Quick Picks

The Sibley Guide to Birds: Second Edition

The Sibley Guide to Birds: Second Edition

by David Allen Sibley

It’s different. Now, if you were to hand both the first and second editions of The Sibley Guide to a non-birder, they will probably not notice many differences. Likely just “cosmetic changes”. But to a birder who has spent years looking between the covers of the now-fourteen-year-old first edition, especially those, like myself, who have “grown up” with it as their primary field guide for their entire birding lives, the new edition might not be a completely new experience but the changes can be drastic. For this initial review, I’ll highlight many of these differences, as well as two issues.

 

Changes from the first edition

New species

This new edition includes 113 new species, for a total of 923. A few of these are the result of taxonomic changes (i.e. Pacific Wren and the Sage Sparrow split), but most are rare birds/vagrants. These vagrants are mostly Old World or Mexican species. Groups that have particularly benefited are shorebirds (the eight “rare” ones only textually listed the first time around are each illustrated now) and the seabirds, with 15 additional tubenoses (11 albatrosses/petrels/shearwaters and 4 storm-petrels), making this new Sibley much more useful for pelagic trips. There has also been quite a change in the exotic birds covered, with many new ones added and a few removed.

New and updated illustrations

I’ve had a lot of fun going through the two editions trying to find new and updated illustrations. There are quite a few. Some of the new ones include more juveniles (and some downy young, especially ducks), alcids flying away, additional hybrid ducks, and Himalyan Snowcock in flight (very useful for those trying to find this species). An example of an updated painting is the male Bufflehead now has a dot of orange added with a new annotation “orange-pink legs”. You don’t see Bufflehead legs very often, but this is an unobtrusive way to note an additional field mark.

There are also some illustrations from the first that did not make it into the second edition, such as Scarlet Tanager and House Finch color variants and the White-eyed Vireo worn juvenile. However, for the most part, those removed were either of variations that are very rarely seen or ones that I’m not sure why they were included in the first place because they looked pretty much the same as another illustration.

Bigger illustrations

The cover flap boasts “all illustrations reproduced 15 to 20 percent larger for better detail”. That’s mostly true. Most illustrations are, indeed, noticeably larger and do show greater detail than before. This is a very welcome change, making the guide both more attractive and more useful. However, there are some that are no bigger, or even slightly smaller.

Comparison of murrelet plate between The Sibley Guide to Birds first and second editions

The Kittlitz's and Marbled Murrelet plate from the first (left) and second (right) editions. Notice the new and larger illustrations in the second edition (and that the juveniles are no longer included), as well as the additional text and changes to the range maps.

More text

It was widely commented upon how the first Sibley guide was textually sparse. But Rob Fergus points out that this is an illusion; it actually averages more words per species account than almost every other field guide. The second edition has even more. A block of text has been added next to each range map that gives information on population and habitats, as well as additional details on behavior, variation, and other things as appropriate. Essentially, this section is based on the text accounts from the Sibley regional guides. I always liked that part of the regional guides (as a new birder, I especially appreciated seeing whether the bird was common, uncommon, etc.), and am very happy it is now incorporated into the “big” Sibley. The identification-related text at the top of the account has also been expanded.

One feature I really like in the Sibley guide is the sidebars. This new edition includes some new ones, like Molt in Seabirds, Old World and New World Names, and Owling. A few of the older ones haven’t been carried over, such as Raptor Hunting Techniques. These sidebars continue to present a great amount of useful and relevant information.

Range maps

The range maps have, of course, been updated to reflect the latest knowledge of distribution. Also, instead of using dots to denote specific locations of rare occurrence, a more general region is shaded to denote where the bird rarely turns up. This change was actually introduced in the regional guides published after the first big one, but is done to an even greater extent here. Another welcome change is that instead of each map showing the entire continent, if a bird has a more limited range the map is “zoomed in” so that you can see that range more clearly.

Extinct species

The introduction of the first edition had a list of bird species and subspecies that have gone extinct and the date they were last recorded in the wild. Now an illustration has been added for each. This may seem like a small change, but a visual reminder of what we’ve lost is important.

Checklist

A checklist of all the species in the guide has been added to the back.

Size

Even with more illustrations and text, the trim size is no bigger than the first edition. There are 79 more pages this time around, but the increase in thickness and weight aren’t very appreciable.

