Essex County Ornithological Club Book-of-the-Month Selections
Selected and presented at club meetings by Jim Berry and Dawn Paul
Note: Some of the books listed here are fairly new, but many are not. Some are decades old, others more than a century. They are books to be looked for in the natural history sections of used-book stores, or on websites specializing in used books such as AbeBooks.com, Buteo Books, BookFinder.com, or the used section of Amazon.com / books.
Book of the Month by Dawn Paul
Nov Dictionary of American Bird Names—Ernest A. Choate
Sept Live Histories of North American Marsh Birds—Arthur Cleveland Bent
Apr Cape Ann Trail Guide
Mar Black Nature—Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry—Edited by Camille T. Dungy
Feb Nature in Winter—Stokes Guides
Feb Best American Science and Nature Writing 2020
Mar North with the Spring—Edwin Way Teale
Apr The Passionate Observer—Jean Henri Fabre
Oct Braiding Sweetgrass—Robin Wall Kimmerer
Nov Hawks in Flight—Dunne, Sibley and Sutton
Dec Jennifer Ackerman—The Bird Way
May The Invention of Nature—Andrea Wulf
Sep Vesper Flights—Helen MacDonald
Nov Nature in your Backyard—John Hanson Mitchell
Dec Orion Magazine
Book Of The Month By Jim Berry
December 2013 R. M. Lockley, Shearwaters (1961). This delightful book is a monograph on the life history of the Manx Shearwater, the northern-most breeding shearwater in the world, as told by a man who lived with his wife on Skokhom Island off the Welsh coast for ten years studying their breeding behavior. He documents the incredible way the flightless chicks get to the sea after abandonment by their parents, and also describes his homing experiments with these remarkable birds.
November 2013 Hal Harrison, A Field Guide to Birds’ Nests [Eastern US] (1975), and A Field Guide to Western Birds’ Nests (1979). These are my basic nest guides, along with Baicich and Harrison (see February 2007). Harrison found an amazing number of nests and took photos of most of them.
April 2013 John Sage, Louis Bishop, and Walter Bliss, The Birds of Connecticut (1913), and Joseph Zeranski and Thomas Baptist, Connecticut Birds (1990). Exactly the same may be said for Connecticut!
March 2013 Ora Knight, Birds of Maine (1908), and Ralph Palmer, Maine Birds (1949). Maine is lucky to have two excellent state bird books. Both are hard to find but worth every penny one spends for them.
February 2013 Ralph Tiner, Coastal Wetland Plants of the Northeastern United States (1987), and Dennis Magee, Freshwater Wetlands: A Guide to Common Indicator Plants of the Northeast (1981). Two more excellent field guides, this time for wetland plants.
January 2013 John Sill, Little-known and Seldom-seen Birds (2 vols., dates of publication forgotten because I donated the books to a Club book sale). These two delightful little books are spoofs on bird names, with fictional species whose names are close to real ones but off just a little–or off a lot. Sill is a fine artist and a clever writer with a great sense of humor.
December 2012 David Sibley, Sibley’s Birding Basics (2002), and Pete Dunne, Pete Dunne on Bird Watching(2003). Two more primers. Sibley’s has much information on bird biology; Dunne’s focuses on the birder and birding activities.
November 2012 Aretas Saunders, Intoduction to Bird Life for Bird Watchers (1954), and Lawrence Kilham, On Watching Birds (1997). Two primers on birdwatching by two experienced ornithologists. Saunders’ guide is bird-focused, while Kilham’s is more autobiographical.
September 2012 Bulletins of the Essex County Ornithological Club. The Club issued annual bulletins from 1919 through 1938, which contained articles on various birding adventures of the members, reports of the Ipswich River canoe trips each May, sightings of rare birds, lists of the species observed by club members for that year, and other such things. They are very hard to find but make fascinating reading. Two of the bulletins were shown.
April 2012 Joseph Kastner, A World of Watchers (1986). This book is similar to Hanley’s (see November 2011), but is solely on birdwatching and many of the people who have greatly influenced our hobby. Its 18 chapters deal with Baird, Brewster, Coues, Teddy Roosevelt, Grinnell, Forbush, Burroughs, Nice, Peterson, and many others whose fame and achievements will live with us always.
March 2012 Sidney Dunkel, Dragonflies through Binoculars (2000); Blair Nikula, Jackie Sones, and Donald and Lillian Stokes, Beginner’s Guide to Dragonflies (2002); and Blair Nikula, Jennifer Ryan, and Matthew Burne, A Field Guide to the Dragonflies and Damselflies of Massachusetts (2007). Three essential guides to dragonflies and damselflies, a group of insects known by few people until guides like these were published.
