Because I have never been one to travel around the country specifically to list birds, I hesitated more than a bit before purchasing a copy of Chasing Warblers by Bob and Vera Thorntona (1999; University of Texas Press; 156 pp; 1 site location map; 90 color photographs; $40.00 hardcover, $19.99 paperback). Even when a rarity shows up at Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge near my home, I usually hold no great hopes of actually finding the bird. So why would I be interested in reading a book about chasing warblers? I considered that if the book also contained detailed descriptions of the travel and adventure of tracking down each warbler species plus thoughtful commentary about being on the road in strange places, I would be satisfied. The book’s jacket promises as much and more, and the color photographs are irresistible and are, by themselves, probably worth the purchase price.
The first chapter, entitled “Wood Warblers,” presents a few unavoidable details on the methods and strategies used to photograph warblers, including equipment information. At the outset, I wondered about the Thorntons’ motivation for setting up the challenge for themselves of photographing all 52 warblers that regularly nest within the United States. It is not as if all of the species have not already been photographed. And there is nothing biologically meaningful about political boundaries. So the contribution to ornithology of realizing such a goal would seem small. Further into the book, though, the Thorntons explain that one day, after experiencing a warbler fallout at High Island, Texas, they simply thought it would be “fun” to see how many species of warblers they could photograph. Because I am not altogether against doing some things purely for fun (with certain behavioral constraints) I am willing to accept, without deeper explanation, the Thorntons’ motivation for embarking upon their project. The fun, in any case, would become a nine-year “quest” during the short breeding seasons when males would be in prime breeding plumage (and, hence, more attractive for photography, with females and fall birds not being of interest). Simply stated, then, Chasing Warblers tells the Thorntons’ story of how they photographed 52 species of warblers in the wild. And looking at their photographs was, I hate to admit, fun.
The warblers are presented in 13 chapters according to the order in which they were photographed, which works well for their overall story, but results in a general feeling of randomness and disorganization. Most birders and ornithologists probably feel more comfortable with species presented in phylogenetic order. Chapters are organized around general locations or nearby habitats where several species were photographed. In fact, presenting the birds by habitat type would have been a great way to emphasize the importance of habitat and the growing problem of habitat loss. For each species, a minimum amount of ecological information, such as habitat requirements and foraging habitats, is discussed.
Conservation issues are quickly mentioned in only a few instances, without a great deal of emphasis and usually without much passion. For example, when discussing the cerulean warbler, the authors mention the “decline of our river bottomlands as well as the accelerating deforestation of the Cerulean’s winter home” without really delving into the cause for the habitat losses. At Matagorda Island, off the Gulf Coast of Texas, the Thorntons look for tired, slowly moving warblers (easily photographed) that have just flown 600 miles across the Gulf of Mexico. They then digress briefly from warblers to mention the whooping cranes that overwinter in the area and the fact that the cranes “came within a flash of extinction,” but they never even hint at the cause for the crane’s decline. It also seems curious that after traveling all over the United States over a nine-year period, and surely encountering shocking examples of urban sprawl and highway development, the Thorntons fail to relate what they saw in terms of impact on bird habitats. The authors certainly are aware of such issues, because the book is dedicated to “the core principles of conservation and to those who are committed to preserving critical habitats….” And at the end of the final chapter, the Thorntons finally provide a strong word for conservation and environmental issues when they state that “…the more we observed, and the more we listened to others, the more firmly rooted has become our conviction that there is a real illness in the forests of the world and that our songbirds are clearly under siege.” This book could have been used to send a poignant, although rather depressing, environmental message; instead, it seems to be somewhat of a missed opportunity.
In general, the Thorntons seem reluctant to focus on negative issues. So it is all the more surprising that in the same chapter as the whooping crane reference, they state that Matagorda Island was once “…Karankawa Indian territory until their ultimate demise in the 1850s in an extinction just as complete as that of the Passenger Pigeon, Carolina Parakeet, and Ivory-billed Woodpecker not that many years thereafter.” The sentence seems out of place; there was no other information provided; and Native American issues were never mentioned again. Several other longer digressions throughout the book (for example, the one-page discussion of Panamanian antbirds) apparently attempt to add depth to the narrative or local color to the story, but instead seem mostly out of place. At the same time, the Thorntons miss many opportunities to include detailed word-pictures of scenes encountered while tracking down warblers or traveling en route to new locations. Few curious encounters or humorous mishaps are mentioned, though some surely must have occurred—as any seasoned birder knows. A notable exception, however, is the circumstance in Virginia where a colorful local asks the authors if they are carrying a gun and then warns them about “snakes, wild boar, black bear, and escaped convicts.”
At any rate, while the book is somewhat lacking as a travel narrative, gives only rudimentary ecological information for each species, and fails, for the most part, to emphasize the important connection between a species and its habitat (discussions of the Kirtland’s and golden-cheeked warblers are two of the better exceptions), the color photographs are absolutely breathtaking and of the highest quality. I first picked up this book during the height of the spring migration, when I was seeing a variety of warblers every day, and experiencing the usual frustrations of attempting to see the small, quick birds high in leafed-out tree canopies. To even think about photographing such an ephemeral puff of energy seemed impossible. So in total amazement, before reading a word of the book, I immediately paged through every photograph. Later as I actually read the book, I even found myself getting caught up in the anticipation of the author finally photographing their last warbler (number 52, the Colima warbler of the southwest), much like observing the 100th species on a spring bird count.
So I grudgingly admit that birding is fun after all, and I had fun reading this book. Birders, especially the listing type, will enjoy this book. Beginning birders should find this book an inspiration. Those expecting a travel-birding story written in the tradition of Edwin Way Teale may be disappointed, although certain passages are somewhat reminiscent of Teale’s writings. Serious scientific types may be better off grabbing an issue of the Wilson Bulletin from their stack of unread scientific journals, unless, of course, they wish to be reminded of why they became interested in birds (not computers) in the first place. And that may not be such a bad thing…as I found out.
Review by Thomas V. Lerczak
a Text by Bob Thornton, photography by Bob and Vera Thornton.
[This review was originally published in Illinois Audubon magazine, Fall 2001 issue, Number298, pages 20-21.]