BIRDING BY HINDSIGHT: A Second Look at Bird Identification Books
[Author's Note, August 2010 – The have been four newer Hindsight articles with updated information on more recent ID books and field guides.]
Now that November is upon us, who could care about bird identification? (In fact, who can even care about just getting up on some of these dismal days?) After all, on overcast days – which occur about 29 times in a typical November – it almost appears to start getting dark around noon, so there’s no chance of birding after work. And on your day off, what’s still around to look at anyway? Gulls. . . .and immature ones at that! Unless you’re lucky (and smart) enough to live far from the Twin Cities in northern Minnesota, where at least there’s hope of an owl invasion or of winter finches at your feeder, it seems like any bird worth looking at went south weeks ago and won’t be back for months.
My advice? While waiting for your favorite Christmas Bird Count to get organized, get your Christmas shopping done early and buy a few books on bird identification for all your birding friends and relatives. The advantage of doing this now is there will be time to study their content before you have to wrap them up and give them away. And the advantage of buying nothing but bird identification references is you get to stay home and avoid all that Twin Cities traffic, since none of the stores has an adequate selection. You’ll find the most complete selections via various on-line and mail-order places, and the best I’ve found is American Birding Association Sales ().
More importantly than where you shop is what to buy, of course, and what follows are some suggestions of books which will help improve the identification skills of those on your shopping list — yourself included? In other words, these references advance beyond the basics found in your trusty field guide and address the same kinds of challenges I have tried to include in this series of Hindsight articles.
Not included here are other types of worthwhile identification references: e.g., articles in periodicals, audio and video tapes and CDs, etc. – these can be the subject of a future Hindsight article. Also not included are some excellent books on identification which have little or no bearing on Minnesota and vicinity. Though I’m sure, for example, the 123 species accounts in the Kingfishers, Bee-Eaters, and Rollers guide are all well done, Minnesota birders won’t need it to identify the kingfisher they see lingering along some half-frozen creek – which of course disappears the day before the local CBC takes place.
General Field Guides
Any casual birder who is not interested in anything more than straightforward identifications will do just fine with a Peterson or Robbins field guide (see the “Not Recommended” section below). But to have a chance at correctly identifying something more difficult, your choice of recommended guides narrows considerably.
• National Geographic Society Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2nd ed.,
Jon Dunn and Eirik Blom, consultants. [Author's Note, July 2016 – This field
guide is now in its sixth edition, with Jon Dunn and John Alderfer as its authors.]
Although no field guide has enough room between its covers to cover all the potential identification difficulties lurking out there, the Geographic guide is far more comprehensive than any of the others. It still has lots of room for improvement (for example, I’ve always disliked those sparrow plates), but a third edition is apparently in preparation and will hopefully include those needed improvements. (By the way, if you own the first edition of Geographic, it still works as well as the second; about the only obvious and visible difference is a better dowitcher plate in the latter edition.)
• The Audubon Society Master Guide to Birding, 3 vol., John Farrand, Jr., editor.
[Author's Note, July 2016 – This guide is now out-of-print.]
These three volumes will hardly fit in your pocket and may be unfamiliar to many birders, but they are worth the shelf space in your library as supplemental references. There is lots of identification information not found in Geographic (e.g., the descriptions of songs and call notes), and many of the photos are more useful than Geographic’s paintings. Some species accounts are better than others, mostly due to inconsistent editing, and the guide’s title may lead to confusion, since three other references listed below also include the word “Audubon” in their titles.
• National Audubon Society Master Guide to Birds, David Sibley. [Author's Note,
July 2016 – This now-famous field guide was published with a more logical title,
The Sibley Guide to Birds, and is now in its second edition.]
Though the scheduled publication date is reportedly two years off, it is not too early to start anticipating this guide’s arrival. David Sibley is both an accomplished illustrator and writer, and many simply consider him the most skilled field identification expert in the U.S., so there is every reason to expect this guide to be in a class by itself. The proposed title, however, is unfortunate and certainly invites confusion with the other “Master Guide”. One also has to wonder what the National Audubon Society has to do with any of this, since this organization is only superficially involved with birds and their ID.
