The Unsung Art of the Field Guide

Field Guide

Often times we immediately look to the images and illustrations of birds in a field guide. We depend on our eyes to deconstruct the intricacies that set each bird apart. However, our eyes can often deceive us. Much like when viewing an impressionist painting our mind will make sense of the image before us; we’ll see a beautiful sunrise along the coast, rather than the colors and brushstrokes that make up that image. Our mind will do the same with each bird we examine.

It is important for birders to look beyond the images of a field guide and explore the field notes assigned to each bird. This may seem like a tedious act of study, but the descriptive notes will correct the errors of our eyes by characterizing behavior and drawing our attention to specific details.

Take for example the female Black-Throated Blue Warbler.

Female Black-Throated Blue Warbler
Photo by Tripti Suwal

At first glance, this bird is neither black-throated nor blue. It is easy to confuse this warbler with that of other fall warblers with dull colors and plain wings.

A quick look into the notes though will guide your attention to this bird’s subtle features, such as the dark cheek and the white wing spot. Reading these descriptions will improve your ability to identify birds quickly and with confidence.

Scientific Poetry

A good field guide will read like scientific poetry. The descriptions within may include a range of expressive wording. You may be surprised to find adjectives such as stately, translucent, decurved, blotched, dusky, conspicuous, shy, jewel-like, iridescent, pugnacious, vigorous, plaintive, mustached, chalky-blue, etc.

Think. What birds come to mind when you hear these words?

I remember discovering the Common Nighthawk early one summer. I heard it’s cries high above the city as the bird flew with distinct strokes and pristine glides scooping insects out of the air. Upon the discovery I looked up the Common Nighthawk in my Peterson Field Guide. I remember reading the description, “Nighthawks are an aberrant goatsucker, often abroad by day.” I laughed at the line, enjoying every word. Now I see Nighthawks as distinguished nightjars, rebels in the sunset summer skies.

My understanding of these birds was enriched in part to these notes. Had I only looked to the illustrations, all I’d know is the obvious features of this curious bird, the pointed wings and the broad wing bars.

For me, the notes in a field guide enliven the characteristics and behaviors of birds. It is well-known that Audubon, Sibley, and Peterson have illuminated the area of ornithology with their avian illustrations, but to overlook their notes would be a disservice. The descriptions within a field guide reveal even more, working to broaden our understanding of each bird species as it interacts with the natural world.

The next time you find an inspiring description within your field guide: note it, pay attention to the details, and enjoy the discovery–much the way you would when seeing a new bird perched on a branch.

A Fledgling Observed

Carolina Wren Fledgling
Moments after leaving the nest a Carolina Wren fledgling hides beside a garbage can.

In late summer, most bird pairs have already laid their eggs and fostered their nestlings to a size that is capable of flight, a mass of feathers weighing no more than half an ounce. If you are lucky you may see these birds leaping about a nest in anticipation for food from the parent birds. But at this size, the parent birds are away from the nest slowly weaning their chicks off of the provided meals, making patient calls, waiting for their young to join them in a shrubby place safe from predators. The parent birds make chirps of encouragement saying “Jump! Fly! Get out of that nest. Supper is waiting for you down here!”

If you are patient you might witness the first flight of these young birds. Do not be disappointed when the flight is awkward and fluttery, not truly graceful like the birds you are used to seeing. Think of a baby’s first steps. How many times will they fall before they can finally walk?

At only weeks old, fledglings must leave the only home they’ve ever known, coaxed by the calls of their parents. This can take quite some time. Be prepared to sit quietly as the young birds inch their way out of the nest and one-by-one work up the courage to jump. Immediately, they will seek some kind of shelter, whether it be underneath a garbage can, an untrimmed bush, or the trunk of a tree. From there each fledgling will have to rendezvous with its mother and father, where it will learn more about surviving on its own.

It should be noted that if a nest of eggs is laid, and that nest successfully hatches, and those nestlings successfully fledge, those fledglings are still susceptible to numerous dangers in their first year of life. With respect to Eastern Bluebirds, only 50% of fledglings make it to the end of year one. The four chicks you watched make their first flight, two will die. Reasons for the death of these successful fledges can range from predators (a natural cause) to lack of suitable habitat (usually a human cause).

Being both lucky and patient I was able to observe fledgling wrens take flight this year. I sat for an hour and a half watching three wrens leap from their nest and flutter madly toward safety. They took refuge under a trash can and again had to work up the courage to flutter towards mom and dad strategically calling from an overgrown spot with many places to hide.

