Quick Picks

National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 7th Edition National Geographic recently published a new edition of their popular bird field guide. As always, this new edition incorporates new species (1,023, up from 990) and the latest taxonomic updates (as of 2016), but also has a range of other changes and improvements. Most of these are new, replacement illustrations. In this case, new is improved – these are all definite improvements. The maps have also been extensively updated, with 50+ new range maps (vagrants, i.e. Smew), 16 new subspecies maps, and “hundreds” of updated maps. I’ll offer my thoughts on all of this in my full review. But in the meantime, here are all of the changes to the plates, as best I could tell, whether they be new species, new or replacement illustrations, or changes to the annotated notes.

  • Egyptian Goose – new (moved from Exotic Waterfowl to main section)
  • Tundra and Trumpeter Swams – bills of the juveniles are more pink, and Tundra has a new note that there is “extensive pink at base of bill on juvenile”
  • “Mexican Duck” – added note that female is similar to male and both lack dark saddle on bill. Nice addition since only the male is illustrated
  • American x Eurasian Wigeon hybrid – new
  • Harlequin Duck – new notes on female
  • Common Merganser – new illustration of the head of displaying “Goosander” adult male
  • Swan Goose – addition to Exotic Waterfowl
  • Graylag Goose – moved from Exotic Waterfowl to Accidentals section
  • Sooty Grouse – new illustrations of displaying male sitkensis and hooting male howardi
  • Rock Ptarmigan – new illustration of Attu evermanni summer male
  • American Flamingo – new illustrations of Lesser, Greater, and Chilean Flamingos
  • Jouanin’s Petrel – new
  • Providence Petrel – new
  • Zino’s Petrel – new
  • Flesh-footed Shearwater – replaced illustration; added illustrations of one taking off and one sitting on water (with comparison to Heermann’s Gull)
  • Manx Shearwater – in-flight top view illustration replaced; one of the in-flight bottom views removed
  • Audubon’s Shearwater – both in-flight illustrations replaced; added 2 illustrations of birds on the water
  • Barolo Shearwater – split from Little Shearwater. Previous illustrations of Little replaced; added bird on the water
  • Nazca Booby – new
  • Tricolored Heron – new illustration of in-flight breeding adult (very needed addition)
  • Little Blue Heron – new illustration of in-flight adult
  • Green Heron – replaced in-flight illustration
  • Osprey – new illustration of ridgwayi
  • Mississippi Kite – in-flight illustrations have been replaced and an in-flight 1st summer added
  • Swainson’s Hawk – in-flight illustrations have been replaced and an in-flight juvenile added
  • White-tailed Hawk – added in-flight 2nd year
  • Ferruginous Hawk – replaced in-flight adults and juvenile
  • Rough-legged Hawk – replaced in-flight adults, and totally new annotations
  • American Kestrel – added in-flight female
  • Prairie Falcon – replaced in-flight image
  • Peregrine Falcon – replaced in-flight adult, added in-flight juvenile
  • Gyrfalcon – replaced in-flight image
  • Limpkin – added in-flight
  • Yellow Rail – replaced in-flight image
  • Black Rail – replaced image
  • Sora – added in-flight juvenile
  • Corn Crake – added in-flight
  • Ridgway’s Rail – added Bay Area obsoletus
  • Clapper Rail – added worn adult
  • Common Gallinule – replaced the breeding and juvenile images, added inset of the head of Eurasian Moorhen adult breeding
  • Sandhill Crane – replaced in-flight image
  • Common Crane – replaced in-flight image
  • Little Gull – juvenile added
  • Bonaparte’s Gull – juvenile added
  • Franklin’s Gull – juvenile added
  • Heermann’s Gull – juvenile added
  • Yellow-legged Gull – added 2nd winter
  • Bridled / Sooty Terns – added detailed comparison of adult heads
  • Caspian Tern – juvenile added
  • Elegant Tern – juvenile added
  • Common Murre – winter replaced, juvenile removed
  • Pigeon Guillemot – in-flight winter adult replaced (mislabeled as breeding in 6th ed.); breeding adult in flight added
  • Cassin’s Auklet – both illustrations replaced
