The Seabird’s Cry Book Review

Seabirds are some of the most fascinating creatures on Earth. Over millions of years, these birds have mastered life on the open ocean. Seabirds are an elusive group; it’s hard to study them because they only come ashore to breed.

A seabird is any bird that spends the majority or part of its life out on the open ocean. While the term “seabird” can describe a wide variety of birds, this group is most often used to describe the orders of Procellariiformes and Suliformes. Procellariiformes include petrels, albatrosses, shearwater, and storm-petrels, which are more commonly known as “tubenoses”. Suliformes include cormorants, boobies, gannets, and frigatebirds. Gulls, jaegers, skuas, auks, and penguins are also seabirds.

I recently read The Seabird’s Cry: The Lives and Loves of the Planet’s Great Ocean Voyagers
by Adam Nicolson. This beautifully-written book explores the lives of 10 species of seabirds. For each species, Nicolson explores not only how these birds live from a scientific standpoint, but how they touch the lives of people in emotional and spiritual ways. I particularly enjoyed reading some of the myths that native cultures tell about these fascinating creatures.

It’s clear that Nicolson loves the subjects he writes about. Adam Nicolson was born in England. During his childhood his father actually bought the Shiant Islands in the Outer Herbrides of Scotland, where Nicolson would watch puffins, fulmars, razorbills, shags, kittiwakes, and other seabirds breed. The Seabird’s Cry offers intimate accounts of the specie’s life, but also reminds us how fragile their lifestyles can be in an ever changing world of climate change.

I learned so many interesting facts in this book, so I wanted to share some of them with you. Below is one fact from each of the 10 species. You’ll just have to find out the rest when you read The Seabird’s Cry. šŸ™‚ 

  1. FulmarsĀ wereĀ knownĀ asĀ theĀ “foulĀ gulls”Ā toĀ theĀ Vikings,Ā sinceĀ they wouldĀ vomitĀ theĀ oilsĀ fromĀ theirĀ foodĀ asĀ aĀ defenseĀ mechanism.
  2. An adult puffin raising a chick will dive between 600 and 1,150 times per day to get sandeels, sprats, or capelin.
  3. Kittiwakes are the most populous gull, with approximately 18 million individuals in the Northern Hemisphere.
  4. Some gullĀ species have black heads instead of white heads. Studies found that gulls with black heads/faces actually scare other gulls, most likely to space out the breeding territory. Therefore, when black-headed gulls mate, they face away from each other to show their white bodies and use other senses during courtship such as smell and touch.
  5. A Newfoundland study found that “extramarital affairs” were fairly common among guillemots. However, females who had these affairs would typically end up being less successful breeders than males who had affairs.
  6. Cormorants and shags are most likely the closest in lifestyle and body-type to the first fossilized seabirds from about 100 million years ago.
  7. Shearwaters, like other “tubenoses” have large olfactory bulb and therefore a strong sense of smell. Phytoplankton, which is eaten by the shearwater’s prey krill, emit dimethyl sulfide (DMS). Young shearwaters are exposed to DMS in the burrow, so they are able to locate krill by smell when they go foraging. Unfortunately, plastics also emit DMS, so seabirds are accidentally eating plastic not because it looks like prey, but smells like prey.
  8. Gannets regularly fly over 350 miles or more while fishing.
  9. Razorbills are the living representatives of the largest seabird that ever lived in the Northern Hemisphere, the extinct Great Auk.
  10. Albatross have a lifespan of 60-80 years depending on the species. (Not from this book, but Wisdom, the 68-year-old albatross, laid an egg in December!)

What’s your favorite seabird? Tell me in the comment section! Mine is the Laysan Albatross.

The Warbler Guide

Dave and I were getting ready to go on a birding trip. We were going to Hawk Mountain, so I wanted to bring our small Canon camera instead of the DSLR since it’s easier to carry around. Dave usually keeps the Canon in his sock drawer, in the left corner right on top.Ā I opened up the drawer, but the camera wasn’t there. I started pushing socks around.

And then there it was. Nope, not the camera.Ā The Warbler Guide.Ā The book that Dave and I were looking at in Barnes and Nobles a few weeks earlier.

My first thought was Oops. I found my Christmas gift.”Ā  I felt slightly panicked. Then my second thought was one of excitement:Ā “He bought me The Warbler Guide!”Ā . I realized I had to try and act cool to pretend that I didn’t find the book. So I quickly closed the drawer saidĀ “Hey Dave, I can’t find the camera, can you help me find it?”Ā I started petting our cat Jenny who happened to be sitting nearby to try to take my mind off of what I found. It was hard to contain my excitement. I guess I did a pretty bad job of it because a few minutes later Dave asked,Ā “Did you see something in my drawer?”

I admitted that yes, I did find the book. He told me that I could have it early since he planned on getting another thing for Christmas too. Dave and I can never actually wait until the holiday to give each other gifts anyway (we get too excited and can’t keep the secret) so we always give gifts early. I’ll consider it a Thanksgiving gift lol :-).

