Kaufman: The New Advanced Birding
by Rick Wright
I don’t normally get my books autographed; it’s always seemed to me sort of silly, an imposition on the author and a fetishization of what is really just a block of paper and cardboard.
I’ve made one exception over the years, and I stood in line to do it. Then I had to go out and buy a new copy of Kenn Kaufman’s Advanced Birding and retire the old one, graced with a characteristically generous inscription from the author.
Now comes Kaufman with a second edition of this book that has made such a difference in the way North Americans bird.
Or at least a second edition was what I was expecting. In fact, the Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding is largely a new book, sharing some (updated) material with the old Peterson Advanced Birding, but differing importantly in purpose and approach. The 1990 volume was at its heart a “difficult species guide,” the wonderful 19 pages of introduction followed by nearly three dozen identification essays stretching over some 250 pages; in the new edition, 24 species essays come after a whopping 140 pages of learning and lore. The focus in this new book is no longer so much on distinguishing similar birds, but rather—even more so than in the first edition—these species accounts are meant to be exemplary, not exhaustive, illustrating the points and demonstrating the techniques that Kaufman offers beginning (and other) birders on their path to “advancement.” The introduction to the earlier edition remains a marvelously lapidary prolegomenon to thoughtful birding, but the new work’s exposition of an “integrated approach,” covering anatomy, topography, molt, behavior, and variation, is an expansive and thorough guide to making the step to more sophisticated and thus more enjoyable appreciation of what birders see and hear. I know that I will not be alone in assigning these clearly written pages as the “textbook” for the next workshop I teach.
There is much here that birders of all levels of experience and expertise should take to heart. Kaufman gives us the correct pronunciation of “leucistic” (a hard “c,” please), and (in accordance with the practice at Birding) dismisses from the birder’s vocabulary the odd and unmotivated “juvenal” in favor of the simple and straightforward “juvenile.” I wish, though, that the clear distinction between the tibia and the avian thigh had been maintained throughout the text, and that the spelling of “jacana” here were the same as that endorsed by the AOU.
As expected in any title issuing from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the book contains the barest minimum of errors. On page 200, the warning should be against guessing the sex of lone accipiters, not their age; and the caption on page 234 would have been more felicitously labeled top to bottom than “front to back” (for a moment I thought, mirabile dictu, that the author had misidentified the birds!). Whether Barrow’s Goldeneye truly has a shorter bill than Common (see page 149) can be controverted, and Kaufman’s mention of an incomplete pre-basic molt in Yellow-bellied Flycatcher (page 358) requires some explanation.
One of the great treasures of the first Advanced Birding was its illustrations, precisely rendered drawings of salient features discussed in the text. The new edition is much more lavishly illustrated, this time with beautifully reproduced photographs; the new images may lack the charm of the old ones, but the set of Empidonax photos alone—showing bill shapes, primary projections, and head shapes—would be enough by themselves to put this book on every birder’s bookshelf.
Every birder? Yes. There is no one out there, no matter how grizzled a veteran, who won’t learn something from this book. And beginners and intermediate birders should not let the title scare them off, either: as it is defined and practiced here, advanced birding—and Advanced Birding— is for every birder who wants to identify, understand, and enjoy more of the birds she encounters.