Issues

Much has been made of how dark the artwork is in this new edition (see Brooke McDonald’s review). The difference from the first edition is truly striking. The good news is that in some cases this has greatly enhanced the artwork. But in others, like the Prothonotary Warbler, it detracts. It may just take some getting used to; already, the first edition is starting to look a little washed out to me. And it’s not as if every illustration across the board is a few shades darker. Some, like the nonbreeding Herring Gull, are actually lighter.

But, I’m sad to say, there are some true issues with the colors. Reds seem particularly affected. The Scarlet Tanager is way too dark; as are the bills of the adult breeding Laughing Gull and Royal Tern (it has a darker red bill than that of the Caspian Tern in the first edition!). But there’s also the opposite issue – the 2nd winter Heermann’s Gull is annotated with “red bill”, but its bill is unquestionably not red. Oddly, though, not all red looks off. The crown-patch of the Ruby-crowned Kinglet is fine, as is the Red-faced Warbler.

Comparison of Scarlet Tanagers between The Sibley Guide to Birds first and second editions

This isn't the best picture, but you can clearly see the difference in the Scarlet Tanagers. The first edition (left) was definitely brilliant red. The second edition (right), not so much.

I had a strong reaction to two other illustrations. The adult breeding Chipping Sparrow’s crown is too brown, and not that wonderful shade of rufous that I’ve loved since I was a little kid. And the Worm-eating Warbler’s head is too greenish, to the point that beginning birders could get confused. Both of these looked perfect to me in the previous edition.

The second issue is readability. The text is pretty small and relatively light on the page. The small font size is understandable given the increase in amount of text and both number and size of illustrations. But some sections of text are printed in not-quite-black, which has made it a little difficult for me to read in some lighting conditions. Those who have trouble reading small print should be aware.

As for other errors, I’ve only noticed one worth pointing out – the illustrations for Magnolia Warbler adult female breeding and adult male nonbreeding are swapped.

The Sibley Guide was already, in my opinion, the best field guide for North America. The second edition’s changes and additions have made it even better. I really want to give it a wholehearted recommendation, and would without the color reproduction issues. I started birding a few years after the first Sibley guide was published, but I understand its first printing also had some color issues that were corrected in subsequent printings. I hope that will be the case this time around as well. By all means, go ahead and get The Sibley Guide: Second Edition if you can’t wait. But otherwise, you may want to hold off for just a little bit in case it does get fixed.

The Warbler GuideThe Warbler Guide
by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle

There’s a lot to say about The Warbler Guide, a new photographic guide to North American warblers. There’s so much, in fact, that I can’t fit it all into one review. So in this first part I will go over the heart of the book – the species accounts. In the next, I’ll describe the guide’s many other features and give some thoughts and analysis.

Species Accounts

The accounts spread over six to sixteen pages each, chock full of photos and sonograms. You won’t find extensive text that includes such things as taxonomy and nesting. Everything here was included with the express purpose of helping you ID these birds. Let’s step through a sample account page by page.

American Redstart species account from The Warbler Guide

The common and scientific names are first, naturally. But then, if you look at this American Redstart account, you see “Adult Male – All Seasons”. When there is enough of a difference within a species – whether male/female, spring/fall, or bright/drab birds – each gets its own sub-account. In the case of this redstart, there are separate ones for adult males and females / first-year males. Next, you will notice some icons. Their purpose is to quickly convey important information. From left to right they are:

  • Silhouettes – shows the shape of the species
  • Color Impression – a generalized color diagram
  • Tail Pattern – underside of the tail (VERY useful)
  • Quick Range – fast way to tell what region it’s found in
  • Preferred Habitat – where the bird tends to be found
  • Behavior – separate icons for six behaviors (in this case sally feeding and tail cocking)

I don’t like it when books use a lot of icons like these; I find it hard to keep them all straight. But in this case they are very easy to understand, though you may have to look up the behavioral icons a couple of times. They do a great job at conveying important information very quickly.

The majority of the first page of each account is devoted to three photos and their captions. The photos are similar in each account; they show the bird facing to the right from the side, 45 degrees below, and directly underneath. Considering how often you see warblers above you, the latter two poses are exceedingly useful. The captions point out a few things to look for, with diagnostic field marks preceded by a check mark.