  • Ancient Murrelet – all illustrations replaced
  • Guadalupe / Scripps’s / Craveri’s Murrelets – all illustrations replaced and new ones, such as close-ups of heads, added
  • Atlantic Puffin – in-flight replaced
  • Band-tailed Pigeon – juvenile (head-only) added
  • Common Ground-dove – all illustrations replaced, with new ones added
  • Ruddy Ground-dove – all illustrations replaced, with new ones added
  • Ruddy Quail-dove – both images replaced
  • Greater Roadrunner – image replaced, in-flight illustration added
  • Long-eared Owl – added in-flight and Eurasian otus ssp
  • Short-eared Owl – added illustration of domingensis (Carribean ssp)
  • Northern Saw-whet Owl – added brooksi ssp
  • Common Pauraque – replaced both sitting and in-flight birds
  • Mexican Whip-poor-will – replaced image
  • Elegant Trogon – juvenile added
  • Hummingbirds – ALL replaced (except for Lucifer) and many new images and details added
  • American Three-toed Woodpecker – Rocky Mountain male replaced with a female
  • Northern Flicker – added image of intergrade male Red-shafted x Yellow-shafted
  • Pine Flycatcher – new species
  • Eastern Kingbird – adult and in-flight replaced, juvenile missing
  • Thick-billed Kingbird – both images replaced
  • Great Kiskadee – perched bird replaced
  • White-eyed Vireo – inset of an immature added
  • Blue-headed Vireo – replaced, added female
  • Cassin’s / Plumbeous / Gray Vireo – all replaced
  • Yellow-green Vireo – replaced, immature added
  • Black-whiskered Vireo – replaced, added altiloquus
  • Blue Jay – added in-flight
  • Florida Scrub-jay – image replaced
  • Yellow-billed Magpie – added juvenile
  • Purple Martin – all images replaced except for western female in flight
  • Northern Rough-winged Swallow – all illustrations replaced
  • Bank Swallow – all illustrations replaced
  • White-breasted Nuthatch – images replaced, added male aculeate
  • Rock Wren – replaced
  • Cactus Wren – added saniegensis
  • Winter Wren – illustration darkened
  • Sinaloa Wren – added (moved from Accidental section)
  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher – added female obscura
  • Willow Warbler – added fall illustration
  • Artic Warbler – fall xanthodryas removed (7th ed. Informs us that ssp is now split as Japanese Leaf Warbler, which is unrecorded in N.A.)
  • Common Chiffchaff – added
  • Wood Warbler and Pallas’s Leaf Warbler – added (moved from Accidental section)
  • Bluebirds – all lightened up
  • Aztec Thrush – all replaced
  • Gray Catbird – lightened
  • Blue Mockingbird – lightened a bit
  • Brown / Long-billed Thrasher – both replaced
  • Common Myna – added in-flight
  • Eastern Yellow Wagtail – removed juvenile
  • White Wagtail – added breeding male alba
  • Bohemian Waxwing – adut replaced, added centralasiae and in-flight
  • Cedar Waxwing – added in-flight
  • Lonspurs – added wing tip detail for each species
  • Magnolia Warbler – all replaced
  • Black-throated Gray Warbler – added immature female
  • Cerulean Warbler – added fall immature male
  • Red-legged Honeycreeper – new
  • Rufous-crowned Sparrow – the interior and coastal adults have been replaced, southwestern scottii added, and juvenile image retained, but darkened a little
  • Field Sparrow – all illustrations replaced
  • Bell’s / Sagebrush Sparrows – added illustrations of outer tail feathers
  • Fox Sparrow – all replaced except for “Red” (which was new in 6th), “Sooty” townsendi added
  • Pine Bunting – new (moved from Accidentals and added female and breeding male)
  • Yellow-browed Bunting – new (moved from Accidentals and added spring male)
  • Yellow-throated Bunting – new (moved from Accidentals and added female)
  • Flame-colored x Western Tanager hybrid – new
  • Red-winged Blackbird – the 3 female images are replaced
  • Tricolored Blackbird – female replaced
  • Orchard Oriole – breeding male fuertesi added
  • Brown-capped Rosy-finch – male replaced
  • Pine Siskin – added green morph
  • Hawfinch – breeding male replaced, fall/winter female added
  • Northern Red Bishop – (renamed from Orange Bishop) female replaced
  • Pin-tailed Whydah – new
  • Bronze Mannikin – new
  • Tricolored Munia – new

