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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Annotated List of the Birds of Berkshire County, Massachusetts’

'Now you see me, make a note,' says the wheatear: The birds of Berkshire County check in.

Annotated List of Birds of Berkshire County, Massachusetts
by David P. St. James

This fall, two unusual bird species were observed in the Berkshires: a dickcissel, normally found breeding in the grassy fields of the Midwest and wintering in South America; and a northern wheatear, a resident of the Canadian Arctic in summer but mostly found throughout Asia and Europe. Finding a species uncommon in an area is not only exciting–an addition to a life list or a locality list–but could be important in the study of local ecosystems, perhaps indicating changes in the environment

Ornithology began with meticulous record-keeping, and the body of knowledge is forever expanding with the constant accumulation of data. Most ornithologists, amateur or professional, have their own methods of obtaining and verifying sightings–whether plant, insect, mammal or bird–using the centuries of ornithological literature, which has expanded so much, I personally have bird books residing (and possibly breeding) in piles in front of bookcases. At least the piles are organized.

But it takes a dedicated scientist to gather information from many sources, both historic and present day, and organize the data so they are available to all. One of our well-known local naturalists, David St. James–a gentle, brilliant soul–was such a man. He may have worked as a biologist for the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife but, throughout his life, he noted everything he saw, whether it related to work or to the natural history of the Berkshires.

Often. St. James–sometimes as scruffy as an old woodsman in layers of sweaters, well-worn sneakers or rubber boots and a billed cap–could be found wandering the woods listening for warblers or scanning Richmond Pond for winter ducks or hiking along a mountain trail in search of a hawk or owl nest. In the evenings, he recorded all he had seen, noting everything about each sighting.St. James amassed a wealth of information not only on his own, but also gathered pertinent data from reference books, from Christmas counts and from other local birders and began working on an annotated list of Berkshire birds, an important addition to the existing literature.

You may go to other books of birds of the area and find out when a species was initially observed and how common it was, but the information will be only as updated as the publication date–for example, Hoffmann’s guide, 1904.  Periodically, different works update this info in their texts and, flipping from book to book, you may follow the sequence of a species’ sightings and frequency of occurrences.

David St. James. Image courtesy Hoffmann Bird Club

After David passed away in 2014, members of the Hoffmann Bird Club decided to polish and publish this handy little volume with entries for each species. The book includes a short history of the bird club, a list of officers over the years, a brief biography of Hoffmann and useful indices. Ralph Hoffmann, a Stockbridge-born bird lover and teacher, amassed records from various sources to write a definitive book, “A Guide to the Birds of New England and Eastern New York,” in 1904, the first of its kind that defines the bird by both appearance and behavior. The St. James’ annotated list, also an accumulation of records, could be considered a great-great-grandchild of the Hoffmann field guide.

Now, an annotated list is not a field guide. It is a brief history of each species recorded in the county: when first seen; frequency of appearance; and whether it is a resident, or a migrant or just a visitor. In a way, this book is like an expanded checklist. This information can be found in larger, longer and outdated texts, but St. James’ “Annotated List of Birds of Berkshire County, Massachusetts” is a handy-sized paperback with up-to-date information that can be carried on birding trips along with a field guide.

Even just paging through and reading an entry or two, you may come across interesting facts. Think cardinal, that glorious red bird that graces snowy Christmas cards and that may be seen here all year long: It was first recorded in Berkshire County in 1927, a rarity that bird lovers then searched out to add to their lists (Hoffmann has this as a permanent resident of New Jersey, Staten Island and the lower Hudson Valley, but only an accidental visitor in the Berkshires).

Or take the tufted titmouse, that dark-eyed beauty common at your feeder. This avian was first recorded in 1945 and proved to be a nester in 1964 (Hoffmann has this bird as common in New Jersey, Staten Island and southwest Connecticut but absent from New England).

Even more recent is the arrival of the noisy red-bellied woodpecker: first recorded in 1972, first proof of nesting in 1994 and now one of the more common woodpeckers in the area (no entry in Hoffmann).

Left to right: Ludwig Kast, Ralph Hoffmann, Albert Einstein, Elsa Einstein and Eleanor Hoffmann in the courtyard of the Santa Barbara (Calif.) Museum of Natural History in 1931. Image courtesy Hoffmann Bird Club

Listed sightings often include the birder’s name. The first great egret was seen by Faxon and Hoffmann in 1919, the first mute swan by a birder named Vincent in 1967, the first black vulture in 1932. Wait! In this paragraph, I see that my husband, Danny, and I are mentioned for our extraordinary sighting of 36 black vultures Sept. 15, 2001, in Sheffield.

Other birds entries–olive-sided flycatcher, orchard oriole and red-shouldered hawk–inform us of decreases in sightings. The world is changing. Climate is changing. Scientists and researchers may extrapolate from annotated lists such as St. James’  trends in species population shifts, changes in geography distribution, and differences in habitat and available food sources.

Nowadays we have instantly updated, digital data collection on eBird and field guide apps on our phones to take with us when we are in the field and woods, but I still find books preferable. Even though we have access to David Sibley’s app, we always carry a field guide or two. It is much quicker to find and compare by flipping pages that have multiple entries rather than tapping through one species at a time. For birdsong though, the app is extraordinary. The Annotated List, too, is easier than scrolling down or across a spreadsheet on the web.

Last week, scores of birders took to the road the moment they had a report of a sighting of a corncrake along a shoulderless parkway in Cedar Beach, New York, about 50 miles from New York City out on Long Island. A corncrake is a rail-like bird found in grasslands in northern Europe in the spring and summer, and southeast Africa in the fall and winter. Alas, this lost, hungry bird–scrutinized and photographed by avid listers–fluttered, posed, feasted and postured for two days before being clipped by a car. It now resides with many other specimens at the American Museum of Natural History to be examined and studied. Maybe an ornithologist will discover how this avian–not a particularly good flyer–made it across the Atlantic for his 15 minutes of fame.

No one in the ornithological world needed to refer to the literature to know that this corncrake was a very rare sighting indeed. But check they did: The last sighting was in 1963 and, before that, in 1888. With this new sighting, there are but three records for the state of New York, with a total of 12 for all of North America.

Be alert! If you hear a rustle among the reeds near a pond in the Berkshires and see a stripy brown corncrake emerge in all its camouflaged glory, go first to St. James’ Annotated List to determine if you have made the record books. Yes! there is no entry here. Your name will go down in bird history!

The books are available at the following locations:

Wild Birds Country Store, Great Barrington
The Book Loft, Great Barrington
Mass Audubon’s Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, Lenox
The Book Store, Lenox
Berkshire Museum’s gift shop, Pittsfield,
The Williams Bookstore, Williamstown,
Petersburgh Public Library, Petersburgh, New York


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