Modern Field Guides Have Almost Got It Right

While preparing for my Costa Rica trip I used Stiles and Skutch’s Birds of Costa Rica published in 1989.  And do you know what I found out? I like the “old” style field guides for certain situations.

Birds of CRLet me explain.

Going to Costa Rica made me, in certain respects, once again a beginning birder.  Sure I was going to know several birds from NA that wintered there, but the majority of birds I needed to learn. And in some cases completely new genera.

I have already explained how I learned the 200 or so species in a previous post. But what I didn’t discuss was why I like the “older” field guide.

The reason I liked the “older” guides are – The Picture Plates.

Birds of CR Plates
A scanned image of the vireo plates from Birds of Costa Rica.

For someone learning new birds, and maybe for beginners in general, having all the similar species on one page was great.  After learning the birds on the 3×5 note cards, I would then spend time reviewing and contrasting the birds on the plates.  I especially liked that the authors only gave the basic field marks in the descriptions on the facing page.  At this stage did I really need to know all the details giving in the description pages?

Birds of CR Desc
A scanned image of the description pages of vireos from Birds of Costa Rica.

I walked away from the trip thinking about someone going to a new area, or maybe any beginning birder, if they really needed all the detail, pictures, or different angled photos presented in the modern Sibley’s or National Geographic field guides?  I did quite well with just the plates in the Birds of Costa Rica.

I also own Howell and Webb’s  A Guide to the Birds of Mexico published just a few years later than Birds of Costa Rica. It has the same format but also includes something missing in Birds of Costa Rica, the size of the bird in the brief description on the facing page. Which to me is a great benefit.  And I know it would defeat the purpose of brevity but in my eyes a very small distribution map would have made it complete.

I know the older Peterson guides show birds grouped together. So before my trip to Southern California last November I purchased Peterson’s Western Birds from the 1980’s.  It follows the same format as Birds of Costa Rica – the birds are presented on plates in the middle of the book.  So I then proceeded to cut out the plates and took  them with me on the trip. It was a great asset.

Peterson Western Birds
A scanned image of the vireo and kinglet plates from Peterson’s Western Birds. You can tell they have been cut out since there are no shadows on the image.

Sibley does have the birds grouped together at the start of each section but they are too small and far apart. Less flight shots of passerines (which I really never use) and more group pictures would be a greater benefit to me.

National Geographic puts together waterfowl and raptors in flight which is very useful. But they could use the other genera together, like the older field guides.

I don’t own many other “modern” guides so I’m not aware if they have group pictures.  Let me know in the comment section if they do.

Otherwise I think the “modern” guides are all in all, quite good.


Photoless Saturday

Some days I get lucky with photography, most days I don’t.  Saturday I didn’t. But I had a good day birding none the less.  This also means I get to show some pictures I have taken over the years.

With Mike unavailable I stayed close to home. But I still picked up the last of the easy winter birds to add to my Indiana Life list without going to Lake Michigan.

The day started well before dawn trying for an Eastern Screech-Owl I have been hearing at my residence.  But of course they won’t call when you want them too.  Driving to Southeastway Park I checked every telephone pole for a Great Horned Owl. Not really paying attention at that early hour I about ran through a stop sign with a police car behind me.  I had better refine that practice.

Further down the road on a pole I often see a local Red-tailed Hawk, a Great Horned was standing night guard.  We watched each other for a few minutes and then I headed to the park for other owls.  I took a leisurely stroll around the park but never did hear a Barred Owl.

GHOW 101109
I caught this Great Horned Owl sleeping one morning in Middleton, WI. 10/11/09

I then headed to Geist Reservoir.  On arriving there were two Red-shoulder Hawks being harassed by American Crows at the parking lot.  They were sitting close for a great photo-op.  But by the time I jump out of the car they were flying away calling. And that was how the day went for photos.

