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Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion: A Comprehensive Resource for Identifying North American Birds [Hardcover]

Pete Dunne

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Book Description

May 11 2006
In this book, bursting with more information than any field guide could hold, the well-known author and birder Pete Dunne introduces readers to the "Cape May School of Birding." It's an approach to identification that gives equal or more weight to a bird's structure and shape and the observer's overall impression (often called GISS, for General Impression of Size and Shape) than to specific field marks.

After determining the most likely possibilities by considering such factors as habitat and season, the birder uses characteristics such as size, shape, color, behavior, flight pattern, and vocalizations to identify a bird. The book provides an arsenal of additional hints and helpful clues to guide a birder when, even after a review of a field guide, the identification still hangs in the balance.

This supplement to field guides shares the knowledge and skills that expert birders bring to identification challenges. Birding should be an enjoyable pursuit for beginners and experts alike, and Pete Dunne combines a unique playfulness with the work of identification. Readers will delight in his nicknames for birds, from the Grinning Loon and Clearly the Bathtub Duck to Bronx Petrel and Chicken Garnished with a Slice of Mango and a Dollop of Raspberry Sherbet.

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Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion: A Comprehensive Resource for Identifying North American Birds + The Art of Bird Identification + The Warbler Guide
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Product Description

About the Author

PETE DUNNE is the author of many books, including Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, Pete Dunne on Bird Watching, and most recently Prairie Spring, the first in a four-book series on the seasons. He is the vice president of the New Jersey Audubon Society and director of its Cape May Bird Observatory.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

A Guide to the Guide

How To Make This Book Work For You

There is nothing particularly complicated about a guide to bird identification. All it is (or hopes to be) is a book that explains what to look for to distinguish one species from another. In addition, both directly and indirectly it tells you how to go about doing so. For this book to work for you, you don’t need to know any more than this. All you have to do is turn to the account of a species of interest. Read the text. Bring the information to bear in the field, or in the case of a bird you’ve already found and studied, compare the text to the details housed in your memory (or inscribed in your field notes) and see whether you have a match.
But if you want to maximize the potential of this book, and if you are the kind of person who is interested in the whys as much as the what and the how, then you are invited to keep reading. Certain principles govern the information provided here and the manner in which it is presented. If you understand these principles, this book will serve you better.
First, insofar as this book is designed to be a supplement, it is presumed that you already have one or more of the standard illustrated field guides to birds at your disposal. As they have been since the publication of the seminal Peterson field guide in 1934, a basic field guide is every birder’s primary resource when confronting an identification challenge. This book is meant to augment these primary guides by offering more information. It also strives to present information as naturally as possible by replicating the identification process used by an experienced birder: looking at the big picture first and sleuthing for details later.
Inexperienced birders commonly use field marks to jump-start an identification. Experienced birders use field marks to confirm it. For very understandable reasons, standard field guides are thematically allied to the jumpstart school. This guide is more wedded to process.

Don’t Keep an Open Mind

Even before they sight a bird, experienced birders are bringing their experience to bear. They know that birds are creatures of habit and habitats and that the nature of a habitat encourages certain species to be there and discourages the presence of others. For example, you would expect to find a Carolina Wren in a suburban, coastal community in New Jersey. You would not expect a Rock Wren, a bird common to arid, rocky slopes.
Also, experienced birders know that different bird species have defining ranges (Rock Wrens are western birds that are not found east of the prairies, so they are not likely to be found in New Jersey) and that a bird’s range is determined not only by geography but by seasons. The range of Rock Wren extends into southern British Columbia, southern Alberta, and southwestern Saskatchewan in the summer, but in the winter northern breeding members of this species retreat farther south. This species is not located in Canada in winter.
So when these birders go birding, their accumulated knowledge and experience enable them to predict which birds they are likely to encounter based on location, habitat, and time of year (among other clues). And because they are able to go into the field juggling fewer variables, the identification process is greatly simplified for them.
When a wrenlike bird pops up on a scree slope in June in the Rocky Mountain foothills just west of Calgary, Alberta, they can test a hypothesis— “Is it Rock Wren?” (the expected species)—rather than approach the problem by asking: “Now, which one of the nine species of wrens found in North America is this?” But, you may be saying, I’m not an experienced birder, so I cannot apply such a search engine to filter what I see. That is exactly the function of the introductory paragraph in each species account.

