Thursday, May 23, 2013
By THOMAS URQUHART
The day after I received the very attractive little book "Maine's Favorite Birds," I participated in a survey of land birds on Little Chebeague Island in Casco Bay. Curious how it would serve in the field, I took it along. Of the 24 species we recorded, I found all but two included. Not bad.
"MAINE'S FAVORITE BIRDS." By Jeffrey V. Wells and Allison Childs Wells. Illustrated by Evan Barbour. Tilbury House. 72 pages. $15.
Which is not surprising, considering that the authors are Jeffrey and Allison Wells, a nationally-known husband-and-wife ornithological team based for years at Cornell's Laboratory of Ornithology. But not all pros can write with such an understanding of how to encourage beginners, whether children or adults, nor so beautifully.
Their introduction to "Maine's Favorite Birds" is a delight, capturing the nature of Maine with unaffected appealing prose.
The Wellses know that for most people, the entryway to nature is in "their backyards, gardens, parks, local ponds, and other areas they visit frequently." Their book aims to smooth that way to the point that the budding birder is ready to graduate to a more compendious field guide.
"One of the best things about birding is that you can bird just about any way you wish," they write at the head of a simple but helpful page on "Tools of the Birding Trade." The authors recommend binoculars, not only to identify birds at a distance, but to open a "whole new world of detail." It will change the way you look at the most common bird, such as the blue jay: Its blue, black and white feathers "are so stunning you may never take them for granted again." Use of digital cameras and apps on your iPhone are also a major technological leap.
"Maine's Favorite Birds" describes 108 species, out of some 400 that have been found in Maine. A paragraph on each one gives the usual particulars -- voice, length -- and the most obvious field marks. They generally add an interesting note or two about where to look, threats if any, and happily for a number of species, conservation success.
I like their friendly style that calls the wild turkey's comeback "wildly successful," the great crested flycatcher "boisterous," the Eastern towhee "rambunctious," and the house wren a "sprite of a bird," all apt epithets.
And I was delighted to learn things like the flycatcher's penchant for draping shed snake skins from its nest hole, or that Maine is the "world capital" for the beautiful black-throated blue warbler, supporting "a large proportion of the species' total world population."
All the species described (plus a handful of others for comparison) have been painted by Evan Barbour. Illustrating a field guide -- condensing a multitude of features, some very subtle but crucial, into a simple drawing -- is a far more exacting business than it looks.
Barbour is an artist/scientist who is obviously deeply knowledgeable about his subjects. His pictures are all serviceable in the field, but some capture the essence of the particular bird better than others. I particularly liked the cedar waxwing and the two kinglets. Some of the colors could be brighter, though not as bright as the robin's scarlet tum, but this is probably not so much the artist's fault as the printer's.
"Favorite" is a tricky, subjective word. As with any "anthology," "Maine's Favorite Birds" makes some choices -- of omission and inclusion -- that will surprise some people.
The first bird in the book, the Atlantic puffin, is certainly an iconic species in Maine, but you have to get into a boat and go to a couple of specific islands at a particular time of year to see it. There are similarly attractive "specialist" birds -- my favorite is the harlequin duck -- that can be targeted with as much certainty and less effort.
More glaring is the absence of an egret (easily seen in our salt marshes), common tern (surely up there with the puffin and loon as a quintessential Maine bird), and one of the so-called "peeps" that run up and down the tide line.
As a "small black and white diving duck," the hooded merganser seems an unusual choice; why not the bufflehead or goldeneye?
Don't get me wrong: This is a delightful book that will set many a future bird-watcher on the right path. It has been compiled by an expert team with a profound commitment to helping them.
The Wellses could easily solve my one criticism with a new volume, "More Maine's Favorite Birds."
As I put the present one down after reading it on my deck in Falmouth, a Carolina wren bolts by me into the bushes as if to say, "Include me next time, please."
Thomas Urquhart is a former director of Maine Audubon and author of "For the Beauty of the Earth, Birding, Opera and Other Journeys."