages, identification can still present challenges. Seabirds are shown in both immature and adult plumages, different colouration morphs, in flight (toward and away), paddling on the surface, and sitting on the water.

There are 120 colour photos in the book and are arranged in Crossley-style composite photos. The photos are digitally compiled to appear as if you are viewing each species from aboard ship.

The species accounts are concise with very large, easy to read font. Common name, banding code, and the time of year the animals are most likely to be seen make up most of the accounts. Flight patterns and wing molt are heavily covered for seabirds. The volume includes page numbers when citing other species in the species account.

The species accounts for Northern Fulmar, Great Shearwater, Cory’s Shearwater, Sooty Shearwater:


I really like this guide and definitely will bring it with me on my first Atlantic voyage. The Offshore Sea Life ID Guide is a well-designed and highly informative book that would benefit both beginning and advanced birders who want a convenient and affordable guide to eastern sealife.

Thank you very much to Princeton University Press for providing me with a review copy.

Book Review: Birding For the Curious


There are a lot of volumes geared toward new birders, but Nate Swick’s first book, Birding for the Curious: The Easiest Way for Anyone to Explore the Incredible World of Birds, is perhaps the only book ever written for non-birders. This is the perfect book for gardeners, armchair naturalists, and others who find themselves considering birding as a hobby.

Nate’s knowledge and enthusiastic style makes birding seem very easy and appealing for non-birders. while the book is intended for adults, it would also be the perfect book for older kids. While Nate is an experienced birder who writes at his The Drinking Bird blog, is the editor for the American Birding Association’s blog, and is a contributor for the 10,000 Birds blog, his new book offers is a very gentle introduction, an easy and unintimidating first step, to birding.

The book has 10 chapters, which covers such subjects as using a field guide, choosing binoculars, the basics of identifying birds, and citizen science. The chapters aren’t very long, but the information provided is solid and very useful. Each chapter has at least one “activity”, such as going on a bird walk or learning how to pish.

Nate is a big user and advocate of eBird and writes about it in the book, even devoting two “activities” to learning how to submit sightings to, and finding birds with, eBird. However, he mentions only one birding app (BirdLog), and while I do understand that new apps are being released all the time (and others are going through changes), the book could have benefited from a list of basic birding apps that would be helpful to new, especially younger birders.

The book has a few photographs as well as watercolour illustrations. The latter are fairly unusual for books of this nature. But I think they work well with the subject and also with Nate’s style of writing, encouraging the reader to pick up a field guide and learn more about birds.

As an entry level birding book, Birding for the Curious is an excellent choice anyone looking for a gentle introduction to a hobby that is a passion for so many of us. The book is available as a hardcover (which is perfect for schools and libraries) and as an eBook, which makes it very portable. This would make an excellent gift for the beginning or young birder in your life.


Thank you very much to Page Street Publishing for providing me with a review copy.

Book Review: “Peterson Reference Guide to Owls of North America and the Caribbean”

Guide to OwlsThe Peterson Reference Guide to Owls by Scott Weidensaul is my first owl-specific guide and my first volume in their “reference guide” series, and what a wonderful introduction to both.

The book covers all 39 species of owls found in North America, Mexico, and the Caribbean. This is a very comprehensive, authoritative, and beautifully illustrated book which has everything you need to know about owls. Because it’s hardcover, it would also be a great coffee-table book.

Scott Weidensaul is a co-founder of Project Snowstormthe research project that bands and tracks the movements of owls that appeared in the recent irruptive years; he is a co-director of Project Owlnet, a project with almost 125 banding and research stations across North America studying owl migration; and for nearly 20 years he has directed major studies on Northern Saw-Whet Owls.

The first part of the guide is the “How to use this book” section which covers a longevity, alpha codes, how to read the range maps, the topography, and explanations for such terms as reversed sexual dimorphism (where “females may be 20 or 30 percent larger than males”).


The next and largest section is the Species Accounts. The accounts range in length from three to 17 pages, representing the knowledge and research available on that species.

Each Species Account includes both English and scientific names, and the banding (alpha) code. Measurements, longevity, and a general description of the species follow. There are more detailed sections on Systematics, Taxonomy & Etymology, Distribution, Description & Identification, Vocalizations, Habitat & Niche, Nesting & Breeding, Behavior, and Status. At the end of each species accounts, there are Notes and Bibliography for further reading and research.

