Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Book Review: Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding

(Transcript of For the Birds for July 28, 2011
Imagine being able to go out on hundreds of birding excursions with one of the finest authorities on bird identification in the world. And imagine that he’s endlessly patient, explaining every step of how he identifies each bird, giving you a wealth of tips so you can more clearly understand why a bird’s picture in a field guide does not perfectly match the bird you’re actually seeing. His advice and information are top level, yet he is always friendly and easy to understand.

We may not all get to go birding with Kenn Kaufman, but we don’t need to as long as we have his book, the Field Guide to Advanced Birding. If you’re a beginner, please don’t let the term “advanced birding” scare you away. This book has a clearer, simpler explanation of the steps we take when looking at an unfamiliar bird to figure out what it is than any field guide on the market. I used to say that if you want to be a birder, there are two essentials—binoculars to help you see birds better, and a field guide to help you identify them. But Kenn Kaufman’s guide does more to explain in simple steps how we identify birds than any single book ever written.

The 38 pages of the book’s first and second parts, “An Integrated Approach to Field Identification of Birds” and “Principles and Pitfalls of Field Identification” can give any beginner a firm grounding that will make bird identification much easier. He also explains some of the tricky situations that can make figuring out a bird harder. Feathers may show abnormal pigmentation, can become discolored, stained, or faded, or may be broken, missing, or disarranged. Bills can be broken or deformed. A bird may actually be a hybrid with parents of different species, or an escaped pet native to another continent.

Even as he discusses the many reasons an individual bird might be harder than usual to identify definitely, he reassures his readers, “If any group of birds leaves you confused, irritated, or uninterested, it’s okay to simply ignore that group,” and notes that “As long as you’re not causing serious disturbance to the birds, their habitat, or other people, there is no ‘wrong way’ to go birding,” and continues, “I’ve often said that birding is something that we do for enjoyment—so, if you enjoy it, you’re a good birder. If you enjoy it a lot, you’re a great birder. If, as a great birder, you decide to learn more about identifying difficult species, I hope this book will help you. But if you decide not to tackle these challenges, please continue to pursue your birding in whatever way brings you the most satisfaction.”

The book has not just the simplest explanations and illustrations of feather wear and molt I’ve ever seen, but also the best coverage of how feathers are arranged. Even really advanced birders can benefit from the chapters helping identify specific groups. Seabirds, raptors, shorebirds, gulls, terns, jaegers, flycatchers, swallows, warblers, sparrows—no matter what a birder’s nemesis birds might be, Kenn’s guide has wonderful tips for reducing the number of question marks on our trip lists. And for advanced birders, the book also serves as a wonderful tutorial on how to teach novices about birds. Most birders who have been able to identify birds since childhood are not good about articulating the differences between groups that seem so obvious to them that they’ve never thought deeply about the ways they’re alike as well as different. Kenn doesn’t shout across the chasm to beginners that it’s easy to cross—the bridge is right over there. No, he walks across and leads you by the hand. In my opinion, after reading it cover to cover, Kenn Kaufman’s Field Guide to Advanced Birding is not just a great bird identification book. It’s the greatest bird identification book.