Book Notes Wild
Spring 2002

Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds: Notes from a Northwest Year, by Lyanda Lynn Haupt. 191 pp.
Sasquatch Books, 2001.

Here's a little book on how to watch birds -- not with binoculars or from a blind, but with your heart and from anywhere looking outward.

    There's no right way to watch birds, of course, and everyone's interests are different. Some folks keep "life lists" of species spotted and identified, some watch with their ears, and others just enjoy their feathered presence without any need to know names. What matters most, in this study of birder behavior, is the entree that birds afford into wild nature; any manner of watching is just as valid.

    This book consists of several essays, each largely centered on a single commonly observed species (starlings, wrens, woodpeckers, thrushes) and the author's experiences with these birds. Complemented by literary and scientific references, and stories about how people have interacted with them, these pieces offer textured word portraits of birds and birders in their natural environments.

    "Birds will give you a window, if you allow them," writes the author. "They will show you secrets from another world -- fresh vision that, though it is avian, can accompany you home and alter your life. They will do this for you even if you don't know their names -- though such knowing is a thoughtful gesture. They will do this for you if you watch them."

The Last Cheater's Waltz: Beauty and Violence in the Desert Southwest, by Ellen Meloy. 240 pp. The University of Arizona Press, 2001.

The Cold War was waged for nearly 40 years, but the scars it left behind on the earth -- the battlefields of a nuclear arms race -- are much more lasting. Across vast stretches of the desert Southwest where bombs were conceived and tested, life will never (and can never) be the same.

    Visiting the Trinity test site where the first atomic bombs were created half a century earlier, Ellen Meloy writes: "When you put yourself in the bomb makers' boots, it is not difficult to see why they chose this particular edge of the universe for what was, on its face, a technical exercise. Here was a desolate void on which to stage a mesmerizing spectacle of engineering, the grand drama of abstract human science made fire. If there was love here, it was not for this desert but for perfection, success, the splendor of man's handiwork."

Birds of the Texas Hill Country, by Mark W. Lockwood. 262 pp. The University of Texas Press, 2001.

This is the first modern-day field guide to the birdlife of the popular Edwards Plateau region of central Texas, detailing the status and distribution of all 419 resident and migratory species.

    The author, Mark Lockwood, is a lifelong birder as well as a conservation biologist for the state. He has been studying the bird fauna of the Texas Hill Country for decades.

    Lockwood provides a brief description of the Edwards Plateau, lists its parks and birding areas, and outlines the history of ornithological investigations in the region. The bulk of his guide is devoted to reports on each species, illustrated with drawings by Clemente Guzman and color photographs. A seasonal distribution chart is included along with a summary of "species of special interest" (Olive Sparrow, Hooded Oriole, Golden-cheeked Warbler and more) and "species of uncertain occurrence."

A Field Guide to Hummingbirds of North America, by Sheri L. Williamson. 263 pp. Houghton Mifflin, 2002

Although distinctive in their appearance and easy to recognize as a family, hummingbirds are difficult to identify by species. Many of the 31 species that breed in or visit North America are visually similar and only a careful analysis of sounds, behavior and distribution charts can separate them. This new field guide offers the detailed information on habits, habitats, migratory patterns, physical traits, diet, mating practices and other features needed to make field identifications accurate and definitive.

    Unlike general guides which rely on illustrations to aid with identification, this book utilizes more than 250 color photos to depict plumage variations within and between species. The book's 31 color plates illustrate 28 species, 7 hybrid combinations, 3 forms of albinism, and 4 species of sphinx moths often mistaken for hummingbirds.

    The author, Sheri L. Williamson, is recognized as one of North America's foremost experts on hummingbirds. She's the co-founder of the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory.

Trails of a Wilderness Wanderer, by Andy Russell. 298 pp. Lyons Press, 2001.

"Telling a story is like selling a horse -- the appreciation of a good animal is likely to be much higher if one takes the time and trouble to do a bit of currying and brushing."

    The curried and well-brushed tales in this autobiographical collection are about people and places of the Canadian Rockies during the early 20th century. There are stories about trappers and mountainmen and even "remittance men" -- displaced and disgraced young men paid handsome stipends to stay far away from their aristocratic families.

