BIRDING BY HINDSIGHT: A Second Look at Journals
Or, if you prefer, we could just as well call this "A Sixth Look at ID References," given that there have been five previous Hindsight installments about field guides, books, journals, and other media providing bird identification information. To refresh your memory, they were:
• (National Geographic field guide)
• (journal articles)
• (The Sibley Guide to Birds)
• (recordings, CD-ROMs, videos, websites,
and updates on field guides, books, and articles)
Since the most recent of these articles is now five years old, this would be as good a time as any for yet another update, with an emphasis this time on birding journals, especially considering that the state of this medium has deteriorated in recent years. (Besides, since updates are relatively easy to write, what better time for one than now as this installment is about a month and a half overdue.)
But before discussing some of these publications, let's first take a brief look at what's new in the last five years with the other media:
Two previously listed websites apparently no longer exist – or, if they do, their old addresses have changed: Paul Conover's hummingbirds site (http://home.earthlink.net/~zoiseaux), and this redpoll ID site (http://w1.157.telia.com/~u15702215/rpindex.htm).
On the other hand, here are six additional websites with worthwhile ID content (and there are certainly others of which I'm unaware):
• (very useful search engine to articles in several
journals, including Auk, Western Birds, etc.)
• (contains several helpful ID
• (discusses a few ID topics, including Tundra/Trumpeter
swans and Canada/Cackling geese)
• (numerous photos for ID reference)
• (a third photo gallery, smaller than the other two, but with
helpful ID captions and notes)
• (limited but growing number of detailed
plumage photos of banded birds)
While there are a variety of CD-ROMs and other software with bird ID information, they cover nothing more than the basics and are therefore not recommended for experienced birders. I have recently become aware of another widely advertised gimmick which you could easily do without: National Geographic Handheld Birds ($100) is PDA or palm pilot software which does conveniently include illustrations, range maps, songs, and other tools, but your Geographic field guide is a more complete (and less-expensive) ID reference.
– The three-volume Master Guide to Birding field guide is out-of-print.
– National Geographic's Field Guide to the Birds of North America is now in its fifth edition. However, except for some revised range maps and a new section illustrating North American accidentals, relatively little has changed from the fourth edition – or the third, for that matter. Actually, there was another Geographic guide a year before the fifth edition came out: the hardcover, 640-page Complete Birds of North America is a home reference which greatly expands on the behavior, distribution, and other material in the field guide, although new ID information is limited. Oh, by the way, stay tuned for still two more Geographic guides! Following Sibley's lead, there are plans to publish separate Eastern and Western field guides, probably later in 2008. [Author's Note, August 2016 – The Geographic field guide is now in its sixth edition.]
– Also new is National Wildlife Federation's Field Guide to Birds of North America by Brinkley, a guide with 2,000 photos which would be superior to other photo guides (e.g., those by Stokes), but it's still less comprehensive than Geographic or Sibley, and just on the same basic level with other guides like Kaufman's, Peterson's, and others.
– I occasionally meet birders looking for field guides limited to the species of a single state. They do exist, but, unless you're a beginner, none of them are recommended. All are too limited in the number of species covered, with either inadequate or just basic ID material, and such oversimplification is likely to result in too many misidentifications. In addition, the publishers have made curious choices in some of the authors, those who are generally not regarded as bird ID experts. I am aware of three series with guides to several states:
• National Geographic has published guides to 15 states so far, with each said to include 200 species (an odd feature, since some states have far more birds than others).
• Lone Pine Publishing has guides to some 30 states and provinces, with at least some of them more comprehensive than any of those in the following set.
• Adventure Publications' widely distributed series of "Birds of ________ Field Guide" booklets now includes about 40 states; of the three collections, this is the one most targeted to beginners and non-birders, the books barely qualify as field guides, many photos and lots of text are repeated from state to state, and each is curiously written by the same author (a resident birder from each state would have given them more credibility).
