Books for Summer Reading in 2005


(This 744th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on July 3, 2005.)


We're most fortunate this year. A number of fine natural history books have been issued just in time for summer reading.


Easily the most spectacular new book is Butterflies of the East Coast: An Observer's Guide by Rick Cech and Guy Tudor (Princeton). This will surely become the standard text on butterflies for the states that border the Atlantic. (Sixteen plus West Virginia are in the geographic area covered.) An introductory section discusses where and when to find butterflies as well as how to look for them and what to look for. Then each of the 234 species merits a full page on which beautiful illustrations show both upper and under wing views sometimes of both sexes, range maps and the species' primary host plant. After several general paragraphs the species text includes sections on identification, habitat, host plants, occurrence and ecology. I found especially interesting supplementary pages on topics like specialized diets of giant swallowtails and blues; the importance of waste areas, mountaintops and prairies; the occurrence of tropical strays and the status of some questionable species. This coffee table book will not substitute for a good field guide but it will provide rich background for an increasingly popular avocation.


Perfectly timed with the announcement of the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker, Tim Gallagher's The Grail Bird (Houghton Mifflin) provides the full story of not only the recent sightings and photography but also the earlier history of this exciting species. The author was one of the first to see the ivory-bill in 2004 and his observation led to the quest that finally resulted in the photographic evidence that has confirmed the bird's continuing fragile existence. Gallagher is editor of "The Living Bird" for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the high quality of his writing is on display in this new book.


Bill McKibben is this state's premier conservationist. His The End of Nature ranks only slightly below Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in its analysis of our nation's environmental problems. Now he has written a brief account of his hike across what he calls "America's most hopeful landscape: Vermont's Champlain Valley and New York's Adirondacks." The small size of his book, Wandering Home (Crown) makes it perfect for a hiker to carry in a backpack. Having spent a week last summer riding my scooter through much of this same territory, I thoroughly enjoyed this story. While McKibben recognizes the many threats to this region, the best feature of his account is his positive view of its present and future.


Later I hope to write a full column about Donald Kroodsma's The Singing Life of Birds (Houghton Mifflin) but I must include it among the books I recommend for summer reading. Most birders rely heavily on bird song for identification so this book is an important contribution to their understanding. It goes much farther, however. It represents the compilation of a scientist's life work studying bird song consistency and variation. Kroodsma goes well beyond Aretas Saunders 1951 book that incorporated song diagrams to provide not only sonograms but a CD of recorded songs. No matter how rich your background is, you will learn something new on every page.


In Landscape with Reptile (Lyons) Thomas Palmer offers a spirited defense of rattlesnakes in what he calls "an urban world" near Boston, Massachusetts. Despite his scary chapter, "A Worst Case Scenario", a hypothetical story about a snakebite victim, I join Palmer in voting the snake not guilty. Turn to any page and start to read: you'll have trouble putting this book down.


Bill Thompson III, editor of Bird Watcher's Digest, with his journal colleagues has written, Identify Yourself: The 50 Most Common Birding Identification Challenges (Houghton Mifflin). If you have trouble telling apart those look-alike shorebirds, gulls, sparrows, or the house and purple finches at your feeders, this is the book for you.


Too briefly noted: Douglas Smith and Gary Ferguson, Decade of the Wolf (Lyons) about their return to Yellowstone; Hans Kruuk, Niko's Nature (Oxford) about behaviorist Niko Tinbergen; Roger Newton, Galileo's Pendulum (Harvard) an historical survey of the measurement of time; and Susan McCarthy, Becoming a Tiger (HarperCollins) with its instructive stories about young animals' learning.-- Gerry Rising