Specialized Identification Guides
With so many birds presenting potential identification difficulties, it is fortunate so many references on specific bird groups have appeared in recent years. Following are those which should prove especially useful in supplementing your Geographic field guide, and, unless otherwise noted, all are recommended.
• A Field Guide to Advanced Birding, Kenn Kaufman. [Author's Note, July 2016 –
This guide was revised and is now in its second edition.]
Part of the Peterson Field Guides Series and highly recommended. The author, long acknowledged as one of our top identification experts, includes 35 chapters on how to handle the most challenging ID problems we face. I found his coverage of jaegers, terns, hummingbirds, and Empidonax flycatchers to be especially useful. It was disappointing, however, to find some groups excluded (e.g., Buteos, several shorebirds, Oporornis warblers, Ammodramus sparrows, longspurs, redpolls, and others).
• Seabirds: An Identification Guide, Peter Harrison.
• A Field Guide to Seabirds of the World, Peter Harrison.
• Seabirds of the World, Jim Enticott and David Tipling.
No, it’s unlikely any penguins, shearwaters, or storm-petrels will turn up in Minnesota any time soon, but these three guides also cover loons, grebes, phalaropes, jaegers, gulls, and terns. And, no, I don’t recommend buying all three; just one of them would be plenty. The last two are photographic guides, and the first is illustrated by Harrison’s paintings.
• Waterfowl: An Identification Guide to the Ducks, Geese, and Swans of the World,
Steve Madge and Hilary Burn.
Of the handful of guides specializing in waterfowl, this is the one to recommend. Its only shortcoming is the curious and confusing arrangement of many of the plates. For example, paintings for species A, B and C will appear from top to bottom on a page, while the facing page with captions and range maps might place species C, A and B from top to bottom.
• A Field Guide to Hawks, William Clark and Brian Wheeler.
• A Photographic Guide to North American Raptors, Brian Wheeler and William
• Hawks in Flight, Pete Dunne, David Sibley and Clay Sutton.
All three guides are recommended, since birders can use all the help they can get with raptor identification. The first book, part of the Peterson Field Guide Series, is illustrated with color paintings (all are accurate, but many look stiff and unnatural) and some black-and-white photographs (which tend to be too small and “muddy”). A revised edition is reportedly in preparation. [Author's Note, July 2016 – This new edition was published as A Field Guide to Hawks of North America.]
The second guide by the same authors has less text, but its many color photographs, which are a marked improvement over the illustrations in their first book, are definitely worth having in your library. And the third book, also with plans for a second edition, can be described as a field guide in only the broadest sense. There are many useful black-and-white photos and line drawings, while the ID information in the text is uniquely presented by holistic discussions rather than by analyses of plumage details.
• Shorebirds: An Identification Guide, Peter Hayman, John Marchant and Tony
• Shorebirds of the Pacific Northwest, Dennis Paulson.
• Photographic Guide to the Shorebirds of the World, David Rosair and David
Since shorebirds present almost as many difficulties as hawks for most birders, at least one of these three guides would definitely be a good idea. Most will probably find the first of these guides, with its comprehensive color plates and text, to be the most helpful. Paulson’s guide, despite its title, is still entirely applicable in Minnesota. It includes a wealth of worthwhile identification information and is highly recommended. The third book, with its large selection of photos, I have not yet used. [Author's Note, July 2016 – The Shorebird Guide by O'Brien, Crossley, and Karlson, and Shorebirds of North America by Paulson have now been published and are recommended.]
• Skuas and Jaegers: A Guide to the Skuas and Jaegers of the World, Klaus Olsen
and Hans Larsson.
If you frequently bird Duluth, the only place in Minnesota where jaegers occur with any frequency, this guide to a most difficult group would be helpful.
• Gulls: A Guide to Identification, 2nd ed., P. J. Grant.
