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Not a review, really...

In early September, when I received my copy Brian Wheeler's new raptor guide, I posted the blue-texted email rant on Massbird. Since then I've got a copy of the Western book and received emails from MA and beyond with questions and comments.

From: "Tom Carrolan"
To: "massbird listserv" <massbird@world.std.com>
Subject: New Wheeler Raptor Guides!
Date: Tue, 2 Sep 2003 21:06:22 -0400

Today, I received a copy of "Raptors of Eastern North America: The Wheeler Guide" [Princeton University Press, 2003]. Amazon lists it for 'pre-order' at $45 but with a free shipping price of $31.50... yes, there is also a "Western" book -- $49.50, list; $34.50 on Amazon with free shipping.

My copy arrived today directly from Brian Wheeler as I provided data used in the book
[Wintering Roughlegs: 4-yr., 500+ bird study in NY and VT: 71% light, 26% dark, 3% undertermined/intermediate color morph].

These are Euro-style guides. By that I mean more photographs than you've ever seen before in a book from this side of the pond. Information on molt, aging, and sexing providing much more new information and coming primarily from the young, professional hawkwatchers -- all with banding experience -- along big water, low elevation sites [Great Lakes, Atlantic coast].


[NOT from Brian Wheeler's books] An assortment of fresh-plumaged juvenile Redtail tails waiting to be banded at Braddock Bay Raptor Research in August 2003. The middle tail is an example of one that appears -- to Old Testament, single field mark observers -- to be an adult bird, when seen at a distance but it is not!

In the past, a field guide author was lucky to field just enough images so as to cover a species minimally. Here Brian Wheeler has taken himself, or selected images [from the young bucks] that show that certain mix of feathers described in the text. This pool of raptor images from North American is pretty impressive... you should see the shots he left out!

Buteos are aged as adult, basic 1, and juvenile... terms you've only associated with eagles until now. Observers [in-the-field] now have information pointing them to look at specific primaries for retained younger feathers to help determine the age of birds [and to my mind, help gather data that will someday track population trends well-enough for hawkwatching to make contributions to raptor conservation].


Accipiters are aged AND sexed in the photo plates. There are nineteen photos of our not-so-common Broad-winged Hawk showing extraordinary diversity, like we get to see on the outer Cape in the Spring! Fourteen images of the Northern Goshawk -- thanks to Brian camping out in Duluth for, amongst many other years, the big flight of 2001.

In the Eastern book, for example, the Red-tailed Hawk section starts with 22 pages of text and maps! This is followed by 90 photographs [4/page]. The Roughleg section has mind-blowing detail: ten plus pages of text followed by 39 images. Suffice it to say, you measure the photo count in these two books in terms of hundreds, not dozens, of images.


Like shorebirds, you may now want to age a bird before, and as, you try to identify it. This is because hawk ID has long since progressed beyond the days of the black-and-white silhouette hand-out AND, today, contradictions in one field mark serves as an alert from the young bucks of hawkwatching to SEE the whole bird and not just fix on one feature [e.g.: a "belly band" or a "rounded tail"]. Take... your... time. For example, there is a section on, "Red-shouldered Hawk... eastern... adult female [atypically barred type]." Yikes... but I get a tingle from that line... don't you?

Okay, okay. What is the novice or even intermediate hawkwatcher to make of this info overload? Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy. Even if you can't process 13 pages of Sharpie fine print and images, ALL hawkwatchers [and those who call themselves mere birders] can now anticipate seeing more than they ever have before. And that equals more pure enjoyment to the birding day. Color and detail CAN be seen -- either by looking yourself, or by hanging around those who will readily point it out to you. So what if you're not exactly sure what it all means! This is not your father's hawkwatch anymore, so demand more from your leaders. How many times have you seen color or a plumage feature on a warbler or shorebird after an 'expert' called your attention to it? Hawks are exactly the same... and have been for many years now. After all, you did order the color option with those $700 binoculars, didn't you?!

"Look long and prosper."
[from an old Vulcan field guide I have around here somewhere]

So is this it -- the definitive work[s] on North American raptor ID? Yes indeedy: this is IT. "Six years in the making," sez Mr. Wheeler in a recent email. But as with all these textbook-like [Euro-style] field guides, there is always more information coming 'down the Pike', so to speak... and Brian has already started a file for corrections and additions [pers. comm., a minute ago]. There is always more... for the next edition and for the next visit to the hawkwatch.

With these new raptor works, we'll all have plenty to read and discuss this Fall, through the Winter, and on into the Spring.

Tom Carrolan
Tea Poem by Lu Torng, 1835
First cup souses lips and throat;
Second cup relieves loneliness and worries;
Third cup burgeons thoughts and words;
Fourth cup flushes out complaints and anger;
Fifth cup cleans muscles and bones;
Sixth cup purifies heart and soul;
Seventh cup may be declined:
It will fly you like a kite.