A review by Jennifer Rycenga
Birds of the Sierra Nevada: Their Natural History, Status, and Distribution, by Edward C. Beedy, Edward R. Pandolfino, and Keith Hansen
University of California Press, 2013
xiv + 430 pages, $39.95—softcover
The Sierra Nevada’s place in natural history and ornithology is firmly anchored in its stunning beauty and in the work of the writers whose observational and stylistic skills have risen to the intimidating occasion. Even a partial list of the famed scientists and artists who’ve immortalized the area—John Muir, Joseph Grinnell, Ansel Adams, David Gaines—might deter those tempted to embark on a new project treating the vast Sierra.
Fortunately for us, Edward Beedy, Edward Pandolfino, and Keith Hansen have set out to extend that legacy, drawing inspiration from the giants who preceded them and on whose shoulders they stand to provide us this up-to-date snapshot of the state of the Sierra Nevada’s birds.
Birds of the Sierra Nevada provides a delightful and intensive reading experience. The bulk of the book consists of detailed accounts, with new illustrations by Hansen, of the 276 regularly occurring species of Sierra birds. Another 166 rare and accidental species are treated briefly, without illustrations, in an appendix.
The introductory material, written with elegance and economy, describes the area’s habitats and discusses avian population trends, puzzles, and conservation strategies. Too heavy to put in one’s backpack for hikes, this book is best used at home, where it can be savored for a prose style both witty and poetic, for a scientific focus broad enough to include citizen science and population studies, and for its original artwork that gives new dimension to even familiar species.
The authors enthusiastically support the contributions that birders have made, and continue to make, to our knowledge of life histories, distribution, and abundance trends. As they note, “never before have so many people cared so deeply about nature in general, and birds in particular, and been willing to work to preserve natural habitats.” They draw on data from the Breeding Bird Surveys and Christmas Bird Counts conducted in the area; they endorse the regular use of eBird and local listserves. Most importantly, they direct our attention to some of the unsolved mysteries surrounding the Sierra’s birds.
Many of those open questions will be answered only with more observers in more places. Determining the breeding status and range of species like the Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Harlequin Duck, Purple Martin, or Black Swift requires study in areas that are difficult of access. Scrutinizing pond edges and waterfowl flocks could yield a better understanding of the distribution of Virginia Rails and Barrow’s Goldeneyes; the Chukar might give up the secrets of its breeding biology if more rock climbers were trained to double as birders. Even the impacts of the recent expansion of introduced Wild Turkey populations have yet to be teased out. Most studies of the Purple Martin describe only the eastern, house-nesting populations; the western birds are significantly less well understood. And the Rock Wren remains understudied across its entire range:
Almost nothing is known of their nesting biology except that they tuck their nests into narrow openings in the rocks and often create a “sidewalk” of pebbles at the entrance with no known purpose
Distributing laminated copies of the two pages titled “Unanswered Questions about Sierra Birds” to intrepid hiker-birders could be a good start to further investigation.
Each species account begins with the etymology of the common and scientific names, followed by sections treating the bird’s natural history, its distribution, and, in many cases, its conservation status. The peculiarities of Sierran geography require that most species be given separate treatments for the west and east sides of the range; the authors corroborate the significance of that division many times over, for example, in their comparison of accipiter migration on the east and the west slopes.
The life histories contain factoid gems to amaze your friends: Wilson’s Warbler males in the Sierras are polygamous, while those of coastal populations are monogamous; Pinyon Jay pairs “appear to coordinate their seed caching to ensure they both know the general locations” (my wife, Peggy, compared this to a joint bank account); Scott’s Orioles sometimes gorge on monarch butterflies; Mountain Chickadees can enter torpor; and the Savannah Sparrow takes its name from the town of Savannah, Georgia, while the Grasshopper Sparrow’s scientific name, Ammodramus savannarum, refers to its habitat.
The book is stylishly written, with Beedy and Pandolfino incorporating sparkling excerpts from John Muir, Ralph Hoffmann, and even their colleague Alvaro Jaramillo. They clearly have a favorite author, though: William Dawson. Excerpts from this early twentieth-century naturalist dot the book, and his vivid prose style clearly brought delight to the authors—and likely will have the same effect on readers. Consider Dawson’s introduction to the Flammulated Owl:
If a Martian in black livery were to sidle up on the dark side of our planet, all on a moonless night, to spy upon us, he could scarcely keep his business so well concealed as this ghoulish avian mystery.
Dawson’s language is more fanciful than most recent scientific writing, but these and other quotations create a diverse chorus of styles, heightening the reader’s awareness of the art of writing. Though the authors have a nostalgic appreciation for Dawson’s style, they wisely do not emulate it. Instead, Beedy and Pandolfino adopt a pithy humor that suits the telegraphic style of their species accounts. For instance, they note the aural presence of California Quail on all sorts of planets in old “Star Trek” episodes, and they rejoice with the Oak Titmice when, in “a rare case of taxonomic justice, the AOU relieved them of the demeaning name ‘Plain’.”