This guide is a classic and should be required reading for anyone attempting to sort through a gull flock to pick out something different. It covers species found in both Europe and North America, and its collection of black-and-white photos is excellent. The only weakness is its treatment of western North American gulls, including Thayer’s and California, is not as comprehensive as the other species. [Author's Note, July 2016 – Two newer guides on gulls are now recommended: Gulls of the Americas by Howell and Dunn, and Gulls of North America, Europe, and Asia by Olsen and Larsson.]
• Terns of Europe and North America, Klaus Malling and Hans Larsson.
Though perhaps not as useful as Grant’s Gulls guide, this book would still assist you to find and identify an Arctic or other vagrant tern. Note, however, that reviewers have found errors in this guide.
• A Field Guide to Warblers of North America, Jon Dunn and Kimball Garrett.
• Warblers of the Americas: An Identification Guide, Jon Curson.
The first book, though part of the Peterson Field Guide Series, is much more than a field guide, as its 600+ pages attest. The text and color plates include thorough identification information on every plumage of every species, but complete information on behavior, range, habitat, and vocalizations also appears – and sometimes overwhelms, since it’s often hard to find what you’re looking for. It is still highly recommended, though, probably more so than Curson’s guide, which is also well done and includes Central and South American species.
• A Guide to the Identification and Natural History of the Sparrows of the United
States and Canada, James Rising.
• Sparrows and Buntings: An Identification Guide, Clive Byers, Urban Olsson and
Rising’s book, though perhaps not as well known as the hawks or gulls or warblers guides, is probably just as valuable as any guide in this section. Its color plates alone make it worthwhile, especially when compared with the inadequate paintings in Geographic, and its treatment of the longspurs is also helpful. [Author's Note, July 2016 – Also see Rising's newer reference: Sparrows of the United States and Canada.] The second guide is part of the excellent Helm Identification Series from Britain, which includes some of the other guides in this section, but is probably not as helpful as Rising’s book. (But at least it covers North American sparrows, unlike Clement’s Finches and Sparrows book with its similar and misleading title; see the “Not Recommended” section below.)
While most of these are not primarily ID references, all include something worthwhile on identification. Note that some are out-of-date or out-of-print, and most birders will probably not find these as useful as those references in the previous section — with one obvious exception!
• A Birder’s Guide to Minnesota, 3rd ed., Kim Eckert.
Although this is primarily a bird-finding guide, you will also find numerous bird identification hints in the species accounts — similar to those in this Hindsight series of articles. [Author's Note, July 2016 – There was a 4th edition published in 2002, which is now out-of-print.]
• Birds in Minnesota, Robert Janssen.
This standard reference on the range, season and relative abundance of Minnesota’s birds includes nothing on identification, but awareness of a species’ status is an essential aspect of accurate field identifications. Hopefully, a revised edition is pending, since this book’s information is from 1987 and much of it is out-of-date. [Author's Note, July 2016 – A new edition has apparently been completed and may be published later this year or in 2017.]
• The Birds of Canada, revised ed., W. Earl Godfrey.
The color plates are probably better overall than those in any of the standard field guides, and the text includes lots of reliable identification information. The book’s size and price probably make it more of a luxury than required reading for Minnesota birders.
• The Western Bird Watcher, Kevin Zimmer.
This book has been out-of-print for several years and most birders have probably never seen it, but this source of finding and identifying birds west of the Mississippi has some good ID information in chapters 4 and 5. A revised edition is reportedly planned. [Author's Note, July 2016 – A new edition was published in 2000 with the title Birding in the American West.]
• Identification Guide to North American Birds, Peter Pyle.
Despite the title, this is not a field identification book but a highly comprehensive banding manual for everything on the checklist from doves to weaver finches. However, the in-hand plumage features are often useful in the field, and this book is recommended for all serious birders. [Author's Note, July 2016 – An additional volume covering water birds and gallinaceous birds was published in 2008.]
