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Saturday, October 04, 2008

Book Review- The Owl & The Woodpecker -- Birds in Flight

I've had a couple of thick envelopes arrive recently with review copies of two new bird books within. Both are well-timed for the upcoming holiday gift season, and worth consideration for that bird-loving person in your life.

The first, The Owl & The Woodpecker, pretty much blew me away with the jaw-dropping, envy-inducing quality of the photos. The cover shot of a Northern Hawk Owl perched on a hoarfrost-flocked branch, gazing intently into the camera, is a fine indication of things to come in the book (the title is printed on a slip of translucent paper that you can take off to enjoy the full effect of the frame.) Author & photographer Paul Bannick chose owls and woodpeckers to be his tour guides through 11 habitats around North America, following the theme (& sub-title) of Encounters with North America's most Iconic Birds.

I'll be the first to agree to the iconic nature of owls, but I wondered how woodpeckers could hold their own against one of my favorite groups of birds. Bannick's photography erased any doubt in this area, coming through with stunners of every North American woodpecker species. The pics go beyond just perched-at-the-nest-hole (although these are done perfectly) to many interesting behaviors, particularly feeding activities and some flight shots. For example, I love the shot of the Ladder-backed Woodpecker clinging upside-down on an ocatillo flower stalk, enjoying the nectar. A shot of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker looking over its shoulder at a flying hornet amazes me. The expectant look on a pair of nearly-fledged Northern Flickers gazing out of their nest cavity towards the world that awaits them is awesome. These are among the many woodpecker images that are about as good it gets with bird photography- razor-sharp & with great detail, great composition, and telling a great story.

Still, for me the owl photography is the most outstanding part of this book. Interestingly, most of the photos of this largely nocturnal group are taken in daylight, with lots of great habitat complimenting the composition of the shots. Many feature owls with prey, from a Flammulated Owl triumphant over a moth to a Snowy Owl passing a lemming to its mate on the nest. Plenty of flight shots add a major WOW factor, but surprisingly, shots like a fledgling Northern Hawk Owl running across a downed log are equally inspiring. Perhaps my favorite, though, is a Short-eared Owl caught in a Tai Chi moment stretching its left wing and left foot into wintry space while perched on a gnarly snow-padded mossy snag that alone would make a landscape photographer's day. The bird becomes an extension of the log in a way that's almost too perfect, something even a painter with total control over the composition would have trouble matching.

Joining other recent bird book releases (The Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America & Bird: The Definitive Visual Guide), this book also includes a CD with recordings by Martyn Stewart of all 43 owl & woodpecker species featured in the book. I look forward to adding these to the growing list of bird recordings on my iPod.

The other new arrival, Birds in Flight: The Art and Science of How Birds Fly, also has a generous compliment of impressive photos. Author/photographer Carrol L. Henderson drew from a portfolio ranging from hummingbirds to albatrosses and about any flying bird you could imagine between these extremes to illustrate his topics. After setting the plate with a gallery of birds in flight in Part I, chapter 1, Henderson proceeds to Avian Aerodynamics in Part II and On the Wing, examining taking flight, flying, and landing, in Part III. The photography throughout is pleasingly varied, with a mixture of closeups, wide shots with scenery surrounding the flying bird(s), artfully blurred images conveying motion, and flock shots. A few photos, though, weren't up to the standard of others in the book (at least in the eye of this beholder.) Some appeared to be over-sharpened with artificial-looking edges, and occasionally a pic shows up that is really grainy, pixelated, or has very odd color reproduction. Call me picky, but I also didn't like the few shots of birds with jesses- seems like there are plenty of free-flying birds to choose from. Anyway, I would view the photography in this book more as supporting the text than standing alone as the best examples of flight photography.

The text and accompanying illustrations are very informative, laying out all of the components of avian flight. Henderson details Aerodynamic Principals, Feathers and Bones, Wings, and The Tale of the Tail as chapters in Part II of the book. If you've ever been confused by terms like Wing Loading and Aspect Ratio, reading this book will set you straight and give you prime material for discussing birds in flight with your buddies or with the next field trip group you lead or join.

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