Birding in the American West.—Kevin J. Zimmer. 2000. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY. x + 402 pp., 74 photos, 34 text figures. ISBN 0-8014-3257-X. $49.95 (cloth). ISBN 0-8014-8328-X. $25.00 (paper).
This book is a revised and expanded edition of Zimmer's The Western Bird Watcher (1985; Prentice-Hall, NJ). Zimmer states that this is not a field guide or bird-finding guide, but a companion to those books, and I agree. He does an excellent job of providing a framework needed to develop bird-finding and identification skills, and gives information on habitat requirements and the identification of similar-appearing species beyond that in most field guides. My major criticism is the lack of references to important recent literature, some of which are in the Literature Cited below.
Chapter 1, Techniques of Finding Birds, discusses habitat requirements, ranges, and the seasonal dependence of birds. Zimmer illustrates these points by citing examples of bird-plant associations, such as the Golden-cheeked Warbler (Dendroica chrysoparia) and cedar (Juniperus spp.) on the Edwards Plateau of Texas, that should enlighten readers to the importance of recognizing habitats, as well as knowing ranges and seasons of occurrence, when looking for specific birds. Techniques used to lure birds into view, such as “pishing” and the use of tape recorders, are well covered, along with a lengthy discussion of birding ethics. This is information most long-time birders know, but is essential for beginners.
Chapter 2, Techniques of Identifying Birds, discusses structure, plumage patterns, and behaviors the reader should know when identifying birds in the field. Zimmer gives a detailed and well-illustrated listing of feather tracts and soft parts, and gives a clear account of molts and plumage sequences using the terminology developed by Humphrey and Parks (Auk 76:1–31. 1959). He also stresses the importance of preparation prior to going into the field, and gives a list of key characteristics of bird families occurring in western North America. By absorbing this information, and following Zimmer's advice, the beginning birder will become more competent, and the intermediate birder will better him- or herself.
Chapter 3, Keeping Field Notes, covers a subject rarely touched in popular birding books. Zimmer gives reasons for keeping a journal that should encourage most readers to do so, and using the format developed by Joseph Grinnell decades ago, details the type of information to include. Too few of today's birders maintain notes of this type, and as a result much information is lost. Some readers should be converted.
Chapter 4, Difficult Identifications: Beyond the Field Guide, takes up a major portion of the book (200 pages), and synthesizes current knowledge concerning the identification of many similar-appearing species groups. This is written to be used, primarily by intermediate birders, to supplement information in field guides, but most experienced birders should learn something. Species covered include groups such as the five loons Gavia and four longspurs Calcarius, and pairs such as the scaup Aythya marila and A. affinis and meadowlarks Sturnella. Zimmer obviously knows these birds and the pitfalls facing those attempting to identify them. However, he also wisely gleaned tidbits from many of America's most talented field observers, and incorporated these tidbits into this chapter. Zimmer states that his selection of the species or groups is arbitrary, and this is evident when going through the chapter. I believe an in-depth discussion on separating Long-billed Murrelet (Brachyramphus perdix) from Marbled Murrelet (B. marmoratus) would be ideal for this chapter. However, it is barely touched upon within the discussion of Kittlitz's Murrelet (B. brevirostris) identification; in addition, Mlodinow's (1997) article on the subject is cited within the “where to find” account for Marbled Murrelet as if it were a last-minute addition. Maumary and Knaus's (2000) well-illustrated article on the subject is not cited.
Zimmer lists a number of books dealing with the identification of specific groups of birds, such as Grant's 1986 book on gulls, as essential reading for birders interested in in-depth identification. However, Olsen and Larsson's (1997) excellent book on jaegers is not among them, nor is it cited within the section on jaeger identification.
Chapter 5, Finding the Western Specialties, details the status, distribution, and habitat requirements of about 270 species considered by Zimmer to be restricted to, or most easily found, in western North America. These species range from such widespread birds as the Clark's Nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana) and Cactus Wren (Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus), to those with very restricted ranges such as the recently split Gunnison Sage-Grouse (Centrocercus minimus) and the Colima Warbler (Vermivora crissalis), and casual stragglers such as the Plain-capped Starthroat (Heliomaster constantii). Specific locations are given for species with restricted ranges. The statement that the Tamaulipas Crow (Corvus imparatus) is common at the Brownsville Dump was true until recently, but readers should be aware that numbers have been declining, and it was absent last winter.
The Appendix is a list of species mentioned in the book, along with their scientific names. The Bibliography consists of just over six pages, with most of the citations pertaining to identification. However, it includes only half a dozen or so more recent than 1996, and omits works such as that on Baird's Sparrow (Jones et al. 1998), dowitchers (Chandler 1998) and Thayer's Gull (Garner and McGeehan 1998), which contain information that would add to Chapter 4.
I am generally impressed with this book, and believe it offers something for virtually all birders from the novice to the expert. I find no obvious errors. However, it appears there was a delay between the completion of the manuscript and publication. This results in some minor criticism, but I remain convinced that it is a good companion to the popular field guides and bird-finding guides. I recommend it to all birders.