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Review: Rare Birds of North America

May 22, 2014

Steve N.G. Howell is apparently on a mission. The enigmatic birder, researcher, and tour leader has spent the last several year picking at the edges of North American birding and turning his discoveries into reference books that are at once unique in their subject matter and indispensable in their content. Those of us who live and bird on this continent are richer in knowledge and confidence because of them. North America needs a reference guide to gulls. Boom. We need a primer on molt. Done. We need a comprehensive reference to tubenoses. Got it. Now with his latest, along with Will Russell and Ian Lewington, he tackles the fascinating subject of vagrancy. Why do birds from there end up here, where are they likely to show up, and how to identify them when they get here. The result is, not to put to fine a point on it, the most interesting book about birds I’ve read in a very long time.

k10101Princeton University Press’s Rare Birds of North America is unique among North American bird books. It’s as much conjectural as it is definitive. The mechanisms for vagrancy among most species are poorly known, but the patterns have been congealing for decades. So far as I know, this is the first book to try to synthesize that information in a way that offers birders the predictive power. Howell and Russell, the primary authors of the text, don’t just say this bird has been here before, they say this is where this bird is likely to be seen again and why. It’s a fascinating exercise and one that any birder with a mind towards the unusual can appreciate.

If that is this book’s reason for being, why of the book’s content? Rare Birds of NA is a non-traditional guide, with the majority of the book broken into species accounts of those species which have been seen in the ABA Area only a few times. There is no real consistent standard to what is left in and what is left out. For instance, the annual Garganey is included, yet the far less regular Tamaulipas Crow is not. One might quibble about the definition of “rare” as pertains to this book, but only because it would have been fascinating to see the authors’ treatment of those species rather than any concerns about weakening the standard. Additionally, the book covers those records only up to July of 2011. Of course, they had to stop somewhere, but the firm cutoff prevents commentary on megas like the Alaska Common Redstart and the New Mexico Rufous-necked Wood-Rail. It’s a testimony to the quality of this work that I can’t wait until they do. In any case, my copy is already inked up a bit with additional recent records to add to those current species accounts.

The species accounts are nontraditional in their taxonomy and order, but one would expect nothing less from Howell. Birds are bunched into broad categories – Shorebirds, Gulls and Terns, Aerial Landbirds, Songbirds, etc – and within that separated into Old World vagrants (from Eurasian on either side of NA) and New World vagrants (from the neotropics and Caribbean). This is confusing at first for those of us more familiar with taxonomy, even in its ever-changing forms, but reiterates that this is a guide for home study, not for field use. Even so, there’s a bit of a learning curve. Those species accounts are spectacular, by the way. Howell and Russell pack each one full of fascinating information. If you read nothing else, however, read the comments section, in which the authors put those few North American records into context and speculate on the possibility of future records’ where and when. They are the heart and soul of the book and fascinating reading.

Ian Lewington’s illustrations are gorgeous. Though this book’s focus is not necessarily identification, it’s extremely helpful how he illustrates similar species in precisely the same poses and positions to better point out the salient differences. This is particularly notable among the difficult Old World taxa like Dark-sided and Gray-streaked Flycatchers, Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff and the Phylloscopus warblers, but also the extensive frigatebird plate.

Perhaps the most remarkable part of a remarkable book, however, is the 40+ page dissertation on vagrancy to North America that leads it off. Howell and Russell incorporate all the current knowledge on vagrancy into an eminently readable and remarkably thorough introduction. In fact, the book itself is worthwhile simply for this breakdown of various patterns and justification for those birds the end up where they’re not supposed to be. Though these birds are unusual for North America, the mechanisms are relevant for those looking for state and local goodies too. And let’s be honest here, the prospect of finding something unusual is a big part of why many of us bird. We’re holding out hope for these birds. For many of us with an interest in vagrancy but perhaps only a cursory understanding of the mechanisms, this is really compelling stuff because it feels like that discovery is more tangible.

Put those two aspects of this book together and you have a really special piece of work. Howell, Russell, and Lewington have created a reference that is informative, beautiful, and essential. I would urge anyone with an interest in the movement of birds to pick up a copy.

Thanks to Princeton University Press for a review copy

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Review: The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition

March 3, 2014

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.

131120_SGTB_coverSo 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.


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