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book review: butterfly people

Silver-bordered FritillaryThe benefits of casual browsing struck again when I espied Butterfly People at the Rutland Free Library. A rainbow of multicolored butterflies covered a book set atop the ‘new selections’ case. Like nectar, it drew me in. A quick thumb through revealed many plates of butterflies and moths illustrated with artists’ skillful drawings, saturated with deep oranges, yellows and blues. They evoked a collision of sensuous beauty with scientific detail – wing venation to internal organ systems. Such enticement is the jewel in William Leach’s historic chronicle of nineteenth century America’s infatuation with butterflies.

The Victorian world is often acclaimed as the ‘heyday’ of natural history. Similar to what I related regarding early gatherers of bird eggs in my review of Oology and Ralph’s Talking Eggs, butterfly collection had become a frenzied mania. To capture hundreds of butterflies during a day’s outing was routine. As with bird eggs, butterflies were a marketable commodity, with advertisers searching for distinct species. Henry Edwards amassed 250,000 specimens.

The adventurous and harrowed lives of many ‘butterfly people’ are outlined by Leach, highlighting the curious ways they became enamored of butterflies. One of the chief collectors, Wm. Henry Edwards was a West Virginian coal mining kingpin. Many had another primary day job: Herman Stecker was a stone mason. Very few arose from a professional science background because they were the first ones writing the biological science of butterflies, dissecting and describing morphology, analyzing and comparing species.

American LadyTwo of the main contentions were species distinction and taxonomy. Sexual dimorphism of males and females, and sometimes significant changes in the mature winged adult throughout its lifespan, were the source of much confusion and heated debate. Arguments also arose over taxonomic nomenclatures – should it be Linnaean, alluding to antigenic relations, or should just a common vernacular name be attached? Stecker named one moth “Eudaemonia jehovah.” At this even his religious friends thought he had breached conventional standards of decency. Another source of dispute and rancor (Darwin having lately arrived on the scene) was whether each species was a perfected end in itself or represented evolutionary adaptations over eons. In fact, sixty fossil butterflies were discovered during this time.

An interesting parallel between today and these 19th century butterfly people, popped out to me. Today many birders saunter out and post their notable findings on eBird or similar websites and listservs for professionals such as the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and etc. to encounter, accumulate, consolidate and arrive at hypotheses on species survival or decline, distribution, etc. Similarly the Victorian ‘butterfly people’ often fell into two groups. The collectors did the field work, catching as much as possible and shipping their harvest off to those like Wm. Henry Edwards who spent most of his hours at his desk in his library, examining specimens and writing the first catalog listings of butterflies and moths.

This is a fascinating story, well written, except that I often had trouble keeping straight Wm. Henry Edwards and Henry Edwards, two separate collectors who were close colleagues. It makes one long for earlier decades when there was such a widespread enthusiasm to get outside and experience and learn more about the natural world. Even further, one hopes mankind harbors a deeper reverence for nature beyond the monetary economies of the ‘collecting bug.’

Be sure to check the RCAS Flickr page for more photos of some of the beautiful butterflies that can be seen in Vermont.


book review: The Handbook of Bird Photography

The Handbook of Bird Photography by Markus Varesvuo, Jari Peltomäki and Bence Máté is a recently published tome directing dedicated bird photographers through the in-depth information they need to develop their skills, with the goal of producing exceptional bird photos, whether for documentation or artistic purposes. Equipment and techniques are delineated, but the main emphasis is on field work. Digital image processing and computer manipulations have been left out of the book. Indeed, the authors state that their aim is to present a balanced mix of informative reading and enjoyable viewing. Markus Varesvuo, Jari Peltomäki and Bence Máté, the authors, hail from Scandinavia and Hungary, and the photos are skewed toward that region. Ring Ouzel, Red-flanked Bluetail, Siberian Jay, Eurasian Griffin, Dalmatian Pelican and Western Capercaillie are just a few examples of birds they photographed that are unfamiliar in the Americas. Each of these three authors has won various photographer of the year awards.

