Pocket Bird Guide Informs Sierra Hikers

By JOE EATON Special to the Planet
Tuesday July 27, 2004

It’s my firm conviction that you can’t have too many field guides. They’re indispensable to anyone who’s intrigued by the names and relationships of living things: birds, trees, dragonflies, mushrooms, whatever. Although you can find guides for almost every group of organisms (with some gaps; I know a park ranger who was so frustrated by the absence of a guide to freshwater invertebrates that she wrote and published her own), the bird books far outnumber the rest. 

Roger Tory Peterson invented the genre to allow the identification of birds with binoculars rather than shotguns, and he’s had worthy successors like David Sibley and Kenn Kauffman. There are bird guides for every level of sophistication, novice to advanced; for different geographical regions; for specific bird families (hummingbirds, warblers, hawks); even for nests, eggs, and nestlings. 

So is there a place on this crowded shelf for yet another guidebook? I think so. Sierra Birds: A Hiker’s Guide is intended to fill a special niche, and succeeds admirably. John Muir Laws, an artist-naturalist in the tradition of Peterson and Sibley, has produced a visually appealing, hip-pocket-sized book covering the resident and migrant birds of the Sierra Nevada. It’s ideal in some ways for beginning birders or hikers with only a casual interest in birds, but seasoned watchers will also find it useful. 

Unlike some guides—the National Geographic’s North American Birds for one—Laws’ book doesn’t assume a knowledge of bird taxonomy: Birds are grouped by appearance as well as by relationship. The red males and streaky brown females of the three red finches—house, purple, and Cassin’s—are illustrated together, but the females are also shown with other streaky brown birds like sparrows, pipits, and female blackbirds. Laws shows the age-specific plumages of gulls and eagles, and there are handy visual keys to identifying birds by family and by predominant color. 

Although Sierra Birds is heavy on pictures, light on text, Laws uses pointers to indicate key plumage features, and has concise notes on habitat, voice, and behavior. There are other sources for those who want more detail, like Edward Beedy and Stephen Granholm’s Discovering Sierra Birds, or David Gaines’ Birds of Yosemite. A chart of seasonal occurrence would have been useful, as would range maps (since some birds have very local or patchy distributions within the Sierra, or are confined to either the east or west slopes). 

The new guide is the product of what seems like a natural partnership between the California Academy of Sciences, where Laws is an educator, and Berkeley’s Heyday Books. It’s the first of a projected series of guides covering Sierra natural history, from mammals to rocks. It’s fitting that a namesake of the Range of Light’s greatest celebrant has taken on the job. And why stop with the Sierra? I’d like to see the same approach to California’s other regions (how about the North Coast? the Mojave Desert?) and ecosystems. 


Disclaimer time: I took Sierra Birds with me on a recent trip to Mount Lassen, where it helped convince me that the gray-and-yellow songbird I saw at Hat Lake was a Nashville warbler rather than a McGillivray’s warbler. As unlikely as it may seem, I ran into Laws (who prefers to be called Jack) at the park’s Summit Lake campground. He says he was inspired to create the kind of guidebook he always wished he had along on Sierra backpacking trips but could never find. Laws is field-testing the mammal and fish segments of the series and doing the illustrations for the wildflower guide. He seems like the ideal person for this ambitious undertaking: young, enthusiastic, curious about all aspects of the natural world. And he agrees that you can never have too many field guides.