American Redstart additional photos from The Warbler Guide

The second page starts with four unlabeled “distinctive views” showing, up close and personal, important features. “Additional Photos” fill the remainder of the page. These depict other angles and behaviors. Each includes a short caption that you shouldn’t ignore. They expound on what you need to look for and give other interesting facts.

American Redstart comparison species from The Warbler Guide

The third page is for comparisons to similar species. At the top it shows the side and underneath photos again, along with the primary field marks. Underneath, there are one or more shots of other birds that may be confused for the given species. The captions concisely explain the differences.

American Redstart ageing from The Warbler Guide

The next page is dedicated to aging and sexing. It includes photos and descriptions that will help the user determine a warbler’s age and sex, when possible. I like to record the age and sex of the birds I see, so I appreciate that it very clearly tells you what classes are and are not separable in both the spring and fall. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a warbler, mostly in the fall, and wondered if there was any way that I could tell if this was an immature or adult. I look forward to practicing on American Redstarts this fall. Maybe I’ll record fewer of them as “yellowstarts” this year.

This page also includes one or two range maps and bar graphs for migration timing. The maps use separate colors for permanent, migration, and main and fringe ranges in both summer and winter (that’s a total of six categories). Arrows show the primary routes. When migration routes differ in spring and fall, two maps are included. The bar graphs indicate the relative timing, length, and intensity of migration.

American Redstart vocalizations from The Warbler Guide

Yes, there’s more. Next up are one or more pages of sonograms (the redstart has four pages!). If you’re not familiar with sonograms or are intimidated by them, don’t worry. The authors give a fabulous explanation of their system in the guide’s introduction. They include all of the bird’s song types (most warblers have two) and their chip and flight notes. Just as they do with photos, Stephenson and Whittle include comparison species here also.

With practice, you can tell much about a vocalization just by the sonogram, and when you add the authors’ comments, you can all but hear the bird in this section. But if you want to hear it for real, an audio companion pack is available from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library. It costs $5.99 to download, but is essential if you want to use this guide to learn warbler songs.

Seven range-restricted or vagrant warblers (Crescent-chested, Fan-tailed, Golden-crowned, Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, Rufous-capped, Slate-throated Redstart, and Tropical Parula) have abbreviated, two-page accounts. They drop the distinctive views and aging/sexing sections, and have fewer photos and vocalizations overall. But they still include more information than full species accounts in some guides!

I’ve got some quibbles with these accounts (see the full review), but overall I can’t imagine more useful, better designed species accounts for these birds.

Continue to my full review of The Warbler Guide

Save the Last Dance: A Story of North American Grassland GrouseSave the Last Dance: A Story of North American Grassland Grouse
by Noppadol Paothong and Joel M. Vance

Noppadol Paothong’s article in the April 2012 issue of BirdWatching magazine on finding the five species of grassland grouse would stand out to any reader on the basis of his photographs alone. But even more than these remarkable images, a small blurb of text caught my eye. It said that Paothong was working on a book titled Save the Last Dance: A Story of North American Grassland Grouse. A quick Google search revealed the book’s website. After perusing the site, it became obvious that this would be one of my most anticipated books of the year. After looking through and reading the book for just a day, it has already exceeded even my wildest expectations. I plan on posting a full review, but for right now I’ll just let the book speak for itself.

 

Size comparison of Save the Last Dance: A Story of North American Grassland Grouse

Title page from Save the Last Dance: A Story of North American Grassland Grouse

Greater Sage-grouse from Save the Last Dance: A Story of North American Grassland Grouse

Attwater's Prairie-chicken chick from Save the Last Dance: A Story of North American Grassland Grouse

Sharp-tailed Grouse from Save the Last Dance: A Story of North American Grassland Grouse

The Young Birder's Guide to Birds of North AmericaThe Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of North America
by Bill Thompson III

2008 saw the publication of the excellent The Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of Eastern North America, by Bill Thompson III. Just about the only negative thing that could be said about it was that it only covered the eastern half of North America, with no corresponding western guide. Well, Thompson has now remedied that.

This new Young Birder’s Guide is essentially the previous eastern guide with about 100 additional, mostly western, birds. All of the 200 accounts from the previous guide have been carried over, largely untouched. The only changes I’ve noticed are the combining of a few birds with their western counterpart (i.e. Eastern and Western Wood-pewees, and Eastern and Spotted Towhees), and the replacement of a couple photos (for example, the female “Slate-colored” Dark-eyed Junco is now an Oregon type).