It wouldn't turn it's head my direction.  To intent on watching something. Red-shouldered Hawk - Atterbury FWA 02/02/14
Yes, I have used this photo before. I better get a new Red-shouldered Hawk photo. Atterbury FWA, IN 02/02/14

Observing the reservoir there was a little open water with Canada Geese and Mallards. But flying over the frozen lake was a flock of 25 geese with one of them white.  It was just a little smaller than a Canada – a Snow Goose.  But to far away for a photo.

SNGO 012212
These are rafts of Snow Geese at Carlyle Lake in Illinois. Estimates were anywhere to 500,000 on up to a 1,000,000 birds. I really don’t know if that is true but when one group flew it was amazing. Carlyle Lake, IL 01/22/12

Walking up the creek I observed a Great Blue Heron flying up the creek and over the spillway to the lake. Then another. And another.  I counted twenty-one herons flying in a ten minute period. The creek is open so they must had a feeding spot up the creek.  Not sure what disturbed them except there had been people with several dogs around.

This is one of the few photos I did not mark a date or location. Don’t even have a good guess. Great Blue Heron – United States – 21st Century

In the afternoon I headed to Eagle Creek and observed from Rick’s. The only open water was about a half-mile north.  It contained a large assortment of Canada Geese, White-fronted Geese, Mallards, and a few Common Goldeneye, Common Mergansers, and Northern Pintail.

But the stars, at least for me, were two Red-breasted Mergansers. They continued the weekly string I have of adding Indiana Life birds.  They gave good views in the spotting scope but were too far a way for a photo. Of course.

RBME F WW 033011
First the female, and then a male Red-breasted Mergansers. They were in a group of 8 that went slowly by the bank. Illinois River, LaSalle County, IL 03/30/11
RBME M WW 033011
Male Red-Breasted Merganser – details above photo.

After an hour in the cold wind I called it a day. Photoless.

What Modern Research Says About Learning Birds – Part 2

Last week I wrote about my search for a better way to learn birds. I will now conclude the story. (link to last week’s blog)

What the Researchers Discovered

The researchers found out that the most effective way of learning and more importantly, retaining, is to learn a small amount of material and test yourself on it. Repeatedly.  Using things like flashcards or small written tests. Once you have learned a small amount of material do the same thing with the next group of material.  BUT MAKE SURE TO GO BACK AND TEST YOURSELF ON THE PREVIOUS MATERIAL ON A REGULAR BASIS.

Here is a link to research by a group of professors and another article on the topic.

On to Southern California and Costa Rica

So how did I implement the research?  For next to nothing I purchased a second copy of Stiles and Skutch’s Birds of Costa Rica from Amazon. I already had a copy of Sibley’s Western Birds that I decided to sacrifice for the cause.  After reviewing status and distribution charts for both areas, I came up with a list of birds to study.

Using an Exacto knife I proceeded to cut out the selected birds and tape them to the back of 3×5 note cards.  Then I wrote the key field marks and for Costa Rica birds the area’s they might be seen. I started with the birds listed as common and moved to uncommon.  This was not a fast process.  I had the common birds done in a couple of weeks.  However I was still cutting out the uncommon species the week before we left for Costa Rica.

Gray-headed Chachalaca
And now the real thing. In a light rain a Gray-headed Chachalaca which was easy to ID after studying the cards. La Fortuna area, Costa Rica 12/16/14


Yellow-throated Euphonia
Yellow-throated Euphonia giving some Tanagers a hard time. La Fortuna area 12/16/14

055I ended up with well over 200 cards, which can be seen by the size of the stack.

056I settled in a routine of quizzing myself while I was on the treadmill (i.e. dreadmill – I hate being indoors).  Let me say that sure helped pass the time.  I worked in groups of 15-20 cards and would quiz myself on the picture, asking what field marks made this different from similar species.  I usually never did get them all right, like confusing the Scarlet-thighed Dacnis and Red-legged Honeycreeper.

My Results

Here is the key point, the birds whose names I couldn’t remember immediately in the field, I recognized enough that I could describe them in my voice recorder and easily ID them back at the lodge.

In both Southern California and Costa Rica I had no problems with any of the birds I studied. The problem I did have were birds that were so low on the status and distribution lists that I hadn’t bothered to learn them.  Carrying the voice recorder and describing the birds in detail made ID’ing them relatively easy though.