    Most of all, there are stories about the ranching and frontier lifestyle which is rapidly passing into mythology.

    "We knew the joy of being truly alive in the clear open air under a vast sky where the clouds ran in the wind like wild colts at play," the 86-year-old Russell writes in the new edition of this book, first published in 1971. "We adventured, meeting things as they came without a plan, reveling in the feel of a bucking horse on a cool morning or throwing a rope to catch a cow. It is one thing just to live, but something else to be really alive."

    The frontier landscape Russell writes about lay along the St. Mary's River in southwest Alberta, a big country of flat valleys next to mountains that lift up tall and deep purple into broad heavens. A wild bronc rider, fisherman and professional outfitter who later became a noted naturalist and photographer, Russell shares tales about his boyhood in the 1920s and retells stories about trappers and Indians from his grandfather's era (1880s) and earlier.

    "I can make this book a sort of epitaph that will live on when the sands of time have run out for all of us who trod on the wild, free land when it was young," Russell explains. "These were people who knew what real values added up to over the long haul."

The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2001, by Edward O. Wilson. 272 pp. Houghton Mifflin, 2001.

As a form of expression, science writing occupies a vulnerable middle ground between the technical scientific reports found in professional journals and the broad fictions of speculative literature. Scientists may view these writers as amateurs and the literary critics consider them journalists, but they provide a vital bridge between two branches of the same culture.

    Nature writers work in a similar territory, though closer to the literary pole, according to Edward O. Wilson, who edited the 2001 edition of this annual anthology. "With roots going back to nineteenth-century romanticism, it cultivates the facts and theories of science but relies heavily on personal narrative and aesthetic expression," he explains.

    The narratives of both science and nature writers not only help us understand the universe and our role in it, but they are also critical to our survival as individuals and as a species.

    "Science, like the rest of culture, is based on the manufacture of narrative," writes Wilson. "That is entirely natural, and in a profound sense it is a Darwinian necessity. We all live by narrative, every day and every minute of our lives. Narrative is the human way of working through a chaotic and unforgiving world bent on reducing our bodies to malodorous catabolic molecules. It delays the personal surrender of our atoms and compounds back to the environment for the assembly of more humans, and ants."

    As the recipient of the highest U.S. awards for both science (National Medal of Science) and literature (Pulitzer Prize), Wilson was uniquely qualified to select the writings for this collection, which includes pieces published in 2000 by Barbara Kingsolver, Edward Hoagland and Jane Goodall. Weighted in favor of science writing like Bill Joy's essay on technology ("Why the Future Doesn't Need Us") and David Berlinski's discourse on the algorithm ("Iterations of Immortality"), it does include Hoagland's essay on "Harpy Eagles" and Ted Kerasote's "Killing at Dawn" about Yellowstone wolves. Subjects and issues outside the Americas occupy the attention of Goodall, Kingsolver, David Quammen, Mark Cherirngton and others.

    As evidenced here, the best American science and nature writers of the year 2000 traveled widely and returned home with serious social and environmental issues to share.

The Purple Martin, by Robin Doughty and Rob Fergus. 93 pp.  University of Texas Press, 2002.

The Purple Martin is one of the most widely distributed and easily distinguished birds in the Americas, ranging from southern Canada to southern Brazil. A common breeding bird throughout the southern U.S., it also nests along the Atlantic seaboard and in small colonies as far north as Maine, Alberta and British Columbia.

    The bird's migratory pattern takes it southward from August to mid-October and northward from January through April by way of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean coast of Central America.

    Robin Doughty and Rob Fergus, a pair of Texans with a lifelong interest in wildlife conservation and bird-human interactions, teamed up to produce this unique natural history of the Purple Martin. Not only do they provide details on the bird's habits, diet, habitats, behavior and family life, but also the history of its relations with people.

    "This book is about a special relationship -- the regard, affection, and understanding we have increasingly come to express about a bird that responds more and more to our concern for its survival," they explain in their introduction.