February 2012 Alfred Godin, Wild Mammals of New England (1977). The definitive work on the subject. Available in both bound and paperback editions, but surprisingly hard to find.
December 2011 Massachusetts Audubon Society, State of the Birds, 2011: Documenting Changes in Massachusetts’ Birdlife. This paperback, put together by a team at MassAudubon as an offshoot from the state’s second Breeding Bird Atlas project, sets forth in detail the status of all the regular birds in the state, arranged by habitat, with the degree of threat to each species explained. A thorough work that should be owned by every person in the state who cares about birds.
November 2011 Wayne Hanley, Natural History in America: From Mark Catesby to Rachel Carson (1977). Mass Audubon’s Hanley puts together 22 remarkable chapters on a wide range of American naturalists, from the fathers of American ornithology to a weird spider man to viciously rival dinosaur bone collectors to the great thinkers of natural history. This book is truly entertaining reading.
February 2011 Bernd Heinrich, The Snoring Bird (2007). Heinrich, whose Mind of the Raven was featured earlier (April 2005), is a prolific writer whose focus this time is on his own life. Subtitled “My Family’s Journey through a Century of Biology,” the book focuses on the author’s Polish-German family, the family’s escape from Nazi Germany, and their settlement in Maine, with much attention to his father’s ornithological collecting expeditions. The title deals with a little-known Indonesian rail that he and his father took great pains to collect for science.
January 2011 Lawrence Newcomb, Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide (1977). This is my favorite of all the wildflower guides, this one limited to northeastern North America. Few of the plates are in color, but his systematic three-part key for flower ID makes it fairly easy to identify most wildflowers.
December 2010 Frederick Gehlbach, The Eastern Screech Owl (1994), and Laurel Van Camp and Charles Henny,The Screech Owl: its life history and population ecology in northern Ohio (USFWS North American Fauna series #71, 1975). Continuing with single-species monographs, I offer these two on the most common eastern owl. They are both fascinating reading.
November 2010 William Sheldon, The Book of the American Woodcock (1971). Another monograph, this one a thorough study of the life history of this remarkable species. Everything you ever wanted to know about woodcocks and their behavior.
September 2010 Robert Galati, Golden-Crowned Kinglets (1991). A delightful monograph on this species’ nesting behavior in Minnesota, with terrific photos of young kinglets in the nest.
April 2010 David Sibley, The Sibley Guide to Trees (2009). This is by far the best field guide to North American trees I have ever seen. As usual, the author did all his own artwork.
March 2010 Joseph Hickey, A Guide to Bird Watching (1943). This is a classic work on how the amateur should go about studying birds in such meaningful ways as watching migration, counting birds, exploring bird distribution, getting involved in bird banding, and so forth. It is chock full of good ideas and thoughtful analysis.
February 2010 John Craighead and Frank Craighead, Hawks, Owls and Wildlife (1956). The Craighead brothers, both of whom worked for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, studied hawks and owls for years and gained a better understanding of their predatory habits than had been known before. They made the case for protection of these raptors on the basis of predation being a natural biological control mechanism–something we take for granted today because of their work.
December 2009 Margaret Morse Nice, Life History of the Song Sparrow (2 volumes, 1937 and 1943). Margaret Nice was a prominent ornithologist in the middle decades of the 20th century and was a role model for thoroughgoing life history studies for the song sparrow and other species. Her nesting studies, including this one and others published as articles in the professional journals, make outstanding reading.
November 2009 John Bull, Birds of New York State (1974; re-issued 1985 with a 1976 supplement). This is one of the best state bird books I have ever seen. Bull’s species accounts are excellent, with the right balance of history, habitats, changes in distribution, and breeding status. A special feature is maps of band recoveries for some species, showing how widely migrant birds disperse. Highly recommended for any New England birder.
September 2009 William Brewster, Birds of the Cambridge Region of Massachusetts (1906). Brewster (1851-1919) was one of the greatest North American ornithologists. He was a founder of the Nuttall Ornithological Club (NOC) in 1873 and also of the AOU in 1883, and had a long and distinguished career. His book on the birds of the Cambridge Region was published by the NOC a year after Charles Townsend’s similar work on the birds of Essex County (above, January 2004). Brewster’s is the more thorough because, unlike Townsend, he had a lot to say about almost every species. His history of the house sparrow in North America is not to be missed.
