How to Be a Better Birder is a very different kind of birding book, and, once you think about it, the perfect book to be written at this particular moment in the birding universe. Reading it might take a little bit of adjustment, because for many of us, being a better birder has meant perfecting our identification skills. We buy field guide after field guide, have long discussions on which is the best, listen to bird song CDs in our cars, and invest in large, expensive handbooks. But, think about it: how much has been written about the process of birding, the skills required to find birds and to learn about birds in the field? Beginning birding guides, such as Birding Basics by David Sibley and National Geographic Birding Essentials, by Jonathan Alderfer and Jon Dunn, talk about optics, bird walks, how to approach (or not approach) the bird.
Lovitch takes the practice of birding ten steps beyond. He writes about how experienced birders think, and how they draw on the sciences of weather, geography, and ecology to analyze where the birds will be. Because, the main way to be a better birder, he points out over and over, is to bird, and the best way to bird is to be where the birds are, and the best way to be where the birds are is to know how to make a very good educated guess with the help of a map, a weather report, and some NEXRAD radar reports, analyzed in the context of many days of bird observation. The cover of the book (not of Derek Lovitch) gives you some idea of the tools the better birder needs in the early 21st-century. (That’s NEXRAD radar map in the left binocular lens and a surface weather map on the right. And, oh, a Painted Bunting, photographed by Richard Crossley, on top of the poor birder’s head. I am told the birder is NOT Derek Lovitch, who is pictured below.)
Although Lovitch starts his book with a chapter on “Advanced Field Identification”, he doesn’t talk about diagnostic field marks or primary feathers or differences in bird song. There are other resources that do this better, he says, and, in fact, spends 10 pages recommending field and advanced bird guides, web sites, magazines, and listservs. His main purpose here is presenting the way he looks at birds, “the whole bird and more” approach to birding. This holistic outlook goes beyond GISS (general impression of size and shape); it encourages thinking about the bird in the context of its environment, taking into account behavior and habitat as well as silhouette and proportion. Lovitch wants to put the “watching” back into birdwatching. He also wants to put the “notes” back into field notes. So, the first lesson in how to be a better birder? Watch and write.
In the following four chapters, Lovitch talks about “Birding by Habitat”, “Birding with Geography”, “Birding and Weather”, and “Birding at Night” (which is about reading radar and listening to nocturnal flight calls, not owling). The Habitat chapter is divided into “Bird Identification by Habitat” and “Bird Finding by Habitat”. A lot of the material here may be familiar to experienced birders —the importance of tides to finding shorebirds, awareness of microhabitat, the helpfulness of being able to identify plants and trees—but Lovitch challenges us to think more comprehensively about questions of habitat, such as the function of invasive plants in urban areas and microhabitats in our local patches.
Lovitch makes a strong case that birders should do more than twitch rarities found by someone else or following directions in bird finding books. The good birder aspires to find birds on his or her own, especially those vagrants. And one of those tools is Geography. So, while he does address bird identification in the Geography chapter, he spends most of his time on “Bird Finding with Geography” and the value of peninsulas, islands, and latitude. The Geography chapter won my heart with this sentence: “In addition to a pair of binoculars, a spotting scope, a field guide, and a notebook, the advancing birder is not fully equipped without a good map.” Not a GPS. An M-A-P. I love maps. Maps give birders the larger picture.
The chapter on Weather starts to bring all of these topics together, because a birder thinking about weather is thinking about migration. (O.k., you can also be thinking about whether you need an umbrella, but in the larger birding sense, weather is key.) And, if you’re thinking about how weather conditions will affect migration, you need to factor in geography and habitat. There is a lot in this chapter about fallouts and tropical storms, but there are also guidelines for analyzing the commonplace, case studies of how shorebirds are grounded by a strong storm system and how increased tailwinds may result in wonderful rarities that have ended up too far north.
At the end of this chapter, Lovitch takes us through his daily weather routine, which web sites he uses and what sections he reads on those sites. I think intermediate and experienced birders will find this and the following chapter on reading radar extremely helpful. The “Birding at Night” chapter is one of my favorites. Less anecdotal, more textbook-style than the others, it takes us step-by-step through the process of accessing NEXRAD radar images and interpreting what they mean. It really is birding by night, because it involves seeing the birds through technology. Reading radar has become the latest frontier for ornithologists and birders, and it’s nice to know that anyone with Internet access and an appetite for a challenge can try it. Lovitch rightly recommends David La Puma’s Woodcreeper website as “one of the best and most accessible blogs about birding by radar”. I would like to add Badbirdz Reloaded, a companion site on Florida migration, run by Angel and Mariel Abreu.
Lovitch changes gears with the chapter “Birding with a Purpose”, in which he addresses the win-win of citizen science (called a buzzword, for some reason), gives resources for birding conservation, Christmas Bird Counts, breeding bird surveys, where to find birding job opportunities, and describes, all too briefly, the use of eBird. The chapter “Vagrants” promotes the joys and difficulties of finding that mega-rarity on your own, giving Lovitch’s own experiences using habitat, geography, and weather to make rarity predictions that unfortunately don’t come true. And, as much as Lovitch knows the fun and intensity of “rarity fever”, he also understands that most birders spend their time looking at local birds. The book ends with a paean to the everyday ordinary and its promise of becoming extraordinary (yes, a vagrant in your patch!), a chapter about “Patch Listing”.
But, before we get to the patch, Lovitch takes us to his home state of New Jersey for a “Case Study” in applying his principles and better birding skills on the road. I loved this chapter. First of all, I work in New Jersey and I’m familiar with all the places he describes. (If I ever meet Derek Lovitch, we really need to have a talk about Helyar Woods.) Second, Lovitch does not bird New Jersey alone; in his travels from Garrett Mountain to Cape May to Brigantine to Sandy Hook, he is accompanied by people like David LaPuma, Michael O’Brien, and Scott Barnes, and it’s a pleasure to see these guys in action. Third, this really is an example of real life birding; it reads almost like a thriller as Lovitch and O’Brien realize they miscalculated and are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Can they make it to the Higbee dike in time for the Big Morning Flight of the season?
Lovitch’s writing style is low-key and conversational, embedding lessons about geography and habitat into personal stories drawn from his many years birding across the United States as a tour leader, interpretative naturalist, researcher, writer, and just plain birder. (He currently owns and runs Freeport Wild Bird Supply in Maine.) His style might not appeal to everyone, especially if you prefer learning primer-style. On the other hand, this is complicated stuff! The book is full of references to recommended books , articles, and web sites. If Lovitch’s main message is that to be a better birder you need to bird, the corollary is that you also need to read. And think. And write. And, talk to other birders.
The one thought that kept running through my head as I read How to Be a Better Birder was that it really should have been named How to Be a Strategic Birder. Strategic has become an overused word in some areas, but that is really what Derek Lovitch is presenting in this slim volume, a way to maximize our time in the field, to see the most and the best birds possible using field experience and technology. Do you want to be a better birder, a strategic birder? I think there is something in this book that will help birders at every level. And, I hope that How to Be a Better Birder is the first of a series of books about this new way of thinking about the practice of birding.
Now, tell me, if you were to write a birding self-help book what would be YOUR first rule to being a better birder?
How to Be a Better Birder
by Derek Lovitch
Princeton University Press, 2012, 208p.
53 color illus. 10 maps.
Softcover, $19.95, ISBN: 9780691144481