Sibley Eastern and Western regional guides, 2nd editions

When the second edition of The Sibley Guide to Birds was published in 2014, everyone wanted to know when the Eastern and Western regional guides and the app would be likewise updated. Now, two years later, the new regional guides are set to be published. (We’re still waiting on the app…)

These new regional guides are roughly the same size as the first editions, and include the same type of information. The big change is that the layout now matches that in the “big” Sibley – species are presented in a vertical column, one or two per page. This differs from the first editions, in which the birds were arranged in “blocks” of half a page each.

Sibley Regional guide compared to the Big Sibley

2nd edition Sibley regional guide (top) compared to the 'big Sibley' (bottom). They now have the same layout, but the smaller regional sacrifices some text and illustrations.


Sibley Regional guide comparison

2nd edition Sibley regional guide (bottom) compared to the first edition (top). A new layout is used, as well as the updated maps, illustrations, etc from the 2nd edition 'big Sibley', but otherwise essentially the same.

You do lose some text and illustrations in the regional guides. That’s no surprise, I don’t think anyone expected them to take the full-size guide and simply shrink it down. The same happened in the first regional guides. However, those guides added something significant: the text included relative abundance and other information not found in the big version. These new ones, in contrast, do not add anything significant not found in the latest big guide (Sibley wisely incorporated the additional text from the first regional books into the second edition of the big guide). Sibley, in a blog post, mentions that all recent taxonomic changes have been incorporated and that the new Western guide includes several new introduced birds. But that’s it for the updates.

So should you get these new, smaller guides? If The Sibley Guide is your preferred field guide, but you wish it were small enough to carry into the field, then the answer is yes. Especially since there’s no word on when the app will be updated. Otherwise, stick with the big Sibley (which everyone already has, yes?).

The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America Second Edition

The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America, Second Edition
by David Allen Sibley
Flexi-binding; 465 pages
Knopf/Random House; March 29, 2016
ISBN: 9780307957917

The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America Second Edition

The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, Second Edition
by David Allen Sibley
Flexi-binding; 505 pages
Knopf/Random House; March 29, 2016
ISBN: 9780307957924

First, if you haven’t yet done so, read Frank Lambert’s review of Bird Families of the World: A Guide to the Spectacular Diversity of Birds. As he mentions, the goal of this book is to reflect the wonderful diversity of birds. It does so by looking at birds at the level of the family, because that’s where “the diversity of birds becomes most manageable and meaningful.” Taxonomy is vital in this approach. Now, you may not know Thraupidae from Trochilidae, but that’s not a problem: you don’t have to be a taxonomy nut to use and appreciate this book. I’m certainly not. I don’t know all the Latin names or keep up with the latest advances in ornithology journals. Yet I find this book fascinating. Here’s just one example why. While flipping through the book, I discovered that the Puerto Rican Tanager is treated as the sole member of its own family. That caught my interest because I’ve actually seen this bird. While it obviously looks very different than most other “tanagers” (it’s much duller), I had no idea it was different enough that it could belong to its own family.