Here are some recommended identification books published in recent years to be aware of:
• Identify Yourself: The 50 Most Common Birding Identification Challenges by Thompson et al. (similar in concept to Kaufman's Advanced Birding guide, with better color illustrations and more species accounts, though its level is perhaps not as "advanced" as Kaufman's book)
• Birding in the American West by Zimmer (replaces The Western Bird Watcher by the same author; still includes much bird-finding and other non-ID material)
• Birds of Europe by Mullarney, Zetterstrom, Svensson, and Grant (often referred to as the Collins guide, and now considered better than my earlier recommendation of Lars Jonsson's European field guide)
• Raptors of Eastern North America and Raptors of Western North America by Wheeler (these home reference volumes greatly expand on the two Clark & Wheeler field guides)
• Hawks from Every Angle; How to Identify Raptors in Flight by Liguori (includes 19 widespread North American species with 370 photos; peripheral and vagrant species not covered)
• The Shorebird Guide by O'Brien, Crossley, and Karlson (comprehensive guide to all North American species, with 870+ photos, very helpful captions, and extensive text)
• Shorebirds of North America, Europe, and Asia by Message and Taylor (another comprehensive guide to this group, illustrated with paintings, not photos; includes non-North American species)
• Gulls of the Americas by Howell and Dunn (excellent guide with 1,160 photos; at least as good as Olsen and Larsson's monumental gull reference, and possibly more useful)
• Tanagers, Cardinals, and Finches of the United States and Canada by Beadle and Rising (similar in concept to these authors' sparrows guide, with 200 photos of 46 species and user-friendly captions and text)
Also note that A Birder's Guide to Minnesota is now in its fourth edition, it still includes ID information in the annotated checklist section, and there are useful updates with corrections and additions included on the MOU's website (). [Author's Note, August 2016 – This book has been out-of-print for a couple of years, but the updates on the MBWbirds website are ongoing.]
And now for the bad news. While ID articles in birding journals have long been an important resource for birders looking for something beyond the field-guide level, in recent years I have seen a tendency for them to be more difficult to find, harder to read, or just plain unhelpful.
For example, you could now disregard two publications included among my earlier Hindsight recommendations: Birders Journal, an important Canadian ID resource, has apparently discontinued publication; and Western Tanager, Los Angeles Audubon's newsletter with frequently useful ID articles in years past, has not included any in recent years. (To offset these losses, though, I could almost be persuaded to add two magazines to my list of recommendations: the popular, general-interest Bird Watcher's Digest does at least include a regular "Identify Yourself" column, upon which the book of the same name was based; and the more scholarly Western Birds, journal of Western Field Ornithologists, publishes occasional ID notes and articles.)
My biggest disillusionment with birding journals is two-fold, involving the two most widely read publications among serious North American birders. Without exception, I have annually subscribed to both since the 1960s, and I had always recommended them to others without qualification. But "had" is the operative word here – now I'm not so sure what to think of them:
North American Birds
Formerly known as Audubon Field Notes, American Birds, and just Field Notes, this unique and important journal has a six-decades-long history of region-by-region seasonal bird reports. No where else will you find such a comprehensive overview of the status of birds throughout the U.S. and Canada (with Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America added recently), and knowledge of bird distribution is always an integral part of the bird identification process. You'll also find an ever-improving color photo gallery in the back of each issue, with useful ID comments often included in the captions.
But I have two problems with this journal, one relatively recent and the other chronically decades-old. My more recent disappointment involves the current and relative lack of identification articles. Especially in the 1980s and 1990s, this publication often included excellent ID articles, but this has changed since its reincarnation as North American Birds in 1999. In these last nine years (i.e., 36 issues), there have been only nine articles devoted to ID, and only four of them have involved species found in Minnesota. And, curiously, none of the nine was on passerines.
There are still articles here, but they tend to be long, detailed – and often tedious – accounts limited to particular species and their distribution and consequently limiting the number of interested readers. Consider the most recent issue with 29 pages just on the Eastern range and status of Painted Buntings, with no fewer than 19 pages of chart after chart listing nothing more than protected tracts where the species potentially occurs. Talk about tedious!
So, if there's not much about ID any more in these pages, isn't this journal's history of regional accounts on North American bird distribution through the decades important enough to recommend it? Well, maybe, except that the data has always been so difficult to glean, no matter what the name of the magazine has been. Keeping in mind that I never express personal opinions (everything I say is Proven Scientific Fact!), in no particular order the problems are:
• For better or worse, the reality is that we look at bird records and distribution according to state and provincial lines, yet most North American Birds regions include multiple states with sometimes obscure names. For instance, no one is likely to write a book called "The Birds of the Hudson-Delaware Region," or do an bird atlas of that region, or care much about a first "Hudson-Delaware" record. (This region, by the way, has nothing to do with Delaware – it's the states of New York and New Jersey.)
