American Birding Podcast



The Allure of the Sea, From Shore

A review by Amar Ayyash

Peterson Reference Guide to Seawatching: Eastern Waterbirds in Flight, by Ken Behrens and Cameron Cox

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013

xi + 602 pages, $35—hardcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 13931

Perhaps the most challenging form of birding, the identification of birds in flight from a distance is a skill requiring considerable practice. Even more demanding is the identification of birds flying over bodies of water. Heat haze, high swells, wind, fog, and poor lighting are just some of the obstacles—but maybe they are exactly what makes seawatching so alluring.

Seawatching coverSeawatching, the latest in the Peterson Reference Guide series, offers groundbreaking and detailed advice for the in-flight identification of many of the waterbirds of eastern North America. This book is not limited to observing birds just along the shore or at sea, though: The authors, Ken Behrens and Cameron Cox, broaden “seawatching” to include any observation of birds in flight over water, including lake watching, river watching, or even the observation of a duck over a pond. Their general approach is similar to that of the legendary Hawks in Flight, with an impressionistic Cape-May-School-of-Birding touch, but Seawatching, like seawatching, also has its own, unique style.

A twenty-page introduction lays down the framework for the book and provides an outline of the identification criteria used at sea watches, including size, structure, flight style, flock associations, color, and behavior.

The discussion here of flock behavior and structure is cutting-edge material. I had not given much thought, for example, to which waterfowl species move in heterogeneous flocks and which in mostly single-species groups. The reader is encouraged to understand flocks as “macro-organisms,” and the authors point out that how high, how fast, or how tightly bunched a group of birds is in flight can be essential to correct identification. Engagingly written, this introductory information should be absorbed before the reader turns to the main text.

The section “How to Use This Guide” does a thorough job of summarizing the principles along which the book organizes its abundance of information. As in any other subject-specific reference guide, this material doesn’t lend itself to continuous or casual reading—an observation intended as a compliment and a measure of the book’s richness.

The book is divided into two main sections, species accounts and a site guide, which are then followed by several appendices, among them the answers to the photo quizzes interspersed throughout the book. I very much enjoyed (and benefited from) the quizzes, and could hardly wait to flip to the back to check the very instructive, detailed answers. My favorite of the thirty-eight shows a flock of Sterna terns; the authors ask, “Can you find all five Arctic Terns?”

The 112 species accounts cover 15 families of waterbirds, a term used here to include waterfowl (44 species), cormorants (3), the Anhinga, loons (3), grebes (2), alcids (6), shearwaters and petrels (7), storm-petrels (3), frigatebirds (1), gannets and boobies (3), pelicans (2), skuas and jaegers (5), gulls (18), and terns and skimmers (14). These species are treated in a sequence based not on taxonomy but on overall superficial similarity, an ordering intended to simplify identification and make the book easier to use.

Each account begins with a large photo, followed by the bird’s common and scientific names; dimensions and mass; and approximate spring or fall arrival dates, broken down where appropriate by region. Accompanying this information is a short introduction to the species, touching on such wide-ranging topics as natural history, variation, and vocalizations.

Nicely produced color range maps, including pelagic distributions where appropriate, accompany the species accounts. Most of these maps provide more detail than an ordinary field guide, with indications of specific staging areas, migration routes, and regions where the species may be increasing or decreasing. Consider, for example, the impressively detailed annotation of the map for the Red-necked Grebe, which points out the “notable fall flight” visible from certain Great Lakes localities, the potential “major molt sites” in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, and the winter concentrations on the Bay of Fundy.

The book’s real meat is in the identification accounts, which are readable, concise, and not at all repetitive. I recently put some of this material to the test, before and after conducting lake watches, and I must say that the “similar species” paragraphs here are invaluable. This is where the authors’ years of combined experience is most convincingly demonstrated. After reading about the identification of the various dabbling and diving ducks in flight, I realized just how passive some of my own earlier observations had been. I also came to the conclusion that this was one book I would not want to misplace.

The reader is given an intimate description of each species’ structure and flight style, with a detailed account of the differences from similar species. The text’s style here joins the formal with the informal, painting the perfect, if “non-scientific,” verbal image just when it’s needed. The Common Loon in flight, for example, is described as possessing a “sleek but powerful shape and deep belly [that] recall a weightlifter with a beer belly.” The Common Loon flying through the adjacent photo fits that description exactly.

That and the other 900 photographs are perhaps the book’s greatest asset. Most are captioned with the location, month, and photographer, and are accompanied by well-ordered bullet points emphasizing critical identification characters. Some of the annotations even correct popular misconceptions arising from oversimplifications in some other sources. For instance, consider this caption describing a mixed scaup flock: “The first bird behind the merganser is a Greater and the second is a Lesser, with head and neck shapes clearly differing and wing stripes being more similar than indicated in field guides; they are more different in width than in length.”

