Review: The Warbler Guide,
Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle
Princeton University Press, 2013
Wayne Mones, Sept. 16, 2013
My rite of spring begins with the arrival of the first warblers. No matter the thermometer or barometer. Warblers mean spring. The rite is a magic balm for the seasonal affect disorder brought on by an all-too-long winter. How many warblers can I list this year? (My personal best was the 28 warbler species I ticked off in 2011 – the year I retired.)
For an experienced birder on his or her home turf, identifying warblers in their breeding plumage is relatively easy. Generally, females and first year birds offer the satisfactions of the Monday New York Times crossword puzzle. We get to pat ourselves on the back after just enough head scratching to prove our birding bona fides.
Fall provides slightly more challenging puzzles. The fully leafed trees obscure our view. Gorgeous breeding plumages have faded to generic browns and dull yellows. Fall is when birders of my generation turned to the pages in the early editions of Peterson labeled “confusing fall warblers.” (The title was, in later editions, changed to “selected fall warblers,” no doubt because experienced birders were insulted by the implication that they could ever be confused.) Nevertheless, the plates which put similar-looking fall birds next to each other with little arrows pointing to the distinguishing features of each one was, and continues to be, helpful in sorting out Bay-breasted, Blackpoll, Pine, Prairie, and other fall warblers which might occasionally confuse even experienced birders.
In 1997 the Peterson Field Guide series raised the reference standard with the publication of “Warblers” by Jon Dunn and Kimball Garrett. Peterson’s “Warblers” included many more plates showing each species in most of its plumages followed by detailed life histories. “Warblers” also added two very helpful plates showing proctologist-eye views of the undertail patterns of all the warbler species. This is often the only view you get of a warbler perched directly overhead, so knowing what you are looking for speeds up the mental sorting process.
None of this is meant to imply that identifying warblers is always easy. Birders (and birds) travel. There are regional and temporal variations in plumage. There are variations in molt. There are age classes and dull-plumaged females.
With the publication of “The Warbler Guide” (Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle, Princeton University Press, 2013) the state of the art in specialty guides has once again been significantly raised. The book is a monster. It has over 1,000 photographs. It has 550 pages and weighs in at a hefty 2.75 pounds. “The Warbler Guide” is a reference book which you will want to have on your desk, your night stand or in your car, for contained within its pages is more treasure than any birder could ever hope for.
It is impossible to do justice to this book in a short review. To put first things first, I urge even the most seasoned birders to spend time reading the first chapters. The first chapter, “What to Notice on a Warbler,” which is invaluable to the beginner, but shouldn’t be passed over by the expert, takes the reader through all the major points of identifying warblers by sight including contrast (tone and color) and color, size, shape, habitat and behavior, the face, top of the head markings, bills, the throat, the body, the undertail patterns. This chapter alone (at 55 pages) is worth the price of the book. The concise well-written text is amply supported by great photographs throughout.
Chapters two and three move on to the progressively more challenging topics of “Aging and Sexing Warblers” and “How to Listen to Warbler Songs.” The chapter on songs is preceded by a short essay on understanding sonograms which you will need to get through the more detailed text and sonogram-illustrated main chapter. (You will find it helpful to supplement this chapter with one of the many tablet apps which play songs while producing a simultaneous sonogram.)
Following these introductory chapters is a group of “Quick Finder” guides which includes a “Face Quick Finder,” “Side [view] Quick Finder,” “45 degree View Quick Finder,” “Underview Quick Finder,” “East Spring Quick Finder,” … and a group of Song Quick Finder Charts, Chip Call Finder Charts, and Flight Call Quick Finder Charts.”
All of this (137 pages) before we ever get to the heart of the book -- the species accounts. The species accounts are unlike any others that I know of. They are incredibly rich in detail and profusely illustrated. Each account is headed with a few basic drawings showing the bird’s profile, a very effective schematic showing the plumage pattern, an undertail drawing, a range map, and a drawing showing the tree height at which one should expect to find the bird. This is followed by three panels listing and illustrating the major points of identification of a “typical” bird. Then the fun starts with distinctive views, additional photos (of living birds – most are perched, and some in the hands of banders) and photos of museum study skins showing subtleties of plumage variation. The species accounts also include photos of similar-appearing species and photos aimed at sorting through age and sex variations. And, of course, sonograms for songs, chips, and flight calls. Below are two plates from the species account of the Canada warbler:
As I stated at the beginning of this review, it is impossible to do justice to “The Warbler Guide” in a brief review. Telling you what is in it can only suggest the countless delights and the incredible treasure trove of useful, well-organized detail which will delight and instruct every lover of this family of birds.
Bravo to authors Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle for raising the bar by which we judge specialty guides. “The Warbler Guide” is a labor of love which had to have taken years to produce. We birders also owe a special debt of gratitude to Princeton University Press for this wonderful contribution to the pleasures of our pastime and for all the other excellent guides they have produced over so many years.