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Friday, October 22, 2010

Review: The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America

The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America is a colossal wonder. As advertised, it has:

--More photos (3,400) than any other North American field guide
--More species (854) than all but the National Geographic field guide
--More subspecies (all) included than any other North American field guide
--More hybrid combinations than any other guide (all reported hybrids included)
--American Birding Association finding codes (only the Smithsonian Guide also includes these)
--Most recent changes to scientific names and recent species splits including those announced this summer, like Pacific Wren

It also features:
--Way more pages (816) than any other North American field guide
--More weight (3 lbs) than any other North American field guide, including Big Sibley

Don and Lillian Stokes spent more than six years putting this guide together, and it shows. It is a monumental work. Birder's World magazine posted a must-read interview with the Stokeses, which provides a detailed look into the decisions that the Stokeses made in order to make this guide, as outlined in the guide's preface, "the most useful guide to identifying the birds of North America ever published."

That's a tall order, but the true measure by which this guide invites us to evaluate it. So how are we to determine the usefulness of a guide like this? Or determine which guide might be the most useful? That's perhaps an equally tall order, one that I'm hesitant to tackle, but one which I find unavoidable in attempting to provide this review.

Any question of usefulness should look at how the book is actually used by possible intended audiences. We'll have to leave that for a future review, as I have not yet field tested it with others. For now I can only speculate about how the book might be useful to others. I will do a little speculating here, but mostly look in more detail at how useful I find it for me personally.

I would love to hear how useful beginning birders or casual birders find this guide. 800 pages and 3400 photos are a lot to thumb through in order to find an unfamiliar bird. At 3 lbs, some reviewers have already mentioned that they probably wouldn't carry it around in the field. Most intermediate and advanced birders don't carry guides in the field, but may carry one in their car. Otherwise, field guides are usually references or perhaps armchair guides--useful for looking up field marks on unfamiliar birds, or for studying before heading out in the field. Again, I would be interested to hear more about how this guide is actually used by beginners and more advanced birders.

For me personally, the question of usefulness boils down to questions like these:
1) Is this the guide I would most likely carry with me in my car for regular birding?
2) Is this the first guide I would look if I needed to look up something unusual after coming back home from the field?
3) Is this the first guide I would look at to review birds I haven't seen for a long time before heading on a trip to somewhere I don't get to very often?
4) If I could only take one field guide with me on a cross country trip, would this be the one?

I'll leave off the suspense and just state that for now, the answer to all of these questions is probably no. As useful and great as this guide is, and as much as I think I will refer to it in the years to come, I don't see it as my first "go to" guide. Here's why:

1) Photos: I've already outlined the problems with photo guides in another review, so I don't want to totally rehash those points here. While the photos in this Stokes guide are for the most part outstanding, I don't find presentations of photos to be the best way to quickly and easily identify birds, or to review the finer points of bird identification. They are great for reference, but I find it easier and more useful to have similar species depicted next to each other, with diagnostic points enumerated on the illustrations, perhaps with supplemental diagrams. In the Birder's World interview, the Stokeses tell us why they didn't want to clutter up their photos with text describing field marks, and they are right that it detracts from the beauty of the photos, but in a field guide, and especially in a beautiful one such as this, a focus on aesthetics may come at the cost of some utility.

2) Comprehensiveness: I'm glad that the book covers 854 species. That is more than Sibley (810) and all of the other field guides except for National Geographic. All regularly occurring wild birds (ABA finding codes 1-4) are included, as well as many birds that have only shown up a few times in North America. It is fun to see multiple photos of such rarities as Great Frigatebird, Lesser Frigatebird, Brown-chested Martin, and Common Redshank. But for a traveling urban birder like me, I'm more likely to have to identify a host of free-flying exotic species including parrots and waterfowl that are well-covered in other guides, but not included here.

One of the goals of this guide is "to create the most complete photographic record of...plumages and subspecific variations that has ever existed in one guide" (from the preface). The Stokes guide clearly does this. But just because it is the most complete photo guide doesn't make it the most complete field guide--illustrated guides often provide more images of each species, including more illustrations of subspecies, plumages, and birds in useful positions including flight images. Here's a quick comparison of the Stokes guide to the NWF and Smithsonian photo guides and Big Sibley (an illustrated guide)--using random birds that just pop into my head.

