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.


Remembering Owler #1


Mr. Cromie holding a Great Grey Owl

The Alberta birding community lost a great naturalist and birder over the weekend.

Ray Cromie was a retired Sherwood Park school teacher and vice principal. He studied owls in northern Alberta for many years and in the 1980s he became a master owl bander.

I never had the opportunity to meet Mr. Cromie, but many birders across the province had the chance to learn from his extensive knowledge about birds, especially owls.

Gerald Romanchuk, a member of the Edmonton Nature Club (ENC) posted this thoughtful piece on the Albertabird listserv and ENC Discussion Group remembering Mr. Cromie:

Ray was a long-time and very beloved member of the Edmonton Nature Club. He was a recipient of the club’s Edgar T. Jones Conservation Award and Nature Alberta’s Loren Gould Award.

Ray was probably best known as a owl and raptor bander. He banded thousands of owls over the years. Many Edmonton-area birders were lucky to experience Ray’s generosity. Hundreds of us saw lifers of several hard-to-find owl species directly because of Ray’s guidance.

Besides being an expert on owls, Ray was a very knowledgeable all around naturalist. He could just as easily talk to you about warblers, or butterflies, or plants, as the nesting habitat of Saw-whet Owls.

Ray was a tireless volunteer. He was always giving presentations to all sorts of groups. He led countless owling field trips for the ENC. The trips were always very popular. Folks got to get an up close look at the whole procedure of finding, catching, processing, and banding birds like Great Gray and Hawk Owls. His owl display at the club’s annual Snow Goose Chase was always a big hit with all the children.

But more importantly than any owls was the way Ray showed us, by shining example, how to be a great leader, mentor, and teacher. And how to be a good, generous person. And he did it all with an awesome and charming sense of humour.

If you’d like to learn a little more about Mr. Cromie, he was featured in an article from 2005 in the Edmonton Nature News, which can be found here

My deepest sympathies to Mr. Cromie’s family and friends. He will be missed by many.

Fall for Raptors

I’ve been seeing a large number of raptors lately, from American Kestrels to Bald Eagles. This past Wednesday, I drove around looking for raptors and enjoying the colours of fall. The day was very overcast and cool, but I saw some top-quality birds!

This American Kestrel had been hunting around our house for the past few days, finally perching long enough for me to get a photo. The photos are not the best quality, but I love the colours of the kestrel and the trees behind it,IMG_9757IMG_9755

I barely got out of the truck, opting to park on the side of the road most of the time. I live in an area where the county roads have a good deal of traffic at harvest time — combines, swathers, grain trucks, pickup trucks going to town for parts. But the roads are quiet on rainy days when farmers are at home waiting for the fields and grain to dry.

Whether rural roads are quiet or busy, I always park in as much of the ditch as I can when birding with a vehicle, and I never park on the crest of the hill. If I’m driving and see a bird sitting close to the road, I check the rearview mirror to make sure it’s safe to pull over.

Our neighbours often stop to check on me when I’m watching something from the truck, just to make sure I’m not having any trouble. Everyone knows by now that I’m birding/photographing birds, but it’s a very nice gesture and I appreciate the stop very much.

I love birding by vehicle because you can get fairly close to some birds. Ducks and geese are very cautious at this time of year, so watching birds from the truck gives me more of a chance to look at them. I took our new truck as it’s very quiet, excellent on fuel, and has ample room for my scope, two cameras, and binoculars in the front seat.

A Blue-winged Teal,IMG_9761

This summer, the American White Pelicans frequented the slough (pond) across the road. There was only one this time, accompanied by Black-bellied Plovers, Long-billed Dowitchers, Killdeer, Lesser Yellowlegs, Mallards, Gadwalls, teals, Northern Shovelers, an adult Bald Eagle; Snow, Greater White-fronted, and Canada Geese; Ring-billed Gulls, and Sandhill Cranes.

The American White Pelican and a Ring-billed Gull,IMG_9763

In the willows along the road were White-crowned, White-throated, and Clay-coloured Sparrows, American Goldfinches, and Yellow-rumped Warblers.

