Category Archives: Book Reviews – Nature

wildlife and nature books

Honey Bees, Bumblebees and Wannabees!

[Another visit to the NYSDEC preserve at the Five Rivers Environmental Education Center at the end of April proved to be an excellent opportunity for watching pollinating insects at work.

The male catkins on a stately old willow tree at Five Rivers

The male catkins on a stately old willow tree at Five Rivers

All of this needs to be considered in light of the fact that there are now major threats facing the survival of bees, worldwide, and heaven help mankind if bees are decimated to the point that crop pollination is badly affected.

How much more pollen can this Honey Bee carry?

How much more pollen can this Honey Bee carry?


From what I saw, there were apparently two species of bumble bee and one species of honey bee present at the various blossoming willow trees on the Five Rivers’ Beaver Tree Trail but it turns out that individual bumble bee species are very difficult to identify from one another.     I learned this after buying an excellent book some months ago, under the title of Bumble Bees of North America (Princeton University Press).  In the book, it describes the need to study leg joints and other tiny parts of the anatomy, but as I have enough to do in terms of photographing wildlife and I’m also extremely disinclined to kill something I’ve just enjoyed photographing, merely so I could study its leg joints, this is not something I would do.

The colouration on the thorax of this Bumble Bee was a much darker yellow than it was on what I believe to be the 'other' species present

The colouration on the thorax of this Bumble Bee was a much darker yellow than it was on what I believe to be the ‘other’ species present

Having said that, I did take the liberty of sending a couple of my photographs via Twitter to the Xerces Society,  (@xerces_society) an organisation that protects wildlife through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitat, to see if they could help me with identification.  Note that the name is not spelled ‘Xerxes’ and they have nothing to do with 300 Spartan warriors!  The Xerces people kindly referred me to a group called Bumble Bee Watch (@BumbleBeeWatch) and I’m hoping they might be able to help enlighten me.

And here, a lighter-coloured individual

Apart from the bees that were present there were also a few Snowberry Clearwing Hawk Moths (Hemaris diffinis).  As their name shows, these rather dramatic and perfectly harmless insects have clear, see-through wings,  not the coloured wings that we normally expect of moths.  The reason is that their body colouration has been designed by evolution to mimic bumble bees! This gives these otherwise defenceless moths a degree of protection from predators that might otherwise eat them.

On previous visits to Five Rivers – and, indeed, on the same Beaver Tree Trail – I have previously photographed a very close cousin of the remarkable Snowberry Clearwing, the Hummingbird Clearwing Moth (Hemaris thysbe) and for both of these species the final surprise for anyone watching them is that they feed by hovering above their chosen flowers, while feeding on the nectar through a very long proboscis.  Think of it as like drinking through the equivalent of a ten-foot drinking straw!

A Snowberry Clearwing Hawk Moth (its wings are blurred because they are beating so quickly)

A Snowberry Clearwing Hawk Moth (its wings are blurred because they are beating so quickly as it hovers)

Anyway, this day’s Snowberry Clearwings were a new species for me, but they weren’t the only one.  In among the bees and the clearwing moths were also a few bombylid flies.  According to my books, they looked most like the species known as Black-tailed Bee Flies (Bombylius major)  but as I didn’t actually see any black tails in among them I must assume that they might have been a different but closely related species.  They, too, usually hover over flowers while feeding although that’s not the case in the photograph below.  However, the larvae of the many species of bee fly either prey upon or parasitise the larvae of other insects, including bees.

Either a Black-tailed Bee Flies (Bombylius major) or a closely related species

Either a Black-tailed Bee Flies (Bombylius major) or a closely related species

Also feeding from the male catkins on the wonderful but very elderly willow tree that had triggered this insect feeding frenzy were Mourning Cloak and various white butterflies.

All in all, I spent well over an hour under that willow tree, frankly delighted by the amazing display of its flowers and by the wealth of insect life it had attracted.  The air, quite literally, was abuzz with their sounds and as the pesky mosquitos have not yet appeared for the summer, it was uninterrupted enjoyment.

Want to see a wonderful wildlife spectacle in spring?  Go and stand under a mature, flowering willow tree!  There’s probably one not too far from you, particularly on the edge of water courses or other wetlands.

[LINKS here to other topics photographed on the same walk / same day, namely Birds, and Amphibians.]


The excellent wildlife photography book, ‘BEAR’, by Paul Nicklen (Tuesday evening’s speaker at Kleinhans, in Buffalo)

One of my recent posts was about Paul Nicklen’s National Geographic presentation on Tuesday, March 4th, at Kleinhans, in Buffalo.

