Why We Need Pete Dunne

I've been a fan of birder/writer Pete Dunne for many years now, and I've been fortunate enough to meet him. In fact, I got to benefit directly from his ornithological expertise back in 2004 when I went to the Cape May Bird Observatory's Spring Fling Weekend; I not only got to meet and talk with him a bit at the convention itself, but got to follow him out on a bird walk, one which yielded my first Worm-eating Warbler, among other things. I've enjoyed (and even had occasion to copy-edit) his columns for Living Bird, and his essay collection Small-headed Flycatcher. Seen Yesterday. He Didn't Leave His Name. is one of my favorite birding-related books.

But my main reason for appreciating Dunne's contributions to my birding experience is a single volume: Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion. I've mentioned this massive tome before, as I've been relying on it to settle birding issues for over a decade now, but I haven't really presented a full appreciation yet. Though it contains not a single illustration, its detailed descriptions of plumage, behavior, and habitat paint their own pictures of each bird you'll find depicted in your field guide. Dunne's greatest strength, apart from sheer facility with language, is his ability to draw comparisons; since he knows each bird in the book well (with the possible exception of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker), he can not only describe it in a vacuum, but help readers who know similar birds find the points of distinction that will allow for an ID. The field guide may include a lovely painting of a bird, but Dunne's text gives you a context for that painting: where you'll find the bird, at what time of year, in the company of what other species; what its flight looks like, how it behaves, what features of its plumage you might or might not notice; what it sounds like, what it doesn't sound like, and what its response to a birder's "pish" might be.

But how is this useful? you might ask. It's certainly not easy to use in the field, because it's massive. My hardcover edition is over 700 pages long, nearly two inches thick, and 7" X 9" in dimension; in other words, it does not fit easily into most pockets, and as it weighs three pounds all by itself, it's a bit of a burden even in a backpack. But it's not supposed to go into the field; that's what your field guide is for. That key word "companion" is what should give you a clue as to what to do with Dunne's tome. I myself usually leave it in the car when I'm birding, though sometimes I'll leave it in a hotel room or even at home, depending on where I am; when I'm out with my scope and binoculars, I'm sticking with my Sibley (or sometimes my NatGeo guide, or my Peterson).

When I come back from the field, however, I may well feel uncertain about an identification, THAT is the time to dig out Dunne and start boning up on the possibilities. A brief examination of PD'sEFGC has helped me settlemore than one ID well after the fact, such as when I logged my first Solitary Sandpiper at Robertson Lake, but didn't confirm the species until at least an hour later.

Last night, however, I was able to use it for a purpose I hadn't expected: to save me a trip. I subscribe to the E-bird Alert newsletter for Virginia, and every day I get a notice of any unusual species reported by birders in the Commonwealth. Since my continuing Fifty-Fifty Project usually inclines me to look for new birds in other states, rather than beating the bush for them in the state where I live, I don't always act on these alerts, particularly if it's a species I know I can get fairly easily in one of my thirteen liferless states. There are, however, birds that are simply so cool that if they turn up in Virginia, I'm going to go look for them, state borders be damned. (Last year's Brown Booby at Kerr Lake would be an example of this kind of bird.) 

This was the kind of bird presented to me in yesterday's list: a Northern Goshawk in Chesterfield County.

I live in Richmond itself, but the border with Chesterfield Co. is only a mile or two away, and the location indicated on the E-bird map was only a few minutes from my wife's workplace. In other words, this was not only an incredibly cool bird, one I've been wanting to get on my list for years, but a location so convenient that I'd be an absolute fool not to go see it. 

Still, there was the issue of why this bird would turn up on a Rare Bird Alert: they really don't come to Virginia in August. Heck, Goshawks are unusual in Virginia in the dead of winter; in the summertime, you won't usually find them anywhere in the eastern U.S. south of Pennsylvania. They're also solitary birds of heavy forests, which makes the well-populated (nearly 350,000 people) environs of Chesterfield County a highly unlikely spot to see one. The question was this: did I have to get up early on Sunday to go look for this sucker, or hd the birder who reported it made an error?

Luckily, she had included a couple of photographs, and when I spotted them, my doubts became stronger: the bird looked to me quite a lot like a young Red-shouldered Hawk. Red-shoulders are quite common in this part of the country--there's a pair nesting less than a half-mile from my apartment--and this immature bird had the requisite banded tail and a fairly chunky physique. The juvenile Goshawk in my NatGeo, however, had similar coloration and a banded tail, though the bands didn't look to be quite as clean as those in the photo. Still, these were two fairly different kinds of hawk; the Goshawk is an accipiter, a sleek, long-tailed, bird-pursuing machine, while the Red-shoulder is a buteo, more thickly built and inclined to pounce on prey from a lowish perch. Why would they be confusing?

Luckily, I had Pete Dunne to tell me (in the "Pertinent Particulars" section of the Goshawk entry) that the Goshawk is commonly mistaken for two other species: as an adult, with the Gyrfalcon, and as a juvenile, with the young Red-shouldered Hawk. In other words, this was an entirely reasonable mistake for a birder to make, and that gave me confidence to consider the other issue visible in the photograph: that the bird was perched on the railing of a suburban backyard deck. Given Dunne's comparative descriptions of the two birds--the Goshawk is "retiring" and "solitary," while the RSH is "fairly tame," found perching below the canopy and on suburban wooded lots--I felt pretty good about my decision to sleep in this morning.

In short, I recommend Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion not merely as a book that can help you when you've been out in the field, but as a book that can help you avoid going out into the field in the first place. How many other birding books can make that claim?

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on August 7, 2016 11:27 AM.

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