The birds were very difficult to photograph as they stayed hidden in the branches, like this White-crowned Sparrow,IMG_9774

I left the slough and headed north. A Blue Jay flew out of a neighbour’s yard and there was a Northern Goshawk sitting in a dead tree just up the hill. I was disappointed I didn’t get a photo of the goshawk, but just then, a Great-horned Owl landed in the tree in front of me.

The owl was uncomfortable with my presence so it took off. Fortunately, it landed nearby in the slough just off the road.

The Great-horned Owl flying away,IMG_9775

I quietly got out of the truck and snuck around the slough and got these photos — my best yet of the species!IMG_9782IMG_9784

After five minutes, the owl flew away, scaring a pair of Lesser Yellowlegs on take off,IMG_9789

The most interesting sighting of the afternoon was a Eurasian-collared Dove that flew out of the willows. At first, I though the dove was a Sharp-shinned Hawk, but then it came into view. I’ve never seen this species before, but their range is moving northward in Alberta so I might be seeing more of theses doves in the future.IMG_9791

The migrating geese enjoy feeding on the combined grain fields. I spent 15 minutes taking pictures with my new camera,DSC_0782DSC_0798

The building on the hill is Chatsworth School, a one-room school house between 1917 – 1953 for all the children in the area,DSC_0816DSC_0817

Playing with the exposure a little bit,DSC_0821

The sun was shining through the clouds,DSC_0829

After an hour and a half, I started heading back home and was passing by our wheat field. On a six-acre section of the field, we’re growing Red Fife Wheat, the oldest variety of wheat in Canada, originally from the Ukraine. This Red-tailed Hawk was sitting in the poplars along the field and there was a Merlin on a fence post.

Red-tailed Hawk,IMG_9803

I took these photos of the Merlin with my Nikon D610 with the 70-200mm lens. I cropped them just a bit,


All the raptor species I saw on my drive: American Kestrel, Bald Eagle, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Northern Goshawk, Great-horned Owl, Merlin, Red-tailed Hawk, and Northern Harrier.

Birding News #4

:: Hurricane Sandy removed a lot of sand from beaches needed by horseshoe crabs need to lay their eggs. And fewer crab eggs make it harder for Red Knots to fuel their migration.

:: More on the Red Knot: there is a petition to continue the moratorium on harvesting horseshoe crabs in New Jersey.

:: Superb Fairy Wrens in Australia eavesdrop on the alarm calls of other species.

:: The American Bird Conservancy and Fundación ProAves have purchased key wintering habitat for birds in Colombia, South America. One of the species this will benefit, along with 25 other neotropical migrants, is the Cerulean Warbler, a bird whose population has declined by about 70 percent in the last 40 years.

:: February is National Bird Feeding month!

:: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is designating nearly 1,300 miles as protected habitat for the endangered Southwestern Willow flycatcher.

:: A Laysan Albatross named Wisdom is the oldest recorded bird in the United States at the age of about 62, and on February 3rd she hatched a healthy-looking chick.

:: Birds are inside the Mitchell International Airport in Wisconsin.

:: You can now watch real-time submissions of checklists on eBird.

A Great Horned Owl survived getting hit by a sport-utility vehicle in Florida.

Great posts in birding blogs this week:

:: From Sharon at Birdchick: The latest Birdchick Podcast

:: From Nemesis Bird: New Birding Apps Roundup

:: From Catherine Hamilton, guest writer for the American Birding Association blog: A New Field Mark for Differentiating Stints and Peeps

:: From Julie Gidwitz-Vinkler beat writer at Birding is FunA Few Fun Facts about Several Bird Species

Christmas Presents 2012

I received some wonderful presents this year, most of which were birding-related. My parents, especially my mother, bought most of the bird items!  She found most of them at (since we’re in Canada),, and The Book Depository (which my mother likes for the free shipping). Here’s a list:

:: My two favorite presents this year are an Owl tote bag (to me the owl looks like a Screech-Owl), and the Law’s Guide to Drawing Birds which I wrote about here. I’m very excited to start using the book it and will write a review soon. The bag is currently unavailable, but maybe it will be back in stock before too long,


