Summer Reading


(This 796th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on July 2, 2006.)


Here are only a few of this year's fine natural history books for holiday reading.


The best resource on climate in general and global warming in particular is Tim Flannery's The Weather Makers: How Man is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth (Atlantic Monthly Press). Flannery combines deep understanding of the science of climatology and the ability to write as one reviewer describes it "with wit, wisdom and intelligence." He's an Australian but he has previously written eloquently about North America in The Eternal Frontier, another book I refer to regularly.


Birders worldwide call the way experienced birders recognize birds by a brief glimpse "jizz". This ability requires deep familiarity with essential bird characteristics - size, shape, color, song, actions, posture, even location - and takes time to develop and apply in the field. (We all use a kind of human jizz when we pick a friend out of a crowd by that person's general manner without attention to specific details.)


Pete Dunn has appropriated this word and changed it to "giss", possibly to avoid another slang use of jizz in this country, defining giss as an acronym for "general impression of size and shape." He offers short-cuts to gaining this ability in his new book, Pete Dunn's Essential Field Guide Companion (Houghton Mifflin), the first field guide with which I am familiar that has no illustrations whatsoever.


Here, for example, are extracts from his description of a pied-billed grebe: "brown, meatloaf shaped water bird with a short thick neck and an oversized chickenlike head. When partially submerged, Pied-bill can look like a miniature sea serpent. Calls with a loud wild-sounding keening that incorporates bleating coos and mournful wails. Also makes a run on a series of notes that sounds like a rippling chuckle or someone blowing a satisfying series of toots into a handkerchief."


Whether you call it giss or jizz, it is the source of those hard-to-believe field calls: a speck on the horizon turns out to be a broad-winged hawk, a dark silhouette on a phone wire a bluebird, two birds hidden in foliage a blackburnian warbler and a scarlet tanager. If you are interested in how birders acquire this ability, this is your book.


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Some of Frank Knight's Handsome Paintings from Parrots of the World


Parrots of the World: An Identification Guide by Joseph Forshaw (Princeton) is a beautiful coffee table book whose over 120 paintings of these colorful birds by Frank Knight are spectacular. This is one of those rare books that equally serves field workers, researchers, bird enthusiasts and art lovers.


Tom Groneberg's memoire, One Good Horse (Scribner) is a perfect "vacation book", small format, lean prose, a personal narrative by a contemporary rancher that immediately captures interest and a book easy to read in a few days. Horse owners will find it perfect, the rest of us will simply end up jealous of them.


Another great vacation book is Surfing's Greatest Misadventures edited by Paul Diamond. (Casagrande Press). It contains a delightful story by our own lake surfer, Magilla Schaus. It is worth purchase for that local tale alone.


The Bible's book Numbers tells us that we will be led to "a land which flows with milk and honey." Of interest is the fact that those products were not found in North America when the European colonists arrived; cows and bees had to be imported. Beekeeper and college teacher Tammy Horn begins with that lack of honey bees and extends it in a variety of directions in Bees in America: How the Honey Bee Shaped a Nation (University Press of Kentucky). Her story integrates history, technology, sociology, economics and politics with this remarkable insect serving as the unifying concept.


Among new field guides, I note in particular four that base their identification on photographs. Steven Clemants and Carol Gracie take on by far the most species in their Wildflowers in the Field and Forest (Oxford). Remarkably, two of these guides are about caterpillars: David Wagner's Caterpillars of Eastern North America (Princeton) and Thomas Allen, Jim Brock and Jeffrey Glassberg's Caterpillars in the Field and Garden (Oxford). Michael O'Brien, Richard Crossley and Kevin Karlson also offers The Shorebird Guide (Houghton Mifflin). I prefer paintings to photos in field guides so I like still more Stephen Message and Don Taylor's Shorebirds of North America, Europe and Asia (Princeton) with its outstanding artwork.-- Gerry Rising