Sample text for Pete Dunne's essential field guide companion / Pete Dunne.
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A Guide to the Guide
How To Make This Book Work For You
There is nothing particularly complicated about a guide to bird identification.
All it is (or hopes to be) is a book that explains what to look for to distinguish
one species from another. In addition, both directly and indirectly it tells you
how to go about doing so. For this book to work for you, you don"t need to
know any more than this. All you have to do is turn to the account of a
species of interest. Read the text. Bring the information to bear in the field, or
in the case of a bird you"ve already found and studied, compare the text to
the details housed in your memory (or inscribed in your field notes) and see
whether you have a match.
But if you want to maximize the potential of this book, and if you
are the kind of person who is interested in the whys as much as the what
and the how, then you are invited to keep reading. Certain principles govern
the information provided here and the manner in which it is presented. If you
understand these principles, this book will serve you better.
First, insofar as this book is designed to be a supplement, it is
presumed that you already have one or more of the standard illustrated field
guides to birds at your disposal. As they have been since the publication of
the seminal Peterson field guide in 1934, a basic field guide is every birder"s
primary resource when confronting an identification challenge. This book is
meant to augment these primary guides by offering more information. It also
strives to present information as naturally as possible by replicating the
identification process used by an experienced birder: looking at the big
picture first and sleuthing for details later.
Inexperienced birders commonly use field marks to jump-start an
identification. Experienced birders use field marks to confirm it. For very
understandable reasons, standard field guides are thematically allied to the
jumpstart school. This guide is more wedded to process.
Don"t Keep an Open Mind
Even before they sight a bird, experienced birders are bringing their
experience to bear. They know that birds are creatures of habit and habitats
and that the nature of a habitat encourages certain species to be there and
discourages the presence of others. For example, you would expect to find a
Carolina Wren in a suburban, coastal community in New Jersey. You would
not expect a Rock Wren, a bird common to arid, rocky slopes.
Also, experienced birders know that different bird species have
defining ranges (Rock Wrens are western birds that are not found east of the
prairies, so they are not likely to be found in New Jersey) and that a bird"s
range is determined not only by geography but by seasons. The range of
Rock Wren extends into southern British Columbia, southern Alberta, and
southwestern Saskatchewan in the summer, but in the winter northern
breeding members of this species retreat farther south. This species is not
located in Canada in winter.
So when these birders go birding, their accumulated knowledge
and experience enable them to predict which birds they are likely to
encounter based on location, habitat, and time of year (among other clues).
And because they are able to go into the field juggling fewer variables, the
identification process is greatly simplified for them.
When a wrenlike bird pops up on a scree slope in June in the
Rocky Mountain foothills just west of Calgary, Alberta, they can test a
hypothesis-- "Is it Rock Wren?" (the expected species)--rather than
approach the problem by asking: "Now, which one of the nine species of
wrens found in North America is this?"
But, you may be saying, I"m not an experienced birder, so I
cannot apply such a search engine to filter what I see. That is exactly the
function of the introductory paragraph in each species account.
Identification Right Think
The introductory paragraph for each species provides a biographical
backdrop. The elements include STATUS, DISTRIBUTION, HABITAT,
COHABITANTS, and MOVEMENTS/MIGRATION. STATUS relates to the
bird"s numeric abundance and condition of residency (whether it is a
permanent resident, a summer or winter resident, a visitor, or a vagrant). You
are likely to see birds that enjoy large populations and less likely to see
those whose populations are small. The terms "common," "uncommon,"
and "rare" are most commonly used to describe a bird"s status. A "common"
bird is one you are very likely to encounter; "uncommon" refers to the bird
you might see, but perhaps another, similar (and perhaps more common) bird
should also be considered as a candidate. "Rare" birds are the ones you have
only a slim chance of encountering. If you encounter a bird that resembles a
rare species, your identification may well be correct, but you should
approach the possibility with caution.
DISTRIBUTION defines the geographic area in which the bird is
typically found. For some species, this remains fixed all year. For other
species, distribution shifts seasonally. HABITAT describes the biological
setting--climatic, topographical, and vegetative--that the species favors and
offers examples of such settings. COHABITANTS are the other birds (or
animals) that are also specialized for and likely to be found in a bird"s
preferred habitat. MOVEMENTS/MIGRATION provides the dates (and
sometimes the routes and key staging areas) a species moves between its
breeding and wintering areas; this passage sometimes carries the bird
across regions that do not fall within that species" breeding or winter range.
