Eyes on the sky: Ornithology Marc Parnell hatches new bird field guide for Alabama – News Courier

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Updated: May 23, 2022 @ 2:15 pm
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Marc Parnell

Marc Parnell
Marc Parnell, an accomplished ornithologist, was born in Greenville, N.C., but flew that coop and now resides in Ohio. He is the second-most published ornithologist in the world.
In February, Parnell released a birding field guide specific to Alabama, Birds of Alabama. This field guide is one of many guides he has in active print.
Parnell discovered his love for birding as a child in North Carolina.
“I’ve been interested in wildlife and nature from a very young age. I remember from when I was 3 or 4 years old, I received my first field guide. It was actually a field guide to reptiles and amphibians. Soon after that, I was really quite in awe of the fact that there could be hundreds of different species of various animals in the 10 to 20 miles even just surrounding my house. So I went out and started exploring, and once I started really getting deeply entrenched in nature and hiking and just trying to observe what I could, I grew deeply captivated with birds and their gift of flights,” said Parnell.
The way birds existed in nature fascinated him to a higher degree than the reptiles and amphibians that served as an entry point into field exploration for him.
The ability to fly and their daily behaviors drew in the ornithologist.
“I remember seeing how quickly and nimbly they could dart between branches of trees and woodlands. How sometimes when you’d be in crop fields, you’d see Harriers just gliding above the crops looking for voles and various very small mammals to hunt, and just the way they looked so weightless and so effortless in the air, it was just, it was really quite an outstanding sight at such a young age. From there, it really grew from a passion into an obsession for me, and I wanted to know every little detail about each birth life and their daily behavior, even when I wasn’t really looking,” said Parnell.
He found himself particularly interested in the diets of the birds he saw out in the field. He observed what a normal diet looked like for each species, but also what their special diets looked like, as well as how they hunted or gathered their food.
“For me, that was considering each species typical diet, maybe even the diet that they would consume on an unusual day, sort of our filet mignon of the year, so to speak, what their unusual meals look like, or their typical meals, and I would also consider how they went about their days whether they were social and flocked, or they prefer to be a little more solitary when they were hunting and situating themselves, or how they would seek out their prey,” said Parnell.
Parnell was captivated by the diverse and unique traits, characteristics and behaviors of different species of birds he observed. To him, he observed something different and unique in every bird he studied.
“The behaviors are really quite diverse and unique and exceptional across the entirety of the avian world. So for me, it was the moment that light bulb clicked that said, you should really look into birds. It was just a never-ending well that kept giving and giving to me and I couldn’t stop learning, and I’ve enjoyed it ever since.”
The idea to create a birding field guide was inspired by his mother’s interest in learning about the bird species that could be found around her home.
“Probably about 6 years ago is when I really started getting serious about the idea of putting together a book, and a lot of it was driven from the fact that I set up a bird feeding set up in my mother’s backyard many years ago, and we would talk about which birds she was seeing out her back window as she was making breakfast or going about her day. She would sometimes bring up certain species and say she couldn’t identify this bird or that bird. So I gave her a really simplified 20 page or so sort of study guide issue so she could refer to a few of the common birds that might be in her backyard,” said Parnell.
As his mother outgrew the field guide, he observed there weren’t many state and city specific field guides on the market. Creating this guide for her made him wonder if he could create larger, more encompassing field guides for beginners and advanced birders alike to fill this need in the birding community.
“I started to think to myself about what field guide I could recommend to her, and a lot of the main field guides that are on the market today are really geared toward a national or a large regional audience. So that would really mean all of North America, all the United States, just the Eastern, a bit of North America, but never really just a state or just a city. And I felt that there was a real need that could be served with specifically targeting individual states and cities with a field guide series,” said Parnell.
This led him to publish his field guide, which was well-received among the birding community. This guide allowed readers to see what species were common and uncommon in their specific area.
“With my field guides, I put together monthly birding forecasts for every single species so you can tell when the species are most easily seen and perhaps even never seen in your area,” said Parnell.
Parnell created a rating system to help birders distinguish which birds are common and easy to find, and which ones they would have to take a little more time to seek out.
“You also see in the field guides a frequency rating that gives you a one to five rating on how easily observed a species is in a given year. So, for instance, your American Crow is about a five out of five. You see those pretty frequently throughout the day. A red-tailed hawk might be more of a middle number because you see those along the interstate when you’re driving, but it takes a little bit more effort,” said Parnell. “Then, for some of those that are really difficult or that require a special trip or something of that nature, perhaps maybe an out-of-the-way duck like a greater scout. That might be a one out of five because it requires you to go to a specific location at a specific time of the year, and you’re not necessarily guaranteed to see it every time.”
‘Birds of Alabama” offers a unique experience for beginners, intermediates and advanced birders with a bird identification system that Parnell created himself.
“My book “Birds of Alabama” features a unique approach to bird identification that I came up with, a birding by comparison approach, and that is actually really helpful for novices and intermediates. What it does is it sorts all the most common birds in Alabama from largest to smallest, and it helps you identify birds that you haven’t seen before by comparing them to those which you already know,” said Parnell.
While field guides are a great asset for beginner and intermediate birders to use, Parnell believes his field guides also have something to offer for advanced birders like himself.
“There’s so much information in this guide that wouldn’t be in other field guides, and so much that’s specific to Alabama, so I think advanced birders who are interested in getting a more detailed or nuanced portrait of each individual species would also find it very worthwhile,” said Parnell.
Parnell offers an introductory look at what beginning birders need to get out into the field and start studying birds.
He believes a pair of binoculars is one of the most important items in a birders toolkit and that it should be one of the first purchases for beginners.
“For someone who just bought my book, I have a really helpful introductory section in there that talks about what birding is and how to sort of get started. I’d say a good starting point would be to buy a budget pair of binoculars. They are really indispensable in the field, and given that most birds are somewhat skittish, they don’t allow you to come up and pet them, so to speak. Binoculars allow the birds to come closer to you without really actually being that close,” said Parnell.
Parnell has written field guides for states and cities across the nation, but he sees something special in Alabama and the Tennessee River Valley.
“Three points for me about Alabama that pop in my head would be, first of all, the Tennessee River and its tributaries, such as the Elk River. They offer numerous niche habitats for a variety of waterfowl. You’ll have deepwater areas in the center of the river channel, you’ll have marshes that have maybe some weedy growth on the edges, and then you’ll have wetlands adjacent to the river and small tributaries,” said Parnell. This accommodates a wide variety of different feeding habits that different waters will have. So you’ll be able to see a wide variety of different species, and you don’t really get that in a lot of places in the country.”
Parnell’s book, “Birds of Alabama,” can be found at online stores where books can be bought.
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