Everything about this guide has been tailored specifically for children 8-12 years of age, give or take. I wish that something like The Young Birder’s Guide had been available when I was that age!

Buntings from The Young Birder's Guide to Birds of North America

Larkwire is a website devoted to helping birders learn bird songs. You access it from your computer or web-enabled mobile device, just like any other website (no native mobile apps yet, but they are working on it).

I haven’t used Larkwire enough to give an in-depth review and recommendation. So in this initial review, I just want to show what it’s all about and give some preliminary thoughts.

The interface is designed to look like a mobile app, and works pretty well on the computer. It’s a little different on my iPhone, but I haven’t used it enough on that device to get a feel for it there. You can browse and play any song in the collection, but the main feature of Larkwire is the games.

main screen of Larkwire

Larkwire's main screen

In the first, the “Gallery game”, you are presented with four birds from the group(s) you have chosen to focus on. The purpose of the game is to hear the difference between similar-sounding birds. The game will play a sound, and you try to match the bird. Larkwire’s sound library includes multiple tracks for each species, so you have much more than four songs to listen to in each gallery game. You can’t think “Oh, it’s already played a robin, so this has to be something else.”

Gallery game of Larkwire

Gallery game

After the round is done the site will present your results, along with a recommendation on how to proceed. Larkwire will keep track of what you have done and will even adjust to your learning pace and style.

Gallery game results in Larkwire

Gallery game results

The other game is designed to mimic the experience of being in the field. It will play a song from the chosen group(s), but without any visual aide. You indicate whether you know it or aren’t sure, and the game will display the bird for confirmation.

It’s very flexible in that you can choose how many groups you want to be included. Want to focus on buzzy-sounding warblers? Select just that group. Want more variety? Choose them all. You can also select just certain birds from amongst the any of the groups.

browse view in Larkwire

Browsing the thrushes

It’s also customizable to your experience level. You can set it to beginner, intermediate, or advanced, with each including more challenging songs.

Larkwire is not a free site. You can demo it for free, but you have to buy “songpacks” in order to really use the site. The smallest of the packs contains the 25 most common land birds for your area and costs $3.95. If you want all the sounds (344 species in total), it’s $24.95. And there are a couple of choices in between.

Honestly, I wasn’t too sure how well Larkwire would work when I first tried it out. But after using it for a bit, I think it has a lot of promise. After an intensive session of robin-like songs, for example, I found that it became progressively easier to differentiate between the robin and Rose-breasted Grosbeak. I’m really looking forward to spending more time with it. I’ve always had problems with some warbler songs, so I think I’ll focus on them next. After all, spring is approaching…

National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, Sixth Edition Several times in her podcasts I’ve heard Birdchick advise her listeners not to upgrade their field guide (provided their current one is no more than a decade old, or so). As the multitude of Extra Special [fill in the blank with some annoying, vaguely title-specific phrase] Edition DVD’s on my shelves would tell you, I would never go so far as to say that. But I would agree with her about this: if all the new guide does is update the taxonomy to conform with the latest updates from the AOU and ABA, then what’s the point? For it to be worth buying, any new or updated North American field guide needs to do more than be current with all the splits, lumps, and new species for the ABA area.

So what about the new, “fully revised and updated” sixth edition of the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America? The quick answer is that it is more than the fifth edition with updated taxonomy. Still, is it worth upgrading? I’m not prepared to give a pronouncement on that yet, but I must say that it includes some unique and useful additions. Once I’ve had time to really get into it I’ll post a full review with my opinions. But in the meantime, to help you make an informed decision, here is a breakdown of the new features and changes.

Species

At 990 species, this new one includes 23 more than the prior. Actually, there are 26 new birds as three have been removed: Dusky-headed Parakeet and Crested Myna from the main body; and Caribbean Elaenia from the Accidentals list. Five of the 26 new ones have been added to the main section: White-chinned Petrel, Rosy-faced Lovebird, White-eyed Parakeet, Red-lored Parrot, and Loggerhead Kingbird. The rest have been added to the Accidentals:

