Birding Oregon, Second Edition

front cover copy

The second edition of Birding Oregon is now available. This new version includes:

  • updated site descriptions
  • 50 new sites
  • updated checklist of 532 species and their seasonal distribution
  • updated Resources and Contact Information
  • full-color photos

The stunning cover image is courtesy of photographer Jacob Spendelow. You can see more of his work at

Order Birding Oregon Here

Review: Petrels, Albatrosses & Storm-Petrels of North America

Short Version: If you bird on or near the ocean, buy this book and read it.

Slightly Longer Version: Steve Howell’s guide to petrels (including shearwaters), albatrosses, and storm-petrels is a must-have resource for anyone who aspires to identify birds on the open ocean. Some would argue that those of us who don’t get out to sea very often don’t really need such an in-depth guide, that a standard field guide will suffice for the occasional pelagic trip. But I would argue that such a detailed treatment of seabirds is actually more important for less experienced seabirders.

Pelagic birding is very different from land-based birding. On a moving boat in rough seas, optics are all but useless. A birder cannot focus on small details. Seabirds are identified by their shape, general color pattern, and flight style. Until now, the only way to learn these characteristics is to spend a lot of time on the ocean. Howell gives his readers the benefit of his extensive experience at sea, illustrated with lots of photos showing realistic views of seabirds. Along with beautifully detailed close-ups, we have photos of birds in the fog, birds in flight at a distance, birds in various stages of molt and feather wear, and birds sleeping on the water. In other words, real-life views of birds on the ocean. You can’t find those in a standard field guide.

The size, and price, of this book are both hefty, but Petrels, Albatrosses & Storm-Petrels of North America is a great investment for anyone who wants to learn more about seabirds. It will probably inspire you to take more pelagic trips, or at least spend more time looking out on the ocean.

Gull Season

Winter is the time to study gulls in the Willamette Valley. If you feel a little overwhelmed by some of the fine plumage details described in birding references, consider looking at the shape of the bird. The silhouette above can be identified to species with reasonable certainty. The three things to consider are 1. the shape of the bill (small and slender, but with a noticeable gonydeal bulge), 2. the shape of the head (fairly large with a sloping forehead), and 3. how far the wings extend beyond the tail.

I’m teaching a class on Willamette Valley gulls for Portland Audubon on January 18, 2012, with a local field trip on January 21. We will discuss plumage details, but also the shape of each species. Shape is much more useful when trying to ID distant birds, birds in bad light, or birds in my typically grainy photos. For information on the class, or to register, click here.

New Books

I recently added two new books to my library.

Kenn Kaufman’s updated version of his classic Advanced Birding belongs on every birder’s bookshelf. Along with detailed descriptions of some of the species groups that provide the biggest challenges, Kaufman takes a step back and discusses the broader aspects of bird identification. While fine details can be important, many birders don’t realize how useful habitat, behavior, and general impression of size and shape are in identifying birds, especially at a distance. So while it is really useful to have a reference that compares the call notes of all the Empidonax flycatchers, it is also useful to have several chapters on “how to bird,” something that will benefit birders of every level.

While there is a lot to dislike about Kansas (extensive industrial agriculture, doctors being assassinated, creationism in the schools), the Sunflower State hosts a great variety of bird life. I learned to bird in Kansas, and while I have been away for many years, I still consider it one of the best areas in the country for birding.

The new Birds of Kansas is an annotated checklist of that state’s avifauna. Each species has its own page, with a color photo, map of the state showing where the bird has been documented, and information about status, habitat, migration, and breeding.

What makes this book enjoyable to flip through, aside from the easy-to-read layout, are the color photos from noted photographer Bob Gress and 26 other photographers. I was thrilled that my photo of a Great Black-backed Gull was chosen for that species account. This book is a great combination of birding reference and coffee table book. It may not contain as much detail as the voluminous Birds of Oregon, A General Reference, but it is much more interesting to peruse.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

A pair of Chestnut-backed Chickadees has been lingering in the yard this week.  They will soon leave for the summer, as this species prefers large conifers and higher elevation, unlike the more suburban Black-capped Chickadees.

While the Chestnut-backs readily take sunflower seeds from the feeder, these birds were especially fond of a vegan suet block, currently in development by Nepo Suet Company . It is made from coconut oil. While not available yet, it promises to be a great alternative for those of us who don’t buy animal products.

The Stokes, Redeemed

While their beginner guides (shorebirds, hummingbirds, etc.) are very good, I have never been impressed with the larger field guides to birds by Donald and Lillian Stokes. Their eastern and western guides include one or two photos for most birds, not enough to provide a good presentation of many species. So when I heard that the Stokes were releasing a new guide to the birds of North America, I wondered what they might bring to the already glutted field guide market.

What they brought was the most comprehensive field guide on the market to date. Each species is represented by two to twelve photos. The species that have complex plumage cycles, such as gulls and shorebirds, are shown in every plumage type. You can actually see a photo of a third-cycle Thayer’s Gull. Not even the National Geographic guide goes that far. All four subspecies of Cackling Goose are illustrated, with close-ups showing the bill shapes.

In addition to extensive coverage of the regularly occurring species, the Stokes have included virtually all the vagrants reported from North America. There are three photos each of Great Spotted Woodpecker and White-throated Thrush. The Sibley Guide doesn’t even mention these species.