Each account contains a up-to-date range map and there are also subspecies distribution maps for Spotted Owls, Great Horned Owls, and Eastern and Western Screech-Owls.

One of the best parts of the book is the photos — there are 340 color photos included in the guide. I have an awful time getting photos of owls, so I take my hat off to the many photographers who spent time capturing the behaviour of theses secretive and hard to photograph birds. The easier owl species to find are represented with lots of great photos while lesser-know owls such as the Tamaulipas Pygmy-Owl have only one photo.

As owls are generally heard more than seen, much emphasis has been put on the vocal descriptions which are very detailed and descriptive. However, I find the best way to learn the calls is to actually listen to recordings. The author and publishers have put together a list for anyone interested in audio with 86 owl vocalizations which you can download for free from the Cornell’s Macaulay Library of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology — a wonderful bonus!

The Acknowledgments section includes a list of all the researchers, photographers, and even citizen scientists who helped with the book. Next is the Glossary where you can find all the owl terms mentioned in the book.

There are five pages of General Bibliography listing published papers, ornithological articles, and citations; these are primarily paper versions but there are some links to online sources too. The index includes species and subspecies names, both English and scientific. Pages for photographs, maps, and captions can be found in a bold font.

Even though much of the information is technical, Mr. Weidensaul’s style is very engaging and easy to read. One of my favourite sentences is from the Northern Pygmy-Owl: “Northern Pygmy-Owls rather famously lack a sense of proportion when it come to picking their prey.” And the back of the book is as helpful and comprehensive as the front.

For anyone interested in owls and their ecology and behaviour, the Peterson Reference Guide to Owls of North America and the Caribbean is a must-have. It’s incredibly well-written and well-designed, with informative text, and the photos bring each species to life. This book deserves a special place on the shelf or coffee table. This is a really wonderful book, and I’m hoping it will help me change my bad luck with owls.

I’d like to thank my good friend Ray of Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds for sending me a copy of this guide.


Book Review: Sibley Guide to Birds, Second Edition

SibleysecondeditionI must start this review by saying that I’ve been a fan of David Sibley’s field guides since I received my first guide — The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America — as a Christmas gift in 2009 (I was 12) from my parents. The Sibley guides are my all-time favorites and they’ve helped me learn so much about bird identification and bird behavior. When I started birding, I took the guide with me everywhere and it’s now held together with packing tape and highlighted with post-it notes.

I received a review copy of the new second edition of The Sibley Guide to Birds by David Allen Sibley (Knopf, March 2014) a few weeks ago and have been eagerly reading and looking through it ever since. I’m very happy with the new additions and the guide’s overall appearance. Here are a few of my thoughts on The Sibley Guide to Birds, Second Edition:

This guide is a bit heavier than the first edition, and I wouldn’t often take it out in the field; but if I’m studying the guide at home, weight’s not really an issue. The weight is due to an expanded introduction, updated maps, 600 new paintings which include 111 rare species added, more text on identification tips of tricky species as well as foraging and habitat behavior, and a checklist of all the species at the back of the book. Also, this guide has larger illustrations and updated taxonomy. A very good addition and nice touch are the illustrations of extinct species, a small but very good reminder of the species we’ve lost. There’s also a great section on bird topography and a very useful chart of molt cycle in birds.

The maps have all been updated to reflect the change of species distribution over the past 14 years. One of the most substantial population shifts noted is for the Eurasian-collared Dove, on page 260, which has expanded its range northward quite a bit. For species that have a more limited range, the illustrations are “zoomed in” so you can see the range more clearly.

Some of the new illustrations include more juvenile plumages for some species, additional hybrids, downy young (Killdeer, some rails, and some ducks). Red-flanked Bluetail, Hawaiian Petrel, Smew, Green-breasted Mango, Eurasian Kestrel, Variegated Flycatcher, Brown Shrike, Sinaloa Wren, and Crescent-chested Warbler are just some of the new species added to this guide.

Most of this guide is arranged like the first edition with just a few small changes. One of the largest changes birders will probably notice is the family Falconidae (which includes Peregrine Falcon, Crested Caracara, Merlin, American Kestrel, and other falcons), which has been moved between woodpeckers and parrots. This is the result of new DNA studies that show that falcons are more closely related to parrots than hawks.