Taken in sum, STATUS, DISTRIBUTION, HABITAT,
COHABITANTS, and MOVEMENTS/ MIGRATION constitute the biological
framework that defines where a bird is likely to be and when it is likely to be
there--and thus whether a species is likely to be what you believe it to be.
In a word, these elements of species" biographical backdrop
define probability. Experienced birders use probability all the time, and
inexperienced birders eventually come to appreciate it. They also come to
understand that probability is not confining and in fact is empowering. It helps
turn a complicated question ("Now, which one of the 800 species of birds
found in North America is that?") into a simple one ("Is this the species I
You"re in Cape May Point, New Jersey. You see a large wren in a
suburban yard. The question you"ll ask is: Is it Carolina Wren, the default
large wren for the region? Almost always the answer is yes. But as salient a
factor as probability is, it is not determining. It suggests, but it doesn"t
certify. Probability has a qualifying companion called possibility. Birds don"t
always follow the rules. They sometimes turn up outside their prescribed
ranges and in marginal or ill-suited habitats or at odd times. Getting back to
the aforementioned Rock Wren, it so happens that in December 1992 a Rock
Wren was found in Cape May Point, New Jersey, rummaging around in the
scattered debris of a house under construction.
So the last piece of information imparted in the opening
paragraph, designated VI--short for VAGRANCY INDEX--is a conditional
modifier. This index relates to the known vagrancy tendencies of a species or
the possibility that it may turn up where it doesn"t belong (in terms of its
normal geographic distribution). There are five ratings.
0 No pattern of vagrancy. The chances of this species
being seen outside its range are scant to nil.
1 Some slight tendency to wander, but such
occurrences are regional, extending not far beyond the established borders of
the species" range, or there are simply very few records of vagrancy.
2 The species shows some modest pattern of vagrancy.
It is possible to encounter it outside its normal range but still not likely, and
you should consider other, more likely possibilities first.
3 This species has demonstrated an established,
widespread pattern of vagrancy. Ignore the range descriptions. This bird could
be sighted almost anywhere.
4 The species is so widespread that there are few places
left in North America for it to wander.
If you don"t care to remember the particulars, just remember the
rating system. The lower the number, the less likely a species is to wander.
Birds Are the Sum of Their Parts (and More), or, But How Did You Know It
Was a Wren and Not a Swan?
The field marks used to differentiate birds relate most often to structure and
plumage. Used in concert to make an identification, both are important. But a
bird"s structural characteristics are in many ways more fundamental and
more determining. More than plumage, structural attributes (such as bill
shape, neck length, body shape, leg length, or foot shape) link birds to
closely related species; also, because these attributes vary less between the
ages and sexes within a species, they are commonly not as variable or
transitional as plumage. Accordingly, the description for every species looks
first at structure and concludes with plumage, focusing first upon the most
SIZE AND OVERALL SHAPE: Birders argue as to whether size or
shape is a bird"s most determining characteristic (the one experienced
birders note first when making an identification). The fact is that most birders
see and assess these qualities simultaneously, thus quickly simplifying the
STRUCTURAL CHARACTERISTICS: Bill size, shape, and length,
head size and shape, the contours of a bird"s neck, the shape of its body,
the length of its legs, the shape of its feet--all constitute important,
determining structural characteristics. These morphological traits divide birds
into groups, such as sandpipers, hawks, gulls, warblers, or finches. Placing
a bird in the right group is the next major step in the identification process.
The rest comes down to details--those related to gradations in structure (like
the small differences in the bill structure between Western, Semipalmated,
and Least Sandpipers) and those relating to plumage.
PLUMAGE: Once size, shape, and structural components have
been noted, identification is often a simple matter of making a determination
between two (or three) similar species. This is the stage in the identification
process where plumage is often most useful. Some plumage-related traits
(field marks) are blatant (such as the all-red plumage of a breeding male
Summer Tanager or the unique and colorful pattern of a male Harlequin
Duck). Some are more subtle but no less determining (such as the lime
green back of a nonbreeding Chestnut-sided Warbler). But the plumage
characteristics of many birds are not so singular and are shared to some
degree by closely related species (for example, the plumage of female
Bluewinged, Cinnamon, and Green-winged Teals). In this case it is
necessary to use a combination of plumage (and anatomical) traits to
differentiate the birds.
