Category Archives: Books

Rails and other birds I can’t identify

So, the other day at St. Marks NWR, I took the not-awful photo of a rail you see above.

Do you think I know what kind of rail it is?

Do you?

Considering that I’m sitting here surrounded by every single field guide I own, don’t you think I ought to be able to figure it out?!?

I can at least narrow it down, I think, but beyond that I get confused in a mess of details that I can’t decipher. The Peterson’s makes me certain it’s a Virginia; the National Geographic Guide convinces me it’s a Clapper of the Gulf Coast race scottii because of the rich cinnamon underparts; Sibley contradicts this by saying it’s the Virginia that’s bright reddish below and the Gulf Coast Clapper whose breast and foreneck are a drab gray. Crossley shows me a bunch of pretty photos, any one of which I can convince myself is this bird, and suggests that size and habitat are the only effective means of telling one from the others. The Stokes suggest King.

What the heck!

I get similarly paralyzed by certain gulls, sparrows and peeps. For a long time, I couldn’t stand terns and many shorebirds; I just couldn’t “get” what everybody else was able to see so easily.

All you snarky birders who admonish newbies to “buy a field guide and use it” simply don’t understand people like me. I’m often amazed by birding buddies who can rattle off the field marks of random birds, at will. I can not do that, ever. Even the most familiar of birds stymies any effort on my part to describe it beyond broad strokes of color and relative shape. Sometimes, I think that I see birds the way that Charley Harper paints them.

Thinking about this, coupled with the recent popularity of left-brain vs. right-brain quizzes on FB (I scored a ridiculous 87% in favor of right-brained thinking) made me wonder if this might explain the confusion and mystery I feel about IDing birds by field marks. It turns out that I’m not the only person this idea has occurred to. I was glad to find this article, published a while back on the ABA blog, which makes the argument for left-brained and right-brained birders. While the author was speaking in a different context (left-brained birders being the “listers” and right-brained birders being the “watchers”) I think his distinction between the two can just as easily be extrapolated to explain why field guides are not equally useful for all birders, and maybe, especially, not for all beginners. Maybe.

When I was a beginner, I couldn’t tell a tern from a gull, never mind which tern or what gull. What changed that for me was not having field guides thrust in my face over and over by helpful birders. It was the most patient teacher of all: time. Summer after summer spent at the beach and endless hours “wasted” enjoying terns just going about their lives at the ocean’s edge taught me how to distinguish them from the other birds that make the shore their home. Summers spent watching over Least Tern colonies taught me to distinguish them from the others of their kind. Nowadays, I can know a Least Tern from a Common simply by the level of its shrieking and the speed of its shadow as it passes overhead. Knowing Leasts this well makes the others easy, because it provides a starting point from which to distinguish them from the others. But ask me what color a Least’s legs are and you’ll draw a blank stare in reply.

I think the difficulty with many of the “hard” birds is that we simply don’t see them often enough to really experience them. Or in the case of gulls, I simply don’t care enough, yet, to learn them apart.

: )

When Jay and I lead beginning bird walks together, he often tells the story of his birding mentor and how she was so patient with him in learning the varied calls of the Carolina Wren. No matter how many times he asked, she replied patiently, “That’s a Carolina Wren!” A field guide in his face would have done little good; a patient teacher and experience are what counts. (I still have to do this for him with Catbirds!)

So… back to my questionable rail. I have probably half a dozen photos of vaguely similar birds that I’ve taken over the years. I’ve never correctly ID’d any of them, and that frustrates me, but I like to think that I’m gathering experience with these elusive birds and one day soon, I’ll “get” them and be able to review those old photos and know, finally, what I’m seeing.