April 2009 Aaron Bagg and Samuel Eliot, Birds of the Connecticut Valley in Massachusetts (1937). Another standard-setter, this 800-page book sets forth the history and status of all birds known from the valley region of western Massachusetts on the basis of incredibly painstaking research by these energetic birder-authors. Its thoroughness is a benefit to anyone interested in New England ornithological history if a copy can be located.
February 2009 Kevin McGowan and Kimberley Corwin, editors, The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in New York State (2008). This magnificent book was published by Cornell within three years of the completion of the field work, thanks to the automation of data collection in recent state atlas projects and the resulting facilitation of timely publication. New York’s second atlas sets the standard for the other states and provinces, with maps and tables showing not only the breeding distribution of the birds in 2000-2005, but easy-to-read comparisons of the current distribution with that in the 1980s when the first atlas was conducted. Some of the changes in only 20 years are startling.
December 2008 Ralph Hoffman, A Guide to the Birds of New England and Eastern New York (1904). Ornithologist Hoffman lived much of his life in western Massachusetts and wrote this book at a time when field guides were a new concept and only Frank Chapman was doing the same on a larger scale. There are few plates in this mostly descriptive guide, but Hoffman’s concise descriptions of the birds, their habitats, and their behavior were a big step forward. His brief chapter on distribution offers some interesting contrasts to the current day. Look for this little-known book in used-book stores; it will not be expensive.
April 2008 Jim Brock and Kenn Kaufman, the Kaufman Field Guide to Butterflies of North America (2003); Jeffrey Glassberg, Butterflies through Binoculars: the East (1999); and the Massachusetts Butterfly Club’s Guide to Good Butterfly Sites, edited by Sharon Stichter (2005). The first two are the best butterfly field guides to own; the latter describes the best-known places in the state to study the little beasts.
March 2008 The A.O.U. Check-List of North American Birds (7th edition, 1998). The American Ornithologists’ Union, the oldest of the continent’s professional ornithological associations, is the body that makes the official decisions on bird taxonomy and gives the species their common and scientific names. There have been seven editions of the official North American checklist since the 1880s, with annual supplements in the Auk, the organization’s quarterly journal. These are the folks to blame (or credit) for all the many changes in what constitutes a species and what they are called.
February 2008 Edward A. Samuels, Ornithology and Oology of New England (1867) and C. J. Maynard, The Naturalist’s Guide (1870). These are two “standard” works from the late nineteenth century on bird distribution, abundance, nesting status, and so forth. Samuels, as the title indicates, describes the eggs as well as the birds, as many people collected bird eggs in those days. Maynard’s book is in two parts, the first dealing with collecting and preserving specimens, the second with the birds themselves. That part is called “A Complete Catalogue of the Birds of Eastern Massachusetts.”
January 2008 Don and Lillian Stokes, A Guide to Bird Behavior, Vols. 1, 2, and 3 (1979, 1983, 1989). The Stokeses live in southern New Hampshire and have long studied and written about bird behavior, among many other subjects. Their goal is public education about birds and wildlife. These three volumes interpret vocalizations, displays, and other behaviors of common eastern birds and are written without jargon for the amateur birdwatcher.
December 2007 Forbush, Game Birds, Wild-Fowl, and Shore Birds of Massachusetts and Adjacent States (1912). This was Forbush’s major work prior to his magnum opus (above, Dec. 2003). Part I is “a history of the birds now hunted for food or sport;” Part II is a history of the extinct and extirpated species (four of each); and Part III fills a hundred pages on the need for conservation of these birds, then only beginning to emerge from centuries of wanton shooting. The prolific Forbush was a giant in the conservation field and one of the most influential ornithologists in the country in getting the first group of bird-protection laws passed.
November 2007 Carol Foss, ed., Atlas of Breeding Birds in New Hampshire (1994); Glover Allen, A List of the Birds of New Hampshire (1903); Ned Dearborn, The Birds of Durham and Vicinity (1903); and Francis B. White, The Birds of Concord, New Hampshire (1924). Clearly the focus was on New Hampshire this month. The atlas is the most important of these works, documenting the status of the state’s breeding birds as of the 1980s. Allen’s annotated checklist, at 100 years and counting, is the only New Hampshire state bird book! But there have been many such works for various regions of the state; the other works listed are two of them, both old and hard to find. Dearborn’s on the birds of Durham was his Ph.D. thesis.