And then there are birds that so very closely resemble related
species that the similarities are commanding and the differences subtle.
When dealing with species such as Dusky and Gray Flycatchers, you often
have no alternative but to pay attention to fine details of plumage and
structure. But there are additional clues that may build a case for one
species and parry away the possibility of another. Many of these relate to
Before focusing on behavior, let"s return to the beginning of this
section, where I skipped a subjective but important element in the
identification process. Birds are more than a bunch of isolated and
idiosyncratic field marks.
They are living entities. They are the sum of their parts, and they
project qualities that are in concert with what they are. Birds often look
different or behave differently because they are different.
It"s easy to tell a wren from a swan. But telling Tundra Swan from
Trumpeter Swan is more troublesome. You can look at the bill and try to
catch a yellow spot on the base (a characteristic often seen on Tundra Swan)
or the narrow, orange line that defines the gape of Trumpeter. Or you can
look at the whole bird and determine whether it looks lithe (with its head
erect), which is typical of Tundra Swan, or tired and slouched (with its neck
couched or folded back onto the neck), which is the posture commonly
adopted by Trumpeter Swan. Birders have a term for this projection of posture
or sense of shape: GISS (General Impression of Size and Structure,
pronounced gizz or jizz). GISS is a subjective clue, and its primary
usefulness is to alert birders to the possibility that a bird is different or
unexpected. It can also be very useful to the birder studying a bird at such a
distance that classic field marks relating to plumage and shape are difficult to
In the nickname or introductory tag line for each species, and
often in a sentence introducing the species description, I have tried to
capture something of the bird"s essence or gestalt. It is not as determining
as a field mark, but it is often suggestive and sometimes commanding.
BEHAVIOR: The inherent shortfall with most field guides is that
they treat identification as a static process. They depict birds in a fixed
posture, with distinguishing field marks shown to best effect. The reality is
very different. Bird identification is in fact a dynamic process. Birds are
animate. They move and assume different postures, often treating observers
to views that are not replicated in guides and demonstrating mannerisms that
are difficult or impossible to get across in a photo or illustration.
Behavior can be as determining as structure and plumage in
differentiating birds, both between species groups and between individual
species-- even (and maybe particularly) in differentiating some that are very
Plovers walk, stop, and pick (like robins); sandpipers feed on the
Semipalmated Sandpiper likes to keep its feet wet; Least
Sandpiper more commonly forages on damp (even dry) ground, away from
the water"s edge (particularly when this smallest of sandpipers is feeding with
other small sandpipers).
Band-rumped Storm-Petrels tend to be more skittish than
Wilson"s Storm-Petrels. When flocks sitting on the water are approached,
the Bandrumped usually flushes first. Tennessee Warbler is usually a canopy
species (particularly in spring); the similar Orange-crowned Warbler most
commonly feeds lower (often in weedy tangles). Gray Flycatcher is a
compulsive tail wagger; the tail of Dusky is given to the occasional jerk but is
not habitually wagged with a downward pump.
FLIGHT: The bird behavior that our own species finds most
captivating is also one that is most challenging to the birder. Flight is the
characteristic that more than any other defines birds. The ability to move
through the air is not unique to birds (and in fact is not even practiced by all
birds), but it"s the trait that garners both our attention and our envy. Thus, it
is somewhat surprising that our ability to identify birds in flight and our means
of describing them lag so far behind our ability to identify birds that are
standing, swimming, or perching.
This is not true of all birds, of course. The flight profiles and styles
of some birds (most notably hawks and seabirds) have been carefully studied
for years, and field marks that work in this challenging arena have been
Each species account in this book describes the bird in flight.
Some of these descriptions are cursory, and others are more detailed.
In attempting to describe birds in flight, I found that I needed to
differentiate between terms that are often used interchangeably in everyday
usage. As you read the species accounts, it will be helpful to understand
how I use the following terms:
STRAIGHT FLIGHT: The bird moves forward without deviating
from its course. Example: American Crow.
WANDERING OR TACKING: The bird angles left, then right, then
left. Example: Northern Flicker or Say"s Phoebe.
YAWING OR TWISTY-TURNY: The bird flies straight but not on
an even keel--that is, it lists or favors one side, then leans to the other side.