Or maybe somebody out there will tell me…

One thing to love

I’m discovering that “city life”, as it is commonly thought of, is not very much to my liking. There’s no surprise in this for me, really. The pointless traffic and acres of asphalt leave me wanting for home…

One perk, though, is that the mass of humanity I live among is a stop on many a national book tour. I can slog my way into the ridiculous traffic that always looms outside the door and find myself, at the local Baptist church, in the company of some of my favorite authors. This week it was Khaled Hosseini touring for his new book, And the Mountains Echoed.


“… a novel about how we love, how we take care of one another, and how the choices we make resonate through generations. In this tale… Hosseini explores the many ways in which families nurture, wound, betray, honor, and sacrifice for one another; and how often we are surprised by the actions of those closest to us, at the times that matter most.”

If you’ve somehow never read his earlier books, please do find them. He’s a wonderful storyteller. They are not easy happy stories, but wonderful in the way he leads his characters through a world of sadness and loss to a place of hope.

For many years I used Hosseini’s The Kite Runner in the remedial reading classes I taught at the community college. For most of my students, it was the first novel they “willingly” read and discussed. Many of them, as well as my colleagues, questioned my choice of a novel about Afghanistan and one with such difficult themes. The thing is, while his books are mostly set there, they’re not necessarily “about” that faraway place and it’s the poetry of his words and his ability to speak to emotion and human shortcomings that make him a great read, I think.

I brought along my dog-eared copy to be signed by the author. I was embarrassed at the thought of actually having him sign it, with the state it’s in… pages falling out, a hundred vocabulary words highlighted, my notes for student discussion scribbled in the margins.

: )

I was saved from offering him any explanation by rain pelting the church windows and the sound of sirens. We were told a “strong storm” was approaching and the signing line was hastily closed. Totally drenched on my way to the car, I asked someone what the sirens meant…

Add the possibility of tornadoes to the list of things that are not to my liking… where I come from, the only time we heard those sirens was on winter mornings to announce to the community that schools were closed for a snow day. Do they still do that where you’re from? Those sirens are a happy sound in my memory! Talk about culture shock.

Please take the opportunity to hear him speak if you should be lucky enough to live somewhere that his book tour will visit. He feels like a very, very genuine man and is as great a storyteller in person as on the pages of his novels.

As always, let me know what you think! Let talk books!

These days

I’d been waiting ever so patiently (not) for that glorious day that felt like Spring for the first time and it finally came on Saturday last. I sat in the sun for a couple hours and finished the latest Barbara Kingsolver book. It’s a good one; I’d recommend it, especially when combined with some overdue sunshine.

I seem to have lost all tolerance for cold weather. Probably that happened around the time that I moved here and threw away most all of my winter clothing in the process.

Spring happens differently here… everything is coming into bloom at once. Daffodils and Redbud and Forsythia and Azalea are all screaming for my attention at the same time.  It’s hard to relish any one thing.

In an ongoing effort to keep myself busy, I’m starting volunteer training later this week to be a docent for Trees Atlanta in their Beltline Arboretum program. I’m doing this so that I can lead bird walks on the Beltline for Atlanta Audubon and be able to sound as intelligent about trees and art and the history of Atlanta as I do about birds. We’ll see how that goes.

: )

I’ve been reading a lot of cooking blogs these days and I think that, more than anything, this attests to just how out of sorts I’m feeling. I hate cooking, remember? I do enjoy reading about it, though, and enjoy the excuse of trying out a new recipe because I saw it on a favorite blog. Anyone have a good cooking blog to share? The blogs I enjoy the most are written by people who seem to approach cooking the way I do… as something like a science experiment. I like reading about their failures and mistakes because it makes me feel less incompetent myself…

Do you like scones? I have a couple recipes that I use often… a favorite is maple walnut scones. I tried dressing them up a couple weeks back with frozen blueberries that were leftover from some we’d picked last summer. I was wholly disappointed with the results… those frozen blueberries had no flavor whatsoever!

It turned out that the frozen blueberries I’d used were actually black beans. Ask me what they were doing in the freezer. Ask me, too, how I didn’t realize they were black beans instead of blueberries.

