Bohemian Waxwing rhapsody

A Bohemian Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus) puffs its feathers on a cold and snowy day. (David Restivo/National Park Service)

I vividly remember the day that sparked my life-long passion for ornithology. Initially, I was enamored by reptiles and amphibians, and had already amassed quite an impressive collection of field guides to the local species that inhabited the surrounding regions of my home in Ulster County, New York. Armed with my Peterson Field Guide and a notebook, I set out on another one of my innumerable herping — that's catching, observing, and studying reptiles and amphibians — excursions (thanks for putting up with me, Mom and Dad).

I had low expectations as to what I would find, as it was a rainy October day, and the wind-chill and lack of sun were not good signs for the cold-blooded denizens that I was seeking out. After a couple of hours futilely flipping rocks in the rain, I decided to return home, knowing that I’d come back empty-handed. But something caught my eye from beneath the bright foliage of a Blackhaw Viburnum: an unusual little bird that would change the entire course of my life.

There are many unusual things about the Connecticut Warbler. To begin, it doesn’t breed in Connecticut, and is, in fact, only a rare fall migrant to the region. What really caught my eye, however, was this strange bird’s highly un-warbler-like behavior. While most warbler species tend to forage in the canopy, this unfamiliar-looking, long-legged warbler walked on the leaf litter, foraging for insects while scurrying beneath the cover of the low viburnum shrub. In that instance, I knew that this odd, unobtrusive little bird would mark the beginning of a journey that has since taken me to some of the most exotic, and biologically diverse regions of the world.

In my mind, the next logical step was to observe every single species of bird that inhabited my neck of the woods. So with my newfound excitement, I picked up my first bird field guide, David Allen Sibley’s landmark, "The Sibley Guide to Birds of North America." That night, I flipped through the pages like a mad scientist on a stimulant binge. I was in awe of everything the book had to offer, from the subtle distinctions in bill length amongst Empidonax flycatchers, to the difficulty of identifying warblers in their fall migration plumage, to the art of identifying raptors in flight – the list goes on and on, and it was all a game that I was determined to win.  

Sibley’s guide was, upon its release, immediately regarded as the most comprehensive, user-friendly bird guide on the market. The first edition was published in the year 2000 (the second, in 2014), and preceding this year, the only books widely regarded as the gold standards of bird identification included: "The National Geographic Field Guide to Birds of North America," the "Golden Guide to Birds of North America," Peterson’s regional field guides to birds of Eastern and Western North America, and Ken Kauffman’s then-recently published, digitized photographic guide to North American Birds. After leafing through my copy of the "Sibley Guide," I decided to pick up the rest of these acclaimed field references. While many of these books are still regarded as highly useful in the field, at the time, I discovered that they all had a number of shortcomings and limitations.

I remember sitting next to my kitchen window staring at my birdfeeder one cold winter in Accord, N.Y., perusing the “finches and grosbeaks” section of "The Golden Guide to Birds of North America" (Robbins), in awe of how portable this little field guide of only 4.6 X 7.5 inches was. The illustrations not only accurately and beautifully depicted birds in their adult and juvenile plumages, but also included other unique features, such as sonograms that visually depicted bird calls, as well as silhouettes that aided in quick identification.

The shortcomings of this field guide presented themselves when I glanced upon a strange little bird that superficially resembled a common redpoll, but was distinctly larger, with a whiter belly and rump. I became elated, believing that I had stumbled upon a rare vagrant and lifer bird (a species not native to, but annually, or nearly-annually recorded in North America), the hoary redpoll, only known from arctic and subarctic regions of the far north.

Something, however, didn’t sit right with me, and my intuition told me that the extensive pink breast, and darkly-streaked belly on this specimen reflected the plumage of the more common Acanthis flammea (common redpoll). So with this identification challenge at the forefront of my mind, I decided to consult my bible, the "Sibley Guide." Upon flipping to the finches and grosbeaks section of the book, I discovered that Sibley had included two subspecies of the common redpoll (Southern, and Greenland [Greater] Common Redpolls). To make matters even more confusing, two subspecies (also aptly named Southern, and Greenland [Hornemann’s] hoary redpolls) were included as well!

I was able to ascertain that the bird at the feeder in front of me had a distinctly darker pink wash on its breast than the Southern subspecies of the hoary redpoll, and was able to judge, based on the size of the specimen, that I was indeed looking at a common redpoll, albeit, the confusing, lighter-plumaged, southern subspecies. It was then when I realized the limitations of a 4.6 X 7.5 - inch field guide in addressing various regional subspecies that have the capacity to baffle even the most experienced of birdwatchers. The "Sibley Guide," being 6.3 X 9.8 inches, is not really much of a “field” guide, rather, it is a book to be left in one’s car or on one’s coffee table to be readily consulted after a trip back from the field. The space it utilizes allows it to describe nearly every subspecies or example of regional variation amongst all of North America’s birds, including 111 rare vagrant species unlikely to show up in other field manuals.