Today (March 2), I’ve spent quite some time looking at his excellent wildlife photography book:  ‘BEAR — The Spirit of the Wild’

The cover of Paul Nicklen's book, 'BEAR'

The cover of Paul Nicklen’s book, ‘BEAR’

The introductory description of the book, inside the dust jacket, reads:  “…a powerful visual journey that reveals the private world of the great denizens of the wild north. National Geographic photographer and biologist Paul Nicklen takes readers on a special journey to some of his favorite corners of the planet’s northern latitudes, providing rare and intimate glimpses of bears and portraying them as noble ambassadors of the wild.  Through his unforgettable images and personal narrative, Nicklen strives to show us a different side of bears…” Initially, when I first opened to the book to flick through the photographs, I was a little cautious because some of the first half-dozen images have been pushed to the very limit in terms of printing very small sections of the original file and/or filling a double-page spread, but despite some visible ‘noise’ on those images as a result of this, it cannot be denied that they are still very powerful.  And the good news is that such issues are confined to those initial images; from that point on the quality gets higher and effectively stays there.  Indeed, many of the subsequent images are nothing short of jaw-dropping. Introductory small images of Mr. Nicklen himself, on pages 20-23, show just how close he is prepared to work  to bears and — quite literally — the validity of his approach is put into words by the start of his introduction, on page 19, where he writes: “If you have picked up this book hoping to read about a near-death experience with a bear, you will be deeply dissappointed.  As you will witness through the images and the stories from these great authors, none of us has a terrifying story to tell.  Instead, we have all been greatly inspired by the last true nomads of North America…”

My own favourite images?  Well, I’m going to list the page numbers but there’s a very high chance that your favourites would be different to mine, as they undeniably should be, because we all have different likes.

  • Polar bears: 34-35, 36-37, 40-41, 48, 54-55, 198
  • Grizzlies: 86-87, 88-89, 104-5,  112-13
  • Black bears: 152-3
  • Spirit bears (i.e. white-coloured black bears but they’re not albinos): 166-67, 168-69, 172-73 (same as cover), 178-79

There are some excellent none-bear photographs, too, including several environmental shots — mostly from planes — as well as:

  • narwhals at a large breathing hole, with polar bears watching
  • an outrageously good shot of a ringed seal surfacing
  •  caribou migrating
  •  salmon migrating

Whether or not you are going to Paul Nicklen’s talk in two days’ time — which is not all about bears — you might want to check this book out.  (Barnes & Noble on Niagara Falls Boulevard has a copy in the ‘Nature’ section, by the bow window.)  It is $35.00 but for any keen wildlife watcher or nature photographer it would be a fine addition to one’s library.

The other book by Paul that I know of is called ‘Polar Obsession’, which clearly will be more closely related to his imminent talk (click for further details).

Eddie Wren

Would you like to go on a wildlife-watching or photography vacation? Useful magazines!

Following the trend for magazine publishers to include more pages, call the result “bookazines” and charge quite a lot more money for the result, I was looking at a so-called bookazine just yesterday, in our local Barnes & Noble  bookstore.

It was called “WORLD of WILDIFE — The World’s 100 Most Amazing Wildlife Encounters,” and its 162 pages contained a lot of useful ideas for anyone trying to decide where to go to enjoy some unusual or outstanding bird/animal sightings.

The main part of the magazine (I dislike the affectation of the new, bookazine name!) is split into global regions, with the number of recommended trips to each as follows:

  • 17 to Africa
  • …9 to Asia
  • …8 to Oceania/Australia
  • …4 to Antarctica
  • 10 to Europe (including 5 to Britain)
  • …7 to North America
  • …7 to Central America
  • …8 to South America

30 other international destinations were shown in a section devoted to the months of the year…. for example “What’s the best thing to go and see in September?”

Was it expensive for a magazine?  At $15.99, yes.  But is it good value?  Actually, that’s also a yes, if you are hoping to plan a trip of this type at some point in the foreseeable future.

Wild Travel (monthly magazine)

                   Wild Travel (monthly magazine)

Finally, Barnes & Noble has also recently started carrying the British ‘WILD TRAVEL’ magazine each month (see cover photo, above).  It’s imported status results in a price of $7.99 but the articles are excellent and come from around the world.  I recommend it strongly!  Check it out at:

[incidentally, this isn’t in any way a paid advert for either of the above publications.  I’ve posted only in case it is of interest to any of our readers — Eddie.]

A Natural History of North American Trees – Donald Culross Peattie (book review)

How interesting could it be to read a book solely about different tree species?  The answer — for anyone curious about the various facets of nature — is: Intensely!

Book_Peattie_NHNATrees-2This book not only makes clear its author’s encyclopaedic knowledge of his subject but is also written with an eloquence we no longer tend to witness.  In other words, rather than even remotely being dry or boring, this book is both fascinating and an absolute delight to read. [EW]

The e-book ‘Lybrary’ review of A Natural History of North American Trees is no exaggeration and reads as follows:

“‘A volume for a lifetime’ is how The New Yorker described the first of Donald Culross Peatie’s two books about American trees published in the 1950s. In this one-volume edition, modern readers are introduced to one of the best nature writers of the last century. As we read Peattie’s eloquent and entertaining accounts of American trees, we catch glimpses of our country’s history and past daily life that no textbook could ever illuminate so vividly.

“Here you’ll learn about everything from how a species was discovered to the part it played in our country’s history. Pioneers often stabled an animal in the hollow heart of an old sycamore, and the whole family might live there until they could build a log cabin. The tuliptree, the tallest native hardwood, is easier to work than most softwood trees; Daniel Boone carved a sixty-foot canoe from one tree to carry his family from Kentucky into Spanish territory. In the days before the Revolution, the British and the colonists waged an undeclared war over New England’s white pines, which made the best tall masts for fighting ships.