    "The Purple Martin is a wild bird that thrives around human habitations and, like other swallows, has responded to land clearance and settlement by adjusting to farms, towns, and even cities... We find martins companionable, useful, and ebullient. In the United States, they are harbingers of glad tidings -- the shift of the season -- from winter cold to the life-giving warmth of spring."

    Illustrated with color photos, this concise volume discusses, in separate chapters, the migration and range of the Purple Martin, its lifestyle and lifespan, protection of the bird and the use of martin houses to attract and promote the species.

Dinosaurs Under the Big Sky, by Jack Horner. 194 pp. Mountain Press Publishing Co., 2001.

During the Mesozoic era of geologic time, from about 230 to 64 million years ago, much of what is now Montana was a coastal plain like the Mississippi delta region. When sea levels rose, the area was covered by a shallow sea; when they receded, plants and animals repopulated the land.

    Among those living creatures were dozens of species of dinosaurs, whose remains have made Montana -- the "Big Sky" state -- a popular destination for paleontologists. The first dinosaur remains in the Western Hemisphere were discovered in Montana, as were the world's first discoveries of dinosaur eggshells, the nests of baby dinosaurs and dinosaur embryos.

    Many of those discoveries were made by Jack Horner, the author of this unique natural history and field guide to Montana's dinosaurs. Each of the dinosaurs found in Montana are described in detail, along with the history of their discovery. Horner explains where dinosaur remains have been found, and where more are likely to be discovered, and offers advice for amateur dinosaur-hunters.

    "Collecting dinosaur fossils is not only fun but also a great excuse to get outside, enjoy spectacular landscapes, and breathe some fresh air," Horner points out. "In Montana, most dinosaur fossils come from areas of badlands, where erosion eats away at hillsides faster than plants can grow on them. Many people consider these badlands desolate and bleak, but paleontologists find them extraordinary and peaceful."

Trail Guides

Destinations for serious naturalists as well as casual family outings are included in "Georgia Nature Weekends: Fifty-two Adventures in Nature" by Terry Johnson (The Globe Pequot Press, 2002).

Field Guides

An impressive new title in the Helm Identification Series of ornithological references, "Raptors of the World" by James Ferguson-Lees and David A. Christie (Houghton Mifflin, 2001) thoroughly describes and illustrates all 313 species of birds of prey with detailed range maps, color drawings and authoritative descriptions.

"Dangerous Wildlife in the Mid-Atlantic" by F. Lynne Backleda (Menasha Ridge Press, 2001) describes creatures and plants that can cause harm to humans and how to avoid them. "Animals and Plants of the Ancient Maya: A Guide" by Victoria Schlesinger (University of Texas Press, 2002) profiles nearly 100 species that were significant to the ancient Mayan peoples and that continue to inhabit the Maya region today. "Foraging New England" by Tom Seymour (Globe Pequot Press, 2002) guides readers to the edible wild foods and healthful herbs of the Northeast.

Natural Histories

A trio of experts on the Red-cockaded Woodpecker co-authored the encyclopedic work, "The Red-cockaded Woodpecker: Surviving in a Fire-Maintained Ecosystem" (University of Texas Press, 2001), detailing the biology and natural history of the bird as well as the ecology of the fire-maintained forests that are its principal habitat. "Consider the Eel" (The University of North Carolina Press, 2002) by Richard Schweid offers a first-of-its-kind natural history of freshwater eels, detailing how the creature is studied, protected, harvested and prepared for consumption; recipes, both historic and contemporary, are included.

"Fire in Sierra Nevada Forests: A Photographic Interpretation of Ecological Change Since 1849" by George Gruell (Mountain Press, 2001) uses repeat photography (rephotographing sites depicted in historical photographs) to illustrate the natural and man-caused changes that have occurred in the Sierra Nevada ecosystem over the past 150 years. Another historiography, "Nature's State: Imagining Alaska as the Last  Frontier" by Susan Kollin (The University of North Carolina Press, 2001) examines how America's "last frontier" has changed, both in our imaginations and in physical reality.

Field biologist Douglas H. Chadwick analyzes the life, habits and habitat of a white-coated survivor from the most recent Ice Age in "A Beast the Color of Winter: The Mountain Goat Observed" (University of Nebraska Press, 2002).

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