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Texas Reader: Birding Basics

By Michael Berryhill

Bird watching, Pete Dunne writes, is so simple: take your binoculars and a field guide and head outdoors, which is exactly what Dunne did as a boy.

More than 40 years later, Dunne has become one of the leading bird watchers in North America, which he accomplished by making every mistake a beginner can make and compensating with an obsessive desire to improve.

Dunne has turned his obsession into a humorous yet practical book that any novice bird watcher and many an experienced one will want. He couldn’t say it, but I will: Get this book before you buy the binoculars and field guide and save yourself a lot of trouble. Pete Dunne on Bird Watching (Houghton Mifflin, $12 paperback) delivers advice that would take a beginner many years to discover by trial and error.

Most critically, Dunne takes the mystery out of buying binoculars, negotiating the complexities of contemporary optics with precision and care. His most important advice is to buy a pair that feels good in your hands, has a central focus knob that is easy to find and eyepieces that fit your face. Try them out in the store. They’re like shoes: they shouldn’t just fit, they should fit perfectly.

As for which guide to buy, Dunne is politic enough not to choose just one. Instead he traces the evolution of guides, and explains how to use features such as maps, field marks, descriptions of seasonal plumage and other information that newcomers often simply don’t know how to use. He covers bird feeding, birding organizations and, in his warm and humorous style, takes us into the sociology of birding. I wish I’d had this book 10 years ago.

Dunne characterizes himself as writer who bird watches rather than the other way around. The University of Texas Press is issuing his fourth collection of essays this spring, called Golden Wings and Other Stories about Birders and Birding ($29.95, hardcover, $15.95 paperback). The title essay depicts Roger Tory Peterson in heaven, examining his own wings. Maybe it’s a little sentimental, but Dunne writes in a familiar style that should attract newcomers to the complexities of a pastime that can become a lifelong obsession.

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