BirdWatch

(This column first appeared in the November 17, 1997 Buffalo News.)

    Don and Lillian Stokes have served me well over the years. Their Nature Guides -- Observing Insect Lives, Amphibians and Reptiles, Bird Behavior, Animal Tracking and Behavior, Enjoying Wildflowers and Nature in Winter -- have provided background information for many of my columns. I avidly followed their Behavior Watcher's Notebook in Bird Watchers' Digest. And although I do not use it for identification purposes, I often refer to their new Field Guide to the Birds, Eastern Region for its comments about bird behavior.

    Now this attractive and well informed Maine couple are bringing their bird watching skills to television. Beginning this Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. on Channel 23, their half-hour "BirdWatch" shows will run for 13 weeks. These programs are carefully designed to offer something for every birder, from novice to expert.

    I recently reviewed the first program and enjoyed it very much. The Stokes adapt quickly to this difficult medium and I expect that the couple's interactions will improve as they relax in this new role.

    A tabloid format, the contemporary response to our ever diminishing attention spans, is established immediately. They open with a part on attracting birds, follow that with a visit to a birding "hot spot," a conservation commentary, an identification lesson and a note on interesting bird behavior, and finish with an answer to a randomly selected question.

    Bird houses is the topic of their first segment. (Future weeks will cover bird feeding and birdbaths.) I found this the least satisfying part of the production. A great deal of information, all of it accurate and to the point, is packed into this brief introduction, but experienced birders will know all this and beginners will be overwhelmed. Of course, the series' sponsors -- birdseed distributors and birding store franchises -- are repaid by these parts.

    The rest of this first program more than makes up for this false start. The Stokes take us to the Santa Anna National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas-Mexico border where they treat us to views of fourteen -- I counted them -- rare species, eight that I have never seen in the field. Beginners may not realize the rarity of the great kiskadee and the neotropic cormorant but they will enjoy the antics of the awkward black-bellied whistling ducks and the striking "keep it up, keep it up, cut it out, cut it out" screams of the plain chachalacas. Unfortunately I could not hear the field sparrow-like song of the olive sparrow on the tape I viewed.

    Great inaugural conservation piece: the interview of Santa Anna refuge manager Karen Westfall. Knowledgeable and forthcoming, she not only describes cooperative conservation efforts associated with her refuge but also explains why it attracts almost 400 bird species -- it lies at the intersection of four climate zones: temperate, tropical, Chihuahuan desert and gulf coast as well as two migration flyways: central and Mississippi. (I salute this outdoors woman's chutzpah for wearing earrings.)

    The identification segment about laughing gulls focuses on a major complication that must be overcome when local birders try to pick individual species out of the thousands of gulls along the Niagara River each winter. The plumages of first year, second year and adult gulls are different, effectively tripling the number of patterns to be learned.

    I especially enjoyed the discussion of the striking wing-waving dance of the reddish egret which I have observed several times in southern rookeries. And the question the Stokes address is one that readers have asked me: How can we protect birds that repeatedly fly into our windows? The Stokes' suggestions are at least as good as mine.

    A fine beginning to a much anticipated series.