  • Townsend’s Shearwater
  • Swinhoe’s Storm-Petrel
  • Tristram’s Storm-Petrel
  • Bare-throated Tiger-Heron
  • Intermediate Egret
  • Sungrebe
  • Solitary Snipe
  • Swallow-tailed Gull
  • European Turtle-Dove
  • Brown Hawk-Owl
  • Amazon Kingfisher
  • White-crested Elaenia
  • Crowned Slaty Flycatcher
  • Gray-collared Becard
  • Sinaloa Wren
  • Sedge Warbler
  • Rufous-tailed Robin
  • Brown-backed Solitaire
  • Song Thrush
  • Red-legged Thrush
  • Yellow-browed Bunting

Size

Thanks to these new additions, along with other changes, this sixth edition is a little larger than its predecessor. At 575 pages, it is 72 pages, or 14%, thicker. But this is negligible, I don’t think anyone carrying this guide will notice it.

Taxonomy

All the latest AOU changes have been incorporated here, including renaming Common Moorhen to Common Gallinule, the massive overhaul of warblers, and moving the longspurs and snow buntings from after the sparrows to just before the warblers.

Maps

Range maps from National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, Fifth Edition

Range maps for Philadelphia Vireo (top) and Warbling Vireo (bottom) from NatGeo 5th edition

Range maps from National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, Sixth Edition

Range maps for the same species from the new 6th edition

The range maps have been revised based on the latest understanding of distribution. For instance, if you look closely at these sample maps you’ll see the isolated breeding population of Warbling Vireos in South Carolina is now indicated. Some maps, where appropriate, now show more area to the north, around Greenland, and to the south into Mexico. And there are some more noticeable changes as well. First, I’m sure you noted that the Warbling Vireo map has subspecies information on it. More about this shortly. Additionally, there are some new, shiny colors. Nowadays, it is worth noting when a field guide does not show the migration range. So it is not surprising that this has been added. But National Geographic took it a step further and included separate colors for spring, autumn, and both-way migration. This is the first guide I’m aware of to do that, and it is very helpful. [Update: Thanks to Georgann for reminding me that the old Golden Guide by Zim and Robbins also did this. That guide really was ahead of its time.] The Philadelphia Vireo map, for example, suggests that my best chance for seeing one where I live in Georgia is in the fall (yellow=fall migration and orange=both). And that is, indeed, the case.

The maps of 59 birds with multiple subspecies are marked to show the ranges of the constituent subspecies. For others, the maps are not large enough to include the necessary information, so there are new, larger subspecies maps for 37 species in the back. These appear very well done, and I’m looking forward to studying them further. But note, not all birds have their subspecies mapped.

Subspecies range maps from National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, Sixth Edition

Visual Index

The inside of the front and back covers now has a visual index to bird families.

Illustrations

The pointers and plate annotations introduced in the 2008 NatGeo Eastern and Western regional guides have been carried over here. I find these very useful and am glad they are here. They do not come without a cost, however. Most illustrations are reproduced slightly smaller than in the 5th edition in order to accommodate them.

The in-flight plates for ducks, raptors, shorebirds, and immature gulls are retained, but the in-flight illustrations have also been added to most of the regular accounts as well.

I’ve gone through this guide and compared it, plate-by-plate, to the previous edition. The front cover claims there are “300 new art pieces”. That wouldn’t surprise me. Here are all of the changes that I’ve found. Two caveats: I make no claims as to the comprehensiveness of this list, and some of these changes may have been made in the regional guides, but I don’t have those so I can’t be sure.

These species have been completely redone with new artwork, and in many cases additional images have been added. (Some of these changes were desperately needed.):

Spizella sparrows from National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, Sixth Edition

This completely redone plate is a huge improvement over the previous one (if you pardon the bad scan)

