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Review: The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America

October 15, 2010
by

Two things first. One, there’s a brand new I and the Bird, #136, up at Rob Fergus’ The Birdchaser. Do check it out.

Two, I’m leading a field trip for Wake Audubon at Anderson Point Park tomorrow morning at 9:00 AM.  Hopefully we’ll turn up some migrating warblers and such, and I’ll have some skins to show what we’re looking for.  So come out if you want to get The Drinking Bird all up in yo’ face.

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It goes without saying that birders in North America have a wealth of choices when it comes to field guides.  So many other places with well established birding cultures have a single guide that is considered to be the one to have.  Europe’s Collins guide or Australia’s Simpson and Day are good examples.  But on our continent we are nearly overwhelmed with choices.  In fact, you could probably argue that the greatest example of the unrestrained free market, the ultimate manifestation of good old American capitalism,  lies on the book shelves of your local bird store.

If you like illustrations, there are field guides for you.  If you prefer photos, you’re still in luck.  Expert or beginner?  Rarity codes?  Arrows?  Birds in flight?  Multiple plumages?  Juveniles? Subspecies? Any combination of the above? You’re likely to find a field guide that will adequately meet your needs.  Split the continent in half?  Even more options.  This means that while birders will likely find it easy to pick a field guide, or if you’re anything like me, a series of field guides, that works for them, it can be exceedingly difficult for field guide authors and publishers to break new ground in what is an increasingly crowded marketplace.

The newest guide from Don and Lillian Stokes, The Stokes Field Guide to Birds of North America, comes into this yawning anti-void taking the more is more approach, promising to be the most comprehensive photographic guide ever published.  There’s little to argue with on that count, because by any objective measure the Stokeses have succeeded in creating a field guide that meets or exceeds that lofty standard.  Most field guides, simply to be considered worthy of the moniker, have to make certain concessions; unusual plumages are left out, range-restricted subspecies are removed, and vagrants given short-shrift, but the Stokes made the executive decision to do none of that.  Birds are shown in every plumage you may or may not observe, at multiple angles, with particularly difficult identification issues given more room rather than less (Gulls are particularly well-represented).  Every subspecies is mentioned, if not pictured, regardless of relevancy to field identification.  And vagrants, even exceptionally rare ones, are pictured in all their glory, sometimes multiple times.   This, then, is a guide that leaves absolutely nothing out.

The success of a field guide stands or falls with the quality of its photos (or illustrations if that’s what floats your boat) and, like so many of the photo guides coming out these days, the ones picked to flesh out this guide are stunning, many of them from Lillian Stokes own extensive collection, and laid out to great effect.  Connoisseurs of bird photography may recognize the names of luminaries like Brian Small, Kevin Karlson and Richard Crossley (whose own photo field guide comes out next year) among others filling in the gaps and North Carolina birders will be happy to see our own Brian Patteson’s work well-represented in the seabird section.  Several of the photos are identical to those from Ted Floyd’s recent Smithsonian Guide, a testimony more to the difficulty of obtaining images of several species rather than anything intentional, but there’s surprisingly little overlap given the massive quantity of photos that made it into the book, a testimony to the explosion of field guide quality images in the wake of the digital photography revolution.  In an additional echo of the Smithsonian guide, Stokes have included location and date information in the corner of every photograph, an nice little touch that helps birders to begin to understand the basics of molt and practically essential for a guide that features as many photos as this one.  There’s no reason future photo guides should omit this particular feature ever again.

In an attempt to cover all possible bases, the text is perhaps more extensive that it needs to be.  As such, it’s small, packed into the space provided and filled with abbreviations that read a bit too much like a Pyle guide, more or less like checklists of important field marks rather than descriptions of the bird’s gestalt that would be useful for a beginning birder. This is not too much of a bother given the fact that the text is intended to play second fiddle to the photos, but it’s potentially a concern once you start trying to piece together a difficult ID.  That said, the inclusion of all described subspecies and known hybrids is an excellent touch, even if it may not be more than trivial knowledge to the majority of the book’s intended audience.  It is, however, an example of how a bias towards including more information rather than less is useful.  Even with all this specific information, the lack of general introductions to bird families was noted, and was, in my opinion, a missed opportunity to take a more broad view in a text that can feel a bit obsessed with minutia at times.