“It’s fascinating to learn about the commercial uses of various woods — for paper, fine furniture, fence posts, matchsticks, house framing, airplane wings, and dozens of other preplastic uses. But we cannot read this book without the occasional lump in our throats. The American elm was still alive when Peattie wrote, but as we read his account today we can see what caused its demise. Audubon’s portrait of a pair of loving passenger pigeons in an American beech is considered by many to be his greatest painting. It certainly touched the poet in Donald Culross Peattie as he depicted the extinction of the passenger pigeon when the beech forest was destroyed.

“A Natural History of North American Trees gives us a picture of life in America from its earliest days to the middle of the last century. The information is always interesting, though often heartbreaking. While Peattie looks for the better side of man’s nature, he reports sorrowfully on the greed and waste that have doomed so much of America’s virgin forest.”


Excellent U.S. nature books by Bernd Heinrich

I’m delighted to now have three of Prof. Heinrich’s books and I will certainly continue to collect and absorb them.

Book_Heinrich_Year-in-Maine-WoodsPerhaps his best known book is  ‘A Year in the Maine Woods‘ and it was the first one I bought.  In it, Bernd Heinrich effectively took a full year to study the wildlife of the area in which he grew up, and the result is fascinating.

The Washington Post wrote of this book: “[It] is quirky, unassuming, humorous, enlightening, and just a little bizarre.  If you’re a stranger to Heinrich, it’s an ideal time to make his acquaintance.”

I also have what I think of as a ‘matching pair’ of Heinrich’s books, namely:

Book_Heinrich_Summer-World‘Summer World – a season of bounty‘, and ‘Winter World – the ingenuity of animal survival‘, the latter of which I just finished reading yesterday.

This is a duet to fascinate any naturalist and gives insights of the natural world that I, for one, had never even thought of before, let alone understood.

So what will be the next book in this series that I’ll get?  Hmmm, I’m not too sure just yet because there are several that I want.  High on the list are:

  • The Trees in My Forest
  • Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death
  • In a Patch of Fireweed: A Biologist’s Life in the Field
  • The Thermal Warriors: Strategies of Insect Survival
  • The Homing Instinct: Meaning and Mystery in Animal Migration
  • The Nesting Season: Cuckoos, Cuckolds, and the Invention of Monogamy

….and there are several more titles that I haven’t even listed.

Eddie Wren


[Bernd Heinrich, Ph.D, is a professor emeritus in the biology department at the University of Vermont and is the author of a number of books about nature writing, behavior, biology, ecology, and evolution.  Heinrich has made major contributions to the study of insect physiology and behavior, as well as bird behavior. In addition to other publications, Heinrich has written eighteen books, mostly related to his research examining the physiological and behavioral adaptations of other animals to their physical environments. However, he has also written books that include more of his personal reflections on natureWikipedia]


See also ‘The Forest Unseen’, by David George Haskell


Book: ‘The Forest Unseen’ by David George Haskell

This book is extraordinary… outstanding… superb!                                       (I think you might have got the drift of my opinion by now!)

The Forest Unseen

The Forest Unseen

David Haskell is a professor of biology at the University of the South, but just in case that makes people think his writing may be stiff & starchy, or perhaps overly-technical, this is what James Gorman of the New York Times wrote about the Forest Unseen: “[Haskell] thinks like a biologist, writes like a poet, and gives the natural world the kind of open-minded attention one expects from a Zen monk rather than a hypothesis-driven scientist.” …. And I couldn’t agree more, even though I’ve never actually met any Zen monks!

On page 238, Prof. Haskell himself writes:

        ” Scientific models and metaphors of machines are helpful but limited.  They cannot tell us all that we need to know.  What lies beyond the theories we impose on nature?  This year, I have tried to put down the scientific tools and to listen:  to come to nature without a hypothesis, without a scheme for data extraction, without a lesson plan to convey answers to students, without machines and probes.  I have glimpsed how rich science is but simultaneously how limited in scope and in spirit.  It is unfortunate that the practice of listening generally has no place in the formal training of scientists.  In this absence science needlessly fails.  We are poorer for this, and possibly more hurtful.  What Christmas Eve gifts might a listening culture give its forests?

         “What was the insight that brushed past me as squirrels basked?  It was not to turn away from science.  My experience of animals is richer for knowing their stories, and science is a powerful way to deepen this understanding.  Rather, I realized that all stories are partly wrapped in fiction — the fiction of simplifying assumptions, of cultural myopia and of storytellers’ pride.  I learned to revel in the stories but not to mistake them for the bright, ineffable nature of the world.”

And the price of this immensely enjoyable work of genius — a book that any nature lover can easily read — is $16; not bad for a masterpiece!  I kid you not when I say that now that I know what’s in Forest Unseen, I would happily have paid $100 for it.

 Eddie Wren

See also the excellent books by Bernd Heinrich