Identification Right Think

The introductory paragraph for each species provides a biographical backdrop. The elements include STATUS, DISTRIBUTION, HABITAT, COHABITANTS, and MOVEMENTS/MIGRATION. STATUS relates to the bird’s numeric abundance and condition of residency (whether it is a permanent resident, a summer or winter resident, a visitor, or a vagrant). You are likely to see birds that enjoy large populations and less likely to see those whose populations are small. The terms “common,” “uncommon,” and “rare” are most commonly used to describe a bird’s status. A “common” bird is one you are very likely to encounter; “uncommon” refers to the bird you might see, but perhaps another, similar (and perhaps more common) bird should also be considered as a candidate. “Rare” birds are the ones you have only a slim chance of encountering. If you encounter a bird that reseembles a rare species, your identification may well be correct, but you should approach the possibility with caution.
DISTRIBUTION defines the geeeeeographic area in which the bird is typically found. For some species, this remains fixed all year. For other species, distribution shifts seasonally. HABITAT describes the biological setting—climatic, topographical, and vegetative—that the species favors and offers examples of such settings. COHABITANTS are the other birds (or animals) that are also specialized for and likely to be found in a bird’s preferred habitat. MOVEMENTS/MIGRATION provides the dates (and sometimes the routes and key staging areas) a species moves between its breeding and wintering areas; this passage sometimes carries the bird across regions that do not fall within that species’ breeding or winter range.
Taken in sum, STATUS, DISTRIBUTION, HABITAT, COHABITANTS, and MOVEMENTS/ MIGRATION constitute the biological framework that defines where a bird is likely to be and when it is likely to be there—and thus whether a species is likely to be what you believe it to be.
In a word, these elements of species’ biographical backdrop define probability. Experienced birders use probability all the time, and inexperienced birders eventually come to appreciate it. They also come to understand that probability is not confining and in fact is empowering. It helps turn a complicated question (“Now, which one of the 800 species of birds found in North America is that?”) into a simple one (“Is this the species I expect?”).
You’re in Cape May Point, New Jersey. You see a large wren in a suburban yard. The question you’ll ask is: Is it Carolina Wren, the default large wren for the region? Almost always the answer is yes. But as salient a factor as probability is, it is not determining. It suggests, but it doesn’t certify. Probability has a qualifying companion called possibility. Birds don’t always follow the rules. They sometimes turn up outside their prescribed ranges and in marginal or ill-suited habitats or at odd times. Getting back to the aforementioned Rock Wren, it so happens that in December 1992 a Rock Wren was found in Cape May Point, New Jersey, rummaging around in the scattered debris of a house under construction.
So the last piece of information imparted in the opening paragraph, designated VI—short for VAGRANCY INDEX—is a conditional modifier. This index relates to the known vagrancy tendencies of a species or the possibility that it may turn up where it doesn’t belong (in terms of its normal geographic distribution). There are five ratings.
0 No pattern of vagrancy. The chances of this species being seen outside its range are scant to nil.
1 Some slight tendency to wander, but such occurrences are regional, extending not far beyond the established borders of the species’ range, or there are simply very few records of vagrancy.
2 The species shows some modest pattern of vagrancy. It is possible to encounter it outside its normal range but still not likely, and you should consider other, more likely possibilities first.
3 This species has demonstrated an established, widespread pattern of vagrancy. Ignore the range descriptions. This bird could be sighted almost anywhere.
4 The species is so widespread that there are few places left in North America for it to wander.
If you don’t care to remember the particulars, just remember the rating system. The lower the number, the less likely a species is to wander.

Birds Are the Sum of Their Parts (and More), or, But How Did You Know It Was a Wren and Not a Swan?

The field marks used to differentiate birds relate most often to structure and plumage. Used in concert to make an identification, both are important. But a bird’s structural characteristics are in many ways more fundamental and more determining. More than plumage, structural attributes (such as bill shape, neck length, body shape, leg length, or foot shape) link birds to closely related species; also, because these attributes vary less between the ages and sexes within a species, they are commonly not as variable or transitional as plumage. Accordingly, the description for every species looks first at structure and concludes with plumage, focusing first upon the most fundamental traits.
SIZE AND OVERALL SHAPE: Birders argue as to whether size or shape is a bird’s most determining characteristic (the one experienced birders note first when making an identification). The fact is that most birders see and assess these qualities simultaneously, thus quickly simplifying the identification process.
STRUCTURAL CHARACTERISTICS: Bill size, shape, and length, head size and shape, the contours of a bird’s neck, the shape of its body, the length of its legs, the shape of its feet—all constitute important, determining structural characteristics. These morphological traits divide birds into groups, such as sandpipers, hawks, gulls, warblers, or finches. Placing a bird in the right group is the next major step in the identification process. The rest comes down to details—those related to gradations in structure (like the small differences in the bill s...

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.6 out of 5 stars  28 reviews
44 of 46 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Jam Packed Birding Reference June 9 2006
By Amazon Customer - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Dunne has performed a remarkable feat with this book. He has captured in 700 or so pages the wisdom of a lifetime of birding. This is all the more amazing, or at least shocking compared to all the other bird ID books out there, in that there are zero pictures or illustrations.

Every breeding bird species is covered with a  to 1 page write-up. Each write-up is presented in a consistent manner making it fairly easy to scan for what you are looking for. Throughout Dunne adds some levity to a topic that could use more (obviously the Bathtub Duck = Ruddy Duck). Since there are no illustrations the focus is on GISS (general impression of size and shape) or gestalt. The GISS method of birding is an extremely valuable tool for the birder's toolbox. How many times has a bird gone unlabeled because it was only a silhouette or just a fly by? GISS can greatly aid in these ID situations. There is also a great deal of info on behavior and habitat that can be equally valuable in IDing a bird.