Each of these guides has its own strengths and weaknesses on the images front. Stokes clearly is the most complete photo guide, but far from the most complete guide, and even misses some photos that you would expect (like juvenile owls) or want (flight shots for most songbirds). Interestingly, Stokes was the only one of these guides to illustrate a baby Mountain Quail. None of these guides, including Stokes, illustrates most baby game birds. Or shortly-held juvenile plumages for most songbirds. We have yet to see those included in a standard field guide.

As far as including subspecies, Stokes does mention all subspecies and provides a shorthand description of their range and distinguishing marks. Most are not illustrated. While the guide may be a useful indicator for noting subspecies identity of birds within their known geographic ranges, it usually won't be enough information to actually identify an out of range individual to the subspecies level--that would take a more detailed reference. Interestingly, some species rarely seen in North America (like Green Violetear and Green-breasted Mango) are illustrated (and clearly labeled) with individuals of subspecies not found in North America.

3) Text: There is a lot of text here! That is good (for providing information) but can be tough to sort through--again perhaps making it more useful as a reference than as a field guide for making quick IDs. Each species account provides several sections, each labeled with red or black bold section markers, which does chunk the information and make it easier to find. Sections include an initial description of each bird's shape, then descriptions of each plumage--usually of birds both sitting as well as in flight, a short line on habitat, and a voice description of commonly heard vocalizations. This is followed by the list and brief description of each subspecies, as well as a list of known or reported (as well as suspected) hybrids.

One feature that the Stokeses have tried to advance, is a more quantitative measure of bird shape--especially expressed as rations of one body part to another. Sometimes this is very useful--as in comparative bill to head lengths--while other times maybe not so useful--how easy is it to determine that a Buteo hawk's wing length is 2 1/4, 2 1/3, or 2 1/2 of its wing width?

The text of the Stokes guide does a much better job than most photo guides of comparing birds to similar species and providing distinguishing field marks. That said, much of the species descriptions are still that--just descriptions without highlighting plumage features that separate them from similar species. I generally find it more useful to have one species described by comparing it directly with another. So while there is nothing wrong with, for example, describing the Ringed Kingfisher by listing the various color features of its plumage, including that its tail is barred black and white--it might be more useful for some birders to have the bird described in comparison to the common and for most of us more familiar Belted Kingfisher or to focus on those features which are clearly distinctive. In short, I miss the Similar Species section of the old Peterson guides.

So suppose I'm in my car with my scope on my window mount and I think I've got a Bar-tailed Godwit out on the mud flats. I want a quick review of how to make sure. It doesn't fly, so I can't see its rump. I open up Stokes to the Bar-tailed Godwit account. Dang! There's six photos there, lots of text. I struggle to wade through it all to figure out what exactly would make it a Bar-tailed Godwit rather than a Hudsonian Godwit three pages away. Or maybe it is a juvenile Marbled Godwit? Wait, there is no photo of a juvenile Marbled Godwit. Hmmm. Where's Big Sibley? All four godwits in a row in Big Sibley. I quickly compare them and feel much better about my initial identification.

Don't get me wrong. The Stokes guide provides lots of useful information. Tons. It's just that between all the details in the text, and the vagaries of the beautiful photos, it doesn't always provide the information I want in the easiest format for me to quickly use, especially in the field.

But again, tons of useful information here. In many cases, the text descriptions may actually make it easier to age and sex an individual of the species, than to distinguish it from a similar species. For birders who want to age and sex individual birds, this information is useful. For birders who just want to identify a bird to the species level, the information here might be a lot to wade through--especially if there are no comments clearly outlining distinctive features or comparing similar species.

I need to reiterate that there is a LOT of text here. The Red-tailed Hawk account is well over a thousand words (I gave up trying to count!) and includes the equivalent of almost one and a half full pages! For hawkwatchers, there are lots of tips about identifying birds in flight, but not as many illustrations as in Big Sibley. This is a bit frustrating in the case of Accipiters, as the similar Sharp-shinned and Cooper's Hawks each get more than a full half page of text, but only six photos each. It is nice to have them on adjacent pages for comparison, but I'm not sure that the chosen images really provide enough information for most birders to use them in attempting this common but tricky identification challenge based on the subtle features mentioned in the text.

Maybe it is unfair to review a guide based on the more difficult identification challenges out there. Perhaps those identifications are best left to comprehensive specialty guides, in this case something like Liguori's Hawks from Every Angle or the classic Hawks in Flight, where subtle marks can be given more discussion and space for illustration. This example merely illustrates how tough it would be for any guide to be the "most useful" in any given situation.