I finished both trips without any lingering doubts like I had on previous trips.

The Future

Going forward I will now use this method before migration or before traveling to new areas. I have already made cards for the winter finches and hawks I might encounter in the Midwest.  Soon I will be making cards for what I hope will be an early spring migration.


So how do you learn new birds? Please leave an answer in the comment section.





Geese, Geese, Geese – and a Few Swans. Universal Mines Saturday

In the attempt to add a few more birds to my Indiana Life list, Mike and I (and probably a large percentage of Central Indiana birders) headed to Universal Mines NW of Terre Haute Saturday morning to view the numerous swans and geese that had been reported.  This would be my first visit to the area.

The high temperature for the day was supposed to reach 50F with winds gusting to 45 MPH in the afternoon. So it was either leave early, fight the cold, and avoid the winds.  Or go later, be warm, and fight the wind. We choose the former.

We left early so we could arrive a little before sunrise to watch the morning flight. When we arrived there were still thousands of geese and hundreds of swans still on the only open water in the area – an old strip mine known as the “Grand Canyon”.

The south end of the “Grand Canyon” at sunrise. 10,000 Geese?? 01/17/15


A closer view showing more individual geese. 01/17/15

Now here is the rub for Indiana Birders.  The water is on the Illinois side of the border with Indiana.

Map of Grand Canyon Area
A satellite view showing the distance from the “Grand Canyon” to the Illinois-Indiana border.

I already knew the lake was in Illinois but assumed it was closer.  When reporting birds people usually report an Illinois count and then have an Indiana count for the birds that “fly” over the border.  The problem is that unless you actually park on the border, which is 400 meters away, it is hard to tell what birds actually fly over. But as I have previously stated my belief on listing, it is your bird list and unless it is a very rare bird, you can do what you want on your list. So Mike and I made our best guess on birds that flew towards the border.  Enough on that topic.

On the morning we saw great numbers, and I mean GREAT NUMBERS, of Canada Geese, Greater White-fronted Geese, and Trumpeter Swans. Plus 5 Tundra Swans (my goal bird) that we didn’t see fly over the border. I don’t think I have ever seen that many geese at once though I have seen large numbers at Hennepin-Hopper Lake in Illinois.

Geese becoming air born at sunrise on the north side of the “Grand Canyon”. Another 10,000? 20,000? More? 01/17/15
Trumpeter Swans flying over the road. 01/17/15


A long distance shot of Greater White-fronted Geese. 01/17/15

And here is my first attempt at video.  Something (an eagle? gun shots?) put all the birds on the north side in the air at once. A sight to behold.

CANG Flight

At this point I’m not going to estimate the number of geese.  I think I will take a closer look at the photos and see if I can come up with a guess.  I’ll post about that at a later date.

On the way home we stopped at Chinook Mines for a quick pass.  Nothing to report but I did get a nice photo of a calling Eastern Meadowlark and a Rough-legged Hawk in flight.

An Eastern Meadowlark that was calling at Chinook Mines. 01/17/15
RLHA Chinook Mines
And a Rough-legged Hawk flying over. (I lightened the photo) Chinook Mines 01/17/15


Now for the bird that I did add to my list today.  Carl Huffman has been reporting Black Vultures regularly on eBird at DePauw Nature Park in Greencastle. Since it wasn’t far out-of-the-way and since I needed the bird for the list, we stopped by. This is north of the usual range for Black Vultures (see map below) but there are other sites north of the range where they appear.  Hopefully this will be another consistent site.

BLVU Range Map
I put a red X on Greencastle to show how far north the Black Vultures are from their normal range.

After seeing 6 Turkey Vultures we ended seeing 2 Black Vultures at a distance which didn’t allow photos.  I did get one photo of a Turkey Vulture though.

TUVU Depauw Nature
A really lightened photo of a Turkey Vulture. DePauw Nature Park 01/17/15

Even if the Tundra Swans stayed on the Illinois side and couldn’t be added to the list, I got to add Black Vulture.