The professional bird photographer will be the one who finds this book most valuable. At that level, equipment includes a high-end DSLR camera in the $6,000-$8,000 range. (Semi-professional cameras can be had for $1,000-$4,000, whereas amateur DSLRs will only cost you $600-$1,600.) Truly dedicated bird photographers pack two DSLR cameras in their bags: one with a wide-angle lens for bird flocks, and a second with a telephoto lens for close-ups. Additional technical chapters give highly detailed discussions of sensors, lenses, telephoto extenders, continuous high-speed shooting, exposure, light metering, etc.

To the average bird enthusiast, all of this sounds very haughty, but it is essential knowledge to creating breathtaking award-winning photos. Even so, the authors recognize the proper place of precise technical skills, for they repeatedly state that the most aesthetically pleasing bird photos are grounded in following several general rules of thumb which can be practiced by any photographer. Foremost, knowledge of bird behavior and biology will improve your photography; the best photos are the result of spending long stretches of time with one species. Experience in the field, and viewing field conditions, as well as the bird, is prime. Photographers should let birds approach them and not vice versa (birds will move away). In this vein, all three authors strongly suggest using a blind. Although the book illustrates several elaborate settings, their point is that any good coverage is an immense help, as well as subdued or camouflage clothing. Also, it is well to remember that headwinds are better for photographers than birds flying with a tailwind because a headwind forces the birds to fly closer to the earth’s surface.

Reading through the book, as a ‘newbie’ myself in the leap from 35 mm to digital photography, I began to understand that the way to improve your photos is to progress from a reactive “point and shoot” photographer, to one who plans to capture a subject utilizing whatever limited (and hopefully increasing) skills one has to, to proactively create a good shot. And though the book gives insider tips for stunning scenes (migration across the sheen of the aurora borealis, anyone?), there are plenty of practical, simple tips for photographing in mist, fog, falling snow - and that bane of all nature photographers – when your subject is just behind a prominent branch. Getting beyond point and shoot requires looking for new angles and adding a little bit extra: the light of a beautiful evening, dramatic backlighting, or an interesting background. Creating a controlled, simulated setting need not be so involved that it is best left to the professional. Anyone can set out berries or dead rodents as a lure. And there is a way to install a small mirror at a bird bath to give nice backlit features.

Lastly, it is probably the undefinable that results in the greatest photos. It is an inner aesthetic receptiveness to the beautifully enticing: that which the photographer perceives without technical or site manipulation. My favorite photo (page 27) is of Red Phalarope gingerly stepping through a pool or red reflective water. The photographer had been taking various close-ups of the phalarope when he suddenly noticed that his travel partner had moved to a position such that his bright red feathers were making interesting patterns of deep red way reflections right around the bird.

The $50 price for this book (358 pages) is somewhat daunting. But from my amateur’s viewpoint, this is an extremely valuable addition to the professional’s reference shelf. For the amateur, there is still a lot of useful material to start working with to begin moving beyond common frustrations and toward more satisfying photos. And for the rich and famous with no prior bird interest, you could spend $50 on a lot less healthy things to lift your mood. The photos are exquisite, and you’ll spend a few hours transporting your mind through ethereal realms of nature’s beauty.

(In the interest of full disclosure, RCAS was given a free copy of this book provided we would give a public book review. The above represents my honest opinion of the book, and I have not received any personal compensation in preparing this review).

 For a list of other books we’ve reviewed, click here.


book review - The Bluebird Effect: Uncommon Bonds with Common Birds

Julie Zickefoose is a bird person. I tender that characterization, not tongue-in-cheek, but in all sincerity and as an honorific. Indeed, she herself is certain that the young orphan chicks for which she cares, consider her their mother.

In The Bluebird Effect – Uncommon Bonds with Common Birds, she relates her observations of many years rehabilitating birds and raising newborns and nestlings. She parents them with a broad knowledge of each species’ specific requirements. Although she does not claim professional veterinary or ornithology credentials, she utilizes all the exacting maneuvers needed to examine an injured bird and determine which particular muscle or bone is damaged. If there was a likely assailant (cat, fox), she knows the type of injury to look and test for. And yes, she’ll know just how to set the wing or leg, often using household items.

a juvenile Eastern Bluebird at Bomoseen State ParkI was also struck by her patience. The young chicks require more care than her own two children, Phoebe and Liam, with feedings at twenty-minute intervals. Concocting multi-ingredient omelets (her term) to feed the chicks, is her first duty upon arising. And as humans would make their choice of cut of beef (tenderloin, flank, ribs), she is well-versed in the selective mealworm parts preferred by her fastidious dependents.