I’ve read that many people are having trouble reading the text, which is now light gray in color instead of the previous black. Though I don’t find the text particularly hard to read, it might be that my eyes are still young. When I asked my (non-birding) mother, who now uses reading glasses, what she thought of the book’s text, she said she found the font thin and difficult to read in low light. So the light-colored type and thin font might be an issue for some older birders or those who need reading glasses. 

A color change in some of the illustrations has sparked even more controversy that the font. Many of the colors are significantly darker than in the earlier edition and pocket guides. The Scarlet Tanager, Northern Cardinal, Cinnamon Teal, and even Purple Finch illustrations seem much darker than the actual birds would appear in the field. Interestingly, in the first edition, some of the colors seemed much too bright or washed out in some illustrations. In this new edition, drawings of species with a lot of red or orange coloration seem to be very dark, but I think some of the drawings actually look better darker including Willet, American Pipit, and Warbling Vireo, just to name a few. If you think the dark colors are going to bother you, go to your local book store and take a look at the guide in person.

Here’s a comparison of the Scarlet Tanager: at left is the Second Edition and at right is my old Western Edition. In my opinion, the one on the left is too dark and the one on the right is too bright,


There are some errors and few minor typos in the first printing, includling a few mislabeled species in the group accounts; the labels for the hybrid geese (GWFG x CAGO and GWFG x SNGO) on page 4 are switched; incorrect measurements for the Thick-billed Kingbird; and I noticed that the California Condor is missing in the group accounts on page 120. Mr. Sibley said that the colors and other mistakes will be corrected in the next printing, so watch out for the second printing if you’re not happy with this current edition. 

This is the two-page spread of the hawks and vulture group accounts with the missing California Condor illustration,


With all that being said, I love this field guide and it will become my go-to bird identification field guide for North America. This guide is comprehensive, full of wonderful information, and the illustrations are so well done. I highly recommend this field guide to any amateur or serious birders. You just can’t get a better illustrated guide than one of David Sibley’s field guides.

You can buy this guide from your favorite bookseller.

Thank you very much to Knopf for providing me with a review copy.

Book Review: Their Fate is Our Fate


In early September, Dr. Peter Doherty’s new book, Their Fate Is Our Fate: How Birds Foretell Threats to Our Health and Our World, was published by The Experiment Publishing. Last summer I had left drafts of some items, and sent emails about others, for Birding News blog posts while I was away in Long Point, and my mother included the mention of Their Fate Is Our Fate in one of posts. When I got back from my trip, I was excited to learn from Sarah at The Experiment that she was sending a review copy, which I finished recently and found fascinating.

The book focuses on the relationship between bird diseases and human diseases and how birds can be important alarms, or sentinels, when new viruses appear. I can’t think of anyone better qualified to write on this subject, because Dr. Doherty is not only a keen birder (though as he writes in the introduction, he has “come late to bird spotting…. The discovery of a new interest as the years roll on is one of life’s good surprises”) but is also Laureate Professor, Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Melbourne, and won the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1996 with Rolf Zinkernagel for their pioneering immunology research. Which also means that the writing can get quite technical and academic, but Dr. Doherty is very good at explaining matters well and clearly. In fact, an earlier 2012 edition of the book was published by Melbourne University Publishing Ltd. This edition very helpfully includes end notes, Latin binomials for common bird names, a list of further reading and reference for each chapter, and an index.

As Dr. Doherty writes in the introduction, the book was

conceived as an exploration of the interactions between the natural world, birds and humans — an exploration that goes beyond the more familiar social and environmental themes in order to discuss a further, darker realm of pathology, poisons and pestilences. Clearly, much of this reflects human activity and, as concerned individuals, it’s up to us do whatever we can to minimize negative impacts.

For someone who has been a research scientist and academic for so long, Dr. Doherty is passionate about the role of citizen scientists to provide more information toward the goal fo more knowledge:

Professional scientists and those who are able to gain the attention of the media on environmental issues clearly have their parts to play but, whether we change any formal scientific training or not, each and every one of us can potentially function as a “citizen scientist” when it comes to making key observations on what’s happening out there in nature.

No doubt when you read the book’s subtitle, you thought about the proverbial canary. Dr. Doherty addresses this from the start:

We’ve all heard about the coal mine canary that suddenly stops singing and keels over from toxic gas poisoning before the miners are obviously affected. But why is the canary more susceptible? The idea that birds act as sentinels providing us with early warning of potential dangers in the natural world raises some immediate questions: How are avian species similar to mammals like us? And how are they different?