Or consider Montana and California birders, their states each separated into two regions. Any first state record for Montana, for example, is a big deal, but hardly anyone will note or care if it was in the "Idaho & Western Montana" or "Northern Great Plains" region. (At least the regions aren't as bad as they used to be. For decades, as recently as 2002, there was the Appalacian Region comprising parts of 11 states!)
• There's no species index, so good luck if you're trying to find out anything on any particular bird. You'll have to read through every regional report looking for the bird's name, an especially difficult ordeal considering that....
• The reports' sentences are anything but reader-friendly, loaded with parenthetical observer initials, unfamiliar abbreviations, italicized county names, and dates. And the paragraphs are too long with inconsistent headings. Uniformly divided sections by family, for example, would help a lot, but it's always been up to each regional editor to come up with their own and usually unhelpful system. (In the most recent issue, there were such useless headings as "Gulls through Finches," "Flycatchers through Blackbirds," and "Corvids through Crossbills.") And the type is simply too small, yet another obstacle to any reader trying to wade through the text.
• At least each issue opens with this journal's long-standing tradition of a "Changing Seasons" article, an overview of the weather, trends, and highlights of the season. But, again, why are these user-unfriendly paragraphs so long (many are 30 or 40 lines long!) and the type so small?
In sum, I guess I can still recommend that serious birders subscribe to North American Birds for its unique tradition of continent-wide seasonal summaries. But I wouldn't be disappointed or surprised if you don't – nor would I be surprised if my next update on references reports this magazine has ceased publication.
This won't take long. While my ambivalence about the preceding journal took awhile to explain, my thoughts about Birding, bi-monthly journal of the American Birding Association, are easier to address.
You'd think that ABA, an organization always intended for the more active and serious birder, would dedicate much of its journal to identification topics. And that's what they did for a long time, with more useful bird ID articles in Birding than anywhere else. But more and more in recent years, I've found myself thumbing through the magazine upon its arrival, with the intent of going back later to read the more relevant articles – and then just shelving it without ever considering a second look at any of them worthwhile.
Instead of ID articles, the reader will tend to find personal opinions and experiences, travelogues, photo and art galleries, interviews, species profiles with no ID content, non-ABA-area birds, reviews of books and optics, and articles just plain uninteresting or nonsensical (my favorite: "Color Abnormalities in Birds" in the September-October 2007 issue!). I submit that even birders not primarily interested in ID will be disappointed. Meanwhile, the ID material in Birding is too infrequent and too often downright disappointing.
As for disappointment, witness the largely discredited articles on dowitcher molt (July-August 2005) and on dowitcher and goldeneye ID (both September-October 2006). Even Birding's regular photo quizzes leave a lot to be desired. Since none of them provides the location of the photo, it's not a realistic exercise: in the field, your location is always part of the ID process. Further, too many quizzes have had gimmicky premises (e.g., exotic escapes, atypical postures, partially hidden birds), and even more include analyses in the text which are not visible in – or even contradicted by – the photos.
But the infrequent appearance of ID articles in Birding is more disturbing. Looking back over the 30 issues from the past five years, I could find only three worthwhile articles on species found in Minnesota (sapsuckers, wigeons, and longspurs). In all, excluding the inadequate articles on goldeneyes and dowitchers mentioned earlier, there have been just 25 ID articles – an anemic average of five per year.
The history is even more dismal if you disregard 18 articles with little or no relevance to most birders: pelagics (6), subspecies (4), hybrids (4), species exclusive to Alaska or Florida (3), and a species never seen in the U.S. (1). That leaves most readers with a pitiful total of seven useful ID articles – less than one in every four issues.
So, while my review of North American Birds may be mixed, my formerly positive assessment of the overall content in Birding has now become decidedly negative.
* * *
By the way, while we're at it and I'm in this foul mood, let's take a second look at The Loon: not enough book reviews or Notes of Interest, CBC charts taking up too many pages, too much emphasis on county records and early/late dates in the seasonal reports, lazy authors chronically late with their articles....
....Um, sorry. I'd like to elaborate, but no time now. The editor just called, wondering where my month-and-a-half-overdue article is.