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April 2018

Vol. 46, No. 2

About Books: Two Lives with Birds

Mark Lynch

One More Warbler: A Life with Birds. Victor Emanuel. 2017. Austin: University of Texas Press. Austin, Texas.

Field Guide to Birds of Massachusetts. Wayne R. Petersen. 2017. New York: Scott & Nix, Inc.

"Edgar Kincaid used to say, ‘Birds have it all.'" (p. 251, One More Warbler)

Between the 1970s and the late 1990s, birding evolved into the popular avocation we know today in the United States. Before those decades, birding, or "bird watching" as it was more typically known, was a hobby more for isolated adults, obscure nature clubs, or eager youths looking to earn a merit badge. There were no well-connected internet sites, Facebook pages, or apps for your phones, and there were very few field guides to birds of countries other than our own. Binoculars were large and unwieldy, and few people had scopes. The public image of the birder before the 1970s was based on classic sitcom characters like Jane Hathaway, played by Nancy Kulp, and Professor P. Caspar Biddle, played by Wally Cox, in the TV show The Beverly Hillbillies. People who watched birds were imagined to be introverted nerds who dressed in adult versions of scouting khakis, and when they spotted a bird it was often a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, a name always good for a laugh. Although there are still some that fit that image of a Biddle Bird Watcher, and god love ‘em, many of today's birders tend to be dressed in the latest outdoors gear, be unabashedly competitive, and are well connected to birding communities locally and nationally. They are likely to carry a top-of-the-line camera along with their bins. Today's birders are often well traveled, not only throughout the states but also to other destinations around the world, and we have access to books and on-line resources that pre-1960s birdwatchers could only dream of.

The birding history of those critical decades of the last third of the twentieth century is sadly unknown by the legions of millennial birders. There are a number of individuals, many still alive, who through their groundbreaking field work, trip leading, teaching, and writing helped change the way we think about birding today. The following books are by two authors who in their own ways help bring birding into the twenty-first century.

"My mentors opened my eyes to birds and instilled in me an appreciation for all birds, not just the rare and unusual ones." (p. 252, One More Warbler)

Victor Emanuel is best known to New England birders as the founder of VENT, Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, one of the earliest tour businesses that catered to birders. One More Warbler is his entertaining memoir of his life with birds, and what a life it has been! Victor Emanuel was friends with or birded with a virtual Who's Who of the birding world in the last decades of the twentieth century. Names like Robert Ridgely, Kenn Kaufman, Roger Tory Peterson, Lars Jonsson, and Peter Alden pop up often throughout One More Warbler. He befriended George Plimpton, famous writer and journalist, and searched with him for the "thought-to-be-extinct" Imperial Woodpecker in Mexico. Victor Emanuel formed a life-long close friendship with internationally acclaimed novelist and nature writer Peter Matthiessen, and at one point set off on a three week Asian adventure with him to see all the Asian Crane species.

Some of these cameo appearances are surreal. Emanuel became acquainted with George W. and Laura Bush while Bush was still governor of Texas. Later, when Bush was President, Laura invited Emanuel to lead a birding outing for the wives of world leaders at the G8 conference on Sea Island, Georgia. What happened next was worthy of a Saturday Night Live skit:

Although Mrs. Putin was dressed more for a cocktail party than a bird outing, she appeared to be one of the most interested—other than Laura—in what we were seeing and asked many questions through her interpreter. Mrs. Blair was also engaged and told me that a member of her husband's staff was an avid birder. Madame Chirac seemed the least interested in what we were seeing—almost to the point of boredom. She never lifted her binoculars; instead, her assistant carried the binoculars for her throughout the entire excursion. (p. 194, One More Warbler)

Emanuel was born in Houston, Texas, and though he has traveled to the far-flung corners of the globe, Texas is still where his birding heart lies. His second favorite place in the world is the valley of the El Triunfo volcano in Mexico where he has found the rare and local Horned Guan, along with many other species. He fell in love with the habitats, people, and birds of that area and has visited it numerous times.

At a very early age he became interested in "birds, butterflies, crayfish, snakes, turtles, and fish" (p. 4). Several events fortuitously happened to Emanuel that turned this childhood interest in the wonders of the natural world into a lifelong passion for birds. While in his young teens, he found older mentors by hanging out with the members of the Outdoor Nature Club, a rag-tag group of much older gentlemen. Two members in particular, Armand Yramategui and Joe Heiser, took him on long field trips, including trips to Mexico. From them he learned the joys of exploring new birding habitats and many keys to identifying species in the field. It is a testament to how much times have changed to think about how most parents today would react to the notion of a group of older men taking their young son on an overnight trip.

Emanuel was only ten years old when he participated in his first Christmas Bird Count, the one in Houston, Texas. In 1955, at only 15 years old, he did his first out-of-state CBC in Xilitla, Mexico, where he saw his first Emerald Toucanets and Blue-crowned Motmots. Later, in 1957, he started the Freeport, Texas, CBC, which for many years was known for tallying the most species on any CBC in the United States and has attracted the participation of leading birders from all over the country. Also in 1957, he witnessed his first migrant "fallout" in Texas, and this event began his life-long passion for warblers.

