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A trade-off in usefulness



Birdsongs of the Pacific Northwest

By Martin Stewart, Stephen Whitney and Elizabeth Briars Hart

The Mountaineers Books, 2006

80 pages and CD, $21.95 U.S.


Reviewed by Dr. Karl Ricker

The Mountaineer Books is a publication arm of the Seattle Mountaineers, one of the largest mountaineering organizations in North America, and it is certainly an old hand in the book business, specializing in alpine guides and survival literature; Freedom of the Hills being a classic.

The usefulness of Birdsongs of the Pacific Northwest, an attractive hard cover book with enclosed CD of songs and calls of 123 species of Puget Sound area birds that was printed and bound in China, is questionable. Pictures of the birds are not at all accurate in shape or colour. There are far better beginner guides to the bird lover of the Pacific Northwest, such as the recently published Birds of Southwestern British Columbia (Heritage House, 2005).

But the accompanying CD of bird songs and calls is very useful because it focuses on the typical species of the region. All of the species are found in the Vancouver to Squamish region, and 116 of the 123 are in the Whistler and Pemberton areas as well, though 20 of the species are rarely seen about these parts.

There are several CDs and tapes of bird songs on the market, but they either cover a larger geographic area or they include every conceivable rare species if it is a regional product. Hence, the information load is overpowering for the beginner.

The Mountaineers’ CD, on the other hand, is just about what I can tolerate to listen to, to identify the species of birds by song — a prerequisite for birding in the spring time.

The quality of bird song and/or call transmission is good, though not perfect. Volume (decibel) control from one species to the next is not consistent, requiring adjustment by the listener on occasion. The announcer’s voice, for each species to be identified by song/call, is a bigger problem. Enunciation of each word by the announcers is hardly clear, having a twang with one and a brogue with the other, who take turns introducing the birds. A precise woman’s voice is needed, such as the receptionist that once presided at an office switchboard. The announcer on the disc sounds worse than the uncomfortable voice mail reply of today.

Nearly all of the bird song recordings are from the Puget Sound, and so the dialects are close to what we hear in Southwestern B.C. In fact, three of the recordings are local: a Common Loon from Brackendale (Alice Lake?), a Common Tern from Vancouver Island and a Band-tailed pigeon from “Victoria Island” — the recorder is obviously shaky on her Canadian geography! Strangely the recording of the Eurasian Wigeon is from the U.K. and it could have easily been taken at Ladner where this species is in substantial numbers during winter.

Puget Sound birders are currently campaigning to synomynize two species of crows as one and the same: that is the Northwest crow equals the American crow. However, there are subtle differences between the two, size and song being some of the criteria. The American crow inhabits the interior with the odd foray to the coast, and the smaller Northwest crow inhabits the coast with the odd stray movements eastward. On the disc the call of the announced crow is identified as American but it sounds like the Northwest, which the Puget Sounders want abolished as a recognized species. So far the American Ornithological Union is not budging on this matter.

About 99 per cent of Whistler’s crows are Northwest; there is a higher percentage of larger American crows at Pemberton, more than 60 per cent American at D’arcy and nearly 99 per cent at Lillooet. However, in each area, including Squamish, there are always a few that defy voice recognition to species identification.

The beginning birder may ask is the book and CD good value at $21.95 U.S.? From my perspective where overkill is the bane of most bird song recordings, the answer is buy it, even if the price is a trifle high for the disc. The accompanying book is of little value if you already have a field guide with better pictures.

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