Example: American Woodcock.
UNDULATING: There is a regular and even rise and fall to the
bird"s flight. Example: many woodpeckers.
BOUNCY OR BOUNDING: There is a regular, mostly even, rise
and fall to the bird"s flight, with deep oscillations. Example: American
JERKY: Bird flight characterized by abrupt, often irregular,
bounce. Example: many warbler species.
RISE AND FALL: The bird changes its elevation--flying slightly
higher, then dropping lower--but its flight is generally straight, and these
altitudinal shifts do not show an even, undulating pattern. Example: Common
Grackle or Baltimore and Bullock"s Orioles.
REGULAR OR STEADY WING BEAT: The bird moves its wings in
a steady, unbroken rhythm. Example: American Crow.
IRREGULAR WING BEAT: The bird moves its wings in a halting
or broken rhythm: Example: Belted Kingfisher.
FLAP AND GLIDE, OR A SERIES OF FLAPS FOLLOWED BY A
GLIDE: The bird"s flight consists of a series of wingbeats punctuated by
pauses lengthy enough to note that the bird is continuing to move forward.
Example: Sharp-shinned Hawk.
OPEN-WINGED GLIDE: The bird glides with wings open and
fanned. Example: Sharp-shinned Hawk.
CLOSE-WINGED GLIDE: The bird glides with wings closed and
pressed to the side. Example: grackles.
SKIP/PAUSE: The bird flies with a momentary break in the
rhythm (usually with wings closed) that is too terse to be called a glide.
Example: many warblers.
I should point out that many birds alter their manner of flight
according to conditions, objectives, and distance traveled. For example,
sparrows (among many other species) flying short distances are frequently
bouncy, but the same birds covering greater distance may be undulating or
show a less energetic rise and fall. Birds flying downhill may glide extensively
but then flap almost continuously, of necessity, when flying uphill. Birds
heading into a wind will flap more (and glide less) than birds flying with a light
tail wind. Courting birds exhibit all manner of energetic acrobatics that they
never resort to when their objective is locomotion, not procreation.
Despite these variables, the flight of most species is fairly
consistent, and while not necessarily defining, it can be an important aid to
identification. The fact is that many birds are seen mostly in flight (such as
many pelagic species), and some are most easily distinguished in flight.
Flight identification is one of birding"s frontiers. Here"s another.
VOCALIZATIONS: Next to flight, song is the expression that best
characterizes birds (and endears them to us). Many birds are easily and best
identified by their songs, and not a few by their calls. And although most
birds sing for only a portion of the year (just before and while they are
nesting), some sing all year, and most make some identifying vocalizations
or calls even in winter.
I was tempted to start each description of vocalizations with calls,
the short utterances that both sexes make all year as opposed to songs, the
more elaborate and lengthier vocalizations uttered mostly by males before
and during nesting. In the end I sided with convention. I describe songs first
(because they are, for the most part, more recognizable than calls), calls
next, and then, if I was familiar with them or information was available, the
flight calls of species.
PERTINENT PARTICULARS: Many of the species accounts
conclude with "pertinent particulars," which sometimes summarize key
points, sometimes compare similar species, and sometimes offer a tidbit
related to the finding or identifying of a bird. Using this vehicle, there are two
very pertinent particulars I want to bring to your attention. Both relate to how
these species descriptions will serve you.
Since the capacity to describe sound is directly related to a
person"s ability to perceive it, I had my hearing tested at the beginning of this
project and learned (as I have long suspected) that I am deficient in the upper
middle range. My hearing is average for low tones, the lower-middle range,
and very high tones, but at 4,000 Hz I am nearly 50 percent deficient in my
left ear and 20 percent deficient in the right. What this means is that it is
harder for me to hear sounds within this range than an average person, that
very probably I miss (or mishear) notes in this frequency, and that my
descriptions of bird songs will reflect this deficiency. (On the other hand, if
you misspent your youth hanging around loud machinery and shooting trap
without ear protection, as I did, then these descriptions are made to order.)
