Tag Archives: Book Reviews – Nature

reviews of books on nature

Garden in the Woods – NEWFS

Garden in the Woods, at Framingham, Massachusetts, is a remarkable piece of woodland that has been developed and nurtured over many decades with the primary aim of encouraging the use of NE USA native plant and flower species in people’s gardens, and the protection of endangered species.

One of the ponds at Garden In The Woods, Framingham, MA.
One of the ponds at Garden In The Woods (cellphone photo)

It  is  the headquarters of the  New England Wild Flower Society [NEWFS]   and   –   especially in May – is a delight to visit and see so many flower species in bloom.

A Trillium (I believe 'grandiflora', but I need to check that.)
A Trillium (I believe ‘grandiflora’, but I need to check that.)

My own first visit to G.I.T.W. was a couple of years ago and I will always remember it for two reasons.  The first of these was that I had never encountered such a delightful setting for so many species of wild flowers.  The second, however, was for one of the worst-possible reasons, and that came in the form of a telephone call from my wife, telling me that evil, homicidal morons had just set off a bomb at the Boston Marathon, only a few miles to the east.  Enough said.

Not exactly a native species, but azaleas are an obvious, spring high-point in virtually any garden.
Not exactly a native species, but azaleas are an obvious, spring high-point in virtually any garden.

Since then, I have been back three further times, including my most recent visit, to which this post refers.

I have to confess, though, that I have yet to time a May visit to perfection – in other words to be there when the spring ephemeral flowers are at the height   of   their   glory.  This time I was just a few days too late.

A small but very eye-catching mint or deadnettle species that I need to check more thoroughly.
A small but very eye-catching mint or deadnettle species that I need to check more thoroughly.

 

Star Flowers
Star Flowers

Bad timing aside, this visit did bring me into contact with some extremely pleasant people, the first of whom – Dave T. – is a volunteer at Garden in the Woods.  Dave, I enjoyed our conversation greatly and a large part of that enjoyment came from your knowledge and great enthusiasm for this remarkable place.

As a Twitter acquaintance wrote, that's me "getting down and dirty!"  Yes... Can't deny it. But I like to think it was in a good cause! {:-)
As a Twitter acquaintance wrote, that’s me “getting down and dirty!” Yes… Can’t deny it. But I like to think it was in a good cause! {:-)

And then there was an immensely pleasant couple who were sufficiently amused to find me laying flat on my face across a path, in order to take a photo of starflowers, that the gentleman in question photographed me doing so, and one of his shots is shown above!  (Please know that my daughter in England saw your photo on Twitter and made me laugh when she commented:  “My Dad is so normal. I know who to blame now!”  {:-)

The pendulous flower of a Purple Pitcher Plant
The pendulous flower of a Purple Pitcher Plant

Oh, and for those of you with children or grand children to entertain, I was really pleased to see that a very imaginative and very natural play area has been installed that is clearly on a woodland theme and will undoubtedly be a great and rather crucial way to introduce youngsters to the natural world that is nowadays increasingly ignored in favour of computer games and other, related distractions.

I intend to add more to this post in a few days’ time, after my wife and I get home from a few days vacation in New England (some of which will be the subject of additional wildlife photography posts in this blog).

I can't close without showing you a lovely little 'Skipper' species of butterfly on Eastern Bluestar
I can’t close without showing you a lovely little ‘Skipper’ species of butterfly on Eastern Bluestar

Until then, I hope that at least you can enjoy the photos I have posted here.

Stay well!

Eddie

Presque Isle at Erie, PA, for the Warbler Migration – 11 May 2014

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In the excellent National Geographic book, ‘Guide to Birding Hot Spots of the United States‘, authors Mel White and Paul Lehman write:

Audubon's "Festival of Birds" weekend at Presque Isle.
Audubon’s “Festival of Birds” weekend at Presque Isle.

When it comes to variety and rarity, Pennsylvania’s birdiest place is a 7-mile-long spit of land that extends into Lake Erie from the city of Erie. Though it’s made of sand, Presque Isle State Park seems to have magnetic qualities for migrant birds, both regularly occurring species and long-distance wanderers. More than 320 species have been found in this relatively miniscule sliver of beach, ponds, marsh and woods. Though many records are of once-in-a-lifetime vagrants, the odds are better here than anywhere else in the state that something unusual will turn up….

Only six of our WWNP group made the 2-hour trip from Buffalo, NY, to Presque Isle on 11th May (although, to be fair, it was Mothers’ Day!), which was nice in terms of our small group size at the park but a pity for those who missed it.

Two-thirds of the WWNP ‘A-team’!

