Armchair Birding: Books that Open Doors for Beginners—or Anyone

Armchair Birding: Books that Open Doors for Beginners—or Anyone

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by Anne Kilgannon – We are all familiar with the much appreciated flute notes that announce a BirdNote story on the radio following the morning news report: a quick upbeat and very bird-like melody that creates a pause in the rush to get out the door. Each story is only one minute and forty-five seconds but is packed with insight about bird life, a quirky fact or two, with the narration highlighted with cheerful or even thrilling bird sounds. Each broadcast is a dose of nature-medicine, a re-set and reminder to go outside and look up.

The BirdNote stories are so easy to listen to we might not realize how carefully curated and crafted they are, how deeply researched by noted ornithologists and writers, and how much they touch on the big questions about bird life pondered by academic experts and experienced birders alike. The recorded bird songs are drawn from the renowned collections of the Macaulay Library of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Every presentation is polished, evocative, and sparks curiosity and wonder. They are miniature masterpieces.

And now BirdNote has come out as a book? Can something so aural be captured on the page? And no, there is no attached CD of the soundtrack that is such a highlight of the radio segments. (Of course, there is still the website we can peruse to refresh our recollections of bird songs: I was intrigued by the question enough to attend the book presentation at Browsers Books in late September by Dr. Bob Sundstrom, science advisor and lead writer of more than 800 of the radio scripts, and Dr. Trina Bayard, another science advisor. They had me with an opening comment about Rachel Carson and the need to foster a sense of wonder in children and adults alike as the driving concept behind BirdNote. And while I enjoyed their stories capturing the essence of diverse species from Anna’s Hummingbirds to Sanderlings and Great Blue Herons, I was still pondering the notion of replicating the magic of BirdNote as a book.

The one thing the radio program does not have is imagery—the absence of which does ask us to use our other senses, mainly that of listening, a sometimes neglected ability in this visual era. And that is all to the good. If a radio could waft the scent of a forest or marsh or desert, the feel of sun or wind, as well…well, then we would be outside! (That would be asking too much.) But get hold of a copy of BirdNote, the book, and return to that need for wonder we all feel and hope to inculcate in others, and then slowly turn the pages. The illustrations by Emily Poole are vibrant, almost kinetic, and so lively you expect to hear bird sounds of calls, brush rustling and water splashing. Each is a feast of observed detail that captures the nature of the bird in focus, often in motion, with the correct habitat suggested just enough for context. The format of page-size illustrations matched by accompanying page of text, bird by bird, follows the radio BirdNote formula, only substituting image for sound. It works very well.

If you know a child or teenager or any adult that you wish to entice outdoors with you or on their own, this book would make a wonderful gift. As a first step, or with a field guide, these stories give just enough information to intrigue and inform a beginning birder in a narrative form that is easy to grasp yet not simplistic, and the illustrations are even more evocative than most field guides I currently possess. With a note including the webpage address for the aural enrichment, this book will delight anyone.

I have another suggestion of a book that opens the Nature door and is a feast for the eyes and imagination. I was lucky enough to receive a copy for my birthday: The Naturalist’s Notebook: An Observation Guide and 5-Year Calendar-Journal, for Tracking Changes in the Natural World Around You, by Nathaniel T. Wheelwright and Bernd Heinrich. The charming and accurate illustrations are also by Bernd Heinrich.

This book is packed first with the “why” of keeping a nature journal and very helpfully, the “how,” with pages of examples drawn from the personal practices of these veteran naturalists and then a set of pages inserted for your own use: no excuses! The “why” pages detail all that can be learned by tracking observations over time, of returning again and again to places of study to deepen one’s knowledge and gain new insights as patterns and variations are recorded and pondered. Noticing the fruiting of a bush and the appearance of insects and birds on or about the same date, or perhaps the mismatch as climate change impacts our location, or the date of fledglings testing their wings one year alerts the watcher for the next, keeping and checking our records enriches our excursions in fields and woods. Nathaniel and Bernd—who feel like friends by now—inspire and inform us how to begin, and just as importantly, how to continue this valuable practice of recording observations.

Understanding that this method was foundational for these respected writers and that everyone starts step by step building knowledge and experience would encourage any budding naturalist, yourself or someone lucky like me who receives this book as a gift. Surprising someone with either of these books would be life-giving and even life-changing.