The Shorebird Guide

by Michael O'Brien, Richard Crossley, and Kevin Karlson

Reviewed by Grant McCreary on December 9th, 2006.

cover of The Shorebird Guide

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Date: April, 2006
Illustrations: photographs
Binding: softcover
Pages: 496
Size: 6″ x 9″
MSRP: $24.95

This is indeed the guide to shorebirds (at least those found in North America), and is the best family guide I’ve come across. Period. This guide emphasizes identification by impression (aka jizz, aka GISS, or General Impression of Size and Shape). Therefore the photos aren’t like other guides. They are not all uniformly sized super close-up shots of a single bird. Instead they are sized to better emphasize certain characteristics. They often show multiple birds of different species so as to give a better comparison of size, shape, and plumage.

The book is divided into three sections. First is the introduction, which includes an overview of the shorebird families, an intro to shorebird identification, shorebird topography, molt, aging, and instructions on how to use the guide.

Next are the species photos. The account for each of the 48 shorebirds that regularly occurs in North America begins with a range map and brief notes on size, structure, behavior, and status. The first photo is an “impression” photograph that is not captioned. It seeks to give an impression of the species, its habitat, and sometimes feeding behavior. Next are the “identification” photos, which start with juveniles and progresses to adults and then to birds in flight. Some species also have a “glamour shot” – a full page photo without a caption. These are all impressive, spectacular images that would not be out of place in a photographic art book.

There are 44 further accounts of vagrants and regional rarities that are similar except they do not have range maps or the “impression” photos, and in general are not covered quite as extensively. There are also a couple pages depicting hybrids and aberrant shorebirds.

The final section is the species accounts. These are done in taxonomic order without regard to the bird’s status. Each account is one to two pages long and includes the following sections:

  • Status – abundance and population information, including worldwide population estimates
  • Taxonomy – describes any subspecies
  • Behavior – includes breeding, feeding, habitat preference, and other relevant information
  • Migration – for both spring and fall describes when and how they migrate, where to, and by what route
  • Molt – for each life stage it will describe when the molt occurs and, where relevant, the sequence and at what location it takes place
  • Vocalizations – descriptions of flight calls, display songs, and other vocalizations

In one interesting taxonomic decision, the authors have separated Eastern and Western Willets and offer evidence that these subspecies should be split into full species. But they thankfully show how to distinguish between them.

One of the best features of the guide is that it encourages readers to actively participate in identifying the species shown. For most species, a question is asked in at least one of the photo captions. They ask the reader to do such things as identify some of the species in the photo, or to pick out one particular species among all the birds present. The answers are contained in an appendix in the back. These questions are a good method to reinforce the knowledge and techniques imparted by the authors and force readers to look more critically and actively at the photograph.


If I could only have one book on shorebirds, it would be this one. You owe it to yourself to get this book if you’ve ever been perplexed by dowitchers or if you consider peep a dirty word.

For more information, and a preview of the book, visit Houghton Mifflin

Category: Advanced ID, Family Guides

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  • J. Moore says:

    I agree this is an innovative and valuable book, as discussed in Grant’s review. But I think it could have been better. The main thing that is lacking is a summary, in the text section, of how to identify the bird and how to distinguish it from similar species. As it is, this information is contained only in the photographic section, spread through the captions of individual photographs over several pages. This is not a major problem when studying the book for the first time, but does make it of limited use as a tool for quick review of how to identify species, e.g. before a big trip. Other similar guides I have seen, e.g. Gulls of the Americas, put key information in the captions AND provide a detailed summary in the text section. I think this is the better approach.

    I also did not like the mixing of quiz photos together with ID photos, with the answers hidden in the back of the book. I sometimes found that an answer to a quiz photo was important in forming an initial impression of how the bird can appear, and it was annoying to have to turn to the back of the book to confirm the answer. And often I found myself not even bothering to look, and studied my other field guides instead. Perhaps if the answers were printed at the bottom of the page instead it would not have been so annoying.

  • Jean says:

    I recently purchased this book on the used-book market in anticipation of a trip to central Kansas in early May. My husband and I intend to improve our shorebird ID skills by catching migrants on their way north. We’re intermediate birders, but living in north central Texas, we get little opportunity watch shorebirds. Hence the trip to Kansas.

    This book is worth its weight in gold just for the photos. Especially the photos of juveniles and non-breeding plumages. But the best are the photos of the target bird in relation to other shorebirds. After all, that’s how we’re going to see most of them. These photos highlight realtive sizes and comparative silhouettes. Also, there’s detailed information on migration times, paths, and what molts to expect to see.

    The only drawback, is that it does not provide a strategy for shorebird ID. Not to worry, though. We have found that gap is filled by reading Jack Connor’s “The Complete Birder” book. Between these two sources, we feel armed for the task.

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  • Jade says:

    My grandfather use to take me out bidacrtwhing when I was a kid, and I thought it was really boring. But as I’ve grown older, the idea of spending time in the quiet of nature and bird watching sounds a lot more attractive. I just wasn’t sure exactly where to start, but you’ve given me some good suggestions. There is a bird sanctuary north of me, and I’ll take your advice and give it a try before it gets too cold. Thank you for the information.