Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding

by Kenn Kaufman

A guide that helps intermediate birders advance their skills by teaching principles that apply to all groups of birds in addition to details about the most challenging groups to identify.

  • Format: Paperback
  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9780547248325
  • ISBN-10: 0547248326
  • Pages: 448
  • Publication Date: 04/19/2011
  • Carton Quantity: 24

About the book

Birders can memorize hundreds of details and still not be able to identify birds if they don’t really understand what’s in front of them.Today birders have access to almost too much information, and their attempts to identify birds can be drowned out by excess detail. The all-new Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding takes a different approach, clarifying the basics and providing a framework for learning about each group. Overall principles of identification are explained in clear language, and ten chapters on specific groups of birds show how these principles can be applied in practice. Anyone with a keen interest in identifying birds will find that this book makes the learning process more effective and enjoyable, and that truly understanding what we see and hear can make birding more fun.

About the author
Kenn Kaufman

KENN KAUFMAN, originator of the Kaufman Field Guide series, is one of the world's foremost naturalists.




In the two decades since the first edition of Advanced Birding was published, the

amount of information available has increased by staggering amounts. In

the late 1980s, a serious birder’s reference library on ID would have included

Gulls: A Guide to Identification by P. J. Grant, Shorebirds: An Identification

Guide by Peter Hayman et al., and a handful of detailed articles from

British and American birding magazines. Today there are multiple fine

books  specifically treating the identification of gulls, shorebirds,hawks,

hummingbirds, and any other group you can think of, and so

many fine articles have been published that it is impossible to keep

track of them all. In the late 1980s, Peter Pyle had just produced a first

slim guide to the molts and plumages of songbirds. Today that guide

has been superseded by two fat volumes by Pyle, totalling over 1,500

pages, detailing molt, plumage sequences, and geographic variation of

every North American bird. In the late 1980s an expert birder asked

me, in all seriousness, whether the Pomarine Jaeger even has a distinct

plumage as a juvenile. Today it takes a few clicks on the Internet to

find dozens of photos of this plumage, and many of these actually are

identified correctly! What had been a trickle of published material has

become a torrent. While the challenge formerly had been to find basic

information on identifying most birds, the challenge now is to sift

through the blizzards of information to find those points that are relevant,

significant, and reliable.

 As times change, reference books and field guides must change also.

The first edition of Advanced Birding included detailed chapters on

identification of 34 species pairs or groups, providing information that

was not readily available to most birders. Simply updating that book

now without changing its focus would hardly serve a useful purpose,

because virtually all birders have access to vastly more information today

than they did in 1990.

 If I were to simply list more and more field marks for more species,

this guide would take on the dimensions of an encyclopedia before it

added materially to what is already available. So in this edition I have

taken a different approach altogether, and the focus here is on how to

identify birds, or how to learn to identify birds. In other words, it’s not

about memorizing field marks, it’s about truly understanding what

you see and hear.

 Most of this book, then, consists of a thorough exploration of how

to look at birds and how to listen to them, how to come to grips with

the special challenges of each group of birds. Unlike many field guides,

this one is not designed for quick reference in the field. The best time

to study it is before going out to look at birds. The first seven chapters

will help orient you to universal aspects of bird recognition. Then, if

you’re heading to the tidal flats or the sewage ponds, read the chapter

on learning to identify shorebirds. If you’re heading to a hawkwatch

site, read the chapter on learning to identify birds of prey. And so on.

 In addition to all these introductory chapters, I have included ten

“sample” chapters treating specific groups in depth. These should be

useful in their own right, but they also illustrate various principles: the

challenges involved in identifying jaegers, for example, are very different

from those we encounter with Empidonax flycatchers. As you master

the identification of more groups of birds, you will develop the kind

of background knowledge that makes it easier to learn even more.


Since the 1980s, the birding world has put a lot of discussion into two

distinct approaches to identification. One involves what is often called

“giss” (for “general impressions of size and shape”), or “birding by impression.”

The other involves a careful study of fine details, down to the

pattern of individual feathers (this may be referred to, sometimes with

a hint of sarcasm, as the “feather-edges” approach).

 Both of these styles seem to be at least partly a reaction against the

system of simplistic field marks. Under that system, everything was reduced

to simple on-off characters: the bird has wing bars or doesn’t, it

has streaks below or doesn’t, and so on. That approach, ignoring both

the obvious aspects of shape and the subtle nuances of fine detail, led

to a lot of superficial identifications and a lot of potential for error.

Simple field marks hold many traps and pitfalls for the unwary. Both

of these other approaches, impressions and feather-edges, have their

drawbacks and their strengths, and a serious birder will work on developing


 Identifying birds by impression has been called “the new Cape May

school of birding,” which would be a surprise to the experts who were

practicing this approach in California in the 1960s or in Massachusetts

in the 1940s. Still, this style of ID has been raised to a higher level and

well publicized by several experts associated with Cape May, New Jersey,

especially Pete Dunne, Michael O’Brien, and Kevin Karlson.

 Most people, even if they have not considered it, are already subconsciously

capable of using this approach. We may use it frequently

in other contexts. If we know a person well, we may recognize her from

half a mile away by subtle clues of posture or the way she walks. Likewise,

if we know a bird well, we may recognize it at a great distance by

almost subliminal hints of its shape and actions. An experienced birder

seeing a speck soaring slowly over a faraway ridge might identify it as a

Turkey Vulture without being able to discern a single detail. An experienced

birder seeing a flock of birds wheeling tightly in the air over a

distant mudflat might identify the birds as Dunlins, even without being

able to see anything of color or markings. In these cases, factors of

place, season, habitat, and probability are added to clues provided by

shape and actions to create an identification that seems almost intuitive

but in fact is based on real evidence.

 Identifying birds by looking at fine detail is an approach that goes

back even further — to the days when most birds were identified in

the hand. Until the latter part of the 20th century, of course, such fine

points usually couldn’t be seen in the field, but optics today are so good

that we often can see details of individual feathers — either in the field,

or in digital photos later. This has allowed birders to rediscover some of

the same technical details that were familiar to museum ornithologists

a century ago and to employ in the field some of the same fine points

that are used by banders examining birds in the hand. This kind of detailed

study opens up many avenues for identifying the age and sex and

subspecies of a bird, not just its species, in ways that simply would not

be possible in birding by general impression.

 Both of these approaches — impressions and fine details — have

their advantages and drawbacks. An experienced birder may identify

many birds by quick impression and may be highly accurate with this

approach, but occasional birds give very misleading first impressions.

As described on pp. 32 – 40 under Common Pitfalls of Field Identification,

individual birds can be aberrant in small ways that utterly change

their superficial appearance. External factors such as lighting can ...