It is fascinating to learn that Victor Emanuel almost did not have a "life with birds." After graduating high school, he attended the University of Texas and later Harvard, studying political science with the goal to become a professor in that field. While at Harvard he met Peter Alden, then at the Massachusetts Audubon Society, who told Emanuel that he was now leading birding trips for MAS as a paying job. By the end of the sixties, Emanuel was working at the Institute for Urban Studies at the University of Houston, when he again bumped into Alden who regaled him with tales of his birding trips around the world. Emanuel then began to seriously envy Alden's life and to question his own. What finally changed his life was when in 1970 he got a call from Illinois banker Dean Gorham who was in Texas on business. He asked Emanuel if he would take him and his wife out for a day's birding for pay. Emanuel did, and from that humble beginning a life's direction was forever changed and VENT was born.

One More Warbler is filled with Emanuel's detailed stories of seeing bird species. On March 22, 1959, Victor Emanuel saw what he still declares is the "bird of my life" (p. 33), an Eskimo Curlew.

The short-grass pasture was dotted with fresh cow pies and surrounded by a barbed-wire fence. Among the many shorebirds in the field were American Golden Plovers, Black-bellied Plovers, Upland Sandpipers, Killdeer, Whimbrels, Long-billed Curlews, Buff-breasted Sandpipers, Lesser Yellowlegs, and Pectoral Sandpipers. Thanks to the recent dairy cattle droppings, the field was rich in invertebrate life, which provided an abundance of food for these birds. When I put up my binoculars, I immediately saw a small buffy curlew. I told my friends that we needed to get out of the car and set up our Bushnell scopes. (p. 35, One More Warbler)

What follows is the stuff of birding legends, and Emanuel devotes an entire chapter to his experiences seeing this likely now extinct North American shorebird.

One More Warbler is a wonderful read, an engrossing and entertaining account of a person who helped change the way we bird by offering guided birding excursions around the world, developing birding networks, and leading special programs for young birders. The book is also an interesting history of how birding has changed and evolved in the last 50 years. By the end of the book, Emanuel is obviously not as spry as he was in his youth, but he is still out in the field whenever he can be, enjoying birds, his passion and zeal undiminished. It is the perfect way that most of us would like to lead our birding life. Highly recommended.

"Massachusetts is the seventh smallest state in land area of any state in the United States, yet it boasts a total bird list of over 500 species, a number that places it among the top ten states in the country." (p. xxvi, Field Guide to Birds of Massachusetts)

The American Birding Association is publishing a nifty (not a word I use often) new series of state bird guides. They are compact, sturdy, and beautifully illustrated with color photography. They are the perfect guides for serious beginning birders or as introductions to a state's avifauna for out of state birders. Because of size constraints, not all of any state's birds are covered— only the most frequently reported. Though there are certainly identification details for every species, each species account also includes notes on that species' historical occurrence in that state and where in the state the species may most often appear. So far there are guides to the birds of Texas, California, New York, and the Carolinas. These ABA state guides are beautifully bound and illustrated, making them collectible by those of us who are fanatic ornithobibliophiles. One of the latest volumes in the series is the Field Guide to Birds of Massachusetts by Wayne R. Petersen.

Wayne Petersen is a name well known to birders. Among his many accomplishments, he has been the co-editor of the Massachusetts Breeding Bird Atlas 2, Director of the Massachusetts Important Bird Areas program, and New England Regional Editor for North American Birds magazine and the New England section of the Christmas Bird Counts. Petersen is also co-author of what is still one of the most important historical accounts of birds in the state, Birds of Massachusetts (Veit and Petersen 1993). He is also a member of the Board of Directors of Bird Observer. In 2005 he was the recipient of the American Birding Association Ludlow Griscom Award for outstanding contributions in regional ornithology. You would be hard-pressed to find a more knowledgeable author for a bird guide to Massachusetts.

The Field Guide to Birds of Massachusetts is a wonderfully concise introduction to birds in the state. There are sections on the ornithological history of the state, a month-by-month rundown of what birds to expect, and a fine west-to-east summary of the state's ornithogeography. There are the usual sections on bird topology and an outstanding section on how to identify birds. The chatty and evocative accounts are unlike the usual terse descriptions found in most contemporary field guides, and this style makes it a guide you will actually read.

Each of the 248 species accounts is accompanied by at least one good color photograph by Brian Small. Most of the state's breeding species are included as well as a good selection of the more regularly occurring migrants and winter visitors. Because the focus is solely on birds of Massachusetts, this is a perfect guide for beginning birders in this state as it narrows the possibilities of what they are looking at. There are details of when and where the species is found, and basic identification information is written next to the photographs.

As with any limited guide, there will always be disagreements over which species were included and which were left out. Personally, I find the omission of Ruffed Grouse and the inclusion of the Ring-necked Pheasant problematic. Certainly, grouse are still a fairly common, if declining, breeding species in central and western parts of the state. Yet the pheasant is actually no longer even counted as a viable species in those same areas, all sightings being attributed to game farm releases. We just don't find broods of pheasants in these areas anymore. I also found that though "the Berkshires" and "Quabbin" were often cited as general locations to find certain species, there could have been a few more specific interior state locations included in the species accounts. But these are minor criticisms for what overall is a very well produced and nicely written regional guide.

The Field Guide to Birds of Massachusetts is the perfect guide for young and novice birders as well as anyone who likes the out of doors in the state and wants to know more about what birds they see. To have such a guide written by one of the foremost authorities on birds in the state is the frosting on the cake.

OTHER LITERATURE CITED:

  • Veit, R. R. and W. R. Petersen. 1993. Birds of Massachusetts. Lincoln, MA: Massachusetts Audubon Society.

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