The "Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America" was another one of my favorite guides as a child, as it included Roger Tory Peterson’s signature “field marks” (arrows pointing out the unique physical and plumage traits of a given species), which eliminated much confusion for me in the field in the early days of my birding adventures. Roger Tory Peterson is known as somewhat of a "Messiah" among birders and naturalists at large, as his first edition of "A Field Guide to the Birds" (1934) influenced the format and layout of essentially every modern field guide thereafter. The Peterson guide stays on my shelf nowadays, and I often glance through it to appreciate the artwork, rather than use it in the field, for a variety of reasons. To begin, the species distribution maps in this book are not only out-of-date, but are placed at the very back of the book, as opposed to the page adjacent to the illustrations (or on the same page as the illustrations, as in the "Sibley Guide"). Secondly, a significant number of vagrant or unusual species are left out of this guide, which has, in the past, lead to some bewilderment, especially in the instance of me confusing a vagrant black-throated gray warbler for the common black and white warbler.

With "Sibley’s Guide" as my precedent for what the perfect bird field guide should look like, I became obsessed with birds from all around the world. I made it my mission to collect field guides to birds from exotic regions, to study the behavior and ecology of the species, and to eventually travel to such remote places to find these unusual birds. My collection was starting to increase rapidly, and soon enough, I found that I needed significantly more than just the six bookshelves in my room, which were beginning to overflow. I became obsessed with collector’s items, and old, out-of-print copies of books that became increasingly difficult to obtain.

The Strand bookstore on Broadway soon became my new stomping grounds, and I’d spend hours reading and collecting books in the basement where the natural history section was located. My first regional area of interest was Latin America, as I had been to Costa Rica multiple times since I was a youngster obsessed with herpetology. My copy of Alexander Skutch’s "Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica" was becoming increasingly well-worn with every trip I made back to the region; complete with a tallied checklist, annotations, along with the vertebrae of a dead giant cockroach that had, unbeknownst to me, crawled between the plates of the region’s beautiful hummingbirds and got squashed! So I picked up the more portable, and highly acclaimed "Birds of Costa Rica," by Richard Garrigues, which then became a staple for all my field expeditions in this avian paradise. But why stop at Costa Rica? Panama contained its own unique avifauna as well, as demonstrated to me by Angehr’s detailed flycatcher plates in his work, "Birds of Panama." The same went for El Salvador, Mexico, Belize, and, well, the rest of Latin America in its entirety! My shelves were now lined with books like Howell’s "Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America," Schulenberg’s "Birds of Peru," Peterson’s "Mexican Birds," and many, many more. 

There’s something beautifully aesthetic about leafing through the pages of a bird guide to species from exotic regions around the world. For example, when reading through Harris’s "Field Guide to Birds of the Galapagos," the reader begins to understand the link between the local species’ intricate courtship displays, behavior, and coloration, and the influence that this isolated, volcanic environment has on their ecology, behavioral mechanisms, and evolution as a whole. We come to understand that the flightless cormorant doesn’t need wings because of the lack of predators in the environs they live in, as well their unique affinity for spending most of their lives on open water, diving for the plethora of fish that abound in the reefs just below the ocean’s surface. Collecting field guides has not only made me aware of the wide array of biological diversity among exotic species, but has also made me perceptive of the unique geography of such regions, the impact of species’ isolation on divergent evolution, as well as the behaviors that are prompted and utilized as a result of living in such topologically distinct locales.

This leads me to the importance of habitat preservation in relation to the conservation and protection of species that are habitat specialists (species only found within very specific habitats). Roger Tory Peterson once said, “Although I have seen thousands of Meadowlarks, I have never seen one in oak woodland. Likewise, I have never seen a wood thrush in a meadow.” This quote brings me back to the early days of my birding adventures in the Shawangunk Grasslands of southern New York, a mere 40 minutes from my home, where I found myself observing a wide array of species I had never seen before in the unfamiliar, expansive grassy habitat I found myself in. In the later half of my copy of Corey Finger’s handy "Field Guide to the Birds of New York," there is a section entirely devoted to this region’s ornithological diversity, and I visited the location without hesitation, in the hopes that I would tally off a handful of more lifer-species.

