Book Review: “Seawatching: Eastern Waterbirds in Flight”

by Brooke McDonald

Peterson Guide to Seawatching

“Seawatching: Eastern Waterbirds in Flight,” by Ken Behrens and Cameron Cox, is the latest in the Peterson Reference Guide series published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Don’t think from the title, however, that this book is only for dedicated seawatchers. Even though it covers alcids, gannets, and other seabirds that may be seen from coastal promontories and other traditional seawatching spots, it is also a great resource for identifying flying geese, ducks, and many other birds that may be found near and on inland lakes and rivers. The wide diversity of species covered by this book makes it immediately practical, even for people who rarely bird the Atlantic Coast.

This book isn’t a field guide; rather, it describes and illustrates the subtle features that experts use to identify flying birds under conditions where traditional field marks often fail. The book begins with a lengthy and rewarding introduction, then moves on to species accounts. Each species account has a short overview of the life history of the bird; describes things like size, structure, flight patterns, and appearance at a range of distances; and ends with a discussion of similar species. The book concludes with an annotated list of sea-, lake-, and river-watching sites in eastern North America.

The book invites comparison with “Hawks in Flight” by Pete Dunne, David Sibley, and Clay Sutton; “The Shorebird Guide,” by Michael O’Brien, Richard Crossley, and Kevin Karlson; and “Gulls of the Americas” by Steve Howell and Jon Dunn. “Seawatching” meets or exceeds the standards set by these earlier books with concise yet descriptive text, challenging and instructive photos, compelling life history information, and a layout that invites close study.

The text and the photos in this book nicely reinforce each other, with neither overshadowing the other. The authors’ fluid prose and gentle humor, as well as their inspired ability to weave in information about behavior, molt, seasonal distribution, and habitats, keep the book engaging when it could have easily been a dry recitation of facts. Each species account is accompanied by several photographs that show the bird from a variety of angles, from a range of distances, and, often, in the company of similar species. Many of the photos are beautiful portraits of the birds in question, but the authors also made good use of photos that demonstrate challenges that may occur in the field and encourage the reader to notice even the most subtle points of identification.

Although the book is mostly excellent, there are a few limitations that may keep it confined to the bookshelf instead of taken out into the field. The hardback edition has very thin paper and a cloth binding with a paper dust jacket. In contrast, the slightly heavier paper and the turtleback binding of “The Shorebird Guide” make the latter a more practical resource for bringing along on stormy days.

The individual species accounts are laid out beautifully; however, the introductions before each group might have been expanded to include things like flight patterns or flocking behavior that may be common to multiple species in each group, as well as a short comparison of different species in the group. As it stands, the first species in each group often has a richer discussion of things like flight patterns than the following species, necessitating a full dive into the entire group as opposed to a light skim over a particular species. There were also a few places where tables might have been effectively employed for fast comparison of different groups and species.

Finally, it’s unclear why some things are included while other things have been omitted. The information on birding sites, which takes up nearly 50 pages at the end of the book, doesn’t seem to provide a lot of information that couldn’t be gained from the Internet, and the treatment of different sites is uneven. Although the number of species covered in the book is impressive, the book omits phalaropes under the rationale that they were covered in “The Shorebird Guide.” While many birders are likely to own both books, they have different emphases and styles so the omission is unfortunate.

Overall, this is a beautiful book and a solid resource that most birders in North America will want to own. List price, $35.


Peterson Guide to Seawatching The Peterson Reference Guide to Seawatching: Eastern Waterbirds in Flight  by Ken Behrens & Cameron Cox
624 pp.
 Click to buy


Houghton Mifflin Harcourt provided a review copy of this book.
Brooke McDonald is a technical editor for an environmental consulting firm in Northern California. In her free time she birds, gardens, plays with her dogs, and researches an obscure Calvinist sect.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll Up