It’s good to be able to laugh these days.

Elf orpine

I know you’re thinking, “Oh my God! What IS that? It’s red!”

If so, you may be a plant geek like me.

; )

I had the very same reaction when I saw photos of it in my copy of Favorite Wildflower Walks in Georgia after it was gifted to me on my very first weekend here. I couldn’t wait to see this unique little plant in person.

Elf Orpine or Small’s Stonecrop (Diamorpha smallii) is a succulent that grows on granite outcrops in the Southeastern US.

We first went looking for it back in late September… it’s a winter annual, so it was still dormant on that first try. The cool and moist weather of the Georgia “winter” allow it to germinate when conditions are most favorable for the seeds to survive.

The plants are getting ready, now, to shoot up and flower in the early Spring.

(I’m not too sure, yet, when Spring hits here, but I’m guessing they’ll flower in mid-March.)

I can only imagine how hot the rock on Arabia Mountain must get in summertime. It makes sense for these plants to sprout, grow, flower and set seed before the summer furnace comes on, I’d guess.

Elf Orpine grows here in shallow depressions in the granite, in very little soil. It’s part of a small community of specially adapted plants that grow in the hollows, in something like dish gardens on the rock surface. Fascinating and pretty spectacular to see when blooming, I bet.

Stay tuned.

What’s not to love about this man?

Image courtesy Princeton University Press

He’s handsome, smart, likes birds, has that incredibly cute accent, not to mention the humungous camera lens…

(which, btw MevetS, he handholds!)

Besides the avant-garde fashion sense (look at that blue jacket!) he’s also, clearly, very brave. I imagine him to be risking life and limb to photograph Harlequins out at the end of the Barnegat jetty, don’t you?

Have I mentioned that he’s just published a book? And a book about birds, no less!


My momentary infatuation is directed towards Richard Crossley and his Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds. I’m planning to spend this Valentine’s evening curled up with it by candlelight, maybe with a glass of wine.

Like with all tender new love, all I can say is, “Wow!”


“He’s sees birds just like I do!”


“Where has this field guide been all my life?”


“Gosh… it’s so sexy when he uses alpha codes!”

; )

It really is a cool guide; his approach is unconventional and that’s exactly what excites me most about it. I’ve not ever been one to rely on a field guide. I collect them, yes. But use them? Hardly.

This is a book I want to spend time with and get to know better. I think Richard Crossley can make me a better birder.

*Please note that, while Princeton University Press has kindly provided me with a free copy of The Crossley ID Guide to review, this is not my proper review. I promise to do that once I’m over the puppy-dog stage of love and can see things more clearly.

**Please also note that I have no personal relationship with Mr. Crossley, nor do I desire such. There was a brief interaction at the Cape May Hawkwatch this fall involving the ID of a sparrow, however. I am happy to report that Mr. Crossley did not laugh me off the platform at that encounter.

(Imagine the pressure of having THE RICHARD CROSSLEY toss a roadkill sparrow your way and demand that you ID it, in hand, before he’ll even make eye contact with you.)

Thanks for that experience Wren!

Have a listen as he describes the book (oohh that accent!)

And Happy Lover’s Day!


Comments a couple months ago on a post I wrote about falconry led me to Rebecca’s blog and most recently to her book, Lift. A memoir, it shares the lessons learned in the practice of training a Peregrine Falcon.

I’m not very far into the book, yet, but expected from reading her blog that I would enjoy it. My impression, just 80-some pages in, is that she writes well and passionately about her falcon. Already she’s spoken to one of the questions I raised in that earlier blog post, on training her falcon to fly to a lure:

The falcon and I look at each other, both startled. Then he bows his head slightly over the bird in his feet, snaps the neck and looks back up. He allows me to meet his gaze, seeing deep into his falcon’s eyes and I understand that I could keep this predator on a line forever, but he will never be my pet. Over that shared look our relationship changes just a bit, because suddenly, we both grasp an obvious truth. I am looking into the eyes of a wild peregrine. It’s so soon, only ten days, but it’s time to let him fly free.

