By Alexandria Simpson
“No matter what level of birder you are, or think you are, there is always more to learn…” Derek Lovitch reminds us of this fact in his new book, How to Be a Better Birder. Of course, being out in the field observing is one of the valuable ways to increase birding skills, but many times a book can serve as a catalyst to greatly expand birding abilities. One of the author’s main points is the “Whole Bird and More” approach—looking at the bird, what habitat it’s in, and what it’s doing. The second is learning to make the most of today’s resources, knowledge, and technology.
Lovitch does not claim the information, tips, and advice in his book to be the only ways to become a better birder. His goal is simply to introduce birders to new methods, ways of thinking, and other disciplines to help you dig deeper and grow as a birder. He doesn’t even define what a better birder is: “So while I hesitate to define just what being a ‘better birder’ really is, my goal with this book is to give some helpful hints, spur additional study, and simply provide some information that we can apply to our own birding in pursuit of becoming better birders, whatever that means to you.”
How to Be a Better Birder is divided into these basic approaches to birding:
- Whole Bird
- Birding by Habitat
- Birding by Geography
- Birding by Weather
- Birding at Night
- Birding With a Purpose
- Lovitch then discusses vagrants, patch listing, and gives a case study.
First is the “Whole Bird and More” approach. The author points out several examples of the details we usually use to identify birds that cannot always be seen, but instead of seeing a familiar bird close up, identifying it, and moving on, he recommends pausing to study the entire bird. Learning how to narrow a bird down to genus, by aspects like behavior and shape, is also very important to becoming a better birder. He suggests several books for the birder’s library to expand your “Whole Bird” approach as well.
Birding by habitat is spotlighted next. This may sound like, “Duh, I won’t look for a Sanderling in a heavily wooded area.” However, the kind of birding by habitat Lovitch discusses is much more specific. Is identifying Empidonax flycatchers usually a nightmare for you? It certainly is for me! Well, he provides tips on learning specific habitats to make it easier to identify. This approach does not work for migrating birds, but is very helpful for wintering and breeding birds. Of course, you have to learn trees and shrubs, and he recommends several books for different areas of the US.
Closely linked to birding by habitat is birding with geography. Again, most birders use this in varying degrees, knowing the birding “hot spots”. Lovitch talks about why Cape May is such a great birding location, and then helps you use these aspects on a local level (near your home). Also discussed is the importance of familiarity with bird distribution and seasonal status on all levels: local, regional, and continental.
Birding with weather can be one of the most spectacular ways to bird: think “migrant “fallout”. When I was fairly new to birding, I witnessed this on South Padre Island, Texas. I added at least 20 species to my life list in about 30 minutes. By studying weather reports, birders can find any storms blowing against the migrants and get ready to do some great birding.
The book further explains how to make the most of birding at night. For example, bright ground lights often distract migrating birds, so going outside on a calm night during migration can reward you with excellent views.
The chapter on “birding with a purpose” helps both you and the birds. Most birders will probably never be able to earn a living birding. By participating in citizen science projects such as eBird, Christmas Bird Counts, Project FeederWatch, Great Backyard Bird Counts, and Breeding Bird Surveys, you can help scientists see patterns of bird distribution. You can also have your own projects such as learning every song and call of your area, or taking photographs of all the birds on your life list.
The last part of the book discusses applying all these approaches to birding your “home area”. How many of us really spend time in one small area nearby, taking notes and learning what is there? I’m often guilty of wishing I lived in a birding “hot spot” again. Picking an area easily combed in a short time and taking time to thoroughly learn it is a great way to actually learn the birds. As an added benefit, thoroughly knowing a small area and its bird species means that you are more likely to spot rarities when they show up! Also, learning how to find and document rarities and predict them from what other people are seeing in states around you are just a few of his excellent points.
How to Be a Better Birder offers something for all levels of birders. All that is needed is the desire to improve your birding skills. Because each chapter can stand alone, you can read this book cover to cover or choose a chapter that sounds most interesting. I feel the author achieved his goal of helping me become a better birder.
I’m off to apply the “Whole Bird and More” Approach to my birding today!
About the author: Alexandria Simpson is an avid, sixteen-year-old birder from Santa Anna, Texas. While she wishes she could say she has been birding all of her life, instead she has spent the last four years making up for lost time. She wants to become an ornithologist and someday read scientific papers without falling asleep. Her photography, illustrations, and writings have won awards at local, state, and national levels. She currently serves as one of the student blog editors for The Eyrie.