Such thoroughness and attention to detail isn’t free, however.  The cost is paid in size.  This book is big, there’s no getting around it.  Unless future editions split east and west asunder this is hardly the type of book anyone is going to take into the field.  That’s not a knock, as Sibley’s masterwork is hardly field-worthy either, but begs the question of how much is too much when it comes to field guides.  The Stokeses have taken the medium about as far as it can go in a single volume, including just about everything that any birder would want, and that’s great.  But for the birder that needs something to take in the field to identify what they see right then and there, we may have reached perfection with the original Peterson’s (once it went full-color and got the maps in the right places, of course) and everything else is just gilding the lily.  Who knows, though. We’ll likely see no stop to new field guides coming down the pike in the immediate future, and as we learn more about birds the impulse to put more in our hands will increase.  There’s nothing inherently wrong about that, and in fact, I’m one who generally believes that more is better when it comes to information, but birders in North America will have to figure out what works for them.  Fortunately, they have no shortage of opportunities to do so.

As for this particular book, it’s definitely something to check out, and at $25 (going as low as $17 on Amazon) there’s really no reason not to have it on your shelf.  Because regardless of how accurate the term “field guide” is, the Stokeses have truly put together a beautiful and comprehensive book.

Thanks to Little, Brown and Company for sending me a review copy.

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12 Comments
  1. October 15, 2010 7:32 am

    It might be a bit of an off-topic comment, but I’ve heard Anderson Point Park has a very good reputation for turning up groups of migrating CT warblers in October, with observations peaking around the 16th of the month.

    Regarding the field guide, I am very much an illustrations affiliado, and I generally do not like (or use) photo field guides. [The use of photos and not illustrations – to me – is the major draw-back of Ted Floyd’s guide, and my absolute dream guide would be Ted Floyd’s text with Sibley’s drawings.] If I have an ID problem that illustrations can’t solve, I “GoogleImage” the species and have a choice of multiple photographs. In today’s world, with internet and the flood of excellent photographs put online by amateurs thanks to the blessings of digital photography and digiscoping, the reason for photographic guides fails me.
    That being said (which sounds quite critical, I know), I presume that a lot of the pictures were taken by the Stokeses themselves, meaning they are guaranteed to be of a very high quality!

    So whenever a new photographic guide comes out, I am very sceptical, and I will usually only regard a photo guide worthwhile my purchase if the text is interesting. Aaaand … the one thing that sounds very interesting here is the inclusion of subspecies.
    Sibley frequently frustrates me in that aspect, because he illustrates subspecific or regional variation without giving the scientific names of the forms (for which I am sure he has a reason). So you see a strange bird, the Sibley guide hints you towards an unusual subspecies that might even be a vagrant to your neck of the woods, but then prevents you from investigating any further (on the internet) by not telling you what term to use in your search.
    Ted Floyd basically turned this around by simply describing the amount of variation without giving any hints as to the regional variation involved. If the bird you saw didn’t quite fit the photo, a quick scan of the variation (molt, geographic, age etc.) would tell you if this discrepancy was okay or maybe too much and you needed to search further. This still didn’t allow for subspecific identification, maybe even less than the Sibley guide, but it was far less frustrating as Floyd didn’t lead you halfway down the track to then just leave you standing there.
    Now comes the Stokes guide. Well, being here in Germany for the forseeable future with no immediate plans to re-visit North America, the Stokes guide may not make my Christmas list this year. However, I am very curious to check it out as soon as the need or occasion arises.

    Thanks for the review!

    And seriously: everybody here in Germany knows that Anderson Point Park is where you go to see your CT Warbler. A piece of cake, or so they say.

  2. Nate permalink*
    October 15, 2010 9:01 am

    @Jochen- Fixed your comment. 🙂

    I tend to agree with you re: photos vs illustrations, but the photo guides that have come out recently have made me question that allegiance because the photos are so darn good, and there is something cool about seeing a real image of a bird you’ve never seen before, especially for vagrants and what have you. It seems more “real” that way, I guess. In any case, the Stokes guide has some fabulous photos, there’s no two ways about it.

