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Adventures in bird watching

Published Sep. 10, 2005

Kenn Kaufman tries hard to help beginning bird-watchers.

Last year, the world-renown bird expert took me out on my first bird-watching expedition. He was promoting his Focus Guide to the Birds of North America. The innovative guidebook offers more than 2,000 detailed images of birds that have been digitally enhanced to make identification easier for newbies. Birds, I discovered, are frustratingly elusive creatures.

Frustratingly elusive, that is, to those of us unaccustomed to peering up into trees for signs of fluttering life. But not for veterans like Kenn. "Pish, pish," he would say, hoping to start up a bird conversation, and sure enough, a blue-gray gnatcatcher or something else I never managed to see, would call back and Kenn would point it out. Unfortunately, as soon as I would peer through my binoculars to try to find it, the bird would be off into some parallel universe.

Alas, at the end of our hour-long jaunt through the woods and along the shore near Clearwater, my bird dance card was nearly empty, save for a few motionless wading birds I had spotted and suspected were decoys. Too bad I wasn't mosquito-watching; the trip would have been a bonanza. I am not, as my Florida-raised husband likes to point out, much of an "outdoor girl." Or as New York writer Fran Liebowitz puts it, "I think of wilderness as the air between my apartment building and the taxi cab."

Now Kenn has come out with a new book, Lives of North American Birds (Houghton Mifflin, $25). It's not a "guide for naming birds, but a reference for understanding them." Offering the life histories of more than 900 species that live in North America or visit here occasionally, it provides everything you every wanted to know about the birds around you _ from what they eat to where they build their nests _ told in language even a layman can understand.

In other words, it's a perfect companion for armchair bird-watchers.

Since my trip out with Kenn, I have bought a good pair of binoculars and two bird feeders, which I have placed just outside a window in the back of my house where I can sit on a really comfortable couch and bird watch. So far I've spotted a pair of blue jays, wings of plovers, an arc of fat brown doves, flocks of black birds and green parrots and a lone cardinal.

It's a start.

Margo Hammond is book editor for the Times.