A review by Nic Fieldsend
All the Birds of Nova Scotia: Status and Critical Identification, by Ian McLaren
Gaspereau Press, 2012
347 pages, $47.95—hardcover
I first arrived in Nova Scotia in the summer of 2010, and quickly became familiar with the name of Ian McLaren. This, I found out, was the person to call to arbitrate tough identification issues or to identify the distant bird in a blurry photo. Since then, my time in the field with him has only confirmed that McLaren is a font of ornithological knowledge, with a sharp eye for plumage variations and an equally sharp mind for the diagnostic features of any bird we encounter.
So it was with great expectations that I opened All the Birds of Nova Scotia, a book that local birders had been talking about for some time. The layout is easy on the eye, a nice selection of photographs breaks up the text, and the production quality from Gaspereau Press is of the handcrafted, award-winning caliber that we have come to expect from one of Canada’s most innovative publishers. But my first reaction was, “Is this it? Is this the sum total of knowledge about all the birds ever seen in Nova Scotia?” I was expecting a weighty tome for proud display on the coffee table, but this seemed to be little more than an annotated species list.
I didn’t need to delve much deeper before I began to appreciate the richness of the detail this book offers. The author’s stated goal is simple: to provide accounts of the status of all 486 species reported in the province of Nova Scotia up to the end of 2010. The accounts, which also treat distinctive subspecies, are preceded by an extended introduction, including a list of recommended identification guides and online resources; McLaren also provides an introduction to Nova Scotia’s geography and a discussion of how the province’s location makes it a prime site for migrants and vagrants.
As a relative newcomer to Atlantic Canada, I found the extensive section on weather systems and their influence on bird movements particularly interesting. McLaren uses data from specific Nova Scotia weather events, including some of the most notable hurricanes to hit these shores, to explain how to interpret forecasts to predict which species might turn up and where, giving his readers the tools to determine where and when we can hope for the best returns from our time in the field.
The status descriptions are easy to digest and very informative. Accounts vary in length: the House Sparrow, for example, widespread in most urban locations, warrants just a cursory paragraph, whereas the Red Crossbill, with its population variations, complex morphology, and irruptive behavior, is given two full pages that carefully highlight what to look for in each of the call types. The entries for birds that show significant racial or age-related variation, such as gulls and sparrows, are similarly detailed. Every account not only lists the subspecies seen in Nova Scotia, but also alerts birders to those races not yet recorded in the province that they should nevertheless look out for.
Many of McLaren’s species accounts go beyond temporal and spatial distribution to treat identification issues. Those discussions are illustrated by a range of carefully selected photographs; as the author notes, not all of the images are of award-winning quality, but their very realism makes them excellent practical aids to identification. Cropped insets highlight salient features, and side-by-side images allow direct comparison of similar species, including those where hybridization or geographic variation present special challenges, such as in the case of the Herring-Thayer’s-Kumlien’s-Iceland Gull complex. This approach to identification, using carefully annotated “everyday” photographs to simulate the experience of the observer in the field, makes All the Birds a valuable resource for all birders interested in the finer points of identification variation, whether we are located in Nova Scotia or not, inspiring us to greater thoroughness and a more critical approach in the field.
The book does have one significant limitation, the lack of a clearly presented overview of the actual numbers of the rarer birds observed in the province. Though specific records of vagrants are documented in extensive detail in the status accounts, it is hard to quickly compare the scarcity and frequency of different species or to get a sense of their vagrancy potential throughout the year. This difficulty could have been avoided with an appendix presenting the status of all the province’s species in tabular form, making it easier to compare their abundance and, within limits, to predict when a given bird might be more likely to turn up.
But that single flaw is far from fatal. For birders in Nova Scotia, All the Birds provides a comprehensive record of sightings to inform future observations. The book is even slightly prophetic: In the account of the Snow Goose, McLaren notes recent occurrences of the Ross’s Goose in other parts of the region, and indicates that Nova Scotia birders should be prepared to find the bird in their province, a prediction that came delightfully true earlier this year.
For the experienced birder anywhere in eastern North America, the level of detail this book presents is a joy, particularly the attention paid to distinguishing the races of widely distributed species and to better understanding subtle plumage and structural variations within a species. The information McLaren presents here will enliven, and sometimes settle, debates in living rooms and bird club meetings for years to come.
All the Birds also gives the new birder insight into a world informed by weather charts and identification guides, by field notes and fine plumage details, by oft-recalled red letter days and birds that had no right to turn up where they did. The product of the author’s lifetime of study and dedication, All the Birds offers something for everyone.
- Inheriting his father’s passion for birding, Nic Fieldsend spent his childhood exploring the estuaries and valleys of Devon and Cornwall in south west England. The sought-after prize in those early years was a windblown Nearctic migrant, making it somehow fitting that Fieldsend has himself been transported the other direction across the Atlantic, where he now birds around his current home in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Fieldsend, N. 2013. Nova Scotia [a review of All the Birds of Nova Scotia, by Ian McLaren]. Birding 45(4):65.