Her aim in these endeavors, and in writing the book, was not only to give her best effort toward bird restoration, but also to learn from those birds under her care. To fully encompass this objective, she has created drawings and watercolors of the chicks as they healed, matured, and fledged. I was particularly moved by the paintings of feeble newborns, in which Julie’s glazes of maroon, mauve and dull ochre manifest watercolor as the perfect medium for depicting the chicks, limpid, translucent skin.

This delightful, yet serious, book is a confluence of science and soul. Julie Zickefoost has the skills and knowledge to attend to the physical needs of her subjects, yet she recognizes the individual personality in each. She triumphs upon discovering, perched, on their favorite backyard branch, her previous summer’s fledglings. After a winter’s migration, they have found their way back home. Conversely, she is not above expressing profound grief at chick failures and death.

This book is available at the Rutland Free Library.


book review - the birds of heaven: travels with cranes

In his introduction, Peter Matthiesen asserts that to understand the origin and previous nature of a single living thing (as he attempts with his transcontinental research of the status of 'Grus' - crane species), is one way to grasp the main perspectives of environment and biodiversity. He bears this out in his book, as he not only informs us of worldwide studies of crane populations, breeding sites and migration routes, but also puts such work within the scope of differing cultural environmental attitudes and the consistent flux of biodiversity.

Sandhill Crane in Brandon, VermontAbout the first quarter of the book is given to Matthiesen's peregrination traversing breeding grounds in the Siberian watershed of the Amur River, on into Mongolia and central Asia, culminating in a large international crane conference. At first, the reader is heartened to discover that there are knowlegeable ornithologists in remote lands dedicated to crane preservation and restoration. Yet their earnest good will and work is still riven by simmering longstanding political animosities: on a multicultural river-based crane survey on the Amur River, the Chinese complain they have not been given their fair share of limited places on an onshore excursion, while Russians grumble that the Chinese are too starchly dressed, with shoes and shirts, for field work.

Likewise, those motivated to advocate development of large crane reserves face the oft unspoken conundrum that the Chinese like the idea of nature as an abstract, witnessed by the prominence of it in their art, but the reality makes them uneasy. In the Cultural Revolution, cranes were decimated as a food source, despite their traditional spiritual embodiment as sentinels of heaven, omens of longevity and good fortune. More recently, in San Jiang, or Three Rivers, which is the heart of the breeding range of the Red-Crowned Crane, the wetlands were drained to create seven hydroelectric dams and the "Great Northern Breadbasket."

Matthiesen's travels in search of cranes take more than a decade, and he presents them in reverse chronological order, beginning with the most recent in Siberia, gradually going back in time through China, Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia, India, Africa, Australia, Europe and North American (South America has no cranes). Specific facts of crane behavior, anatomy, coloration, etc., are introduced along the way. An interesting point noted is that cold climate species lay darker eggs, whereas white eggs will reflect the heat of a warmer climate.

The author describes each species more specifically as he encounters them: there are eleven species of the genus Grus. Oddly it is not until page 147 that he goes into a more comprehensive comparison of each species' color pattern variations, facial features, size, calls, etc., that result in the current genus and species delineation. I would have appreciated a few pages of such a didactic approach at the beginning, to get me grounded. An immense aid in this respect, are several pages of eloquent crane paintings by Robert Bateman, an acclaimed wildlife artist. These are not field book rendtions, but figurative work of cranes in their habitat - preening, calling, wading, and flying. All have a softened tone, in keeping with the legendary sentiment of a mystical bird. There are also four pages of "portraits" which allow closer study of head colors and markings.

This book also is a traveler's essay since Mattiesen is very dependent on local guides, not only for reaching prospective crane sites, but also for shelter, food, and vehicular transport. Thus the reader learns much of the cultural and physical differences of inner and outer Mongolians, the details of ger (yurt) construction, and, in India, the complexities of dodging Hindu and Muslim riots to get to the hinterland.