• A Manual for the Identification of the Birds of Minnesota and Neighboring States,
I’m not sure this is still in print, but the identification keys in Roberts’ classic The Birds of Minnesota were reprinted in this separate volume. The ID information may be dated, but it is highly detailed and many consider it still surprisingly useful and accurate.
• Birds of Europe, Lars Jonsson.
Any birder will find it useful at times to have a European field guide in his or her library for occasional reference; there are several to choose from, but most experts consider Jonsson’s guide superior to the rest. [Author's Note, July 2016 – Most birders now consider the second edition of Birds of Europe by Svensson, Mullarney, and Zetterstrom the best European guide.]
• Birds for Real, Rich Stallcup.
This curious and out-of-print book was an attempt by an acknowledged field identification expert to supplement and correct the popular but deeply flawed Robbins field guide (see the “Not Recommend” section below). The information is certainly accurate, useful, and worth reading, but most of it probably appears in the Geographic guide.
• Life Histories of North American Birds, 26 volumes, Arthur Bent.
The volumes in this classic set are all out-of-print, but it is worth picking up any you happen upon in a second-hand bookstore. They include some relevant identification material, mostly on songs and call notes and on juvenile plumages.
• Audubon Water, Land and Western Bird Guides, 3 vol., Richard Pough.
Published in the 1940s and 1950s, these volumes are long out-of-print and are hardly recommended for everyone. During their day, however, they were at least as good as Peterson’s classic guide – and better in many ways, especially some of the color plates and the descriptions of behavior and songs and calls.
This final section is included since it is as helpful to know what to avoid as well as what to buy; all but one of these are field guides.
• Field Guide to Birds East of the Rockies and Field Guide to Western Birds, Roger
• Birds of North America, Chandler Robbins, Bertel Bruun and Herbert Zim.
• All the Birds of North America, Jack Griggs.
• Stokes Field Guide to Birds: Eastern Region and Western Region, Don and Lillian
• The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds: Eastern Region and
Western Region, John Bull and John Farrand, Jr. (Eastern); Miklos Udvardy
As mentioned earlier, only the Geographic field guide comes close to being comprehensive and accurate enough in addressing the more difficult identifications. Accordingly, none of the five guides above can be recommended for anything other than basic IDs: they just contain too many oversimplifications and outright errors in their illustrations and texts. Any of the first three guides will probably work fine for casual birders, however. I have never examined the Stokes’ photo guides, but, based on their recent superficial series on public television, I would be surprised if they were as useful as the other three. And, by all means, do not buy either of those two deeply flawed and misguided Audubon Society photo guides.
• Finches and Sparrows: An Identification Guide, Peter Clement.
This book is great, except for its title. It’s part of the Helm Identification Series from Britain, and it excludes North American sparrows. As mentioned earlier, Rising’s sparrow guide is the one to buy.
• Birds of Minnesota Field Guide, Stan Tekiela.
Here is another book with an unfortunate title, which implies there is more information here than it really has. The original concept was fine: to include only the more common Minnesota birds to simplify things for beginners. But the species included aren’t nearly enough (far too many widespread birds are left out), while the inclusions of Trumpeter Swan, turkey, both yellowlegs, magpie, titmouse, Harris’s Sparrow and Red Crossbill are inappropriate. Just as many misidentifications as correct ones will probably result. The text includes nothing original on anything within a Minnesota context, and the nesting information will be of little use to most beginners.
The photos are all of good quality, but their arrangement by color is often flawed. For example: Ospreys and Bald Eagles are classified as black-and-white birds; male Northern Harriers, male American Kestrels, both yellowlegs, Chestnut-sided Warblers, and juncos are allegedly brown; too many of the “gray” birds are not really gray; only one of the five “green” birds is mostly green; male redstarts are not mostly orange as stated; nor are female Red Crossbills or Baltimore Orioles mostly yellow. It is also strange that some bird names are misspelled, that parts of the index fall out of alphabetical order, and that adult Ring-billed Gulls allegedly have black tails!