April 2007 Richard Walton, Birds of the Sudbury River Valley (1984) and Finding Birds in New England (1988). The former book is subtitled “An Historical Perspective,” which is what makes it so interesting. The core of it is the annotated species list, but this is a history book: the natural history of the land and the people who studied its flora and fauna. A large section consists of journal entries from Thoreau, Brewster, Griscom, Allen Morgan, and Dick Walton himself, among others, arranged by season. As for the second book, how many people do you know who could tackle a bird-finding guide to an entire region? Dick Walton did this before most of the ABA guides were published, and it’s a shame that the work is not better known. These are two very fine New England bird books.
March 2007 John C. Phillips, A Natural History of the Ducks – Volumes 1&2 – Volumes 3&4 (4 volumes, 1922-26). J. C. Phillips lived in Wenham and died in 1938. He wrote many of the “shooting season reports” for the old ECOC Bulletins that give a valuable picture of the status of the county’s waterfowl a century ago, and went on to write this massive series of life-history studies of the ducks of the world. The Dover reprints in this case are not paperbacks, but two huge (and expensive) hardbound volumes that weigh more than your dog. You’d have to love ducks to buy them, but they are classics.
February 2007 Paul Baicich and Colin Harrison, A Guide to the Nests, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds (2nd ed., 1997). This is about as definitive as a nest guide can get, with color plates of eggs and baby birds to boot. This is one of the last books I would ever part with.
January 2007 Lawrence Kilham, Life History Studies of Woodpeckers of Eastern North America (1983). Kilham was a lifelong student of woodpeckers and this book is the culmination of his work. These are outstanding species accounts and a pleasure to read. This is the only book I am aware of that calls attention to the individual differences on the backs of the heads of Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers. And he only scratched the surface!
December 2006 The Massachusetts Breeding Bird Atlas was featured again to stimulate interest in field work for the second Massachusetts atlas project about to begin in 2007. See February 2004 above.
November 2006 Ludlow Griscom, Modern Bird Study (1945) and Birds of Concord (1949). Griscom was a serious ornithological researcher and these two works show his knowledge of New World birdlife on a broad scale. The first work deals with many basics of bird study such as the intelligence and adaptability of birds, the causes, origin, and routes of migration, bird distribution across the Americas, and classification and the species concept. Half of the latter work is a detailed analysis of bird population trends; the other half is a systematic list of the birds of the Concord, Mass. area.
April 2006 Witmer Stone, Bird Studies at Old Cape May (1937). Subtitled “An Ornithology of Coastal New Jersey,” this two-volume work by the long-time editor of the Auk contains brief species accounts of the birds of that region, which of course are largely the same as the birds of New England. Much behavioral information from a famous ornithologist for those who love reading good bird lore. Available in a pair of Dover reprints.
March 2006 Arthur Cleveland Bent, Life Histories of North American Birds (1919-1968). The massive series of about 25 volumes on all the birds that breed in North America, and our most definitive life histories until the Birds of North America series (in pamphlet form and online, by subscription) began appearing in the 1990s. But the Bent volumes, with their reams of anecdotes from many contributors, are far more fun to read than the dry literature searches that constitute the BNA accounts. The original Smithsonian paperback editions are rather hard to find, but the Dover reprints are easy to get from used-book dealers specializing in natural history, and a few can often be scrounged up at almost any used-book store.
February 2006 Ronald Austing, The World of the Red-tailed Hawk (1964) and Ronald Austing and John B. (Jack) Holt, The World of the Great Horned Owl (1966). These are two fine life histories by veteran raptor banders, written in their younger days and as full of interest as any life histories I have read. The authors offer many insights into the lives of these common raptors. The books are lavishly illustrated with their photographs, many taken at the nest.
December 2005 Ted Davis, Sketches of New England Birds (2004). This book provides brief sketches of birds that have graced the covers of Bird Observer since that journal switched from the same cover to a different cover for each issue starting in 1987. The species are the subjects of vignettes of their life histories as written by Ted to accompany the cover illustrations, submitted by some of the best New England bird artists. The accounts and illustrations are reprinted directly from the corresponding issue of the journal, providing a compendium of concise, illustrated life studies selected by the author as his favorite “cover birds.”
November 2005 Donald Kroodsma, The Singing Life of Birds (2005). The definitive work on the study and interpretation of North American bird songs, written with a remarkable combination of scholarship and outright wonder. The author analyzes the songs of a sample of species in detail, preferring depth over breadth and inspiring the reader with his insights. The Hermit Thrush chapter is worth its weight in gold.
