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Review: The Warbler Guide

October 9, 2013

TWG coverFamily specific guides are hot right now. And why not? The North American field guide in textual form has arguably reached its apex, and it seems there’s very little anyone can do to upset that paradigm in any significant way. Those that continue to wade into that saturated marketplace have to content with a species list rapidly closing in on 1000 once vagrants, splits, and exotics are added to the fold. As such, these books seem to get more massive with every edition, making the idea of a true “field” guide something of an anachronism anyway.

And so it seems that the only low-hanging fruit available in the 21st Century are these books that turn the other way, focusing solely on families, or multiple families of  closely related birds. In the last few years we’ve seen guides to shorebirds, seabirds, sparrows, gulls, and several devoted to diurnal birds of prey. Each one free from the limitations of the rest of Canada and the United States’ avifauna, and taking advantage of all the new ideas about bird identification and, increasingly, a glut of full-sized, high-resolution, posterized images that show every field mark of every bird at every conceivable angle.

I don’t mean to make it sound as though any of this is unwelcome. These new offerings may be low-hanging fruit, but this fruit is delicious.

The most recent offering may be the most succulent yet. Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle’s superb The Warbler Guide fills a gap in the North American birder’s library that they may not have even realized was present. I’ve used the Jon Dunn and Kimball Garrett guide from Peterson for some time, and it doesn’t take anything away from that excellent guide to say that what Stephenson and Whittle have done here is a quantum leap forward in the field of putting together a group-specific guide.

Comprehensive barely begins to cover it. Not only are there the amazing photos, which we birders are increasingly spoiled for, but there are superb maps, separate ones showing spring and fall migration routes. There are bar charts that lay out migration timing. There are simple icons for every species that lay out in general terms pattern, undertail, range, posture, and location in vegetation. And there are vocalizations. My God. There are vocalizations.

TWG songsThe artwork, photography, and layout for this book is exceptional, but it is in including warbler songs and calls where The Warbler Guide truly shines. I’ve often wondered why few field guides grabbed on to what was, in my personal view, the killer feature of the old Chandler Robbins Golden Guides. This was, of course, the inclusion of spectrographs for selected bird vocalizations. For anyone who can read music, and a great number of those with an intuitive eye for pitch, this was revelatory. Broader awareness and interest in of bird songs and calls have always been held back by the fact that textual descriptions of bird vocalizations are inherently objective and often subject to the individual human variation in auditory ability. I find them often frustrating and more than occasionally useless. Alternately, one of the first bird vocals I learned, and one of the first birds I identified on my own, was White-eyed Vireo, largely due to Robbins’ inclusion of spectrographs. They’ve always made sense to me. I “saw” the sound, and I was instantly on the right track.

In one of the more exciting aspects of the guide, Stephenson and Whittle have thankfully resurrected the spectrograph and used it liberally throughout. In flipping through this book, I took great pleasure in “reading” the vocals of birds I knew, studying those with which I annually have trouble with, and imagining the songs of birds for which I have no experience. Even more, the authors have included extensive vocalizations of contact and flight calls, as well as common non-warbler confusion species. There is scarcely a sound made by a warbler that isn’t included in this book, and we’re all so much the better for it.

And because it’s nice to have the actual audio too, all the vocalizations in the book are available from the Macauley Library for $5.99. That’s a pretty sweet deal for those who prefer to learn through their ears rather than their eyes.

If I have any complaints about this book, it’s that there’s so much information that the layout seems a bit crowded at times. I wish some of the small blocks of images, packed three across at about 2″ wide, were larger, but I understand that this likely means a larger book or fewer photos, so it’s a tradeoff that was clearly considered. The pages of spectrographs are a bit difficult at times, but the editor has done a fine job mixing the font size and style to prevent them from being too eye-crossing. But that’s really it, this is a remarkably well put together book.

And all this without going too much in detail into the myriad little features that make this book so fantastic. There are the beautifully laid out Quick Finders (including the undertail plate which is, dare I say it, much better than its also very good equivalent in the Dunn/Garrett guide). There are the cool little ovals for every species that break the plumages into broad component colors. There are the little reminder phrases for each species – Common Yellowthroat is “Only in Wichita do common folk wear yellow bows on their throats” – that deftly straddle the line between cute and useful.  This is a truly great book. And more, it’s a truly fun book.  Comprehensive without being overwhelming.

I don’t know how many more of these family-specific guides will vie for a spot on our groaning bookshelves. I can probably come up with a few families that could use the treatment before the genre becomes stretched to the breaking point. But if The Warbler Guide is indicative of the kind of book we’ll continue to see, I don’t mind picking this crop of low-hanging fruit completely clean.

Thanks to Princeton University Press for providing me with a review copy.

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