The Savannah sparrows I would often observe in the little meadows adjacent to my home were replaced by the protected grasshopper sparrow, a habitat specialist only found in tall-grass prairies, meadows, and overgrown farm fields. The cryptic and highly nocturnal barred owls I would so commonly hear at night in the woodlands near my home were replaced by the rarer, less vocal, and more diurnal short eared owls, which kited above the grasslands both alone, and in small family groups, patrolling for mice and other small mammals. In essence, field guides have allowed me to locate specific habitats and understand the ecological link between habitat specialists and the importance of these localities in sustaining a stable population of such unique species.

Certain field guides provide comprehensive details about genus-specific identification that some of the more “big picture” guides like the Sibley and Kauffman books fail to elaborate further on. I am referring to manuals that tackle the identification struggles of separating similar species within a genus, such as owls, hawks, those tricky empidonax flycatchers — a family of flycatchers that are essentially indistinguishable in the field aside from vocalizations and times of seasonal appearance — finches, and more. This reminds me of an instance in which I found myself in the Ramble in Central Park, rather heatedly debating with a group of bird-watchers about whether the bird we were looking at was a Cooper’s hawk, or the nearly identical, albeit slightly smaller sharp-shinned hawk. Unfortunately, separating the two species can provide a formidable challenge for even the most experienced birdwatchers. Someone within the crowd remarked about the bird’s size, which was comparable to that of an American crow. However, in the field, there is often much dispute and overlap regarding the size of a small male Cooper’s hawk, and a large female sharp-shinned hawk. Size is only a partial factor in accipiter — or species with long, thin tails, and short rounded wings — identification.

Luckily for me, I happened to have my copy of Brian Wheeler’s "Raptors of Eastern North America" in my coat pocket. On page 164, under the subheading, “SIMILAR SPECIES,” Wheeler describes how the hackle — the raised feathers on the back of a bird’s head, which form a crest-like appearance — of the perched Cooper’s hawk, along with its rounded tail are hallmark identification features that distinguish this species from the smaller, square-tailed sharp-shinned hawk. The bird in question was not vocalizing, so identifying it based on its call was not an option. The birders around me all carried copies of their respective Kauffman, Sibley, and National Geographic field guides, which only gave sparse details about how to separate the two, focusing on differentiating accipiters strictly by vocalization, subtle differences in color, and details relating to the birds’ size. Upon further investigation, I noted the bird’s rounded tail, raised hackle feathers, and wide terminal tail band, and surmised that the species in question was (almost) undoubtedly a male Cooper’s hawk, and a small one at that. This was later confirmed to me by my fellow birdwatchers after a close analysis of the photos they had taken on their gargantuan tripod cameras (the unique identification feature of any eccentric birder). Essentially, genus-specific guides call our attention to the details of a specific family of birds that are often excluded from regional field guides, thereby filling a crucial niche in ornithological literature.

Personally, my most valuable bird guide (and treasure in general) is, in fact, a genus-specific guide entitled, "Owls: A Guide to the Owls of the World," by Claus König. This elusive book, at the time in its first edition, took me a whopping two years to finally get a hold of, and upon receiving it, sparked a passion for birds of prey that is just as strong today as it was all those years ago. Owls in particular have fascinated me since I was a toddler, as one of my earliest memories involves me being harshly awoken from my sleep by the blood-curdling, banshee-scream of a barn owl (Tyto alba) outside my window in the Catskills.

Owls fly on silent wing-beats, have impeccable hearing, and can rotate their heads a whopping 270 degrees. In addition, there is an enormous amount of geographical variation between species of owls, as they are a cosmopolitan family of birds that can be found in essentially every habitat in the world. While flipping through König’s owl guide, I was immediately fascinated by South East Asia’s scops owls, Western Africa’s eagle owls, Indonesia’s masked owls, and the remote and isolated climates that many of these species inhabit. It was only after reading about the long-whiskered owlet that I begged my parents to take me to the remote Amazonian rainforests of Peru. Similarly, it was this very book that prompted me to get my falcon license (a license which allows me to hunt with and train birds of prey). 

Today, I have well over a thousand bird guides in my collection. My shelves are overflowing, my bedside table creaks under the weight of another stack, and every single drawer in my room is filled to the brim with field guides. My life-list of birds is now over 2,000 species, and most of the regional guides that I own are well-worn and full of annotations. You are likely to find me amidst a group of socially awkward, tripod-wheeling birders in Central Park, or scouring the towpath on campus with my treasured pair of Swarovski binoculars, or maybe even perched on the terrace of my eating club, watching migratory raptors soar overhead. Roger Tory Peterson, the pioneer of modern field guides and my personal birding hero died in 1996, the year I was born. Perhaps it’s a sign that it’s time to take on his monolithic legacy.

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