Appropriately, almost all of the photos are of birds in flight, running the gamut from exquisite close-ups to distant, backlit silhouettes. One thing birders (including me) often complain about is about the lack of side-by-side comparison shots in reference guides. This book exceeds expectations in that regard, repeatedly presenting photos or montages that directly confront different species or the different age and sex classes of a single variable species.

Some species are afforded more photographic attention than others, but nearly all are presented from various angles and at different distances. Moreover, the birds are often shown engaging in true-to-life behaviors, such as a flock of Dovekies dropping into wave troughs, a group of diving ducks splashing off to a running start, or a jaeger in hot pursuit of a gull. In some instances, scaled collages and composites are presented for more direct comparison. The composite showing the shifting shape of a flock of cormorants versus geese or scoters is innovative and informative.

Anyone with an interest in waterfowl identification will very much admire the five-page section on separating the three scoter species in flight. The reader is taught how and when to home in on certain features: “Against a background of water, the pale areas of plumage, such as the white on the head of a male Surf Scoter or the pale cheeks of a female Black Scoter, are more obvious than when they are silhouetted against the sky.” Just as appealing and just as useful are the jaeger accounts, packed with unmatched photographs full of instructive detail.

I’m also impressed by the coverage given the 18 species of gulls included here, among them a few “western” species such as Thayer’s, Mew, and California gulls. The species accounts are less technical than those in the modern gull guides, but a basic knowledge of aging and topography is still assumed. One advantage here is the rich range of photos showing similar species in a single frame, something other guides fall short in.

Less satisfying is the fact that the table of contents lists only the larger groups—swans, sulids, and so on—rather than giving page numbers for the individual species accounts. Brief mention of a few shorebird species, such as the phalaropes, would also have been appropriate (though other guides do provide great coverage of that group). There are very few apparent errors in captioning: How the authors came to age the kumlieni Iceland Gull on page 416 as “fourth/fifth-cycle” is a mystery, and the Herring Gull at the bottom of page 406 is labeled an adult, though the tail pattern clearly indicates otherwise. None of these minor points would keep me from buying and using this book.

The authors open the section entitled “Where to Watch” by encouraging their readers to recognize the potential for discovery. Just as hawk watches have contributed much to our knowledge of raptor populations and their migration corridors, sea watches can be the sites of similar revelation. A table (almost four pages long) of single-day high-count records is presented for 75 species, based on records from well-established count sites where data has been regularly recorded.

These records give a good idea of the magnitude of some waterbird flights: for example, the 23,000 Red-breasted Mergansers on an October day at Miller Beach, Indiana; 35,000 September Great Shearwaters at Cape Ann, Massachusetts; 74,998 Black Scoters in October at Cape May; and 48,000 Black-legged Kittiwakes in December from Brier Island in Nova Scotia.

Forty-seven watch sites are presented, roughly half along the Atlantic Coast from Newfoundland to northeast Florida and the other half from the Gulf Coast, the Mississippi drainage, and the Great Lakes region. The sites are numbered on a single map with a key for quick reference. The selection is surprisingly diverse, ranging from such well-known Altantic sea watches as Cape Spear to less famous inland sites such as Hamlin Beach and Whitefish Point.

Each site description includes information about the best times of the year and what birds to expect. One thing I wish the authors had emphasized more is the importance of favorable weather systems. I imagine that local birders are familiar with most of this information, but anyone traveling and interested in conducting a sea watch would certainly benefit from additional pointers.

BINbuttonFor all its wealth of information, this book is of a relatively reasonable size, and I recently encountered a few birders carrying it at my local lake watch on lower Lake Michigan. Pelagic birders will have much to appreciate in this guide, too. Understandably, the authors haven’t included any of the “rarer” pelagic birds, but they do cover some of the more common species in some detail. One operator of pelagic trips from the mid-Atlantic coast recently told me that this book is already a “must have” on his boat.

If I were to describe Seawatching in one word, it would be “pioneering.” The burden is now on birders to get out and better document migration over water. Many of the dynamics of that phenomenon are still unknown, but correct identification is the first prerequisite to any effort at increasing our knowledge of waterbird migration. Thanks to Behrens and Cox and the new standard they have set with Seawatching, we can be ready to do just that.

Amar Ayyash

– Amar Ayyash lives in Frankfort, Illinois, where he teaches math for a living. Most of his time in the field is spent watching and photographing gulls. A member of the board of directors of the Illinois Ornithological Society, Ayyash coordinates the IOS’s annual Gull Frolic. He also maintains a website devoted to gull recreation in North America. 

Recommended citation:

Ayyash, A. 2014. The Allure of the Sea, From Shore [a review of Seawatching, by Ken Behrens and Cameron Cox]. Birding 46(2): 73.