4) Maps: I haven't gone through the maps with a fine tooth comb, but they seem to be accurate and up to date. The color scheme is familiar to old timers who cut their teeth on the old Golden Guide, with red summer ranges, blue winter ranges, and purple permanent ranges. Migration routes are marked with bright yellow (rather than the old hashed shading of the Golden Guide). Areas where out of range birds are known to wander are enclosed in yellow, red, purple, or blue dotted lines--which gives some indication of where wanderers may occasionally appear. One thing that I really liked in the Kaufman guide when it first came out were the light and dark shading to indicate relative abundance across a bird's range. Neither the Stokes guide, nor any other major guide, has kept up with that innovation.

There's a lot more to talk about, perhaps here in the comments section, including the associated CD of bird sounds and mini Identification Tips essays on how to ID some groups of birds like hawks, shorebirds, and gulls. Speaking of gulls, there is a lot of information on gulls here--full two-page spreads for most larger 4 year gulls. Again, this is more than found in most guides, situating the book halfway between a standard field guide, and a more detailed reference guide.

In the end, that is where this book seems to settle with me--as a bridge between field guides and more detailed reference guides. Perhaps it is most useful in that way--in the car as a stepping stone between checking in a field guide and a reference book at home. So while it wouldn't be the first book I would carry in my car (that one still goes to Big Sibley for me, Kaufman for the kids), it might well be my first choice to ride in the car as a backup to consult before checking more references back at home.

So, in summary, the Stokes guide probably really is, as advertised, "the biggest, most colorful" guide out there. As for being the most useful, I've discussed how that probably isn't the case for me, but I am enjoying other reviews online, and am interested in hearing how the book fares with the larger birding community and individual birders across a wide spectrum of interest and abilities.

Like all guides, it has its strengths and weaknesses, some of which I've pointed out. Perhaps more than most field guides, the Stokes guide is like a box of chocolates--when you look in there to identify a bird you are not always sure what you are going to get. Beautiful photos for sure. Lots of text to read. Maybe a fantastic nugget of useful info. Sometimes not as much as you might like.

But I'm a big chocolate fan, and this is a seriously big and beautiful box of chocolate. So it's a keeper and I look forward to dipping into it for years to come.

This review is written on the basis of a review copy provided by Little, Brown and Company.


Birding is Fun! said...

I've been field testing the Stoke's Guide in my new adventures on the east coast. It has been sufficient to meet my needs. I have to confess that the descriptions are more laborious to wade through. I had given my Western Sibley to an Idaho friend and longed for an Eastern Sibley. I picked one up at a Baltimore bookstore and Sibley is my go-to guide for help ID'ing birds. I keep both the Stokes and Sibley in the car and I've been using both, but Sibley is what I go to first as it yields the answer the quickest. My kids love the Stokes guide the most. They love the pictures. The fascination of bird pictures for kids is worth it! I look forward to on-going use of both guides.

When is the field guide industry going to settle on a color coding system for the maps?!

Lillian Stokes said...

Greetings Rob,

Thanks for the review. 

In writing this guide we had several major goals: to cover more species than almost all other guides; to create the most complete photographic record of these species’ plumages and subspecies variations that has ever existed in one guide; to make sure the identification clues were both thorough and up-to-date; to clearly and quantitatively describe each species’ shape as a key element of field identification; and to summarize all subspecies ranges and main distinguishing characteristics.

In addition, we have included the most up-to-date maps available, added the American Birding Association (ABA) rarity rating (birding code) for each species, listed known wild hybrids, and reflected the most recent additions and deletions, lumps and splits, and common and scientific name changes of the American Birding Association Checklist as of the writing of this guide. We feel that we were able to accomplish these goals.

We also tried our best to make the most useful guide for the public that we could. Obviously, this is a matter of opinion and learning styles. Some, such as you, do not find our field guide as useful as some others you may use, although it is your second choice as a guide to go in your car and that's just great.

We already have testimonials from birders at all levels who find The Stokes Field to the Birds of North America is their “go-to” guide, many want two copies — a house and a car copy. Top bird experts from across the country have told us the shorebird, hawk, gull, and warbler sections the best of any North American field guide. We hope you continue to find our guide useful and we're glad you like chocolate.

Good Birding,

Don and Lillian Stokes

Grant McCreary said...

I prefer painting-based guides for a "field" guide. I've always considered photo guides as more of a reference, "a bridge between field guides and more detailed reference guides", as you said in your review. But I think that description is especially appropriate for the Stokes guide. Some relatively minor quibbles aside, it is exactly the sort of reference that I'm looking for in a photo guide.

On a side note, you're really pumping out the reviews lately! Keep 'em coming.

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