Sunday, May 15, 2016


Circle by Jeannie Baker is a beautiful book. The narration is so lyrical and poetic that reading it actually gave me chills. The collage illustrations are soft yet very detailed and realistic.

Few readers will immediately recognize the godwit, a member of the sandpiper family. These shorebirds can be hard to distinguish from other mottled, barred, or marbled brownish birds and there are several species among the group.

In Circle the species is the bar-tailed godwit, which breeds in Alaska and migrates around the world from Australia and New Zealand. While many shorebirds make extensive trips during migration, one  bar-tailed godwit was documented as having made the more than 7,000 mile trip non-stop. Tracked via satellite tags, this is the longest journey that has been officially documented. Amazing birds! In Rockport we primarily see marbled godwits, which breed in the center of North America and migrate to the coast for the winter, a much shorter journey.
Marbled Godwit

Baker opens the book with an illustration of a young handicapped boy (the wheelchair is next to the bed) wishing he could fly. A birding journal sits beside him. Watching from his wheelchair on the beach, he follows the godwits as they depart on their journey north. The locations are not identified but the birds struggle to find a safe place to rest when their habitat has disappeared. In an apparently Asian country they eat and eat until they are filled with the fat needed for their long journey to the Arctic north. The male godwit scrapes a shallow nest for his mate and eggs hatch. Danger lurks for the newborn chicks but one survives, grows up, and follows his parents back across the world. The circle continues. In the final page, the young boy no longer needs the wheelchair or crutches and dreams he is actually flying along with the godwits.

Although I overlooked it on my first reading, an author's note and map are appended. Therein, Baker explains the importance of wetlands for these and other waterbirds and the map identifies the areas and countries where the bar-tailed godwits go during migration. There is also a list of the other migrating creatures that careful readers can search for in the book. Circle is a great book for sharing with budding birders, especially those who live near the shores or wetlands. Pair it with Moonbird by Phillip Hoose for older readers, about a red knot that has flown enough miles to go to the moon and back.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Feathers For Peacock

Pourquoi stories (also called origin stories) are created to explain why things happen in the natural world. They are often legends passed down orally but, while they may have some grain of truth, are fantasy. Usually they start in the past ("Long ago, when the world was new...") and finish with the explanation as to why things are they way they now are. While many reflect the cultural beliefs of the group telling the story, some are modern writings or modern stories based on old stories. Some of the most well-known modern pourquoi stories are included in Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories.

There are a lot of pourquoi stories about birds, including several in my own book, Hummingbirds: Facts and Folklore from the Americas. Feathers for Peacock  is an original pourquoi story by Jacqueline Jules that explains the how peacock got his gorgeous feathers.

We learn that originally birds had no colors, and in fact, had no feathers at all. Upset because the lack of feathers meant they were cold in winter, the birds appealed to the wise full moon. Realizing that the birds needed help, the full moon told them what to do. Unfortunately Peacock was buried deep in the leaves and did not hear the instructions. So while Flamingo turned bright pink, Duck got green and brown feathers, and Raven found shiny black feathers, Peacock missed out. Knowing that they could not leave him like that, all of the birds offered one of their feathers to Peacock. Peacock's body was suddenly a jumble of colors, but moon helped him arrange them into a "clear, colorful pattern." When Peacock spreads his feathers he is "showing everyone how beautiful kindness can be."

The colorful illustrations by Helen Cann highlight the story. Especially notable are the winter scenes  that almost glow with grayish-whites so that readers can almost feel the birds shivering.

The story concludes with two pages of fun facts about peacocks and information about the inspiration for Jules' story. While she credits Afro-Caribbean roots for her story, the birds depicted in the story and the illustrations are not necessarily birds that would be in the same area. That doesn't detract from the story.
Peacocks are a bird many children will see in parks and zoos, adding to the fun of sharing this story.

In addition to being a fun story to share, the book can be used as inspiration for children to create their own pourquoi stories. The website ReadWriteThink has a worksheet to help outline the tale.

Note: I received a complimentary copy of the book from the publisher, Wisdom Tales but that in no way influences my review.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Swim, Duck, Swim!

I have a backlog of books to review so many will be brief but I don't want to miss any of the many great bird books that have been released recently.

Nesting season has started and we will soon have babies in the Coastal Bend. Few things are cuter than ducklings!  This adorable board book is perfect for little hands. Simple, short lines of text accompany photographs of mama, papa, and baby duck. Little duck doesn't want to learn to swim (he doesn't like to get wet!). Finally he is swimming. While the story is about a duck and what makes a duck a duck (they swim!) the patience with which the parent ducks work through their child's fears make it a good book to use with a child who is herself learning to enjoy the water.
Whistling duck chicks

While not the type of duck pictured in Swim, Duck, Swim! some of my favorite ducklings are the Black-bellied Whistling ducks. Found primarily in Texas and Louisiana, these ducks really do whistle. As they fly overhead you will hear them!

