David Sibley could have sat on his laurels. He would have been entitled to. With the publication of the original Sibley Guide to Birds, heretofore called the first edition, he set an entirely new standard for field guides, not just in North America, but arguably for the world.
Pre-first edition, you had your Peterson partisans, your Golden Guide groupies, your Nat Geo disciples, but after? There was only the Sibley. While the other guides, particularly National Geographic’s offerings, continue to have avid followers (including me for what it’s worth), the Sibley was the first guide that everyone had to have.
And this was for good reason. Sibley’s drawings were at once elegant and fantastically useful. The text was spare and distilled to the essential points. Each species included, by virtue of it being created by a single artist, existed not only as a tool for identification but within the context of every other. There was no accounting for illustrator style or preferred angle. Every bird was painted in the same style, in the same position, so as to make comparison and contrast simple. And no other book had every single species a birder is likely to come across so true to life. It was considered for good reason to be a masterwork.
So nearly 14 years later comes David Sibley’s long awaited second edition, and of course the question of whether he can possibly top such an essential guide is foremost on everybody’s mind. The answer is, for the most part, that he does. Instead of just adding the new species and various taxonomic changes that have ballooned the AOU and ABA Checklists over the last several years, Sibley has taken the opportunity to make some wholesale changes to the book itself. Most obvious of which is that the artwork is significantly bigger. Additionally there is expanded text having to do with habitat preferences and other noteworthy clues for identifying birds. More information is always better in my opinion, and Sibley has done a nice job incorporating that additional, and valuable, information along with the larger images without overwhelming the reader or making the pages too cluttered.
Content wise, there’s a great deal more on subspecific variation in this edition. Sibley hews to the line he established in the first edition of not including subspecies names, but rather illustrating examples of regional variation where appropriate, and these are expanded in the second edition which includes many wholly new illustrations of field identifiable subspecies that were not given space in the first edition.
An additional 111 new species are included in the second edition that were not included in the previous one. Many of these species are strays to the ABA Area, making Sibley’s new guide nearly as useful as Nat Geo when it comes to the identification of vagrants. The Old World Calidrids are particularly well represented here. Additionally, if you’ve spent any amount of time with the old Sibley — and who hasn’t? — flipping through the pages is like an easter egg hunt. More, several illustrations have been “touched up” to better reflect the bird in the field. I was surprised by how quickly I was able to find some of them, so internalized is my “Sibley-sense” over the years. There are also additional illustrations of hybrids, juvenile birds, and various useful angles (like many alcids painted “flying away”) that add to the user’s ability to put a name to birds.
Maps are largely unchanged, though Sibley has thankfully done away with the “green dots” representing “vagrant-records-but-not-really” that seemed to serve only to confuse people. Those birds with limited ranges are illustrated with pop-outs of their range rather than a white expanse of the entirety of North America as before, another positive change.
Sibley’s representations of birds are nearly uniformly excellent. However, some of the pelagic species seem just a tiny bit off in a way I can’t quite put a finger on. The illustration of the dorsal view of an adult Short-tailed Albatross in flight on page 57 seems a bit strange to me, but the angle is undoubtedly a difficult one for an artist. Your mileage may vary, of course, and I had no such visceral reaction to any other paintings.
A bit has been made of the color reproduction in this edition as compared to the first edition. It’s clear that the colors are darker – the publisher calls this “richer” and I’m not inclined to disagree. This is more apparent for some species rather than others. Birds that are primarily red, for instance, like Northern Cardinal and, particularly, Scarlet Tanager come off a fair bit darker than you’d see them in life. Blacks and browns are very dark; there’s no getting around it. While some of the paintings are rather shocking at first glance it does not seem to be effect the ability of the reader to discern details on all but the most ebony-hued birds.
For those species for which subtle shades are more important, like gulls, the coloring here seems accurate enough. And for most species the richer hues are a nice improvement over the somewhat washed out first edition. Color shading may also be more noticeable because the page color in this edition is white as opposed to the subtle cream of the first. This change does make the paintings appear more contrasty, for better of for worse. Birders may want to flip through a book before buying to see if this is going to be a problem. In my opinion it should not impair use of the book, but that’s a decision that the individual purchaser is going to want to make themselves.
There are a couple minor typos, in the Key to Group Accounts on page xxv and in the Snowy Owl account. Black-tailed and Heerman’s Gulls are mislabeled in the gull group account. These are minor, not likely to impact user experience (though the gull thing did confuse me for a minute or so), and will undoubtedly be cleared up in the second printing if not before.
In short, the things that Sibley has always done well are emphasized here. There is no field guide illustrator in North America better able to capture the subtleties of bird identification, the shape and feel of a bird, than David Sibley. The larger paintings fill the page well and the text, though sparse, is informative and useful. If you like the Sibley style, you will not be disappointed here and in most ways he has noticeably improved on what was a spectacular first edition.
Birders should be very happy with what he’s done here.