Second point: My sensitivity to color is acute. (Yes, I also had my vision
tested.) As evidence, when I look through a wide assortment of binocular
makes and models, I note on many a pink (or green or yellow) color bias, the
byproduct of certain lens coatings. When I see the heads of male scaup, I
have no difficulty perceiving purple or green (or determining which is
When I see and describe white, I note a great difference between
white and bright white. Here again, my senses (in this case a heightened
one) affect not only my perceptions but my descriptions. Again, adjust
Footnote on Field Guides
Insofar as this book is designed to be a companion to one or more of the very
fine field guides that are available, in humility and deference I would like to
offer readers my own thoughts about several popular guides. If you care to
regard my comments as an endorsement, please feel free. If you conclude
that my failure to discuss other guides constitutes a lack of regard for them, I
wouldn"t so presume.
As stated earlier, this project was initially conceived as a
companion guide for Roger Tory Peterson"s Eastern Birds (now also Western
Birds, which is being revised). Both of Roger"s guides have a proven track
record. Both are celebrated for their compelling simplicity and the empathetic
accord between the text and illustrations (because the author and the artist
were one). Roger"s approach to identification was anchored in the formative
age of birding when everything relating to field identification was new. In the
same way embryos pass through developmental stages that replicate the
evolutionary advance of life on Earth (more accurately, life in the sea), all
beginning birders must also begin with and pass through basic developmental
stages before moving on to greater proficiency.Written on the most basic
level, the Peterson Field Guides are easy for beginners to use.
The venerable "Golden Guide," or Birds of North America, by
Chandler S. Robbins, Bertel Bruun, and Herbert S. Zim, remains a utilitarian
masterpiece, best recognized for the simple brevity of its text and the
illustrations by Arthur Singer. Although this guide seems to have fallen out of
favor with birders in the inner circle, the partiality shown it by bird watchers
who do not consider the label "birder" fundamental to their identity or other
birders the cornerstone of their social network is impressive and can only be
attributed to the book"s continued merit.
The National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North
America, now in its fourth edition, is a birding hallmark. It is celebrated for its
thoroughness-- in its scope, attention to detail, and focus on regional forms
(subspecies). Virtually every species that has been recorded in North
America is depicted (and thus many birders in Alaska, birders along the
Mexican border, and pelagic birders on both coasts consider this guide their
book of first resort). In addition, its studied focus on regional forms enhances
the book"s value especially in the West, where multiple subspecies are more
often encountered. For the sake of accuracy, the text does use more
technical and less generic terms than some guides (including this one), and
presentation can rarely be seamless when multiple authors and artists are
employed. Despite these minor concerns, this is a great field guide and one
that I have found immensely useful for more than twenty years, both as a first
and last resort.
The Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America is wonderful--
intelligently conceived and carefully executed. What Kenn has done, through
brilliance and conscious design, is to craft a Peterson Field Guide for this
age. The text is not just simple and precise, but evocative. It doesn"t
just build an identification, but crafts an image of a living bird that can be
carried into the field. It uses well-chosen photos organized in a way that
facilitates comparison (an inherent shortfall of many other photo guides). I
used this guide extensively during my travels (for pleasure as much as
edification) and usually had it open to the appropriate page when writing my
own descriptions in this book. Few birders (and certainly no beginning
birders) should be without this guide. If you can own only two guides
(because it"s impossible to own just one), make this one of them.
In every generation there is someone who dominates his field.
When it comes to knowledge concerning the identification of North American
birds, few can stand on the same platform with David Sibley. But when it
comes down to recasting the world of birds in a field guide, none have done it
so brilliantly and completely as David has done in his Sibley Guide to Birds.
This guide is a symbiotic fusion of illustrations that are unsurpassed in their
accuracy and supportive text that is precise, groundbreaking, and spare--a
layout that is comparative genius. The book may fall short in only one
respect. Artists think visually. When they depict something, they assume
that people will perceive it. Sometimes they do not. At times during my
studies I discovered some characteristics relating to structure or plumage or
posture that I thought served to distinguish a species, and when I turned to
David"s guide I found it depicted (David"s eyes miss little and his eye is in
direct communication with his brush) but unsanctified by supporting text.
Still and all, no book published in this century (and only one in the
last) has been so catalytic a tool for bird identification. If you spend part of
your life studying birds, you cannot be without the Sibley Guide.
And since you have read, to this point, a great deal of text
dedicated to these ambitions, I must conclude that you are, like me, a
serious birder who strives to be a more accomplished birder.
Copyright © 2006 by Pete Dunne. Reprinted with permission by Houghton
Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Birds -- North America -- Identification.