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Peregrine Spring

One of the fun things about book reviewing is the serendipitous nature of what you get to review. I've read a number of books that I would probably not have picked up on my own. Almost exactly a year ago I reviewed H is for Hawk, a book I looked at several times, intrigued by the cover, but only reluctantly started to read. This year I received another memoir by a modern female falconer. And it was just as good!

Peregrine Spring: A Master Falconer's Extraordinary Life with Birds of Prey is Nancy Cowan's compelling tale of how she raised and trained a variety of hawks and falcons. With her husband, she spearheaded a campaign to make falconry legal in New Hampshire and started a school to train would-be falconers.

I've long been fascinated by birds of prey. While some are beautiful, most would never be labeled as "cute." They are all, in my opinion, majestic. While they naturally hunt prey in the wild, many of the birds can also be trained to hunt and return to the falconer. There are four main categories of birds used in falconry but all are of the order Falconiformes. 

American Kestrel
North America's littlest falcon
Those who know me know that I'm not a fan of hunting but there is something that intrigues me about falconry. While falconry is a hunting sport, it doesn't appear that the primary emphasis is on catching anything for the falconer to consume (although that likely was the primary reason in the earliest days). Rather it is a lifestyle with a close relationship built between the bird and the handler. The bird is catching its own meal (although it may not be allowed to eat it all at once). Cowan states that the relationship between falconer and bird becomes "a partnership unlike any...experienced with any other animal" and she outlines this relationship through her many stories. About the falcon's gaze, writer Sy Montgomery (who was also Cowan's first student at her School of Falconry) said it was "like looking directly into the sun." Watching these birds in the wild makes it easy to understand this sentiment.

Cooper's Hawk
 The book follows thirty years of training and living closely (sometimes bring the birds into her
house) with Harris' hawks, Goshawks, Gyrfalcons, Peregrines, and more. Her vignettes are amusing (a lost falcon is recovered by the police and has to be "bailed out"), informative (female raptors are larger than their male counterparts), poignant (an annual watch for the return of urban peregrines to nest on the downtown buildings), and sad (a bird Cowan rehabilitated died shortly after being released).

"My owl" being released.
Peregrine Spring readers meet a wide variety of hawks and other birds of prey and will look forward to seeing them in the wild. I frequently see some of these birds in my range of birding. I also had the privilege of releasing an owl after rehabilitation. (He took off and immediately fell into the water. Thankfully he was able to get back in flight before needing to be fished out for more rehabilitation.) Owls are birds of prey but have been used with mixed success for hunting.

Pre-order Peregrine Spring before its March 2016 release.

Friday, September 25, 2015

A Charm of Hummingbirds

It's no secret. I love collective nouns. You might even say I collect collective nouns. (Hmmm....I wonder if there is a collective noun for a collection of nouns.) Anyway, a group of hummingbirds is called a charm. Because they are such popular birds, they actually have several options and are sometimes referred to as a shimmer or a glistening. But I like a charm.

I've been busy and the summer flew by without me writing a blog post. For that I apologize, but there's no better time to return than when hummers are charming my backyard!  One reason I've been too busy to post is that filling feeders and photographing the hummingbirds is a full time job during migration. Texas is in the Central Flyway, the major superhighway for birds migrating between Canada and Mexico so spring and fall migrations are very busy times.

Myth: If I don't take down my feeders, the hummingbirds won't migrate.
Fact: Healthy hummers will migrate no matter what. A few, maybe older birds or birds that bulked up too late to safely make the journey, may over winter in some areas. Prevailing wisdom says to keep feeders up for about two weeks AFTER you see the last hummer.

After spending the summer in Canada and Alaska, these tiny birds make their way to the coast. Here they bulk up on sugar water and natural nectar that they will need to sustain them for a 20 hour non-stop flight across the Gulf of Mexico. Remember that these tiny birds weight about the same as a  penny yet have to add up to 40-50% of their body weight in preparation for the long flight.

They fly alone, not in flocks, on their 500 mile trip. And that is after having made the journey from the north. Some hummingbirds will travel up to 2700 miles between their summer and winter homes. There is some evidence that they follow the same route (without the benefit of AAA or Mapquest!) so you may see the same birds year after year at your feeders.