Due to the sheer volume of information in the book the density of information is very high and as a result it is not the easiest book on the eyes. Each page has 2 very dense columns of print. Some of the sections within a species account tend to run together, a bit more white space would have helped. It would have meant more heft but this is hardly a book that you would haul into the field so that extra weight would likely not matter.

Overall even with my minor quibbles this is an outstanding book and one that no birder should be without.
28 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars As Necessary as Binoculars, for Making/Confirming I.D.s Aug. 21 2006
By P.Broadnax - Published on
I won't repeat the (well-deserved!) accolades. Rather, I write to ensure that potential buyers are aware of one particular feature which is as profoundly helpful as it is unique. Each bird discussion includes the assignment of a V.I., that is, Vagarancy Index. This is best explained by example.

... You're looking out into your yard, and see a new bird (new to you, that is) around the feeder area. You digest its markings, then flip thru a field guide or two, trying to confirm an i.d. You're just about sure that it's, say, a white-throated sparrow, but the maps in your state guide AND a more enlarged regional guide indicate that this particular sparrow would only show up in your neck of the woods, if at all, during the winter--- and it's the dog days of July...

In the past, I would have immediately assumed I was wrong. But instead, I went hunting thru Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion. I learned: the white-throated sparrow is so extremely likely to be found outside the areas depicted in field guide maps, that those maps become all but irrelevant as regards that particular type of bird. This happened again just last week, as regards a black and white warbler.

In other words, despite being relatively new to the birdwatching hobby, my passion grows as I get confirmation-- from an expert-- that I not only have a clue, but sometimes, I'm right on the money, even when the field guides would have me believe otherwise! Therefore, this is the most aptly titled book you will ever encounter, and I can say, withOUT reservation, that it truly deserves a spot on your bookshelf.

A diplomatically stated postscript: I learned about this book, published this summer, after running a keyword search on BIRD at (2d page of results hitlist)
33 of 37 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good, but slightly flawed Oct. 2 2006
By P. Belardo - Published on
Pete Dunne's latest tome, Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion, has been reviewed several times by various bloggers already including <a href="[...]">here</a>, <a href="[...]">here</a>, and <a href="[...]">here</a>. After receiving this book for a birthday present a few weeks ago, I thought I would throw my $.02 in.

As everyone knows, this book has no photos. I'm ok with that. I understand that the point of the book is to explain the "Cape May School" of birding, otherwise known as the "GISS" method. I think the book accomplishes its goals with some minor flaws. As a somewhat experienced birder, I think the most useful purpose for this guide is to learn some of the nuances of the more difficult to separate species such as the Empidonax and Myiarchus flycatchers, kingbirds, Catharus thrushes, gulls, fall warblers, etc. Learning to distinguish these species can help advance a birder's field skills immensely. Pete's detailed descriptions of the species are a true companion to your Sibley guide. You can sit with your field guide by your side and read the descriptions and really see the differences. Also, some of the species accounts have a section called "Pertinent Particulars" that I found especially useful. This section gives helpful hints on distinguishing the bird from similar species or just some general tips on identifying it.

My biggest complaint about the book are the silly names that Pete has given to some of the birds. Some of them are useful, but some seem like he was trying too hard to find a name for the bird or the name seems very personal to the author. The Ninja Heron for Tricolored Heron? Twig Fairy for Blue-gray Gnatcatcher? Peterson's Woodpecker for Northern Flicker? "A Busy, Jerky, Single-minded Little Bird" = American Pipit. Huh?

My only other complaint is the length of the book. If it truly is a field guide companion then he possibly could have left out the range descriptions completely or at least shortened them. That information can easily be found in a field guide.

I salute the intent behind this book and all of the work that Pete Dunne put into it. I'm sure I will be referencing it periodically.
17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Essentially Dunne June 29 2006
By Amazon Customer - Published on
How much would you pay to travel across the country for a year birding with one of America's biggest birding celebrities? While such a trip might set you back tens of thousands of dollars, about [...] can get you the next best thing if you buy Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion. Reading this new book is like following Pete Dunne on an extended field trip across the continent as he rattles off his own impressions of over 700 bird species--including his own nicknames for the birds, as well as tips on identifying them, their characteristic behaviors, and even unique aspects of the the way each species flies. While "essential" might be a bit of an oversell, this field guide companion will be useful to most birders, as well as a treat. It provides more information than most birders will master in a lifetime, as well as the closest approximation that most birders will get to actually birding with Pete Dunne in the field. As such, this book is valuable and fun to read, as in the final analysis, it provides a window into birds and the joys of birding that is essentially Dunne. [...]
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A good companion is hard to find Feb. 23 2007
By Bryce Stevens - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This field guide companion looks stark at first, with no pictures, but that is part of the point. With many fine field guides available, this is meant to supplement them, and in no way replace them. The necessarily brief descriptions of a field guide are nicely fleshed out in this volume, which is best suited to browsing after returning from the field, or for thumbing through when you can't get out into the field. The best addition to my stay-at-home birding library since Ehrlich, Dobkin & Wheye's "The Birder's Handbook."

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