  • Greater White-fronted Goose
  • Bean Goose – split to Tundra and Taiga Bean-Goose, with new art
  • Brant – more variation shown, all artwork replaced
  • Baikal Teal
  • Garganey
  • Northern Fulmar – redone, with additional illustrations
  • Great Shearwater
  • Storm-petrels – all completely redone
  • Northern Gannet
  • Great Cormorant
  • Neotropic Cormorant
  • Reddish Egret
  • Red-tailed Hawk
  • King Rail
  • Clapper Rail
  • Virginia Rail
  • Corn Crake
  • Thick-billed Murre
  • Rhinoceros Auklet
  • Horned Puffin
  • Tufted Puffin
  • Common Cuckoo
  • Oriental Cuckoo
  • Goatsuckers – all have been completely redone, except Common Pauraque
  • Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher
  • Hutton’s Vireo
  • Western Scrub-Jay
  • Crows and Ravens – all redone (except Eurasian Jackdaw); in-flight and other illustrations added for most
  • Brown Creeper – redone, now shows both eastern and southwestern
  • Winter Wren
  • Sedge Wren
  • Marsh Wren – single illustration replaced by three: eatern (dissaeptus), south Atlantic coast (griseus), and western (aestuarinus)
  • Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  • Golden-crowned Kinglet
  • Middendorff’s Grasshopper-Warbler
  • Dusky Warbler
  • Arctic Warbler
  • Palm Warbler
  • Louisiana Waterthrush
  • Northern Waterthrush
  • Wilson’s Warbler
  • Common Yellowthroat
  • Rufous-winged Sparrow
  • Chipping Sparrow
  • Clay-colored Sparrow
  • Brewer’s Sparrow
  • Savannah Sparrow
  • Grasshopper Sparrow
  • Lincoln’s Sparrow
  • White-crowned Sparrow
  • Gray Bunting
  • Reed Bunting
  • Little Bunting
  • Pallas’s Bunting
  • Rustic Bunting
  • Painted Bunting
  • Indigo Bunting
  • Lazuli Bunting
  • Varied Bunting
  • Brown-headed Cowbird
  • Bronzed Cowbird
  • All 3 Rosy-finches
  • Purple Finch
  • Cassin’s Finch
  • House Finch
  • Common Rosefinch

Here are some further changes:

  • Cackling Goose – “Richardson’s” redone
  • Canada Goose – moffitti ssp added; flying illustration from below removed
  • Swans – comparison of Trumpeter and Tundra bills added
  • Mottled Duck – illustration of the “mainly Florida” fulvigula ssp added
  • Green-winged Teal – female redone
  • Cinnamon Teal – female redone
  • Common Eider – adult and eclipse male v-nigrum removed, but added a comparison of male heads of all 4 subspecies
  • Harlequin Duck – male redone
  • Black Scoter – inset of Common Scoter added
  • White-winged Scoter – illustration of “Velvet Scoter” added
  • Common Goldeneye – illustration of courtship display removed
  • Swan Goose – removed from Exotic Waterfowl
  • Northern Bobwhite – added males of taylori and floridanus ssp
  • Shy Albatross – “Salvin’s” illustration added
  • White-tailed Tropicbird – added inset of Pacific adult head
  • Brown Pelican – removed diving sequence and added breeding adult californicus
  • Cattle Egret – coromandus ssp added
  • Great Egret – modesta head inset added; high breeding adult modified slightly
  • American Flamingo – in-flight added
  • White-tailed Eagle – illustration of standing bird added
  • Steller’s Sea-Eagle – illustration of standing bird added
  • Red-shouldered Hawk – added two elegans in flight
  • Ferruginous Hawk – added perched juvenile
  • Raptors in Flight – most buteos redone; replaced adult accipiters with juveniles
  • Common Gallinule – added inset of Eurasian Moorhen head
  • American Oystercatcher – frazari ssp added
  • Eskimo Curlew – moved to Accidentals section
  • Semi-palmated Sandpiper – added breeding female
  • Yellow-legged Gull – added winter adult atlantis
  • Bridled Tern – first summer added
  • Jaegers – for each: added standing light-morph/typical juvenile and head of light-morph/typical breeding adult
  • Common Murre – in-flight illustration replaced
  • Black Guillemot – added mandtii; added breeding adult in-flight
  • Zenaida Dove – added female
  • Smooth-billed Ani – sunning illustration removed
  • Black Switf – both adult and juvenile have been slightly touched up
  • Xantus’s Hummingbird – moved to Accidentals
  • American Three-toed Woodpecker – added male and female bacatus and inset of dorsalis
  • Willow Flycatcher – added 1st fall brewsteri
  • Loggerhead Shrike – comparison of in-flight shrike and mockingbird redone
  • Horned Lark – removed: juvenile and female alpestris (“Northern”); added: female, winter male and juvenile ammophila (“southwestern”)
  • Purple Martin – added western female in flight
  • Brown-chested Martin – moved to main section from Accidentals
  • Willow Warbler – moved to main section from Accidentals
  • Yellow-browed Warbler – moved to main section from Accidentals
  • Northern Mockingbird – in-flight redone
  • Snow Bunting – added 1st winter female in flight
  • Bachman’s Warbler – moved to Accidentals
  • Nashville Warbler – replaced immature female, added adult male ridgwayi
  • Yellow Warbler – added immature female amnicola
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler – replaced fall female Myrtle
  • Yellow-breasted Chat – added head of female auricollis
  • Western Spindalis – added male pretrei (from Cuba)
  • Rufous-crowned Sparrow – coastal juvenile replaced with juvenile eremoeca
  • Lark Sparrow – in-flight illustration removed
  • Song Sparrow – juvenile melodia replaced with juvenile heermanni
  • Fox Sparrow – “Red” redone
  • Northern Cardinal – added southwestern male
  • Eastern Meadowlark – added in-flight illustration
  • Hooded Oriole – added male cucullatus
  • Common Redpoll – added female rostrata

