Peterson Reference Guide to Seawatching: Eastern Waterbirds in Flight, by Ken Behrens and Cameron Cox
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013 | 624 pages | $35.00 | Hardcover | ISBN 978-0547237398
One of the most challenging aspects of birding is trying to identify birds in flight. They flash by in a whirl of feathers and the humble observer must struggle to find any salient field marks. For this reason, many of us forgo the exhilarating act of seawatching – I know I used to find it daunting. Sibley and Nat Geo can only offer so much in this department. And this is a shame; there is honestly nothing like watching thousands of gannets, cormorants, and scoters streaming by just offshore. But there is now one guidebook that will cure any of these concerns about identifying these birds: The Peterson Reference Guide to Seawatching – Eastern Waterbirds in Flight, by Ken Behrens and Cameron Cox.
In the introduction, the authors make a point of defining exactly what they mean by “seawatching.” It is the act of watching migrating waterbirds over bodies of water – not restricted to the ocean, but also to bays, lakes, and rivers. The birds featured in the book include geese, ducks, loons, alcids, sulids, tubenoses, gulls, jaegers, and more – 112 species in all, organized in taxonomic order. Shorebirds are one notable group that has been left out of this guide. Because they migrate at night, they would not be seen during a typical seawatching outing. To include them would also make the book substantially longer, so the authors decided to leave the peeps and plovers to other books. Rarer pelagic birds, such as albatrosses, are also left out, since they are rarely seen from land.
The bulk of Seawatching is dedicated to the species accounts, filled with colorful, stunning photographs and key information on all of the birds included. Each species account has details on physical structure, flight style, range, flocking behavior, and more. Photographs play an especially important role in the book. Each species account has images at different angles and in different plumages, as well as in mixed flocks, helping you to distinguish the bird from similar-looking species. This comparison with other species is a crucial aspect of the guidebook and what makes it most useful. The book depicts the cycles of every gull species (even the rare ones like Little and Black-headed) and the immature phases of other species. Seawatching focuses not only on obvious traits such as color, but also on the physical and behavioral distinctions that make each bird unique. When a bird is half a mile away in windy, rainy conditions, these cues are far more obvious and important than flashes of color and differences in plumage. For example, the “Flight and Flocking” section for the White-winged Scoter tells us, “Wingbeats are decidedly slower than those of Black and Surf Scoters, as well as a bit deeper. Flight is more stable than that of other scoters, and lacks their subtle rocking motion.” The authors continue by describing the species this bird most frequently associates with. This is the true benefit of Seawatching, going beyond the well-known field marks to help make accurate identifications in challenging conditions.

Black Skimmers are among the birds featured in the book (Photo by Lucas Bobay).

After the species accounts, there is a “Where to Watch” section which describes 47 seawatching sites scattered across the East, from L’anse Aux Meadows in Newfoundland to South Padre Island in Texas. Also included are several interior sites along rivers and lakes, such as the Niagara River and Whitefish Point. The prospect of visiting these spots during peak migration will spur you to fill up your gas tank and hit the road – or at least get you dreaming. There is thorough information on each site, such as the optimal times to visit and notable species to look for. This section also includes tables depicting exceptional single-day counts of the featured species. I can’t imagine seeing 40,000 Great Shearwaters from Cape Cod, but it happened on one seawatch in 1977!
I would not consider this book to be a true “field guide.” The large size and hard-cover bindings limit it to the car or home, not a rainy, windy seawatching promontory. The format of the book makes it ideal study material for birding trips, or as a reference upon your return. You can sharpen your identification skills with the mixed-flock images and check your answers by reading the captions or looking in the appendix. I think that fostering this learning processis the intent of Seawatching, and is what makes it so valuable. It won’t replace your go-to field guide, but will supplement it nicely. It is an excellent addition to any birder’s library, not to mention an impetus for a few more excursions to the coast.
Seawatching has certainly inspired me grab my scope and head to the local reservoir far more often. Even when it’s not migration, this book has vastly improved my waterbird identification skills. I no longer dismiss that little flock of ducks zooming by as “duck sp.” Instead I can comfortably identify them as Lesser Scaup, White-winged Scoters, or a sometimes a species I had never seen before. This book  is filled with both useful and fascinating information from cover to cover, making it a must-have. I would recommend it to any birder with an interest in waterfowl, gulls, or birding around bodies of water – which is pretty much all of us, right?