Yes, it is dangerous to be bound to something that can break your heart.

She’s lost her bird once already to the sky and reclaimed him, changed, after only five hours on his own. I’m looking forward to learning how their relationship continues to develop.


also Scissorbill, Shearwater and previously known along the Virginia coast as Storm Gull.

I’d suggest the addition of Penguin Gull.

; )

Do you see the similarity?

My 1917 edition of the Birds of America is a joy for many reasons, but I particularly enjoy it for the local or historical names; so often these names are much more evocative of a bird’s spirit or some fundamental quality that we associate them with.

Peterson sort of dryly describes their call as *barking* or alternately as “kaup, kaup.” To me it sounds like something between a bark and a quack. Members of a colony at rest on the beach will call anxiously to one another as people approach on foot and it sounds for all the world to me like a childhood game of “Marco Polo.”

Listen for that next time!

Ruddy turnstone

Other names: Sea dotterel; Sea quail; Sand-runner; Stone-pecker; Horsefoot snipe; Brant-bird; Bead-bird; Checkered snipe; Red-legs; Red-legged plover; Chicken plover; Calico-back; Calico-jacket; Sparked-back; Streaked-back; Chuckatuck; Creddock; Jinny; Bishop plover.

… I had an exceptional chance to watch… The select company was “one little Turnstone and I,” the latter armed with binoculars, the former too busy to notice intruders. He was a fine gentleman, dressed in the gaudiest calico possible for the fall fashions, yet not too proud to work for his supper. His method was not unlike that of the proverbial bull in the china shop, for he trotted about, tossing nearly everything that came in his way. Inserting the wedge of his bill under a pebble, a shell, or what not, he would give a real toss of his imperious head, and flop over it would go. His efforts seemed to be well rewarded, for he fed there for some time. It is in search of such prey that the turner of stones operates, a cog in the wheel of the system of nature, which decrees that every possible corner and crevice of the great system shall have its guardian, even the tiny spot of ground beneath the pebble on the beach.

Info from Birds of America, first published in 1917 and which includes color plates of Louis Agassiz Fuertes’ paintings. Said book made for good company this evening.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

The Turnstones were not so much trotting about as they were, instead, slip-sliding along the jetty rocks yesterday while they fed. There were no stones to be turned; in fact I wondered just what they were finding edible among the waves.

Still Alice

My plans for the weekend involve a blanket and a book or two.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

I’m a committed non-fiction reader; resistant, for whatever reason, to the suspension of reality necessary to enjoy most novels. Sure there’s the occasional story that grabs and holds me, but more often than not I leave them half-read and only half-enjoyed.

Sometime before the holidays I read the debut novel by Lisa Genova which was recommended to me by the owner of a little bookstore I found here in town.

(As a side note: How wonderful is it to have someone, anyone, employed in a bookstore actually be familiar enough with the inventory to be able to recommend something based on one’s favorite authors?)

Still Alice tells the story of a Harvard professor diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. A sad story, sure, but unique in that it’s told from Alice’s point of view and thereby offers insight into the painful descent into dementia.

One of my most favorite parts of the novel occurs toward the end; Alice has been invited to deliver the keynote at a national conference for Alzheimer’s care professionals. She makes a plea to not be forgotten and written off or limited by her disease saying, “… My yesterdays are disappearing, and my tomorrows are uncertain, so what do I live for? I live for each day. I live in the moment. Some tomorrow soon, I’ll forget that I stood before you and gave this speech. But just because I’ll forget it some tomorrow doesn’t mean that I didn’t live every second of it today. I will forget today, but that doesn’t mean that today didn’t matter.”

A worthy credo for any of us, I think.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

So… any good books this weekend to stay warm with?