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Monday, March 15, 2021

A Classic NYC Birding Book

My birding mentor was an iconic Brooklyn character named Marty Sohmer. Since passed, he was well known and loved within the local birding community. In addition to teaching me great identification tips and relating timeless birding anecdotes (plus really corny jokes), he told me about a great book on birding around New York City called "Enjoying Birds Around New York City". Published in 1966, the authors were Robert Arbib, Jr., Olin Sewall Pettingill, Jr. and Sally Hoyt Spofford. All three were very important ornithologists and conservationists in their own rights.

One of the best features of this publication is the section titled "A Bird Watcher's Calendar". Each month has a few paragraphs which describe the seasonal event one should expect to observe. As a scientist Mr. Arbib shows a surprising sensitive and poetic nature to his descriptions. The March section begins, "Often the month of hope denied". There is a similar section, "Calendar for a Big List of Birds" which recommends weekly locations to maximize one's year list of birds. This book has been out of print for a very long time. Fortunately I stumbled on a copy while in a used bookstore in (of all places) Chatham, MA. It's in great condition and think I paid $15 for it. I've seen used copies available online.
The title page makes it clear that this book wins the award for longest title ever. Thirty-nine words!
This is not just a book about where to bird in New York City, but also how to bird: seasonal fluctuations, habitat preferences, family groupings, species field marks & vocalizations, behavior, etc. There is also a brief discussion on resources, such as binoculars and field guides.
The species accounts may be a little dated with regard to some of the currently accepted common names. Harrier is listed as "Marsh Hawk", kestrel is "Sparrow Hawk" and American Crow is "Common Crow", to name a few. For me, that is minor given the quality of the pen and ink illustrations that accompany the species accounts. They really are beautiful.
Finally, in a world of Google Earth satellite images in the palm of our hands, I find the 17 hand drawn maps in the book to go beyond simple navigation tools. To me they are art and make having this 55 year old publication on my bookshelf worth it. Are there other birding books with good information? Certainly, but much of the information contained within its 160 pages are, unbelievably, still relevant and useful. As a bonus, it is also filled with lovely illustrations, "historic" hand drawn maps of birding hot spots and a peek into birding around NYC nearly 60 years ago. It would make a nice addition to anyone's birding library.


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