Posts Tagged ‘field’

I love a good book!  In fact, I spend almost every Christmas break designing and building new bookshelves.  This year will be no different.  Over the next few days I will share some of my recent finds.

Handbook of Birds of Eastern North American

by Frank M. Chapman

D. Appleton and Company, 1912

This book came right from the heart of America’s early natural history movement.  Frank Chapman was the Curator of Ornithology the American Museum of Natural History in New York and was one a handful of men who shaped what birding and ornithology are today.

This beautiful little book came from my step-daughter Emily.  Emily works at an Indianapolis auction house and claims that she had to fight someone for this book.  (Thanks Em!) Though I’ve never come across a copy it’s not rare or expensive.  I highly recommend this book become an addition to your birding library.  (Really)

First of all I love to explore the perspective of a field guide that still allows for the pursuit of the great auk, the-ivory bulled woodpecker, the Carolina parakeet and the passenger pigeon.  The demise of each of these birds is pretty certain by the time this book was published but most were still out there and could be found.

This was an era of collecting.  Any serious birder could only confirm a sighting if they brought back and preserved the skin.  (The demise of the Carolina Parakeet and the passenger pigeon was accelerated as collectors raced to get increasingly rarer specimens. (That’s the premise of the wonderful kid’s movie Up!)

(Though collecting specimen skins of rare birds appears horrific [and is] without these skins we would have no surviving physical evidence of these extinct birds.)

Serious collecting puts a very different slant on birding technique and equipment lists.  Collecting bags, scissors, corn starch, wrapping paper and firearms are all discussed in length. Included is an complete chapter on properly preparing and tagging skins. Collecitng eggs and nests is also considered important.

Though much of his field technique is archaic there is sound advice.

Common sense will tell you how to act in the field. Birds are generally shy creatures and must be approached with caution.  You must not, therefore, go observing in flaming red, but in some inconspicuous garb and as quietly as a cat.  Furthermore, go alone and keep the sun at your back — two apparently unrelated but equally important bits of advice.


The observer of of birds will find that by far the best way to study their habits is to take a sheltered seat in some favored locality and become a part of the background.  Your passage through the woods is generally attended by sufficient noise to warn birds of your coming long before you see them.

Later he writes about constructing a portable blind for these long sits in the woods.  I’ve been contemplating construction a blind and like his plan.  He describes using an “advertising umbrella” and hanging a curtain around the perimeter.  It would fold nicely and could be carried into the field on one shoulder.

In Mr. Chapman’s defense he includes one of the first chapters on bird photography.  A few years later he would publish two books discussing field photography.  Perhaps he foresaw the changing tide.

Early chapters include very complete discussions of birdsong and migration.

The birds are arranged in logical sequence, much as is used today. (Linnaeus had figured this our over a century before.) Each entry is accompanied by a tedious description (This was long before Roger Tory Peterson developed fieldmarks and clear illustrations.)  In many cases keys are included that allow the collector, bird in hand,to answer a series of “if, then”, “yes, no” questions and pare down the list of possible identifications until one lone species remained.

There are illustration.  There are several Louis Agassiz Fuertes color plates and some really nice typecut technical illustrations. Pages and pages include beautiful cuts comparing the heads, bills, feet, tails and wings of several species in order to clarify identification.

There is clearly a struggle to find an orderly way to share his vast knowledge of bird identification with the masses of emerging amateur natural scientists.  Like many birders he had developed a set highly detailed criteria.  The difficulty arises when he applies one set of criteria (ie. the proportion of bill length to head length) to one family of birds and another (color and body length) to another.  This systems work for him in his study, but are impossible to articulate for amateur application in the field.  This book contains amazing technical information, but in a fashion that’s difficult to use.

Like many early field guides this book includes cited reference to specific areas where particular birds have been spotted.

Chapman’s localities are fairly generalized.  In contrast Amos Butler, in The Birds of Indiana, 1891, (Another “must have” for the Indiana birder) gives specific localities.  My copy is not at hand, so I am paraphrasing.  “Dr. Henry Clayton, four miles north of Strawtown on the Noblesville Pike, reports nesting Blue Herons on Pipe Creek just north of where it runs into the White River on the northwest corner of his farm.”

My favorite (like giddy with excitement favorite) are the two plates defining colors.  With the exception of a handful of color plates this book is printed in black and white.  Chapman had a desire to be as specific as possible when describing color.  We all know that the perception of specific color has a wide range between different folks.  His solution was to publish two color charts, much like one would find in a period paint company color chart.

(Perhaps much of my giddy-ish excitement is because I own and treasure a small collection of Victorian paint samples.  When we selected the colors for our house — particulary for the sky blue of porch ceilings —  I sometimes went to the trouble of matching exact colors from these charts.

I am toying with the idea of standardizing the palette that I use to paint my carved birds.  His color selections, presumably, cover the spectrum of North American birds.  In using these colors I would be making another connection to our collective birding past and conveying a sense of how bird colors were perceived at the turn of the last century. I design, carve and paint my birds in the spirit of the early excitement for natural history and this might be a natural connection.

