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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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