cover of Binocular Vision: The Politics of Representation in Birdwatching Field Guides, by Spencer Schaffner The field guide is an indispensable tool of the birder. Birders study them, enjoy their art or photographs, and, of course, use them to identify birds. But how often do we really think about field guides and what we should expect from them? And have you ever considered the possibility that field guides may influence their users in matters other than identification? Spencer Schaffner has. In Binocular Vision, Schaffner explores the broader implications, beyond that of ID, of bird representations in field guides.

Schaffner starts with an examination of the first field guides from the late nineteenth century and contrasts their treatment of birds with modern guides. He goes on to scrutinize online and digital field guides, completing a look at the evolution of this genre from its beginnings unto today. But this book is more than a history of the field guide.

The author’s main contention is that “representations of birds and the environment in field-guide literature have much broader implications” than simply identification. Schaffner uses the term binocular vision to denote a way of “seeing and thinking about birds as detached from the physical, political, and ideological worlds that greatly affect them”. He argues that, with their focus on identification, field guides serve to foster this narrow view of nature.

I don’t agree with all of the author’s conclusions, but this book forced me to take a more critical look at field guides and what their role can and should be. And that made it very much worth reading.

Here’s the full review.

Binocular Vision: The Politics of Representation in Birdwatching Field Guides
by Spencer Schaffner
University of Massachusetts Press, 2011
$24.95

Disclosure: The item used to produce this review was a complementary review copy provided by the publisher.

I was first introduced to Richard Crossley’s striking photographic bird plates nearly two years ago. A post on 10,000 Birds linked to Crossley’s gallery and asked if this could become North America’s best identification guide. A year later, Princeton University Press announced that they would publish The Crossley ID Guide. The sample plates were unique and utterly amazing. I couldn’t wait to see the book for myself.

In the past month, the buildup to the book’s publication has seen more plates revealed, video interviews with the author, and a few early reviews. I was starting to wonder if it would live up to my lofty expectations. Finally, the day came when I had in my hands The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds.

The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds in hand

After my initial look-through, I was distinctly…whelmed. I neither loved nor hated it. I still appreciated the reality birding concept that Crossley was going for, where the birds are shown as a part of a lifelike scene in their actual habitat, at various distances, and in all sorts of plumages. But maybe the novelty of the plates was starting to wear off. Some of them also looked “off” somehow, in a manner that I couldn’t quite articulate.

But as I continued through the guide, I started looking at the images more closely. I found myself trying to find all of the birds in each scene, which is not as easy as it sounds. It’s not unusual for songbird plates to have as many as 15 (or more) representatives portrayed. I also started to notice some small details, such as the House Finch that had conjunctivitis. Some images also showed behaviors that aren’t usually mentioned in field guides, much less actually illustrated, like a Rough-legged Hawk perched on a limb that looks much too small to support it, or a Blue-winged Warbler poking its head into a cluster of dead leaves.

Blue-winged Warbler account from The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds

I had to further reconsider some initial impressions when I read Crossley’s blog posts explaining some choices concerning color and sharpness in his images. To keep the plates as realistic as possible, many of them are darker and less sharp than photos we’re used to seeing in field guides. I realized that was the main source of my nebulous consternation regarding the images. Once I understood what was being attempted, it bothered me much less. However, there are some images that still seem too dark, like the Bay-breasted Warbler below. The lighting may accurately reflect the conditions in the spruce-bogs where they breed but, call me crazy, I’d like to be able to see at least one of the breeding males well.