If you have any interest at all in taxonomy, you’ll find many similar examples of your own. Discovering new things about birds I thought I “knew” is exciting, but not the only reason to study this book. One of the authors, David Winkler, argues that learning bird families will make you a better birder.

All the above, along with extensive accompanying photographs and artwork, made Bird Families of the World one of my favorite books of 2015.

If, however, you don’t care a bit about taxonomy but would still like to learn more about the various families of birds, here are some books that I would recommend instead. These tend to focus more on natural history than relationships.

  • The World of Birds – Two-thirds of this large book is devoted to short-to-medium-length family accounts. The remainder is an overview of birds as a whole, from evolution to breeding to their relationship with people.
  • The Princeton Encyclopedia of Birds – Relatively extensive family accounts, illustrated by a mix of photos and artwork. (Note, this was originally published as the Firefly Encyclopedia of Birds .)

National Geographic Complete Birds of North America 2nd Edition

National Geographic Complete Birds of North America, 2nd Edition

edited by Jonathan Alderfer

Back in 2005, National Geographic published the National Geographic Complete Guide to the Birds of North America as a “companion to” their field guide. It was basically an expanded version of the field guide (the fourth edition at the time), with family introductions, additional text in the species accounts, and sidebars that tackled more difficult identifications. It was a good intermediate reference – something you could turn to first if you needed more information than is normally found in field guides.

But things have changed since 2005. The North American bird list certainly has, with new species being found or created via taxonomic updates. The National Geographic field guide has also changed, with two extensive updates in the interim (here are the details of the changes from the 4th to 5th editions and 5th to 6th editions). It was time for a second edition, which is based on the sixth and latest edition of the NatGeo field guide. Here’s a quick look at it.

This second edition looks very much like its predecessor, with the same layout and formatting. But it’s bigger (72 additional pages, but only two onces heavier) and, if you look closely, you’ll find many updates. The illustrations look better, with many having been replaced since the previous edition. The range maps are all new, having been revised and updated to include migratory range and subspecies ranges where appropriate (the wonderful subspecies maps from the back of the 6th edition field guide are all included here). This new volume even incorporates some updates over the field guide on which it’s based, including over 70 revised range maps and a handful of new species (including the Sage Sparrow split and recent vagrants like Rufous-necked Wood-Rail).

Sample from National Geographic Complete Birds of North America, 2nd Edition

A spread of buntings from the 2nd edition, with new features noted.

Sample from National Geographic Complete Birds of North America, 1st Edition

Some of the same birds from the 1st edition.

Two of the main features of Complete Birds are supplementary large, detailed maps for some species or groups of species and sidebars that present additional identification information. These are still present in this second edition, with some changes. Eight of the large maps present in the first edition are no longer included. However, that is less of a loss than it appears, because the extra detail those large maps provided – for the most part, migration routes – are now included on the standard range maps.

As for the sidebars, five of them have not been carried over. However, most of their information is now contained in the species accounts or displayed graphically by the new range maps. But in at least one case – the comparison of Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Hutton’s Vireo – the information that had been present in the sidebar is no longer included in the guide. On the plus side, there are two new sidebars: Identification of White Egrets and Parts of a Gull.

The only entirely new features are the additions of the banding and ABA abundance codes to the header of each species account, which is a nice touch.

National Geographic Complete Birds of North America, 2nd Edition most definitely improves on the previous edition. However, I don’t see a compelling reason to upgrade if you have the first edition AND the sixth edition of the NatGeo field guide. But if that’s not the case, then I would recommend it. And if you don’t have any guides from National Geographic, I would highly recommend this new edition of Complete Birds of North America.

If that got a little confusing, here’s a flow chart that may help.

Flow chart to see if you should get National Geographic Complete Birds of North America, 2nd Edition

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.


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


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.


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.

Update: A second printing is now available that has fixed the color reproduction of the art and darkened the text to make it more readable. Here are more details.

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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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