October 2005 The Living Bird, a quarterly journal from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and its accompanying newsletter, Birdscope. These publications come with membership in the institution that practically invented the concept of citizen science. The journal has excellent articles on birdlife and first-class photography. The newsletter is geared to the lab’s citizen scientists, with regular features and updates on the many projects volunteers can get involved in, such as the very popular Project Feeder Watch.
April 2005 Bernd Heinrich, Mind of the Raven (1999). Following Heinrich’s earlier work, Ravens in Winter(1989), this book summarizes what this indefatigable researcher has learned about one of the world’s most intelligent birds, whose learning abilities are mind-boggling. Heinrich is an excellent writer, and this book is hard to put down.
March 2005 Charles Townsend, Sand Dunes and Salt Marshes (1913) and Beach Grass (1923). Townsend, by profession a pediatrician, was a student of natural history in its entirety, and one of the best amateur naturalists of his time. From his base in Ipswich he wandered over the marshes, beaches, and sand dunes studying everything that moved and many things that didn’t. These two classic works on the nature of coastal Essex County have chapters on such things as sand-dune formation, tracks and tracking, birds of the various coastal habitats, harbor seals, ice formations in the marsh, a winter crow roost, courtship in birds, and evolution.
February 2005 The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior, edited by Chris Elphick, John Dunning, and David Sibley (2001). A comprehensive guide to bird behavior and other aspects of avian biology, written by multiple authors and arranged by family groups. Have a behavioral question? This is the one of the first places to look for the answer.
January 2005 Christopher Leahy, The Birdwatcher’s Companion to North American Birdlife (2nd ed., 2004). Chris’s first Birdwatcher’s Companion came out in 1982 and was popular enough to warrant a second edition. This is an ornithological encyclopedia with answers to just about any bird-related question, written with style and humor by a Gloucester native and long-time Mass Audubon biologist and ecologist.
December 2004 William E. (Ted) Davis, Dean of the Birdwatchers: a Biography of Ludlow Griscom (1994). A riveting biography of one of the most famous and influential ornithologists in North American history. Griscom lived from 1890 to 1959 and weaned the study of birds away from the shotgun and toward field identification, among many other accomplishments. (See November 2006 below for more on Griscom.)
November 2004 Tom Wessels, Reading the Forested Landscape (1997). A remarkable book on doing just what the title says: reading the forested landscape to discover the history of the land of central New England. One of the best books I have ever read on any subject.
April 2004 Henry D. Minot, The Land-Birds and Game-Birds of New England (1876; 2nd edition 1895 edited by William Brewster), and Reginald Howe and Glover Allen, The Birds of Massachusetts (1901). The former is a remarkable book on a good portion of the region’s birds written by a man who died before he was 30 and wrote the book while still a teenager. The latter is the first statewide annotated checklist for Massachusetts.
March 2004 Paul Erlich, David Dobkin, and Darryl Wheye, The Birder’s Handbook (1988). Subtitled “A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds,” this volume is a small encyclopedia of the species’ breeding biology on the left-hand pages, and essays on every imaginable bird-related topic on the right-hand pages. Indispensable.
February 2004 The Massachusetts Breeding Bird Atlas, edited by Wayne Petersen and Roger Meservey (2003). The long-overdue result of the first Massachusetts breeding bird atlas project, for which the field work was done from 1974 to 1979. Each two-page spread is a species account with a map of the species’ breeding distribution in the state. Another essential reference.
January 2004 Charles W. Townsend, The Birds of Essex County, Massachusetts (1905) and the Supplement thereto (1920). These annotated checklists are the definitive works on the status of Essex County birds a century ago, but are long out of date. Townsend knew some species less well than others and those accounts are accordingly brief, but the birds he knew well were written up in fascinating narratives that reveal the author’s eye for detail and are as informative today as they were then. Some of his best writing, both in these works and in his frequent Aukarticles, dealt with waterfowl courtship and the evolution of certain bird traits. (See also March 2005 below.)
December 2003 Edward Howe Forbush, Birds of Massachusetts and Other New England States, 3 vols. (1925, 1927, and 1929). An earlier, monumental work with a wider geographic scope than the two above and narratives that amount to brief life histories, by the long-time state ornithologist who died just before the final volume was published.
November 2003 Richard Veit (pronounced “veet”) and Wayne Petersen, Birds of Massachusetts (1993) and Ludlow Griscom and Dorothy Snyder, The Birds of Massachusetts: An Annotated and Revised Check List (1955). These are the two most recent state bird books for Massachusetts, giving the status of each species ever documented in the state. Books like this are called “annotated checklists.” They are essential references that no serious Massachusetts birder can afford to be without.