A book of this nature is necessarily the record of a particular slice of time. Two major changes have already taken place in the brief time between the publication of Birds and the Sierra Nevada and this review. The first was the split by the AOU of the old Sage Sparrow into the Bell’s and Sagebrush Sparrows; anticipating this decision, Keith Hansen provides paintings of both forms, and the authors describe the distribution of both populations in the Sierra. Pandolfino and Beedy are careful, too, to note the differences between the White-breasted Nuthatches on both sides of the Sierra, also good candidates for a future species-level split.
In their account of the California Condor, the authors warn that hopes for the “establishment of self-sustaining, wild populations may not be realistic until the problem of lead contamination from bullet fragments can be addressed on a range-wide basis.” The passage of California’s law AB 711 in October 2013, which will prohibit lead ammunition by 2019, addresses that situation.
The sensitive and insightful illustrations by Keith Hansen are integral Birds of the Sierra Nevada, and they often illuminate a species’ distinctive character. Each viewer will have favorites, but there are a few visual puns that especially tickle my fancy: Hansen poses the American Kestrel to highlight the similarity between falcons and parrots suggested by recent taxonomic changes, and he contrasts the bold coloration of the Northern Shoveler with its vacant expression.
Another strength of Hansen’s work is the thoughtfulness he brings to juvenile and female birds: too many field guides half-hide these birds behind a dominant adult male. Noteworthy in this regard are the tail feathers of the female Rufous Hummingbird (the ABA Bird of the Year), the immature Bald Eagle, the three Wilson’s Phalaropes, and the Vermilion Flycatcher, Purple Martin, and Blue Grosbeak.
Hansen’s Le Conte’s Thrasher takes on an especially ghost-like quality, and the Black Rail painting uncannily captures precisely those details revealed in the typically quick view of this diminutive skulker. The crazy-quilt oddity of Black-chinned Sparrow plumage looks practically hybridic between an Abert’s Towhee, Slate-colored Junco, and Grasshopper Sparrow.
Given my own inability to draw anything more than stick figures, I hesitate to criticize the work of an artist of Hansen’s abilities. But I am puzzled by the long gape of his Barn Owl, which confounds assessment of the bird’s head shape and facial features. The Oak and Juniper Titmice do not differ from each other enough, even in color, and the open bill of the Oak Titmouse makes comparison only the more difficult. There are also instances, such as the Savannah and Vesper Sparrows, where illustrations of subspecies would have been helpful.
These are minor complaints, though, in a portfolio of renderings that amaze with their quiet beauty and muted colors. Indeed, the artwork creates the overall tone of the book: comprehensive, concise, yet relaxing and tranquil in its sweep.
Birds of the Sierra Nevada includes a 19-page checklist, a feature that, especially in the spacious layout it is given, strikes me as unnecessary in our time of mobile information. That space would have been better devoted to more useful information, some of which was apparently deleted by a heavy editorial hand. For instance, in the account of the Eurasian Wigeon, the text notes only that females “look nearly identical to female American Wigeon,” while Hansen’s illustrations of the two species correctly show the browner head and darker plumage of the female Eurasian.The peaked crown of the Lesser Scaup goes unmentioned, as does the fence-post-sitting habit of the Wilson’s Snipe. The Allen’s Hummingbird does not merit mention in the Rufous Hummingbird account; however rare Allen’s may be in the Sierra, this is an identification puzzle that needs to be in birders’ minds.
Finally, there are a few truncated anecdotes—a disagreement between Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir over the vocalizations of the Hammond’s Flycatcher vocalization, John Cassin’s unexplained initial “reluctance” to name the Hutton’s Vireo for its young discoverer, William Hutton—that call out for another sentence or two.
This book deserves a place on the shelf of all who visit the Sierra Nevada or bird anywhere in the western mountains of North America. Beedy, Pandolfino, and Hansen strike a balance between their reports of positive developments and dire trends, urging us to action on behalf of one of the continent’s iconic natural areas. They give us reason to hope, and reason to hit the trails. A book like Birds of the Sierra Nevada reaffirms your faith in how birding can dovetail with conservation, and in what birding can do for our collective sense of meaningful communion with nature.
– Jennifer Rycenga is the president of Sequoia Audubon Society, where she helps promote citizen-science initiatives, including Bio-Blitzes, iNaturalist, and eBird. An inveterate lister, she has garnered at least one life bird in each of the fifty states. She lives in Half Moon Bay with her wife and birding buddy, Peggy Macres.
Rycenga, J. 2014. Positive Changes, Dire Developments, and a Call to Action [a review of Birds of the Sierra Nevada, by Edward C. Beedy, Edward R. Pandolfino, and Keith Hansen]. Birding 46(3):66.