Thanks for Knopf for providing me with a review copy.
I know there’s some sort of unwritten rule that says that a blog author is supposed to produce some sort of a roundup of the past year within the first month of the next year. I was waiting so long to get to this post that I may as well have just combined it with 2014. Thing is, 2013 was a pretty epic year for me. I entered eBird checklists for 8 states (3 of them were airports, but still). I picked up 38 ABA Area lifers and 8 new birds for North Carolina. I passed 1000 for my all time world list and hit 550 even for the ABA Area.
Oh, and I went abroad, seeing India (very brief trip, but lots of new birds) and Aruba (longer trip, but fewer new birds). I was asked to be a spotter on Brian Patteson’s pelagic trips and invited to be a member of the North Carolina Bird Records Committee. I witnessed the bird that broke the ABA Area Big Year record. I moved and got to start a new county list, blowing past 100 by the end of the year.
It was, in short, a good year. Of course, I barely wrote about any of it. But I will regale you with brief glimpses of the year that was, even though I’m nearly 1/12th of the way into the year that is. Gimme a break, it’s been a busy year!
Hitting the Century Mark
I got to experience the Space Coast Birding Festival for this first, and hopefully not the last, time this past year. I was involve din a number of excellent field trips, but perhaps the most fun was the North Brevard hotspots trip I ran with Jeff Gordon and a local birder on my last day. Two other groups of birders had run this trip with day lists that neared 100. So we had a goal. We worked these lesser known spots hard that day, picking up local goodies like Ash-throated Flycatcher and Florida Scrub-Jay. We ended the day at 100 species even, beating the other group’s total by 2. That, friends, is a good day.
Passage to India
So I got to travel to the other side of the world in 2013, as a representative of the ABA to the Global Birdwatching Conference in Gujarat, India. Sure, my bag didn’t make it until the day I left. Sure, the 11.5 hour time difference completely turned me around. Sure, the travel was grueling and the logistics often weird. But man, INDIA. Gujarat is not the biodiversity hub that other parts of India are, but it’s pretty impressive. India is a land of contrasts, and a completely different sort of place than I’m used to, both birding-wise and culturally. And I wrote quite a bit about all that. The highlight of the entire trip, though, was likely to be the flock of Sociable Lapwings, a critically endangered shorebird, that we found on the plains of Gujarat on a trip to Chhari Lake. What great birds, and what an incredible trip.
Lapwing spotting with the family
I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’d like to get my son into this birding thing. Of course, it’s fantastic to encourage an interest in nature in young people, but honestly, having a more or less willing partner in these adventures means that I’ll probably get out in the field more. Ulterior motives? Sure, but with plenty of beneficial side-effects. Back in February, while the east coast was experiencing one of the most extensive Northern Lapwing invasions in birding history, I had been talking with friends about how it was only a matter of time before someone finds one in North Carolina. And lo and behold, Martin Wall, one of North Carolina’s most adventurous birders (I don’t know that anyone goes to more out of the way places), found the bird. It was, remarkably, only about an hour away from my door. When I got the news I was sitting at home, having just put my son down for a nap. A short time later, I’d woken him up and we were making tracks north for this bird. Naps can wait, lapwings rarely do. We got it. He saw it. It was a good day.
I got to use my passport twice this year, which is more than usual. The second time was a family trip to Aruba, an actual desert island off the northern coast of South America. It wasn’t specifically for birding, but I did get an opportunity to get out a couple times and see a few Caribbean specialties and a couple birds more known from South America. Aruba is a strange place, it’s hardly a tropical bird mecca, but there are a few cool species. Venezuelan Troupials abound, Brown-throated Parakeets cry out from ornamental palm trees, and the wind blows like you wouldn’t believe. I even picked up a rare bird for the island, though it was only a Yellow-rumped Warbler (still a 6th-7th record!) I ended with around 60 species at the end of the week, which was tops in eBird until Steven Mlodinow came down and laid waste to my Aruba Big Year dreams. Oh well.
Offshore is the best shore
I got offshore more in 2013 than I ever had before, and saw amazing birds every time. My last trip in 2012 was disappointing in that I endured my first ever pelagic trip in which I got zero lifers. I’m happy to say that that trend ended in 2013. In June, I got three days out of Hatteras with the ABA where I spotted a Trindade Petrel, the bird of the tour, on the last day. In August, I got offshore for two more days, along with birding raconteur Steve Tucker and other friends and had two amazing days including full frontal views of that same amazing Pterodroma (along with a lifer Long-tailed Jaeger, finally). And just before the year ended, I was present with the inimitable Neil Hayward broke the ABA Area Big Year record with a Great Skua. Yeah, I spotted that one too (which was really satisfying, I don’t mind saying). Both absolutely highlights of the year.
Here’s hoping 2014 turns out to be as much fun! I’ve already got a couple exciting trips in the hopper so we’ll see you then! Thanks for reading!