There was one young bird that was particularly timid. This little fledge was the last to leave the nest and the last to leave the safety from beneath the garbage can. It took its time, hesitant to leave any one spot that was remotely comfortable or seemingly secure. This one made me sit and watch for much longer than I intended, but it finally made it to its parents who were hidden within a thicket of saplings and trumpet creeper growing along a fence.

It was an amazing experience to observe the dynamics between the parents and each fledge. It was all somehow familiar and extraordinary at the same time, to watch birds act like humans or perhaps see human characteristics in the action of birds. (We are the ones who use idioms such as “leave the nest” or “nest together” or “birds of a feather,” it’s not the other way around.)

Nature will persist regardless of your decision to observe. Taking time to sit and look is up to you. And though it was incredible to witness fledges take flight, I am reminded of the stark statistics that challenge the success of each fledgling. A few weeks later I saw one of the fledges head first in a cat’s mouth. I tried to retrieve the fluttering bird, but the cat got the best of me. Nature will be nature in the end and I can concede to that. What I hate to consider though are the unseen ends of fledglings lost due to lack of habitat and the unnatural human touches that inhibit nature’s ability to thrive. These are the birds we should consider carefully when contemplating our relationship to the environments we inhabit.

Connecting with Nature Through Bird Identification

“Two things were crucial in the evolution of the field guide. First was the recognition of the importance of naming things. The second was the fact that Peterson chose birds to start with.”

-Robert Bateman in the forward to the 5th edition of Roger Tory Peterson’s field guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America

The act of identification is key in regards to advancing science and analyzing the status of populations of various species. However, the act of identification goes beyond the quantitative in many respects. Just ask any birder.

Many see birders as obsessives who get wrapped up in the act of ticking the names of birds off a list. But truthfully, birders are interacting with the natural world in a unique way. Taking time to study both the sight and sound of each bird. Steadying their breath and their movement in order to take in the natural world as it is. Finding joy in a chance appearance, a hoped for coincidence of a human meeting another piece of creation. These qualities are rare in our modern society. We’ve lost our closeness to nature and forgotten the simple joys of taking the time to notice.

Following the quote above, Bateman goes on to describe how humans have drifted from our nearness to nature. Modern society allows us to spend nearly our entire lives separate from the natural world. We sleep in homes carefully sealed from drafts and insects. We walk from our front door to our temperature-controlled cars. We commute on concrete roads and work indoor jobs, illuminated by artificial light. Bateman claims that “The average person knows only 10 wild plants but can recognize 1,000 corporate logos.”

It’s no wonder we have an enormous disconnect in our world with regards to conservation. We live lives separate from our evolutionary counterparts (e.g. plants, animals, insects, fish, etc.). Likewise we have isolated ourselves from the environments that were once a source of prosperity for our ancestors.

It is easy to make points concerning the importance of identification in relation to advancing science and data-driven conservation. But the ability to identify goes beyond what we can count. The ability to identify can make things personal and make nature come alive.

When I was in the fourth grade, our teacher assigned a science project requiring students to draw different types of birds and compare their similarities and differences. I chose to draw 4 birds–a Cardinal, a Blue Jay, a Robin, and a Downy Woodpecker. At the time, I thought little of it. I wasn’t concerned with the birds or the science. I was interested in the task of drawing. I wanted to impress my teacher with my artistic abilities and to illustrate each bird with striking detail. I carefully chose the right colors and drew the beaks in proportion to each bird’s body. My favorite was the Downy Woodpecker. I loved the color of its plumage and its unique ability to peck straight into a tree.

I do not remember if I got an ‘A’ on the assignment or whether or not my artistic ability was acknowledged, but I do remember those birds. I kept those birds, the details of their feathers and their beaks, and I kept their names. Throughout my adolescence I would call out the names of those birds to my friends and family. I was a naturalist on the smallest scale and it was empowering. Simply knowing the names of those four birds was enough to make me feel a connection to a world beyond myself.

Years later I would be gifted a Peterson Field Guide to North American Birds. In fact, it is the same book that is quoted above. At age ten, I identified 4 common birds of Eastern North America and 12 years later I was provided a tool to identify many more. This is the point where my unfound passion in birding took root.

It is a simple thing–to identify. But when applied to nature, one easily becomes more cognizant of nature and his or her place within that world. For me, I knew only 4 birds at first, but that was all it took in order for me to make a connection.