:: The latest issue, January 2013 of Birds and Blooms, from my father

:: A pair of handmade “Out on a Limb Bird Earrings” which I’ve been wearing ever since I opened my presents. They are silver-plate and made by Etsy seller billetsdoux in Thunder Bay, Ontario,


:: A decal for my laptop of two birds on a branch, from Lewa’s Designs at Etsy,


:: The Birder’s Year 2013 calendar by David Sibley, and the 2013 Charley Harper calendar (which also has some wonderful non-bird illustrations),

:: Charley Harper note cards and envelopes featuring the Eastern Meadowlark,

:: A felt Snowy Owl brooch from lupin’s Etsy shop, for my winter jacket which is black,


:: A Red-headed Woodpecker ornament from Home Depot, to commemorate my seeing the very rare woodpecker in our area this Summer,


I received the following books:

:: The Kirtland’s Warbler: The Story of a Bird’s Fight Against Extinction and the People Who Saved It by William Rapai (review at 10000 Birds)

:: What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World by Jon Young; the book’s website is here

:: Rare Birds: The Extraordinary Tale of the Bermuda Petrel and the Man Who Brought It Back from Extinction by Elizabeth Gehrman Rare Birds (review here)

:: A Brand New Bird: How Two Amateur Scientists Created the First Genetically Engineered Animal by Tim Birkhead, about the red canary. It’s not “a brand new” or even recent book but my mother thought it would be interesting and also good for my biology studies.

Snow Goose Chase 2012

The other week I joined the AlbertaBird listserv to find out about bird sightings through the province and also connect with other Alberta birders.

After joining I got an email from one member, Bob Parsons, who is the Special Events Co-ordinator for the Edmonton Nature Club, inviting my family and me to the annual Snow Goose Chase on April 28 in Tofield. Luckily, that day was free (the only free April Saturday on our calendar in fact) so I was able to say “Yes”!

We did our morning chores as quickly as possible despite a heavy spring snowstorm all day Friday and early Saturday, and left at 8 am to be at Tofield by 10. On our drive I saw about 50,000 Snow, Canada, and Greater White-fronted Geese, 11 American Kestrels, 16 Red-tailed Hawks, many species of ducks, three Yellow-headed Blackbirds, and many Purple Martins in Tofield.

There were some terrific displays at the Community Centre, including three live raptors from the Edmonton Valley Zoo; celebrated Canadian naturalist John Acorn, whose show, “Acorn the Nature Nut” my brothers and I loved when we were younger; a live garter snake (a female, approximately one meter long), scorpion, and Malaysian katydid, from the Royal Alberta Museum (RAM), shown by Pete Heule, the Museum’s Bug Room Co-ordinator (we like his features on CBC radio); a live Burrowing Owl from the Beaverhill Bird Observatory, which I’ve just joined as a member; a Bugs & Beetles wetland display, including fairy shrimp which I had never seen before; and animal pelts from Bill Abercrombie of Alberta Trapline Adventures.

One of my favorite exhibits was the mounted owls of Alberta, displayed by Jocelyn Hudon, curator of ornithology at the Royal Alberta Museum. I also found out that the RAM has a new exhibit, “Fashioning Feathers” about the dangerous connection between fashion and natural history, running from March 24, 2012 to January 6, 2013, which I am very eager to see, especially because I read a little bit about the subject while researching the Carolina Parakeet for my 4H speech.

Mr. Parsons did a wonderful job organizing everything and also taking time out to welcome my family and me on what was such a busy day for him. It was also great to meet some of the other members of AlbertaBird — including John Acorn and Jocelyn Hudon — and put faces to the names. I had a terrific day and hope to go again next year! Below are some pictures I took Saturday.

A Spectacled Owl from South America, from the Edmonton Valley Zoo,

A Great-horned Owl, also from the Edmonton Valley Zoo,

A badger pelt,

The Burrowing Owl from the Beaverhill Bird Observatory, which I was able to hold (photo by Alexander Wasylik),


Mounted owls of Alberta from the Royal Alberta Museum,

The Malaysian katydid,

Two Nature Nuts — here I am with John Acorn (photo by Caroline LeCourtois),