I love experts. Those whose experience, knowledge, and passion in a certain field cannot be replicated by just anybody, especially me.
In the modern every-voice-matters social media landscape expertise can get confusing. Everyone is instantly a published poet, high school drop-outs argue with Ph.D’s over matters in their fields, and I think some people might even believe the moon isn’t real now or something.
In the birding world, however, it seems super clear when someone knows more about birds than you. It’s hard to fake something like identifying the subtle differences between a Greater and Lesser Scaup, and, like professional sports, the top birders’ talent and expertise sometimes seems so far out of reach you can’t even compare yourself or become jealous. It’s refreshing, and I find myself easily adopting heroes in the field.
Like Noah Strycker, who briefly held the global Big Year record, documented in his fascinating book Birding Without Borders.
Or Kathrin Swoboda, winner of Audubon’s 2019 photograph contest, who brilliantly captured the cold-morning breath of a red-winged blackbird.
Or Ted Floyd, editor of the ABA’s Birding Magazine and author of the new book How to Know the Birds: The Art and Adventure of Birding.
Floyd is a nationally renowned birder who happens to live in nearby Lafayette, Colorado and is also a central character in the Boulder County birding scene. His name first popped out to me when I joined eBird in early 2017 and noticed his 4000+ straight days of submitting a checklist. His checklists, by the way, are also considerably more thorough than the average user, full of comments, photographs, and audio recordings. (Here’s an article he wrote about checklist etiquette.) I quickly learned to trust his observations compared to many on the site whose dubious sightings may lure you into literal wild goose chases.
In May of 2017, I saw that Floyd was leading a Boulder Audubon trip up to Hereford Ranch near Cheyenne, Wyoming. You had to pay a bit to go on it, but I knew this would be a valuable opportunity to see one of the best in action.
I wasn’t disappointed. Floyd’s expertise was on full display, using his eyes, ears, and possibly some kind of human-to-bird-telepathy to pile up a shared checklist of 69 species (still the biggest checklist I’ve ever had).
But there was something else really special about him. Unlike other birders I’d been around who’d ignore crows, groan at the robins, and only coldly note a dazzlingly orange oriole as they robotically checked it off their list, Floyd showed a genuine head-over-heals love for anything falling under the category of avian.
One of my favorite memories of that day was going to lunch at a city park in Cheyenne and Floyd (who was wearing a t-shirt with something delightfully obscure on it like, I wanna say, a Green Heron) couldn’t sit still to eat, instead staring up at a Ruby-Crowned Kinglet singing from the top of a pine tree. We’d already seen a few that day, but he was transfixed as if it were a lifer for him. He seemed thrilled just to watch the bird doing it’s bird-thing.
Since then I’ve been on three more outings with Floyd, including the annual Black Friday birding ‘caper’ he leads around Boulder County in November. It’s always been very educational, and a joy to be in his presence, and has certainly helped continue my momentum for this hobby, which I’ve been at since 2015.
So I was very interested to check out his new book which just came out this spring. I’ve been reading it all summer, taking in a few chapters at a time mainly at the breakfast table every morning.
How to Know the Birds is a field guide like I’ve never seen before. I love my Sibley Birds West for basic identification purposes, but it always leaves me wanting more, especially about the experience of observing a bird. For Cedar Waxwing it says “common but irregular in any open wooded or brushy habitat where fruit or other food is found” but it says nothing of the amazement you feel when the unpredictable but beautiful creature is suddenly in front you. HTKTB, on the other hand begins it’s discussion of the Waxwing with the word “Wow!”
The book’s organization is fresh and clever. It goes through 200 different North American species, each representing a different mini-lesson on birds and birding. It follows a logical progression of how interest in the activity genuinely grows, beginning with the ‘spark bird’ phenomenon (as exemplified by the aforementioned Waxwing), in which the allure of a particular species motivates you to begin birding seriously. From there you learn the basics of physical identification, behavior, migration, molting, naming, classification, conservation and more, as well as taking a moment to appreciate each respective species.
The intended audience for the book is probably the beginner to intermediate level birder. As valuable as it is for me now, filling in quite a few blind spots in my birding knowledge, I wish I’d had this book my first year or two to spare some mistakes and frustrations. Floyd’s advanced knowledge is obvious, but he doesn’t forget what it’s like to be just starting the obsession, and he puts things in a simple and understandable way. If you’ve already personally experienced the particular bird, each chapter (which are a very digestible one page) comes across as relatable, and if you haven’t it can be quite enlightening.
With How to Know The Birds Ted Floyd solidifies his place as True Expert and personal hero of mine, and I recommend this for any birder or nature lover.