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Whittam / The Birds of Georgian Bay: This book's a gift

By Kate Harries January 17 2013

It’s not often that you get a book that’s both a visual feast and a joy to read.

Here is one. The Birds of Georgian Bay, Sharing the Joy of Birding is a lovely distillation of author Bob Whittam’s 50 years behind binoculars.

Whittam spent 25 years as executive director of the Wye Marsh Wildlife Centre near Midland and has “naturalized” all around Georgian Bay, working on countless studies and surveys. He became a familiar voice across the province as the nature columnist on CBC Radio’s Ontario Morning show for 10 years.

His familiarity with our area is reflected in the depth of information and variety of anecdote. Here’s his account of getting up “far too early” to participate in the Breeding Bird Survey.  

“The first stop was at the junction of Hwy. 169 and the old highway, just north of Point au Baril. As soon as we stopped, we were greeted by two amazing sounds that characterize the BBS. The first was a barrage of mosquitoes and the second was the dawn chorus of birdsong that filled the air. This joyful sound seemed to come from everywhere. It is a magnificent feeling to hear the birds chorusing and it is a thrill to be able to recognize the repertoire of 20 or more species at each stop.”

As an introduction to birding, Whittam has everything covered – from the lowdown on how to select binoculars to the noisy spring ritual of the American Woodcock (which can be observed in the fields next to the Wye Marsh parking lot). There are useful sections showing the most likely suspects in any habitat – cottage, beach, backyard, marina, wetlands, barrens etc. And useful maps showing Important Bird Areas, or parks and wildlife areas.

But this is no mere introduction. The experienced birder will enjoy the very comprehensive accounts of the birds of our area, their habits and status. There’s good news – more Great Egrets, the successful re-introduction of Trumpeter Swans and the exciting beginning (we hope) of a recovery of a local Piping Plover population at Wasaga Beach. And there’s sad news in the decline of wood warblers of our Georgian Bay forests (in part due to loss of forest in their neo-tropical wintering grounds). Insectivores like swallows, including Purple Martins, and Common Nighthawks are suffering as are grassland birds like the Bobolink and the Eastern Meadowlark.

Whittam wonders what we have learned from the tragedies of the past, like the demise of the Passenger Pigeon. “Sometimes it would appear to be nothing,” he writes. “Consider the popular opinion about the Double-Crested Cormorant and the indiscriminate culling that some feel is justified in Georgian Bay… Surely we can refrain from making the same mistake with other birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians, whether or not they are of use to us humans as food, sport or apparel.”

Well, books like this help change the way people think. The photographers have done Whittam proud, offering exceptional windows into the bird world. Saul Bocian has some particularly striking images. Take the contrasting views of parenthood in his Pied-billed Grebe (p. 40) and Great Blue Heron (p. 98). In one, the chick is tucked sweetly against the parent’s neck, in the other, a long-suffering adult is mobbed by three hungry youngsters. Homer Calliwag’s cascading Common Terns (frontispiece) are poetry in motion, Daniel Cadieux’s Purple Martin (p. 160) illustrates eating on the wing, and Ken Newcombe’s Sandhill Crane (p. 172) is all about the joy of dance. One of my favourites, the Red-eyed Vireo (another of Bocian’s, p. 113), captures the elusive quality of a bird in the bush.

Much credit is due to Aurora designer Judie Shore who sourced the photos, produced the graphics and made everyone’s work look wonderful. Wye Marsh volunteer Pam Higgins assisted with editing and production. The book was printed in Canada by Friesens, a Manitoba company. The publisher is Wye Marsh Wildlife Centre, which raised $60,000 in donations to cover the costs (these do not include a writer’s stipend, Whittam donated his manuscript). This means that all the proceeds from the sale of every $34.95 book goes to the Wye Marsh.

Truly a gift. From him to all of us.

This review appeared in the Winter edition of the Lilypad, the newsletter of the Midland-Penetanguishene Field Naturalists Club