Bay-breasted Warbler account from The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds

The text, overshadowed by the images literally and figuratively, is more extensive than it appears. It covers abundance, behavior, habitat, voice, and identification. It’s very informal, and more than once certain phrases or descriptions reminded me of something Pete Dunne would write (a very big complement coming from me). Don’t skip it. The range maps are pretty standard, though unfortunately they don’t include migratory range.

I should also mention that this thing is huge. You’re not going to want to take this in the field with you. But that’s ok; everything about this book was designed to be studied at home, before you go birding.

I’ve got plenty more to say about it, including additional distinctive features and, sadly, some issues. But that’s going to have to wait for the full review. The more time I spend with The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds, the more I enjoy it and the more I learn from it. This is one book that anyone interested in North American birds needs to see.

Continue on to the full review of the Crossley guide.

cover of The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds, by Richard Crossley

This is an initial overview of the new The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America. A more detailed review is forthcoming, but I wanted to go ahead and post some thoughts before the book is widely available.

Size comparison between the Sibley and Stokes guides

This thing is thick and hefty.

The first thing you’ll notice about this book (well, after the gorgeous bird on the cover) is the size. Not so much the trim size, which is larger than the National Geographic guide but smaller than the big Sibley and Peterson, but the thickness and heft. But 800+ pages don’t seem that bad when you realize that this guide uses over 3,400 photographs to cover 854 species.

If you do the math on the numbers above, you find that there should be an average of four photos per species. That seems about right. Most birds have a complete page devoted to them, with three to six photographs at the top, accompanied by text and range map at the bottom of the page. Some species get “only” half a page, while members of more variable groups, like hawks and gulls, usually have two pages. The layout of the guide, in which the photos are placed flush with the edges of the page, reduces white space and thus allows the pictures to be reproduced in a larger size than otherwise possible.

Sample warblers from Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America

Most birds get an entire page all to themselves.

Laughing Gull from Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America

Though some get even more, especially the extremely variable hawks and gulls.

The text starts by focusing on the bird’s shape, and then proceeds to describe the plumages, broken down by age and gender. Notes on habitat and voice are given. Finally, it gives information on subspecies: how many subspecies are found in North America, their names, ranges, and how to differentiate them. The rather small range maps indicate the bird’s permanent, breeding, winter, and migratory ranges. They also use dotted lines to show where it rarely occurs.

Sample thrushes from Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America

Many rare and range-restricted birds are included, and get full accounts just like the more common ones.

My initial impression of the Stokes guide is very favorable. And while I think there are some improvements that could be made, this is definitely a field guide worth having. It will be impractical to use in the field due to the size and weight. But the features directly contributing to that – the number of species and generous amount of space devoted to each one – make it an ideal reference for your car or home.

Continue on to the Full Review.

Sibley eGuide iPhone app

North America’s most popular field guide is now available as an app on the iPhone and iPod Touch. Here is an initial review, focusing on the meat of the app – the species accounts. A full review will follow.

Species account from the Sibley eGuide iPhone app

The majority of the screen is devoted to the art, with the text on the bottom. You can scroll up and down to see additional images, and tap to enlarge them. The text is also scrollable.

Sample map from the Sibley eGuide iPhone app

The map button replaces the bird images with a map. You cannot scroll, but can tap to zoom in slightly. Tap the button again to deselect the map and again show the bird.

Sound menu from the Sibley eGuide iPhone app

Tapping the sound button brings up a list of available sounds. The selected one is automatically played.

Sample text from the Sibley eGuide iPhone app

Tapping the text makes it appear full screen, making it much easier to read.

The app is a fairly straightforward and faithful port of the Sibley print guides, both the “big” Sibley and the two regional editions. Almost all of the art is included. As best as I can tell, all of the images under each account in the book is here, but some of the sidebar/vignette images and hybrids are not. The maps are the updated ones from the regional guides. The text is mostly from the regional guides, although some additional text has been taken from the “big” Sibley where appropriate.

Overall, I am pleased to see that just about everything (including the introduction text and topography diagrams!) from the printed guides has been included in the app. However, I have found a few things that should have been included, but were not.

The app’s content, therefore, is outstanding. But some of the implementation details and features, such as the navigation, searching, and filtering capabilities, leave much to be desired. I will elaborate in the full review.

Continue to the full review of The Sibley eGuide