The day we went was also the final day of the Audubon Society’s ‘Festival of Birds’ weekend, and to be honest I was astonished at how few people — relatively speaking — appeared to be at that event, too, although I suspect they may have limited the numbers on purpose…. No bad thing!

A bright Yellow Warbler, surprisingly well camouflaged amongst the opening buds.  Photo copyright 2014, Eddie Wren. All rights reserved.
A bright Yellow Warbler, surprisingly well camouflaged amongst the opening buds. (The rust-coloured streaking on the breast shows this to be a male, supported by the fact that it is singing.) Photo copyright 2014, Eddie Wren. All rights reserved.

Of course, now that spring has eventually arrived (and not before time!) the trees buds are starting to open and are doing two things to nature watchers and photographers, namely making the spring ephemeral flowers wilt and disappear, and making it harder to see — and particularly to photograph – small warblers! The result is that we saw several more species than we were necessarily able to catch on camera.

A lightly-marked Yellow warbler, indicating that it is a female. (Males have red or rust-coloured streaking on the breast.)  Photo copyright 2014, Eddie Wren. All rights reserved.
A lightly-marked Yellow warbler, indicating that it is a female. (Males have red or rust-coloured streaking on the breast.) Photo copyright 2014, Eddie Wren. All rights reserved.

The other delightful aspect, however, came from the fact that just as Julie Andrews’ hills were apparently alive with the sound of music, so the woodlands of Presque Isle were absolutely brimming with the sound of bird song. This fact, along with unbroken sunshine and temperatures in the high seventies, meant the day simply couldn’t have been better.

Another Yellow Warbler, glowing in the full sunshine.  Photo copyright 2014, Eddie Wren.  All rights reserved.
Another Yellow Warbler, glowing in the full sunshine. Photo copyright 2014, Eddie Wren. All rights reserved.

According to bird books, the song of the Yellow Warbler sounds like: “Sweet, sweet, sweet;  I’m so sweet!” but until I’ve heard a bird a few times for myself, I’m rarely able to relate to such chorus-lines from books and I tend to make up my own word-strings to help me remember various bird calls, so — for me — the Yellow Warbler sings: “Two, two, three;  listen to me!”

Birders and bird photographers wait patiently (or impatiently!) for months, for the 3-4 weeks of the main warbler migration period each spring but the problem is that, once it’s here, it hurtles past so quickly.

Great Horned Owl chick/owlet, absolutely motionless, watching us watching it!  Photo copyright 2014, Eddie Wren.  All rights reserved.
Great Horned Owl chick/owlet, absolutely motionless, watching us watching it! Photo copyright 2014, Eddie Wren. All rights reserved.

Early in the day, Andrea introduced us to a friend of hers, Brian Berchtold, who is a Presque Isle State Park ambassador/ volunteer and wildlife photographer. Amongst other things, Brian was kind enough to take us to see a Great Horned Owl’s nest, from which one of the two owlets could be seen peeping over the edge of the broken tree trunk and watching us watching it. One of the parent birds remained nearby but with not only branches but the aforementioned opening buds constantly thwarting our view, I don’t know whether any of the group got good photos of the mature bird.

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker searching for food.  Photo copyright 2014, Eddie Wren.  All rights reserved.
A male Red-bellied Woodpecker searching for food. Photo copyright 2014, Eddie Wren. All rights reserved.

For my own sins, I was also engrossed with a new lens that had arrived via UPS less than 36 hours previously: a Canon EF 300mm f/4L IS USM, to give it its grand title (and which was used for all the photos on pages one and two of this post). Sadly, my current camera doesn’t have ‘back-button focussing’ which I rather suspect made me a bit slower with the warblers than might otherwise have been the case. Never mind; that can be rectified in due course.

Ever spectacular, a male Northern Cardinal.  Photo copyright 2014, Eddie Wren.  All rights reserved.
Ever spectacular, a male Northern Cardinal. Photo copyright 2014, Eddie Wren. All rights reserved.

The other problem I met with was that as a lifelong birder I found myself sometimes watching new or less-common species through binoculars for too long and by the time I got around to attempting a photograph, they’d gone! {:-)

Highlights of the day included excellent views of several relatively common but still spectacular birds, such as Baltimore Orioles, Yellow Warblers, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Palm Warblers, Black and White Warblers, American Redstart, Red-bellied Woodpeckers and one of nature’s finest — Northern Cardinals.

One of several important signs that some people saw fit to ignore!
One of several important signs that some people saw fit to ignore!

If there was a down-side to the day, it was the fact that at the eastern tip of the Presque Isle peninsula I saw several people blatantly ignoring signs telling everyone to keep out of sensitive nesting areas — one of the few situations in life that can make me wish I was still a police officer!

Continued on next page….

 

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

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]

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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

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