A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

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© Colin Talcroft, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013

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Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay

By David Lukas

Lukas Guides, 2012

Paperback, 305 pages

Retail price: $20.00


The appearance of any new book that deals specifically with local birds is always a notable event, so I'm pleased to report that Lukas Guides has just released Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay (August 2012) by David Lukas.

This book is somewhat difficult to characterize. It doesn't fit neatly into existing categories. It's not a field guide. Although the book is compact (about the size of a small paperback novel) and relatively lightweight, identifying birds is not its mission. Bay Area Birds is not a technical or scholarly work either--although Lukas has drawn on a fairly wide range of reference sources, which are briefly touched upon in the introduction, and he has consulted many well known local birding authorities. The book occupies a niche. In many ways, it reminds me of The Birder's Handbook (Paul R. Ehrlich, David Dobkin and Darryl Wheye, last updated in 2008), a collection of essays about birds and various bird-related topics. While the main individual species accounts in Bay Area Birds are fairly brief (usually about a page and a half), these--like the essays in The Birder's Handbook--present the sort of useful background information field guides have no room for. Bay Area Birds is therefore a useful supplement to a field guide. It's the sort of book you keep in the glove box of your car so that over lunch you can read up on the birds you've just seen or a book you keep handy at home to turn to at the end of a day of birding--or just to browse through for the pleasure of it.

Bay Area Birds is 305 pages long, divided into four sections: An introduction; 221 species essays (with 37 additional species covered as notes to these essays); an appendix covering another 62 less common species; and an index. In total, the book covers 320 species that live in the San Francisco Bay area or pass through during migration.

The introduction explains the geographical area covered by the book, defines habitat and abundance terms used, and gives basic information about sources the author has consulted and recommends to readers that want to explore in more depth. Lukas has drawn on breeding bird atlases for the counties covered, on local checklists, and on online discussion groups such as our own North Bay Birds, as well as technical and scientific papers (although there are no in-line citations, there is no bibliography, and no other notes or citations that relate to sources). The Bay Area is defined as the area centered on San Francisco Bay and "circumscribed by a diffuse boundary of hills that separate the region from the forests of northern California, from the flatlands of the Central Valley, and from the continuation of the coast ranges south of Monterey" rather than by the common definition that calls the Bay Area the area within the borders of the nine counties that touch San Francisco Bay. He argues persuasively that those borders are arbitrary and not meaningful from an ecological standpoint. For Sonoma County birders, it's worth noting that Lukas's definition effectively divides the county in two, including only the southern portion along a line that follows the Russian River from Jenner to Healdsburg and then cuts east to the summit of Mt. St. Helena. In practical terms, however, that excludes mostly the densely forested northern part of the county and only a small number of species. Thus, Sonoma, Solano, Contra Costa, Alameda, and Monterey counties are covered in part (only from Moss Landing north in the case of Monterey County, but the majority of Alameda County), and all of Napa, Marin, Santa Clara, San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Cruz counties are covered.  

The main species essays follow. These are divided into two headings: Life History and Range, but those designations seem fairly loosely used. A typical entry focuses on breeding habits and breeding history in the Bay Area, on occurrence from a geographical perspective, and then on abundance and seasonal population fluctuations (including information on migration), with the addition of a variety of interesting tidbits on other topics as appropriate, but always focused on relevance to the local birding experience. The book gives much useful information about when and where you're likely to see the birds you're most likely to encounter in the Bay Area. Species dealt with in the occasional notes to the main essays are usually less common birds in some way related to the subject of the main essay. For example, Eurasian Wigeon (Anas penelope) is touched upon in a note to the entry for American Wigeon, Red Phalarope (Phalaropus fulicarius) is discussed in connection with Red-necked Phalarope. The appendix covers 62 "rare and unusual birds of the Bay Area" using those terms in the vernacular sense--these are simply less commonly seen birds. The introduction notes, for example, that mostly pelagic species are likely to be in the appendix, unless the species is commonly visible from shore. The appendix essays are considerably shorter than the main entries. Birds that have occurred in the area only once or a handful of times over many years are omitted--probably wisely; a book can be only so big. Species are listed in the order of taxonomy used by the American Birding Association as of November 2011. While the index appears complete, and this book is likely to be perused at leisure, rather than in a hurry in the field, a quick index on the front or back inside cover might have been a nice touch.   

With the exception of a frontispiece map of the area covered, there are no illustrations in Bay Area Birds, which makes the book somewhat less visually attractive than it might have been, but, again, the book is designed not to help identify birds--we have the Internet and numerous lavishly illustrated field guides for that purpose--but as a supplement to such books. I would, however, like to have seen a few more detailed maps included. Locals reading about areas near home will understand geographical references, but newcomers or visitors from outside the area may find some of the range discussion frustrating in the absence of maps. That said, Bay Area Birds is engagingly written, and the author's enthusiasm for his subject is obvious. Bay Area Birds seems a useful and valuable new book for birders interested in a locally focused supplement to their field guides. Recommended.