The Warbler GuideĀ is amazing. Written by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle, it won a National Outdoor Book Award in Nature Guidebooks in 2014. If you are serious about learning to identify North American warblers, then this is the book for you. This guide is extremely detailed. I am already in love with it.

warbler-guide

The first section of the book is called “What to Notice on a Warbler”. This section focuses color and contrast, behavior, the face, the body, and the undertail . There are many pictures to help explain the key identification points. One of my favorite parts of this section is “the face”, where the authors goes deeper into significant facial features such as eye rings, cheek patches, superciliums (a.k.a the “eyebrow”), and more.

Another section is titled “How to Listen to Warbler Songs”. This section explores the elements that create warbler songs. The authors use audio spectrograms (a.k.a sonograms) to show harmonics, song stucture, and phrases. This chapter explains in detail how to read the spectrograms, but later in the book you can explore the spectrograms of each individual species in this book.

The largest section of this guide is the individual species accounts. Instead of putting the warblers in taxonomic order like other field guides, the authors decided to put the birds in alphabetical order. They explained in the beginning of the book they did this because the taxonomy of warblers has significantly changed recently, and some of the warblers in question are still not settled. The authors also felt it would be easier to find the warbler you need if the birds were listed alphabetically.

species-account
Example of a Species Account (Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle, published by Princeton University Press)

Each species accounts are about 3-6 pages long with numerous pictures. Information provided includes physical descriptions, range maps, photos of distinct views/many additional photos, comparison species (with photos), aging and sexing, and spectograms (with comparison to other species). There are a few features in each account that you usually don’t see in other field guides such as undertail patterns, preferred habit in trees (high canopy, understory, ground, etc), a color diagram, and behavior icons. All this information is easy to read and well organized.

Other great features of this book include quizzes to test you id skills, habitat and behavior charts, a taxonomy chart, descriptions and diagrams of flight patterns, silhouettes broken down by region, and species accounts of similar non-warbler species.

My favorite feature is the “quick finder section”. The quick finder section are all illustrations. The “quick finders” include faces, side views, 45 degree views, under views, seasonal plumage views, types of undertails, and song finder charts.

The Warbler GuideĀ has a wealth of information for serious birders. It’s well organizedĀ and has hundreds of great pictures to show key identification parts. There’s a website listed in the back of the book where you can access additional resources. You can also purchase for iTunes the audio tracks that are featured in the book, so you can study the spectograms while listening. I think it’s an essential book for anyone who wants to explore the wonderful world of North American Warblers. I can’t wait to devour the information in this book.

And who knows, this may be the perfect gift for the warbler lover in you life. Just make sure you hide it better than Dave did :-P.

 

The Most Perfect Thing

I am a pretty avid reader, and as you might guess, I spend a lot of time reading about birds. I decided that I wanted to share these books with you. So today is the first BirdNation book review. If you read this blog I assume that you have an interest in birds, so I thought you may find some worthwhile reading material through this feature.

I just finished reading The Most Perfect Thing: Inside (and Outside) a Bird’s Egg by Tim Birkhead. Tim Birkhead is a British zoologist and works at the University of Sheffield as a professor of behavior and evolution. He has written numerous book about birds and their behaviors, including the popularĀ Bird SenseĀ in 2012. In this book, Tim Birkhead takes you on a journey of how the egg is developed. The journey begins in late 19th century England with oologist (a scientist who studies bird eggs) George Lupton. George Lupton had an extensive collection of Common Guillemot eggs, which are now in the Natural History Museum in Tring, Hertfordshire, England. Birkhead refers to George Lupton and Common Guillemots as his prime example throughout the text. Along the way we learn about other scientists who made contributions to bird biology and egg production, as well as learn about the eggs of numerous bird species.

the-most-perfect-thing
The Most Perfect Thing by Tim Birkhead (Image by BirdNation)

Birkhead starts with the outside of the egg and work his way in. The first few chapters talk about the structure and physical appearance: egg shape, shell thickness, and color. There are two chapters concerning color. Birkhead first talks about how eggs become the colors they do and then talks about why.

The middle chapters of the book are about what happens inside the egg and focus on the albumen and the yolk. The albumen, also know as the “egg white”, forms around the yolk. It provides nutrients for the embryo and protects the yolk. The albumen is mainly 90% water and 10% proteins. The egg yolk is the primary food supply for the embryo. Birkhead goes into detail about these subjects and there are detailed diagrams throughout the book to help the readers visualize these features.

The final sections of the book are all about laying, incubating, and hatching. Topics explored include how the egg leaves the oviduct (where eggs travel from the ovaries to outside the body), incubation lengths of different species, and the process of how the chick leaves the egg (which is not as quick as you would think!).

The Most Perfect Thing is a fascinating book. Although everyone is familiar with eggs, many people don’t know about the process of egg formation and hatching, so it’s an eye-opening and amazing process to learn about. I would recommend this book to anyone who is interesting in learning about the science behind eggs. It is not a leisurely read, however. Besides the history portions about Lupton and other scientists/studies, most of this book reads like a text book. One thing I like about Tim Birkhead is his ability to make these scientific studies accessible and easy to understand to casual readers as well as more science-minded individuals. Even if you are a casual reader, I recommend this book if you are into learn about bird biology and want to know more the science of eggs. There are so many amazing thing to learn through this book. I’m sure by the end you’ll agree that the bird egg is as close as you can come to The Most Perfect Thing.