Review: Birds of Eastern North America / Birds of Western North America

Review: Birds of Eastern North America
Birds of Western North America
Paul Sterry and Brian Small
Princeton University Press, 2009

Many of the best birders I know don’t carry field guides to familiar birding locations because they (mostly) know all the local birds and because some regard consulting a guide as a sign of weakness in a pastime which has become increasingly competitive. Having been a middling birder for fifty years, I long ago discarded my all-knowing persona and am not ashamed to seek help. I always pack a field guide. I figure that if I find a bird I don’t know on my home turf, it is likely to be interesting. I still need help sorting through wintering gulls, and, after all these years, still find shorebirds occasionally confusing. When birding with other people I find it useful to consult an illustration to reinforce an identification or to show my companions what we are looking for. And, oh yes, the stars who don’t carry field guides are always grateful when I pull one out my pocket. I am, frankly, at a loss to explain why so many beginners don’t own or carry field guides

Like most birders, even those who don’t carry a field guide afield, I have a lot of them. My growing collection has permanently bowed a sturdy bookcase. I have at least a half dozen North American guides, four shorebird guides, four covering the raptors, two for owls, three for gulls, one each for terns, warblers, sparrows, and hummingbirds. When stumped I usually consult three or four of them.

I am, perhaps, inordinately fond of my field guides and have always thought of them as essential birding equipment. I frequently counsel beginners to keep one field guide on the night stand and one in the bathroom where they can study it for a few minutes every day. Like many of my generation, I began my birding life with Peterson’s and then became a fan of the Golden Guide because it included range maps on the facing page and included both eastern and western birds. Then came National Geographic and Sibley’s, both of which were advances over their predecessors.

When John Farrand and John Bull’s Audubon Guides were published in 1977 they broke new ground in that they used photographs rather than illustrations and in their grouping of birds by habitat. I, like many experienced birders, quickly dismissed them because my eye was tuned to illustrations, and because I prefer guides which follow the taxonomic order. Illustrations show an idealized bird emphasizing diagnostic field marks in a characteristic posture. Since photographs show only a single individual they may under-emphasize certain field marks or show a bird hunched over or stretched in an atypical posture. Although many experienced birders quibble with the Farrand/Bull guides, many beginners find them extremely useful. With 16 million in print, and perennially strong sales, the Farrand/Bull guides cannot be dismissed.

The next stage in the evolution of photographic field guides came in 2000 when Kenn Kaufman published his Birds of North America. Since it was intended for beginners Kenn chose to illustrate his guide with photographs, perhaps because he assumed that many people in his target audience were more  oriented toward getting information from photos than from illustrations. What made his guide a major advance was the advent of digital technology and the incorporation of several features from illustrated guides. Kenn used digitally enhanced photographs which were better able to emphasize field marks. He added a feature originated by Roger Tory Peterson -- pointers which focus the reader’s attention on diagnostic features. He included text and range maps en face like the best illustrated guides. Kenn included excellent introductions and text, and many more very useful ID tips. He organized the book to mostly follow the taxonomic order but grouped similar looking birds. Although the Kaufman guide was aimed at beginners, its usefulness extends well beyond its target audience.

With the publication of the Sterry/Small guides comes the current state of the art in photographic field guides. These are the second (after the Smithsonian) North American guides to use digital photographs. The Sterry/Small guides have some advantages over their predecessors. The first is that there are more photos to choose from than in the past because there are more very good photographers taking more very good photos of birds than ever before. Although most of the photos in the Sterry/Small guides were taken by Brian Small, the authors have also used work from many other photographers. The second advantage is that digital technology allows a photographer to more easily manipulate images to emphasize diagnostic field marks, to lighten and darken selected parts of the photo, and to eliminate or blur distracting backgrounds and foregrounds.

The photographs in these guides are all well chosen and the text is excellent. One feature which I like is the addition of “observation tips” in the text. The range maps from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology reflect our most current knowledge of bird distributions. The outstanding design and printing contribute a great deal to the book’s appeal and usefulness. The photos are large and printed to bleed over the edge of the page (rather than being boxed). There are enough photos to identify birds in different plumages and many photos of birds in flight which is always helpful. The order of the species follows the taxonomic order.

Kudos also to the book’s designer for making the covers flush with the pages. (One of my pet peeves in field guide design is covers which extend beyond the pages. Extended covers are quickly ruined after being stuffed into and removed from pockets and book bags. They also make the book harder to use with cold fingers.) What’s missing is a quick-find index and thumb tabs (useful features which have been added to the latest edition of the National Geographic guide). Kudos also to the publisher, Princeton University Press. Princeton has become a major publisher of field guides and has invested significant resources in producing excellent guides to locations for which there are very limited markets.

The Sterry/Small guides are an innovative, useful addition to the arsenal of tools available to help us improve our birding skills. These outstanding guides deserve a place in your pocket, bookshelf, nightstand and bathroom.

Wayne Mones
Dec. 26, 2009

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