    Re: subspecies, this is a very nice inclusion. In parts where the subspecies in question is not shown as an image (usually because the birds are indistinguishable normally in the field), the range is noted. It’s an excellent addition. For instance, I had no idea there were multiple ssp of Turkey Vulture. It may be trivial information, but it is appreciated. Of course, it does contribute to the abbreviated text which I’m not a fan of, but I’m certainly glad they included it.

    And we’ll see about that CT Warbler at Anderson Point, I’ve never been so you may well be right. 🙂

  3. October 15, 2010 9:16 am

    You’ll need to depart an hour early to Anderson Point as by sheer coincidence you’ll be there at the CT warbler migration peak, meaning there’ll be quite a lot of traffic on the Knightdale Bypass by birders arriving from western locations like Saskatchewan and Oregon. And don’t forget to turn your headlights on once you pass Raleigh: the clouds of Ct warblers can get rather thick and seriously limit visibility on the highways.

    Well, basically I meant to say this: good luck!

  4. October 15, 2010 10:14 am

    Thanks, Nate, for your thoughtful review of our new field guide, The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America. Just one thing we wanted to clarify for your readers. Our field guide does contain introductions to families and genera of birds.

    In our guide we have 48 colored boxes throughout the guide that contain introductions to 75 important families and genera of birds. In these boxes we give tips on how to identify the group of birds and then how to go about identifying the species within that group. The boxes describe the overall gestalt of the group and feeding and other behaviors when relevant to ID. They are specifically designed to help the beginning and intermediate birder. For example see the box on gulls (p. 289), flycatchers (p. 456), warblers ( p. 601), owls (p. 398), and geese and swans (p. 6).

    We hope you continue to enjoy our guide and thanks again.

    Best wishes,

    Don and Lillian Stokes

  5. Nate permalink*
    October 15, 2010 11:30 am

    @Stokes- Thanks much. I should have been more clear, what I was referring to were the large single color pages that separate one bird family (or group of similar families) from another. You are correct, the boxes within the family sections do place the families themselves in a broader context, even if they are in a slightly different place than they typically are in other field guides. That point is personal preference, incidentally, and a relatively minor criticism.

    The book, taken as a whole, is really great.

  6. October 15, 2010 12:12 pm

    I wonder how many birders have only one field guide anyway?

    Do you think the book is sturdy enough to use it outside? My easter US sibley has already lost its cover, and is now split in two sections (“ducks and raptors” and “all the others”), largely a consequence of a dive or two in the huron river.

    Any word about the gulls and shorebird sections? Those are birds that I think could use extra pictures/drawings in the Sibley’s, in order to compensate for my (very) limited birding talent.

  7. Nate permalink*
    October 15, 2010 12:23 pm

    @Laurent- Not many! Sturdiness is yet to be determined. My sense is that the big guides don’t tend to hold up as well in the field as the smaller ones because when a crack in the binding does develop, the weight of the guide exacerbates it fairly quickly. Sibley has a problem with this too, as your experience shows.

    Gulls and shorebirds sections, I should have mentioned, are uniformly excellent. ID hangups are where the additional photos in this guide shine in my opinion. It seems that all plumages of gulls are shown, which is unique among all but Howell’s gull specific guide, and shorebirds are similarly comprehensive. For that reason alone, this book is probably worth throwing in when you head out to the reservoir or mudflats. I wouldn’t carry it on me, but it seems as though it would be a very good car book.

  8. October 15, 2010 10:57 pm

    @Jochen: Sibley’s site has a list of his subspecies names matched to the scientific names, and a rationale about why he did it that way.

    I love the subspecies section in the Stokes guide. It’s earned a coveted place in my seat-side drawer, alongside Sibley, for that reason alone. That, and the large number of great photos, of course.

  9. October 18, 2010 2:55 pm

    @Grant: thanks for pointing it out, I wasn’t aware of that. Will check out his site soon, as subspecies are what really gets my boat floating…

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