But did you also know about sentinel chickens (which by the way was the title of the original Australian edition)? They are used from Florida to Australia, sometimes in cages on golf courses, to monitor viruses that are transmitted by mosquito (arboviruses, an acronym for arthropod-borne viruses), such as West Nile Virus. After a good overview of basic avian biology in the first few chapters, Dr. Doherty goes on to cover a number of viruses that affect the bird world, from WNV to the avian flu, the tick-borne flavivirus affecting the Scottish Grouse. For the second half of the book, he goes on to discuss the “other, more complex infectious organisms that cause severe disease problems in birds, and in mammals like us”, from malaria to psittacosis to cancer, as well as scientists through the ages who have been “Bug Detectives” (this chapter reminds me very much of the book Microbe Hunters, which Dr. Doherty mentions in the chapter on the Great Parrot Panic).

The last few chapters move away from disease to how humans have affected bird health and populations around the world, from the introduction of non-native species and non-native predators, to fishing and hunting (the threats of overfishing and use of toxic lead shot and sinkers), poisoning by pharmaceuticals, and climate change. And of course, there are the consequences to humans of their actions. Dr. Doherty discusses the use of lead which poisons raptors and loons, and the overfishing of horseshoe crabs which in turn is one of the reasons the Red Knot population is declining. The last chapter discusses how citizen scientists can play a vital role when it comes to bird conservation, contributing to science by helping to collect data on different species, whether by participating in Christmas Bird Counts, the Great Backyard Bird Count in February, and regularly submitting checklists to eBird.

Sometimes it can be a bit discouraging, especially as a younger birder and a young person, to read many of the books and articles on conservation and ecology; they can often make you feel rather hopeless, that we are going to inherit a huge mess that will be impossible to clean up or reverse in our lifetimes. But Dr. Doherty is at the same able to make you appreciate the importance of birds to the global ecosystem, and the consequences if they did no longer exist, as well as feel hopeful about some sort of solution.

eBook Review: The World’s Rarest Birds

[This is a cross-post from my guest post at Nemesis Bird on Monday]

The World’s Rarest Birds by Erik Hirschfeld, Andy Swash, and Robert Still; published by Princeton University Press (April 2013). TheWorld'sRarestBirds

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The World’s Rarest Birds began as an international photo competition held by BirdLife International, to assemble a collection of photographs and to document birds around the globe listed as Endangered, Critically Endangered, Extinct in the Wild, and Data Deficient on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. The World’s Rarest Birds is a wonderful book, though it’s unfortunate we live in a world where such a book is necessary.

Princeton University Press recently released the title as an eBook on iTunes, and I’m delighted to be reviewing it after receiving a copy from Drew at Nemesis Bird. Thank you to Drew for the code, and a reminder that the following opinions are my own.

There are 590 bird species in the world classified as Endangered or Critically Endangered by BirdLife International. This book features beautiful photographs of 515 of them and is the first time images of certain species have been published. For the 75 remaining species, which are either extinct or no photos are known to exist, artist Tomasz Cofta has created very helpful illustrations.


The beginning chapters assess the threats facing birds, from hunting, climate change, and agriculture, to geological events. Each threat is summarised globally with examples of species particularly affected by that particular threat. Additional chapters are devoted to extinct species, globally threatened bird families, and to data deficient species. Many species around the world face multiple major threats to their populations and we can only hope that with more awareness and some human help, bird species can rebound so they don’t fade into history.

The body of the book is the species accounts. This part is divided into seven regional sections: Europe & the Middle East, Africa & Madagascar, Asia, Australasia, Oceanic Islands, the Caribbean, North & Central America, and South America. Each regional section highlights main conservation challenges and threatened bird hotspots, followed by an illustrated directory of the most threatened or endangered birds in the region.


Each species description includes a photograph or illustration, the IUCN Red List category, population size and trends, the key threats, a distribution map, and a QR code (quick response bar code) with a direct link to the factsheet of the species on the Birdlife International website.


This may look like a coffee table book, but it is a comprehensive catalogue of endangered bird life around the world, and an important tool in creating awareness about the threats facing bird species. The eBook format also makes it very useful for travellers and twitchers, since the print version is quite large and heavy. For anyone interested in bird conservation, The World’s Rarest Birds is a must have. It’s incredibly well-designed, with well-written and informative text, and all the photos bring each species to life. This book deserves a special place on the shelf or, in this case, iDevice, whether you’re a birder, a naturalist, or conservationist.