What Modern Research Says About Learning Birds – Part 1

Let’s face it, we’ve all been there. You plan a big birding trip outside your local area.  You read and study your field guides. You listen to the songs and calls. When you get there you do OK identifying the birds. Yet you still have this nagging feeling you could have been better prepared.

The same nagging feeling hits every year when migration comes through.  You know most of the birds and songs, just not as well as you think you should.

So what is the best way to prepare for these situations?  Let me share what modern research has to say on the topic and how it worked for me this past fall. I will cover the visual side of identifying and at a later dater date cover the auditory side.

First though, the background story.

Texas – June 2014

Last June I had the opportunity to bird South Texas.  I thought I did a fair job prepping myself by studying the field guides and listening to calls on CD.  I ended up ID’ing most birds without too many problem.  Then after I got home I had that feeling I could have done better.  There were those lingering doubts a time or two when ID’ing some of the birds. It was the same doubting feeling I had previously birding other new areas.  Sometimes even during local migration. I just felt that I could have been better prepared. I needed to find a better way to prepare for my next trip.

Jump Forward to October 2014

In mid-October I found out I would be going to Southern California for work.  The trip would take place in mid-November.  Fortunately I would be able to stay and bird for a couple of days.  So I had 4 weeks to learn the 25 or so birds I didn’t already know.

Just a week later my sister-in-law and wife came up with a trip to Costa Rica in mid-December. So I had 5 weeks to learn a possible 200 new species in addition to the Southern California birds. Factor in losing the week traveling for business in mid-November and I was faced with a major task.

How would I learn that many birds that quickly? I had to come up with a new method of learning, and quickly.


A Radio Story

Often in life timing is everything.

Somewhere around the time I learned that I would be going to Southern California I was listening to my local NPR station.   I caught the story maybe a minute into it.  That was fine since the reason I listen to NPR is that the stories are usually 10-15 minutes long, not 30 second bits.  (OK, my rant about news coverage is done)

What I gathered was the story involved a student who was having problems learning. He was a bright guy who had enrolled in pre-med and had done well on his entrance exams. But he didn’t do well in his first semester.  He studied like everyone else – read and reread his material and highlighted and underlined as necessary, but he was still doing badly. He figured there had to be a better way.

So he researched learning methods.  He contacted as many of the researchers as he could.  He became obsessed with the topic.  The short version is that he discovered the methods he was using were the least efficient methods  – rereading and highlighting.  There were “better” methods.

Next Week – Part 2

Check in next week when I discuss the “better” methods and how I used them on fall birding trips. And hopefully you will comment on how you learn birds when going to a new area.

Two More: Rough-legged Hawk and Short-eared Owls – Sullivan County Saturday

In pursuit of adding species that should already be on my Indiana Life list, Mike Clay and I headed to Sullivan and Greene Counties on Saturday. Our main objectives were Northern Shrike, Rough-legged Hawk, and Short-eared Owl. And if time permitted a quick side trip to Turtle Creek for the Little Gull, if still present.

The day’s plan was to drive around searching for our objectives.  Which meant my least favorite type of birding – car birding.  But there isn’t any other way to find the target species. With the temperature in the high teens and a south wind around 12 MPH, the short bouts outside of the car were cold. Jumping back into the car was a relief, so I will stop whining about car birding. At least for now.

We started by checking for Northern Shrike and Rough-legged Hawk in NE Sullivan County. We hadn’t been at it long when a large dark bird put up the Canada Geese and Mallards. At first we thought it was a Rough-legged Hawk, but pretty quickly we figured out it was a young Bald Eagle.

BAEA Sullivan 01101 MC
A good picture that Mike took as the eagle flew past us. Sullivan County 01/10/15

Within a couple of minutes we spotted a Rough-legged Hawk, one of six we would see on the day. I enjoy watching Red-tailed Hawks soar but it was nice to see something different.

After an hour and half we decided the shrike was a no-show and moved on.  We headed to the Dugger Unit where there were more Bald Eagles and a good variety of waterfowl on the only open water we saw.

