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!
Way back when I used to update this blog somewhat regularly I may have mentioned that I’m doing some work for North Carolina State Parks. Before I moved to Greensboro this work was done from the downtown Raleigh offices which, proximity to the wonderful Museum of Natural Sciences aside, was a fairly conventional place to work. But now that I’ve moved, I’ve taken my assignment west to one of North Carolina’s fine state parks, Haw River State Park in southern Rockingham County. This means that every day I work there, I get to spend a little time walking the trails and looking for birds. It turns out that Haw River State Park is a pretty great hotspot. In the 4 months that I’ve been working out of there I’ve seen 90 species. My only grievance is the fact that all of these birds count for Rockingham County and not my new home county.
I should probably write about all that at some point. It’s all well and good, but this past week working in Rockingham County turned out to be pretty convenient when a quartet of Sandhill Cranes were reported not more than 15 minutes from where I was sitting. It took me about two minutes to make the executive decision to take a long lunch and shoot out the door.
A short time later I had pulled off the side of a rural route staring out the window into a corn field where the cranes were lounging. Sandhill Cranes not uncommon in North Carolina, but they can be hard to predict and nearly impossible to twitch. Large numbers of the birds winter over the border in eastern Tennessee and the few annual offshoots that find their way into rural North Carolina probably end up mostly in places that birders are unlikely to find them. Away from major population centers and hotspots. To find one you either have to get lucky and stumble into it, or get on a quick chase. I hadn’t ever been fortunate to manage the first.
Because I was not geared up for birding, my camera was sitting at home. I did have my phone, however, and I was able to snap off a few photos through my binoculars. No great shakes, as they say, but sufficient for documentation at least.
With that overdue but unexpected state tick, I’ve managed a total of 7 for the year. My pretty productive 2013 is coming to an end one bird closer to 350 than I expected, my new goal for the near-term.
I realize, like any good American, that I’m supposed to spend the day after Thanksgiving at the local electronics superstore, standing in a line at 4 AM waiting for that great deal on a pair of iPhone earbuds or a camera memory card. But when the alarm went off at 3:45 AM the Friday after Thanksgiving I wasn’t hopping in the car to head to Circuit City (assuming those exist anymore), I was heading east. Way east. To experience the southern tip of the 2013 Snowy Owl-splosion.
It’s about 5 1/2 hours from Greensboro to Hatteras Island, a long twitch by any stretch of the imagination. But I was able to break up the monotonous drive by picking up a few companions along the way. In Chapel Hill I nabbed Mark Kosiewski and NC Big Year aspirant Ali Iyoob. An hour later in Rocky Mount it was Josh Sims and David Howell who jumped in the increasingly packed Prius to continue the journey. I realize road stories are fertile ground for a narrative, but the trip was pretty uneventful. We talked about eBird, about county listing, and other birds and other birders – the sorts of things birders always discuss on a twitch these days.
When we arrived at Hatteras Island, we rolled into the campground and walked over the dunes, barely even giving a cursory look to the generally productive Salt Pond to our left. We were men on a mission. And when we got to the spot, some other friends were already there. As rewarding as it is to find a rare bird on your own, there’s something refreshingly simple to walking up on a line of scopes all trained on the same white spot on the beach. Birds are rarely so easy, or so worth a 10+ hour round trip.
This is hardly the first Snowy Owl ever seen in North Carolina. There are a surprising number of records from the 50s and 60s, but the last one to grace our fair state was in 2001. With things getting generally warmer, it was considered to be a serious blocker. But with the recent Snowy irruptions in the west and midwest in the last years it has been on the radar for Carolina birders too. Cape Point is a good a place as any for one to occur, as they seem to prefer beaches this far south. It has been suggested that this is because beaches are the most tundra-esque landscape available to them down here, but I’m convinced it’s because this is the first point of land they came across when flying in off the ocean. With hundreds of Snowy Owls piling up on the coast of Newfoundland these days, it’s a practical certainty that a few of them head out over the sea. Once out there it’s not much more of a turn to the right before you hit NC, and at that point Hatteras, with its tasty rats, gulls, and rabbits, must look pretty inviting. These birds do well over the ocean, as one in Bermuda this week suggests.
Our increasingly large group of owl spotters enjoyed the view from about 200 meters away. The owl knew we were there, turning its head towards us periodically. We crept a bit closer behind the dunes until she got a little nervous and we backed off. All in all, it was a pretty great experience.
Because Cape Point is such an inaccessible beach we took the opportunity to explore a bit. The gull flock was present near the point itself, and close scrutiny failed to turn up anything but the regular four species and a lingering Royal Tern. Snow Buntings that had been reported in the area went unfound by us leaving our attempt to see all the “snow” birds in the area stillborn.
Oh well, it’s hard to complain about any day you see a Snowy Owl.