Myth: Hummingbirds catch a ride on the backs of Canada Geese or other birds.
Fact: Hummingbirds fly at much lower altitudes than geese do. Also geese flying south don't end up in the tropics.

This past week was the Rockport-Fulton HummerBird Celebration. I was thrilled to get to see hummingbirds being banded and even was privileged to hold two for release after they were banded. The banding process allows scientists to gather data about sex, weight, health, migration patterns, and size. Banders can even tell if a female hummingbird hatched babies (the head feathers are raggedy from spending so much time in a tiny, thimble-sized nest). Banders must hold a federal permit and the birds can not be held for very long during the banding process. Only about 150 people are certified for banding hummingbirds (and at least 3 were at the Celebration)! Anyone can take a look at how many birds of various species have been banded in any state by searching the USGS map. It's unlikely the average person will spot a banded hummingbird but sightings can also be reported to USGS. And many birders do spot bands on larger birds, providing information on migration patterns.

The hummingbird is caught in a mesh bag that has been hung near feeders. Then the bird is banded. weighed, measured, sexed, and an estimate of body fat is taken. The bird is remarkably calm in its "sock." Once all the clinical stuff is done, the bird is placed onto the flat hand of an observer. After a moment, the bird flies off.

There is so much more to be said about these charming little birds, but I've got to go fill feeders and monitor the proprietary antics of my own little charm. They'll only be around for a few more weeks!

Thursday, July 2, 2015

The Sky Painter

Louis Agassiz Fuertes
(Licensed under Creative Commons)
Most of us have probably never heard of Louis Fuertes but if you have visited the American Museum of Natural History in New York you have seen his work. Inspired by John James Audubon, Fuertes became known as the Father of Modern Bird Art. Unlike Audubon and other artists of the time, however, who posed dead birds that they had killed, Fuertes painted living birds in their natural habitats. As a child he cared for injured birds and dreamed of being a bird artist. After learning to paint quickly to capture fast-moving subjects, Fuertes created a new form of bird art that showed birds in action and life in their eyes and feathers. His work appeared in many books of his time and he made many expeditions to "capture" new birds. In the 1920s collector cards featuring his art were included in boxes of baking soda. These cards and his art are credited with helping to turn bird-watching into the popular sport it is today.

The Sky Painter: Louis Fuertes, Bird Artist, by Margarita Engle and illustrated by Aliona Bereghci, is written in the first person and poetically traces Fuertes' life with minimal text. Pages are filled with watercolor and ink drawings of various birds, often labeled for identification. Bereghci doesn't try to mimic Fuertes style in her drawings, and in fact, we only see reproductions of his images in the historical note. The result is an amazingly beautiful book that will surely inspire artists of all ages.

Black-headed heron'
(Licensed under Creative Commons)
Parents and teachers should visit Margarita Engle's website for an activity kit to use with this beautiful book.

Note: I received a copy of the book from the author

Monday, June 1, 2015

Could a Penguin Ride a Bike?

I missed World Penguin Day this year (it was April 25). That's approximately the day that penguins begin their northern migration. Penguin Awareness Day is in January (the 20th) and I missed that one, too. But I don't want to wait any longer to share this book, which takes a humorous look at those funny birds, and specifically the king penguin.

The format of Could a Penguin Ride a Bike has king penguins interacting with children in silly ways that will appeal to young readers. However, while they are laughing, they are also learning about penguins. The tone of the writing is a little reminiscent of Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!as a situation is presented followed by the things that are wrong and flows easily. But after the laugh, correct information is provided.

 "What if a baby penguin came for dinner? He might try to eat everything!"

"An adult penguin eats about 50 fish a day, but a chick needs to eat about 200!"

King Penguin Biodome
(photo by Jeanette Larson)
The final double-page spread shows a very large map of the world. Kids will need to look closely to see where king penguins live. Of course there are seventeen types of penguins, and a few do live in places other than Antarctica, home of the king penguin. While the facts, and the funny stuff, pretty much hold true for other types of penguins, the emphasis on the king penguin is not always made clear. The last page includes a postcard, featuring real penguins, offering greetings from Antarctica. This is a nice touch since the illustrations are more cartoonish. I think it would also have been nice to include some links for penguin sites.

Fairy Penguins
(Photo licensed under
Creative Commons)
Of course most children will only see penguins in aquariums, like the king penguin I saw in Montreal's Biodome, I was fortunate enough to see fairy penguins in their natural habitat in Australia,
and someday I hope to see penguins in Antarctica. I can dream! In the meantime check out this book and some of the penguin cams available, like the one from the Audubon Aquarium of the America.