Not for beginners only: Two new birding books

By Ilana DeBare

There are birding books that are great for beginners, and then there are birding books that are great for beginners AND.

The past several months saw publication of two unique bird guides that will charm experienced birders as well as novices—especially those of us living in the Bay Area. These are Birds of Lake Merritt, by Alex Harris, and Neighborhood Birding 101 by Seymore Gulls.

Birds of Lake Merritt

Birds of Lake Merritt (Heyday Press, $25) continues the format of Birds of Berkeley, which was also published by Berkeley-based Heyday Press three years ago. Written and illustrated by Alex Harris, this slender volume features simple yet striking watercolors of 15 local bird species and a page of description about each one.

It also offers a detailed history of Lake Merritt’s development from a tidal estuary and the country’s first publicly-designated wildlife refuge to its current status as—in Outdoor Afro founder Rue Mapp’s words—”nature’s heartbeat in Oakland.”

Birds of Lake Merritt book cover
Birds of Lake Merritt by Alex Harris

Harris’ path to creating this book was not direct. He started out trying to teach himself hawk ID by painting raptors. But painting hawks from photos didn’t prepare him for actual field identification. “It turns out that you mostly see hawks from beneath, hundreds of feet away, a blurred silhouette circling in the skies above,” wrote Harris, who lives in Oakland. “I decided I should look a little closer to home, so I rode my bike over to the bird sanctuary at Lake Merritt.”

Harris includes natural history tidbits such as Green Herons using breadcrumbs and insects as lures to attract the fish they’re hunting, and the fact that Canvasbacks were once so plentiful here that a Spanish map from 1775 refers to “forests of the red duck.” He also includes observations by some well-known local birders including Golden Gate Bird Alliance youth educator Clay Anderson, former GGBA Executive Director Cindy Margulis, and “How to Do Nothing” author Jenny Odell.

Canvasback page from Birds of Lake Merritt
Canvasback page from Birds of Lake Merritt

This book is no substitute for a comprehensive field guide. But its illustrations will bring a smile to birders on days when it’s too rainy to venture out in the field. (Let’s hope we have more of those days this winter!)

And it’s a great, eye-opening gift for non-birder Oakland residents who enjoy walking, jogging, or picnicking alongside the lake.

Neighborhood Birding 101: An Identification Guide to Washington, Oregon, and Northern California’s Most Common Neighborhood Birds

Don’t ask me if Seymore Gulls is really this writer’s name. I can only hope his parents had mercy and that it’s a pen name. ( I suspect he may be Eric Carlson of Portland, Oregon, but I could be wrong.)

Author name aside, Neighborhood Birding 101 (Seymore Gulls, $14.95)  is fun! Imagine if your favorite birding instructor took a magic marker and wrote ID notes all over bird photos—with an occasional bit of humor. That’s what you’ve got here!

Neighborhood Birding 101 book cover
Neighborhood Birding 101 book cover

This potholder-sized paperback includes 158 marked-up photos, ranging from tiny Anna’s and Rufous Hummingbirds to large Bald and Golden Eagles.

There are six (!) annotated photos just of Red-tailed Hawks (two adult variations and four juveniles, some perched and some in flight).  “Look here first,” the scribbler tells us with an arrow pointing to the telltale dark patagium on the underside of its wings. Then lettering around the tail tell us “Red tail! (but not always).”

But rather than describe them further, I’ll let the photos themselves do the job:

Female Red-winged Blackbird page from Neighborhood Birding 101
Pages from Neighborhood Birding 101
Pages from Neighborhood Birding 101

Most of the notes are straightforward. Then there is the occasional one with attitude, such as for Pacific Wren: “Mousy color, mousy size, mousy lifestyle.”

Each page includes a summary phrase for the species to help remember them. Ruby-crowned Kinglet is “Hyperactive shrub forager,” while the similar-looking Hutton’s Vireo is “Methodical branch hopper.” And Black-crowned Night-Herons are “Day roosting tree penguins.”

The ID tips are super-helpful. The design is clever and appealing. This is a great little book both for beginners and for those of us more experienced folks who still have trouble with House and Purple Finches, Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks, and all those darn sparrows.

One gap: Strangely, Seymore Gulls provides no ID help with gulls. Perhaps those are varied and daunting enough that they are awaiting a volume of their own.

Ilana DeBare, a former communications manager for Golden Gate Bird Alliance, recently joined the GGBA Board of Directors. She is working on a novel that is not about birds but has a guest appearance by a Pacific Wren.