Mixed Waterfowl Dugger Unit 011014A
American Coot, Redhead, Lesser Scaup. Not sure what else is in the photo with the Canada Geese and Mallards. Dugger Unit, Sullivan County 01/10/15
Mixed Waterfowl dugger Unit 011014
Maybe some Ring-necked Ducks in this one? Dugger Unit, Sullivan County 01/10/15

Now getting later in the day a decision had to be made, go to Turtle Creek or not? We decided to pass after checking IN-Bird and reading that the Little Gull hadn’t been seen.

So off to Goose Pond for a quick drive around.  We had numerous Northern Harriers and even a couple of Eastern Meadowlarks.  Also more Rough-legged Hawks.

RLHA Goose Pond 011015A
I have always been amazed how a bird as big as a Rough-legged Hawk can sit on a twig on the top of a tree. Goose Pond 01/10/15
RLHA Goose Pond 011015
A closer shot showing the feathered legs. Goose Pond 01/10/15

Not seeing anything unusual we headed back to Sullivan County for Short-eared Owls.  After watching Northern Harriers fly the area for 15 minutes the first Short-eared Owl appeared at 5:31, fourteen minutes before sundown.

SEOW Sullivan County 011015
I included this photo to show the stub face and broad wings at a distance. Short-eared Owl – Sullivan County 01/10/15
SEOW Sullivan County 011015A
One posed for us nicely. Anytime another owl would come close it would turn and “bark” at it, something I have never witnessed. Short-eared Owl – Sullivan County 01/10/15

It wasn’t long before other Short-eared Owls appeared.  Over the next 25 minutes we watched them fly, chase, and even “bark” at one another.  It was one of those things I had never encountered before but will always remember. With daylight gone and a 2 hour drive home, we called it a day, adding 2 more species to my Indiana Life list.

End of Day - SEOW - Sullivan County 011015
Short-eared Owl silhouetted against the evening sky. The start of their day, the end of ours. Sullivan County 01/10/15




Ivory Gull – Quincy, IL – Jan. 3

Last Saturday, Jan. 3, Mike Clay made the journey to Quincy, IL to view the Ivory Gull found the day before by Jason Mullins. Mike asked me to go but having traveled extensively for the last 2 months getting in a car for 10 hours didn’t sound appealing.

Here is a report by Mike and a few pictures:

I waited until the following day (Saturday) to make sure it was still there, and drove the 5 hr (325 mi) to Quincy, arriving at 1:30 local time.  Found it immediately and got great looks.  It seemed to have a pattern of flying N on the river to feed (we saw it take a fish from about 150 feet away near shore) and then resting on ice carried downstream. Then returning upstream to feed.  It did not hang out with the RBGU, the only gull I saw present (~few hundred).  It was the same size as RBGU.  I took some pictures, but the lighting wasn’t great nor was the photographer.  But they show ID anyway.  There were maybe  20 birders there during the 2 hours I stayed. I chased the Point Pelee/Wheatley harbor Ivory Gull in Jan 2006 but it was a no-show, so this made up for that. Plus it was a LOT warmer (37 with no rain).

IVGU 010315A

IVGU 010315B

IVGU 010315

Thanks for the report and pictures Mike.

Birding 2015 – Up 4 Already

If you have been following this blog, you know I would be content to bird my local area. But by having a birding goal or plan it gives me the push to explore different areas and habitats. Something I, and everyone else, needs to do on occasion to expand their birding knowledge.

So with that being said I have been thinking for a few weeks about what my birding plans should be for 2015.  I was thinking about maybe a Marion versus Johnson County total or some variant. But I just wasn’t sure that’s what I wanted to do with the time I have.

With the price of gas down and not quite certain what my new job will bring, I ‘ve decided to work on my Indiana Life List.  I know this isn’t my usual “birding the local area,” but I’m not sure how often I will be around the local area.

This doesn’t entail “chasing” but birding the right areas at the right times to add birds to my state life list. This is birding a way a lot of birders go about it. Like visiting Lake Michigan in winter for gulls and waterfowl. Or going to Goose Pond in winter for hawks or owls. Those type of outings.

