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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Rare Birds of North America

When I was in high school, one of my favorite books was Don Roberson's Rare Birds of the West Coast.  The only copy available to me was in the Portland Public Library, and I would have to ride the bus downtown to check it out on a special out of county loan.  I would then spend hours looking at all the vagrants recorded in Oregon and nearby states, and dream about what it might be possible to find.  When I got kicked out of my Junior year English class for being obnoxious and had to come up with a self-study unit to pass the time, Rare Birds of the West Coast was my principle source in compiling a paper on which birds were most likely to be added to the official Oregon state list.  Roberson's book, though very dated now, is still one of my favorite bird books of all time.

When I heard that Steve Howell, Ian Lexington, and Will Russell were coming out with Rare Birds of North America (Princeton, 2014), I was very excited to get my hands on the definitive guide to rare birds of the whole continent!

The book has been out for months now, and there have been many excellent reviews (including BirdGuides, Birder's Library, Birdwatch, and ABA).  These reviews are all pretty much glowing, and I recommend going there for more details that I may skip here.  Most reviews come out when a book is released.  Now that I've lived with and used this book for a few months, perhaps I can offer a different perspective.

Rare Birds of North America has a lot going for it.  Let's start with the illustrations.  For me, the gouache paintings by Ian Lewington are the best thing about this book--and blow the socks off the color plates in Rare Birds of the West Coast and they pretty much trump any current field guide illustrations found in North American guides. The illustrations--from the accentor on the cover, to the very last of the 275 color plates--are stunning.  They are clear, large, and a joy to behold.  They've got my mouth watering for the future publication of a field guide to North American birds that will feature Lewington's work.  These illustrations have made this book my second stop (after my trusty Sibley) when considering the identity of a possible vagrant bird.  I even carried it around in my car for awhile.  I expect I'll be using and enjoying these illustrations for a long time.

Sample plate from Rare Birds of North America

The text of Rare Birds of North America is exhaustively researched and documented and the format and layout is fantastic, with great introductory sections on vagrancy as well as molt and topography of bird plumage (but what else would you expect from the author of Peterson Reference Guide to Molt in North American Birds?).  The species accounts are also well thought out, with information on occurrence, possible patterns of vagrancy, and identification and habits of each species covered.    In summary here's what works best for me:

  • Discussion of vagrancy--good review of literature and speculations
  • Molt and topography section--concise review
  • Species accounts organization and layout, especially the--
  • Comments section--where we get the clearest access to the authors's thoughts on these birds and their occurrence, including fun speculations about how, why, and where these birds might possibly turn up next.
In living with the text of this book, there's a few things that have been a little irritating for me:
  • Division of the species accounts based on geographic origin of vagrants.  For each taxonomic group of birds, birds of New World and Old World origin are split from each other, sometimes them harder to find in the text.
  • Field Identification section--generally good information, but sometimes vague and frustrating.  Many times I'm left wondering what field marks are really diagnostic, or if I would be able to really identify one of these vagrants based on the information provided.  A case in point from an actual frustrating ID I faced here is Yellow-legged Gull.  This is a real possible vagrant where I live (and I had a candidate bird last year), but one that might be impossible to distinguish from a hybrid Herring x Lesser Black-backed Gull.  The text mentions this challenge without really providing a good discussion of how to actually make the distinction.  Granted this may be a frontier of bird identification, but I was hoping for some more clarity here from the founder of the Bird ID Frontiers listserv!  Likewise, when a possible New Jersey first European Golden Plover showed up in a sod farm field a few miles from my house, the ID text offered some hints (underwing pattern and body structure), but left me hanging in describing the plumage.  In fact there aren't detailed plumage descriptions here--just comparisons between the vagrant birds and more familiar North American species, or between the ages and sexes of the vagrant species.  So where I would hope a book like this would provide the definitive descriptions and field identification discussions, after using this book a few times I feel like it is a good reference, but not the final word, and that more research in other references will often be needed to actually identify a vagrant.
  • Summaries of vagrant records are generally good, but when I found that the 1996 Common Crane record from Nebraska that I and many other North American listers twitched (this was the first twitchable Common Crane in 20 years) was not included, it made me wonder how exhaustive these summaries actually are.  I suspect they are pretty thorough, but you hate for there to be a doubt.
That said, and my petty quibbles aside, Rare Birds of North America is an impressive book.  While I may not actually work as the best source of ID info on some of these birds, it will still be helpful, the illustrations will be very useful, and the summary of bird records will still inspire the imagination.  If it helps birders find and recognize more of these mega vagrants, than it will have fulfilled its purpose and provided a lot of enjoyment to twitchers across North America.  I personally look forward to spending additional time with this book, and using it to help me when I'm birding on my own or twitching somebody else's good find.

As I mentioned, most bird books arrive with much aplomb and online reviews, then you don't hear much about them later.  I'd be curious to hear how Rare Birds of North America has lived up to its initial reviews, or what other thoughts folks have about it after living with it for half a year?

(Review based on a review copy provided by Princeton University Press).


Unknown said...
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Grant McCreary said...

Unfortunately, I haven't had much reason to go back to it after I wrote my review - no nearby rarities that I've needed to study :(

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