Frank also published Bird-Life (a guide for the masses), Bird Studies with a Camera, The Warblers of North America and Camps and Cruises of an Ornithologist (Which includes information regarding field photography).

I suspect the last will be my next “new” book.


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My Favorite Phoebe Spotting Location - A Bridge West of 256th St. and Gwinn Rd.

Obviously I enjoy birds.  I like to watch them, listen and be with them.  I like to observe behaviors and learn.  I like to gather stories and experiences.  I like the peace and quiet that they bring to me.

I’ve always been this way.  I remember running around and exploring the creek behind our house when I was growing up.  With my friends I built dams and tested boats.  We caught every critter that hopped crawled or swam.  We fought battles and searched for treasure.  Once we even brought home a case of beer some teenagers had left to cool!  Dad was happy that evening.

When my friends went home I sat and watched.  I laid on trees bent over the creek.  I watched fish.  I learned their names, what they ate and which ate first.  I laid on my back or knelt in tall grass watching birds, snakes, turtle and muskrat.  I learned to see and to hear what others couldn’t. One memorable day I hiked through the thick woods adjacent to our house and sought out a small woodland pond rumored to be there.  I approached the pond through a stand of white pines to find half a dozen wood ducks, oblivious to me, enjoying an early spring afternoon.

We spent our summers on an island in Maine.  There I spent hours peering into tidal pools, my face inches from the

A Pemaquid Tidal Pool that I've Explored Often

water.  I remember spending afternoons, in an old rowboat, leaning over the side watching the show of crabs, unidentifiable crustaceans and small fish on the muddy bottom of our cove.  It was on one of those trips that I came across my first black capped night heron.  He froze and we had a good long look at each other.

I still long for these treasured moments with nature and seek them out, but’s hard as a grown-up.

I’ve got things to take care of and places to be.  Men, nearly fifty years old, following a creek through a dozen adjacent backyards are treated with suspicion.  Folks are sure that we’re after their children or casing their houses.  Heck, I wouldn’t want someone like me walking through my back yard.  Sure I can visit parks (and I do) but folks need their secret places.

Yesterday I found a secret place.

Stealth hiking and trespassing are not a good idea. I’m not recommending it.

I walked, for about a mile and a half, to find a rumored woodland pond.  Google maps helped.  I wasn’t hiking without direction.  I walked straight to it.

There I discovered a patch of leaf filled crystal clear water about the size of my little yard.  It was surrounded by mature hardwoods.  The water level was high and several of these trees were in the water.  Sunlight dappled through the bare treelimbs to the far edge of the pond where two dozen turtles basked in its warmth.  A squirrel was working his way through the undergrowth.

In the treetops the wind screamed at 40 mph (according to the National Weather Service) but by the pond all was still and quiet.

I’d come to see ducks.  to reproduce that childhood discovery of wood ducks — to find more of the buffleheads and redheads I have just discovered migrating through.  I scanned the pond and there were no ducks visible.

I listened for birds.  The only call I heard was a cardinal.  I’m sure that my arrival had not gone without notice  so I sat and waited.  I sat on a tree over the water for twenty minutes or so.  The silence and peace grew.  I began to circumnavigate the pond and I began to see and hear what I had come for.

A pair of bluebirds flew from the far side of the pond and lit in a tree nearby.  I had a good long look at both as the made short flights, from tree to tree, to get a better look at me.  A tufted titmouse (a common feeder bird that I’ve never paid much attention to in the field.  It’s breeding colors are amazing!) buzzed (yes, buzzed) at me from directly above.  He was quite agitated and wanted me to move on.  I was beginning to hear the ghostly monkey calls of the pileated woodpecker.  I could see huge flashes of white, black and red far into the woods.  I began to walk in their direction and a pair of ducks flew overhead.  They weren’t mallards.  They weren’t quacking.  I didn’t get a good look.

As I moved forward into the marsh below the pond I came across two white tailed deer does that were munching on the new grass.  The walked quickly away from me, but never broke into a crashing run.  I watched them later as they crossed an adjacent field.  Another pair of ducks with an unusual call were startled right under my nose.

I turned around to walk back out the way I had come and a pair of pileated woodpeckers came from behind me and landed high in a giant tree across the pond.  They were in clear view for as long as I cared to watch.  Over my shoulder I spotted a lone female downy woodpecker.  I had a couple of good looks before I hiked out.  I checked the time.  I had spent over two hours around that pond.

I saw no life birds.  I saw nothing rare, but the experience was rare.  For more than two hours I had been at utter peace with the world.

I am so blessed that I can seek out these experiences, put them into words or carve them into wood and call it work.

(I took no photos of my secret place [It’s secret].  Most photos are from other explorations on the same day.  I didn’t fit in a quick trip to Maine.)

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Last month I finally ponied up and joined the Blatchley Nature Study Club.  This club, founded in 1922 maintains a small nature preserve, library and specimen collection on its property adjacent to White River in Noblesville.

I’ve made several visits since I joined.  Phoebe is working on her 4H nature and wildlife projects.  I invited her along to collect photos for her projects.  We had a great time.  The river was high and we had to wade a bit.  We observed a few blooming wildflowers, but most of our time was spent observing and photographing dragonflies.

Take a look!

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