By Burr Heneman and Janet Visick
We did our first high country trip in a long time in early August, and we took three of the best possible companions along with us: Ted Beedy, Ed Pandolfino, and Keith Hansen. They accompanied us in the form of their entertaining, informative, and beautifully illustrated and produced new Birds of the Sierra Nevada – Their Natural History, Status, and Distribution.* Thus armed, we set off in search of the elusive Gray-crowned Rosy-finch.
Let’s get out of the way what this book is not. If you have a copy of Discovering Sierra Birds** and know that Birds of the Sierra Nevada started out as a revision of the earlier book, you should forget there is any connection. This is an entirely new work with new and expanded information covering more species and a greater geographical area. The Introduction explains its “stronger focus on status, distribution, and conservation of Sierra birds.”
And it is graced by Keith Hansen’s illustrations of each of the 276 species that occur most regularly in the Sierra Nevada. (In his preface to the book, Rich Stallcup said of Keith’s artwork, “the precision of every detail is simply amazing. How does he do that?”)
Birds of the Sierra Nevada is not a field guide. If you’re not interested in the mass of behavioral, status, and habitat information in Birds of the Sierra Nevada, just stick with your Sibley guide or whatever you use. If you’re like us, you won’t lug this book into the field. It’s for enjoying in the car on your way to and from the high country, and in theevening as you recover from a day’s exploration at higher elevations than you may be used to.
Three features — the species accounts (310 of the book’s 430 pages), the strong chapter on ecological zones of the Sierra, and the unique chapter on population trends of many species over the past 40 years — make it an excellent resource on the Sierra Nevada avifauna.
The chapter on Ecological Zones and Bird Habitats is more informative than most such chapters in natural history guides. Example: it has long been known that blue oaks are not regenerating well in the oak savannas of the Sierra foothills, and grazing has received the blame. But did you know that recent research shows competition with non-native weed species may be as important, and that simply removing cattle can make that problem even worse? The sub-sections in this chapter are unequal in the amount of ecological information they provide, but there is a sort of bird’s-eye view of every habitat.
The next chapter pulls together important population trend information on many species. The authors have mined data from 44 Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) routes and 25 Christmas Bird Count (CBC) circles conducted in the Sierra Nevada between 1971 and 2010. They focused on something over 100 species selected for “their relatively high abundance and widespread ranges.” Of those species, 44 showed statistically significant increases over the 40-year period, while 26 species have declined, information that is summarized in two tables.
The authors also interpret the population trends, as in these examples of two flycatchers: “The increase in large-scale, stand-replacing fires in the Sierra in recent years may have expanded” forest edge habitats, which might help explain increases in Dusky Flycatchers. However those same fires, plus salvage logging that removes tall snags favored as hunting perches by Olive-sided Flycatchers, may contribute to the “alarming” decline in that species. That’s the sort of information that helps a birder read a landscape in greater depth.
There are puzzles as well, such as why two cavity-nesting swallows show divergent trends: Tree Swallows have been increasing while violet-greens, although the most abundant swallow in the Sierra, have declined.
Since the BBSs sample the Sierra’s avifauna in spring and summer and CBCs sample in winter, the two data sources may reflect trends for different populations of many species. American Robins numbers are down in spring/summer data, for example. But, the authors speculate, planting of winter-fruiting exotic vegetation in expanding human developments may help explain the increased robin population in winter.
The BBS and CBC data also show interesting range expansions and contractions. Hutton’s Vireos, for example, are breeding at higher elevations. Is that explained, the authors ask, by the warmer temperatures in the Sierra for the past several decades?
Turning to the species accounts, the standardized layout includes: origin of the common and scientific names, natural history, status and distribution (west side and east side), and, for some species, trends and conservation status. With something over a page, on average, for each account, there is space for plenty of useful, or simply interesting, information.
Fortunately, the writing avoids the dryness of so many natural history guides. The style recalls the earlier, more humanistic era of Ralph Hoffmann’s Birds of the Pacific States (1927), or even William Leon Dawson’s Birds of California (1923). So often, the descriptions bring a smile of recognition: “Surely the Pacific Wren can lay rightful claim to having the largest ratio of song to body mass of any bird on the planet.”
Or, of the Northern Pygmy Owl:
“Fierce and apparently fearless, they prey on a variety of birds and readily attack species much larger than themselves, like quail and Mourning Doves. They have even been observed killing domestic chickens more than 60 times their own weight! By this standard, if Great Horned Owls were equally aggressive, they could kill a 200‑pound man.”
We found the book to be useful to us as birders, not just educational. We were birding at 10,000 feet or so on the East side in the Hall Natural Area above Saddlebag Lake in early August, slightly overwhelmed by juvenile plumages we don’t normally see at sea level on the coast. At one point, we had a fleeting glimpse of an adult warbler with at least some yellow below. Then, endless good looks at its non-descript offspring. Nashville? Hmmm. If we had to guess based on visual cues, our choice would be MacGillivray’s. The Birds of the Sierra Nevada species accounts reassured us. Both altitude and latitude made Nashvilles a less likely choice, while the MacGillivray’s account provided an eerily spot-on confirmation: “Recent breeders up to 10,000 feet at the Hall Natural Area.”
There are some imperfections in this otherwise excellent volume. More thorough proofreading would have caught occasional distracting typos and repetitive text. There are separate indices for common and scientific names, a practice that we consider less reader-friendly than combining the two. And there is nothing in either index except bird names. If you want to read what the book has to say about, say, white-bark pines and birds, you’ll just have to comb through the text to find out.
Our reservations are minor, however. Finding birds in the field and enjoying them is the point, and Birds of the Sierra is a marvelous aid to both. It’s a treasury of well-written bird natural history served up in a most attractive package.
As the two of us can testify, it appeals to people with a wide range of birding experience. So take Rich Stallcup’s advice to “. . . get out there and up there, but go with this book in your pack or car.” On our August trip, we discovered that Rich was right, as usual.We didn’t find the Rosy-finches that time. But we know from Birds of the Sierra that we were close to one of the more reliable places for finding them — “on the slopes above Saddlebag Lake.”
* Birds of the Sierra Nevada – Their Natural History, Status, and Distribution. Edward C. Beedy, Edward R. Pandolfino, illustrated by Keith Hansen. University of California Press, 2013
** Discovering Sierra Birds. Edward C. Beedy and Stephen Granholm. Yosemite Natural History Association and the Sequoia Natural History Association, 1985.
Burr Heneman, a former executive director of Point Reyes Bird Observatory (now Point Blue), first fell in love with birds in his front yard on the Florida Gulf Coast in the 1940s. Burr’s wife Janet still denies being a real birder though she fell in love with the apricot underwings of godwits and curlews in her front yard on the Pacific Coast in the 1990s.