Overall, I came off impressed by the great fluidity of crane numbers and success, their travels and breeding grounds. After all, in 1979, more than three centuries after it was last reported, the Eurasian Crane returned to England as a breeding species. Yes, the declines and absences are often of human origin, but they may also be due to natural disasters or incremental enviromental changes. Some are still a mystery.

At the end, I believe Peter Matthiesen is still hopeful. He was triumphant, when in attempts to develop a non-migrating crane population in Florida, after 211 trasport egg tries (cranes lay two eggs; since usually only one survives, the second is often taken by scientists for studies and to establish captive flocks), one Whooping Crane was finally hatched, the first born in the U.S. in sixty years.

This book is available at the Rutland Free Library.

Note: Aside from the endanged Whooping Crane, North America has a healthy population of Sandhill Cranes. While usually found well west of Vermont, a pair of Sandhills has successfully bred in the Bristol area for several years. Occasionally in migration Sandhill Cranes may be spotted in Rutland County such as one in Brandon last spring (see photo). Click here for an eBird map of Sandhill Crane sightings in Vermont.


pete dunne on bird watching

I was presented Pete Dunne on Bird Watching, for review, by another Auduboner, who thought it was a good introductory book that, while slightly dated (2003),  is still available and ought to be more well known.

Pete Dunne as authored many books on birds and bird watchingCertainly Pete Dunne is to be acknowledged for taking a holistic approach to birding, by accruing numerous diverse skills in order to successfully identify birds in the field. But I don’t consider this a beginner’s book. It is not a handy guide to keep in the glove box or on the windowsill to determine what flits by in the campground or backyard. Having finished chapter one, I felt he was writing at least for the serious beginner. By the end of the book, I concluded that Mr. Dunne’s audience is the committed birder, well on his or her way to building a life list, with enough experience to ask intelligent questions the likes of which he can answer.

Binoculars and spotting scopes are discussed at length in several chapters. Here must be everything you will ever need to know about the optics of lenses and the critical evaluations to consider when purchasing (porro vs. roof prisms, lens coatings, BAK-4 vs. BK-7 glass, optimal magnifications, etc.). The avid birder will be more confident when shopping for optical accessories. The beginning birder will be daunted by Dunne’s assessment that any binoculars with a tag less than $200 isn’t worth a second look.

Dunne follows with a detailed description of the maneuvers for correct use of binoculars, an acquired skill of frustrated beginners. He nearly envisions the experience birder as performing a choreography of mind-hand-binocular-bird intuitive flow of action for maximum identification success.

Although this is not a typical field guide akin to Sibley, Peterson, etc., Dunne does give a nod to their variable design, accuracy and illustration format. Here

 a subsection covers process guides, “those guides that work best are those whose format is not so much anchored in a process as an embodiment of it.” This sounds to me, that if you’re well-versed in such apparently biblical field guides, you’ve mastered the Tao Te Ching of birding!

A chapter on where to bird mentions various local sites by habitat, noting that some of the best birding is upwind of sewage treatment plants, and gives extensive coverage of hotspots across the country and abroad, as well as pelagic (by sea) adventures.

Scattered throughout the book are inserts by guest writers with tips and anecdotes, such as one beginner’s expedition being matched with an (unknown to her) expert birder on a Christmas Bird Count.

Dunne is at his best when he comes down to reiterating his ten steps of bird identification, only the first few of which concern size, shape, and field marks. The more experienced birder then knows to consider behavior, flight patterns, ground and roosting activity, habitat, nearby birds, reaction to human presence, etc. He gives ample pages enlarging on these nuances.

Nonetheless, Dunne does seem to delight in propounding the proper ‘pishing’ pronunciation protocol, or enthralling with the near esoteric, as how to predict a fallout by watching the moon with your spotting scope on the night before you plan to go birding.

Fortunately, for the novice, such terms as “fallout” or “passerine,” glided by in the text, are defined by a glossary at the end of the book, where there is also an American Birding Association Checklist of the Birds of North America and a code of birding ethics.

This book is an omnibus of all things about birding outside of classic field guide identification. It will refine your skills and advance you toward your goal of expert birders. It is clear that the author finds himself a guru in that category.

The book is available at the Rutland Free Library and also at Amazon.com where it received a rating of four out of five stars.