Checking my state life list I figure there are a possible 42 species I could see by doing “normal”, non-chasing, birding around the state.  And another 18 if I get lucky.  So hopefully I can get 75% of the possible species, 25% of the lucky ones, plus 5 I hadn’t figured on. Like a Snowy Owl. So I hope to add 40 species to my Indiana Life List.

And I will probably have the opportunity to bird several different areas in the U.S. which means working on my ABA list. Plus hopefully get back to the tropics this year.  But that hasn’t been worked out yet.

I Have Already Added 4 Species to My Indiana Life List This Year

OK, technically 3. I went ahead and added Whooping Crane since the ABA changed the rule on Whooping Crane countability.  I saw them in 2013 at Goose Pond.

Mike Clay asked I go along and participate in this year’s Muscatatuck CBC on January 1, a count he has been helping with for 10 years..  The birding was slow but we did see 2 Trumpeter Swans, though they weren’t in our count area.

TRUS Picture by Dave Carr from dBird
This photo was taken by third person in our group, Dave Carr. He took the photo in the afternoon after we had headed out to count on the roads. You can read his analysis here, which I totally agree.

On the way back we checked out the Snowy Owl that has been in the Jonesville area.  As with most Snowy Owls I encountered in Illinois it was using something as a wind break.

SNOW Jackson County IN
I bet over 80% of the Snowy Owls I have seen were up against something – railroad tracks, silos, fence rows. Very rarely out in the open.

And Saturday I birded Eagle Creek in the rain and saw the easiest bird on my Indiana List – Pine Siskin. I watched them at the Ornithology Center’s feeders. Seeing birds not in a natural habitat isn’t something I like, but I have never seen Pine Siskin anywhere but feeders in the Midwest.  So I will count them and move on.

PISI Eagle Creek 010314
I just wish I could have taken better pictures to show the pointed bills, stripped undersides, and yellow in the lower wing bar. But the rain was coming down pretty hard.

PISI Eagle Creek 010314A

So what are your birding plans for 2015?

The Photographer and The Hawk

(Note – I wrote this a few weeks before all the recent posts on IN-Bird about Snowy Owls and photographers. This is one of those reoccurring themes that has come up every year since I started birding and probably will until the day I stop.)

I have read on birding listserves and blogs about photographers who will do anything for a photo but I hadn’t ever seen it in person. With people being what they are, it wasn’t hard to imagining it happening. And let me state I believe that most photographers won’t go to extremes for a photo but as in any group, a few spoil it for all.

I was in San Diego birding Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery on an early Saturday morning in November.   I was walking the roads looking for the resident birds of the area when I noticed a large pickup truck zoom in. I didn’t think anything about it and just kept moving.  I was walking along when the guy from the truck yelled over there was a hawk in a tree.  He said it flew in front of his truck so he pulled in for photos.  He was holding a camera with a huge telephoto lens on it. You know, the kind that looks like it belongs on Mt. Palomar.

TelescopeThe photographer said he thought it was an immature Broad-winged Hawk which would be uncommon for the area.  (And my mind is thinking very late for mid-November)  I said thanks for the info and took a few photos of the hawk myself from a distance, not saying I was pretty sure it was an immature Red-tailed Hawk.


I kept walking the looping roads and in little while circled back by the photographer.  He said he wished the bird would move so he could get a flight shot.  He said he had tried yelling, running around it, clapping, but to no avail.  Since I was far from home, I just said “Too bad”, turned, and walked away quickly before I said something else.

I really didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t figure out why he would need a picture of a bird so badly? Was it that important to him? Why?

I eventually saw the photographer leave and I don’t think the bird had moved.  But when I  finally left I saw a flock of crows harassing a bird a little farther down the road, I was sure it was the hawk.  I don’t really think the man’s actions would bother a hawk sitting 40-50′ up a tree. But maybe his actions had drawn the attention of the crows so they started to harass it? Since that is typical hawk/crow interaction it really wasn’t a problem. But just maybe it would lead to the hawk doing something like flying in front of a car to avoid the crows?