Tag Archives: ornithology

Bird Watching and Field Guides: A Brief History

Bird watching has been a hobby for a few centuries now, though mostly for those in possession of time and enough resources to enjoy hobbies in the first place. In the last century, however, the pastime has become a lusty, serious affair for millions of self-identified bird watchers from all over the world. For millions of bird watchers in the United States, fledgling and established, there are hundreds of bird species to view and appreciate their wild splendor with the right tools in hand.

To be an effective bird watcher in the field (whether meadow or concrete jungle), one needs keen awareness, lots of patience, and a toolkit of sorts: a pair of comfortable shoes, a solid pair of binoculars, and an informative, intuitive bird guide. Since that last part is tricky, here’s a brief history and list of American field guides.

Gyrfalcon from different angles.

An example of Audubon’s lifelike representation of birds in “The Birds of America.” [Image: www.wikipedia.org]

The Birds of America

It could be said that the first widely known North American bird guide was created by artist and naturalist, John James Audubon. His most famous work, The Birds of America, was released as a series of prints between 1827 and 1838. Made up of paintings and illustrations that shine with life and charge imaginations, Audubon relied heavily on wire- and thread-posed deceased specimens.

Birds Through an Opera-Glass

By the end of the 19th century, preservation of bird species had taken a more prominent role in what was becoming an enthusiastic birding community. Birds Through an Opera-Glass by Florence A. Merriam Bailey centered on bird identification from a distance rather than taking the birds from their environments. This reflected a trend toward nature observation, which was coming to the fore at the time. And while literally less hands-on, it helped bring in a generation of birders that were more concerned with environmental conservation than the exotic plumages they might collect from around the world.

A bird of paradise throws leaves at the camera

“Here, take these leaves instead!” [Image: www.giphy.com]

Peterson Field Guides

Roger Tory Peterson, a renowned ornithologist, set out to make a field guide accessible to amateurs and laymen rather than just scientists concerned with the study of birds and other animals. The first of these, Guide to the Birds, was printed in 1934, and its initial run of 2,000 copies sold out within one week. This field guide, along with the Peterson Identification System, refined and made Bailey’s ideas of using field marks to identify birds in the wild and from a distance even more practical. This, in turn, helped bolster the cause for greater conservation and environmental mindfulness. His guides, now more than three dozen in number, remain indelibly relevant and useful today.

The Sibley Guide to Birds

The Sibley Guide to Birds is widely considered the most comprehensive guide to North American bird identifying ever created. Published in 2000, the guide includes illustrations of 810 avian species. While the compendium is undoubtedly built upon the shoulders of its predecessors, it soars above them—if you’ll pardon the pun—not least of all because of its illustrations depicting each species in flight, a thorough representation that had not been included before.

Bird Watching an American robin on a leaf-strewn yard

The American robin is just about the most recognizable bird around, but can you tell a lady robin from a gentleman? With the right bird guide in hand, you’ll be able to discern that and more! [Image: www.birdingisfun.com]

The Future of Birding?

All About Birds is an online bird guide offered for free through the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It is one of the best resources a bird watcher can ask for, and reasonably represents a possible future for birding. While you can’t exactly carry it along with you in the field—yet—it succeeds in blending the sport of birding with technology in its own way. You can search this guide with the touch of a few keys by describing a bird’s size, shape, or color. This guide also puts you in touch with the aural end of birding as the description of each species is accompanied by its call or song.

Choosing the right bird guide is not unlike picking a car insurance provider or deciding how you want your coffee prepared from a local cafe’s immense menu—there are many options, each performing the task in a different way. There are guides that pose deeper taxonomic questions or ones with detailed illustrations. Some offer a wealth of information about nesting, feeding, or other behavioral attributes while others elaborate less, so as not to overload a beginner—it’s really your personal preference and what information interests you that matters.

Most importantly, no matter your level of expertise or lack thereof, you can get out and enjoy a good bird walk today, even if winter is on its way—just remember to dress warmly and stay sharp. And feel free to add your own bird guide notes or advice in the comments!

O Pioneers! 5 American Explorers

America has always figured prominently in the history and imagination of discovery. From Lewis and Clark to Lance Armstrong, America has attracted and produced explorers in extraordinary number and variety. They range from early rough and tumble explorers of the Rockies and Yellowstone, to wizened Transcendentalists like John Muir, all the way to contemporary arctic trailblazer Ann Bancroft.

Ann Bancroft

Ann Bancroft pulling sled

Ann Bancroft pulling 250-pound sled [image: www.startribune.com]

Ann Bancroft is an educator, writer, athlete, and explorer who quit her job as a school teacher in Minnesota to lead several pioneering polar expeditions. As the only female member of the 1986 Steger International Polar Expedition, Bancroft journeyed over 1,000 miles on foot and by dogsled to become the first woman to reach the North Pole. In February 2001, she and Norwegian explorer Liv Arnesen became the first women to travel across the Antarctica landmass by ski and sail. The journey took 94 days and covered 1,717 miles.

John Muir

John and Teddy in Yosemite

John and Teddy in Yosemite [image: jfkplusfifty.wordpress.com]

A student of Emerson and Transcendentalism, Muir was the thinking man’s explorer who viewed nature as the spiritual home of mankind. As a writer, explorer, and advocate for preservation, Muir was instrumental in passing the National Park bill in 1890 which established Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks. He has since become known as the “Father of the National Parks.” The 581,000-acre John Muir Wilderness area located on eastern side of the Sierra Nevada is named for him.

Jim Savage

Yellowstone and Jim Savage

Yellowstone [image: famouswonders.com]

As a businessman, trader, soldier, explorer, and 49er, Jim Savage was a little bit of everything. In 1851, while leading the Mariposa Brigade into the Sierra Nevada wilderness on a military campaign against local tribal leaders, Savage and his party became the first non-indigenous discoverers of Yosemite Valley. This was bad news for the Native Americans, the original occupants and discoverers of Yosemite Valley, who were then forcibly relocated to a different reservation. Discovery!

Henry Wetherbee Henshaw

New Mexico [image: www.nationalgeographic.com]

New Mexico [image: www.nationalgeographic.com]

Henry Wetherbee Henshaw was an explorer and naturalist who made important contributions in ornithology and anthropology. Henshaw participated in several major expeditions to New Mexico and Arizona in the 1870s where he collected plant and animal specimens for the Smithsonian. His experiences with the Apache Indians of the area led him to write the pioneering Handbook of North American Indians North of Mexico. Henshaw was also one of the founders of the National Geographic Society and the Nuttall Ornithological Club.

John Colter

John Colter

Colter with clothes on [image: www.yellowstonegate.com]

Colter was a career loner and consummate outdoorsman who is today regarded as the first mountain man. As if being a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition wasn’t enough, Colter was the first non-indigenous person to see Yellowstone and the Teton Mountain Range. He is perhaps equally famous for an episode known as ‘Colter’s Run” in which Colter, who had been captured by Blackfoot Indians and stripped naked, was forced to run for his life while the younger warriors attempted to chase down and kill him. Miraculously, he outran the party and escaped by hiding inside a beaver lodge.

We leave you with this stanza from Walt Whitman, the poet of exploration:

We detachments steady throwing,
Down the edges, through the passes, up the mountains steep,
Conquering, holding, daring, venturing as we go the unknown ways,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

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  • Easton Mountain Products Cache 4 Annex Vestibule
  • ALPS Mountaineering Sector 4200 Backpack
  • Brunton Echo Porro Prism Binocular

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