Whenever you have a collection of several thousand photos, there will be a few that don’t look quite right. The adult Glaucous-winged Gull looks way too dark to me. As with most photographic guides, the seabirds are short changed. Many of the pelagic species are represented by distant grainy images. While some would argue that those poor distant views are similar what you are likely to experience in the field, I think a field guide should show as much detail as possible.

Many birders, myself included, prefer good paintings to photos. My ideal guide would be the Sibley Guide to Birds with an additional hundred or so species to make it a comprehensive guide to North America. But even those of us who prefer paintings still benefit from photos on occasion. And there is currently no better photographic guide to all the birds of North America than the new Stokes. This book has taken the Stokes from the periphery of the field guide genre to the forefront.

Review: Birds of Western North America

I came across a beautiful new field guide recently, Birds of Western North America: A Photographic Guide by Paul Sterry and Brian Small.
I usually prefer field guides that feature paintings, rather than photos, since an artist can bring out key field marks and is not limited by the lighting or behavior captured in a single photograph. But the photos in this guide are a joy to look at, whether you are trying to identify a bird or are just flipping through the book.

bluebird spread
The layout of the book makes it very easy to use. Similar species are grouped together, and the text and range maps are directly across from the photos.  I really like how the bird images spill out over the frame, making the birds look large and three-dimensional.

hummer spread
In the hummingbird section, several species are shown in positions that do not exhibit their bright colors. Since these colors are only visible at certain angles, these photos will be helpful to beginning birders who are confused when they see a hummingbird with a “black” head.

The text is concise but highlights all the key field marks and behaviors. You can’t read the text on the above screen captures, but you can see examples on the Princeton University Press website. A companion volume covers the species of eastern North America.

Goose article on line

I am contributing the occasional story to Fisher Communications, the company that owns several television stations in the Pacific NW. (If you have reached this blog for the first time through that site, welcome.) The piece is on the large flocks of geese that winter in the Willamette Valley. Here’s the link.


Happy Birthday, RTP

August 28, 2008 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Roger Tory Peterson. Peterson is largely credited with bringing birdwatching to the common folk, where before it was limited to those collectors with shotguns and academic types with their specimen trays. The first edition of Peterson’s guide to eastern birds appeared in 1934, and it quickly became the standard tool for identifying living birds.

I began birding with the Peterson guide, and enjoyed the major improvements of the 1980 edition. I was living in Kansas when the 1990 edition of the Guide to Western Birds came out. That was also a vast improvement over previous editions, although living in the center of the continent, I still needed both eastern and western guides to cover all the bases.

In recent years, the Peterson guides were surpassed by others. The Sibley Guide set a new standard with its illustrations of different age classes and showing each species in flight. The National Geographic guide, with its every-bird-in-one-handy-volume format keeps getting better with every edition. As our knowledge of bird identification increased, the Peterson guides proved to be increasingly inadequate. A prime example was the blatantly inaccurate depiction of Thayer’s Gull.

But that has changed. In celebration Peterson’s centennial, and in an effort to maintain the legacy (and cash flow) of the Peterson name, Houghton-Mifflin has released a new Peterson guide to the birds of North America. Combining the eastern and western guides into one volume, the publishers have enlisted the help of several artists and writers to update Peterson’s work. The end result is actually very impressive.

The format of the book is larger than the original, making the illustrations larger and easier to study. There are small range maps opposite each species account, and a section of larger maps in the back of the book.

Most importantly, some of the plates have been altered to reflect our current understanding of bird identification. With the new guide, you can actually tell a Thayer’s Gull from a Herring Gull with some certainty.

Although Peterson died in 1996, the new Peterson guide does an admirable job of continuing his work. If you are one of the millions of birders who got their start with a Peterson guide, the new guide may serve as both a fond reminder of your past and as a useful guide for your continued growth. That seems a fitting tribute to Dr. Peterson.

Cackling and Canada Geese

My current birding project is studying the various races of Cackling and Canada Geese (Branta hutchinsii and Branta canadensis). Canada Goose was split into these two species in 2004. There are multiple races of each, so it is a good idea to become familiar with all the different forms in case more splits occur. If nothing else, it adds a bit of a challenge when confronted with a large congregation of geese.

In the Pacific Northwest, there are four races of Canada Goose (Western, Vancouver, Dusky, and Lesser) and three races of Cackling Goose (Taverner’s, Aleutian, and Cackling). The greatest identification challenge seems to be differentiating between Lesser Canada Goose and Taverner’s Cackling Goose. The two overlap in size and color, and different sources give conflicting information about their characteristics. The best field mark on close birds seems to be the shape and relative length of the bills; short and steep on Taverner’s, longer and more sloping on Lesser Canada.

Here are a few websites that you may find helpful in learning the various races of white-cheeked geese. David Sibley’s notes that were written just after the species were split. Good information, but not complete, especially regarding the Lesser Canada/Taverner’s Cackling issue. Harry Krueger’s site. This is a work in progress, but it offers great information on several subspecies. This 83-page publication from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is a wealth of information and photographs. Be warned; this publication is intended for hunter education, so some of the photos are of “harvested” birds.

Cackling Cackling Goose (top) and possible Lesser Canada Goose