BIRDING BY HINDSIGHT: A Second Look at Identification Resources
[Author's Note, September 2010 – There has been a Hindsight article with updated information on bird ID references: .]
Perhaps one of the reasons I retired from working as naturalist at Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve in Duluth was I ran out of visitors who wanted to see my AARP card. At least, that’s what Frank Nicoletti, who was the hawk counter there, might tell you. But turning 50 and getting a card entitling me to 10% lodging discounts was a milestone I just had to share with others. So, after Frank (and others) politely declined to look at my card for the 50th time, it was time to move on.
That was also the year I bought myself a computer for my 50th birthday. By then I was at least three times older and three times slower than those far more adept at navigating the internet. I’m not managing to close the Geezer Gigabyte Gap either. This old Mac is now close to seven years old with perhaps a tenth of the power, speed, and memory of current computers.
But I digress. There is a point to all this. At least I think there is, if I can only remember what it is. Anyway, you have to show a bit of patience with someone who started birding so long ago with only a 1947 Peterson as my guide. Back in the 1950s and well into the 1960s, it’s all there was.
Thumbing through this quaint volume now, I am struck by how out-of-date it is. Consider some of the obsolete and now-laughable 1947 bird names and spellings that were all abandoned decades later at one time or another: Pacific Loon, Green Heron, Swallow-tailed Kite, Wilson’s Snipe, Black-headed Gull, Barn Owl, Alder Flycatcher, Blue-headed Vireo, American Pipit, Harris’s Sparrow, Baltimore Oriole.
As we all know, for example, Blue-headed Vireo and Baltimore Oriole became Solitary Vireo and Northern Oriole thirty years ago! On your next field trip, try calling out a Wilson’s Snipe or American Pipit instead of Common Snipe or Water Pipit, and expect some funny looks. . . . (Um, how’s that again? The AOU did what?)
Now I remember what this is about. Field guides, their limitations, and where to look for more information. As has been restated endlessly in this Hindsight series of articles, even the best guides, Geographic and Sibley included, lack the space to completely address the more complex ID challenges. And, unfortunately, some popular field guides used by too many birders don’t even manage to correctly handle some of the basics.
Previous Hindsights have often referred the reader to more comprehensive information found in books and journal articles that concentrate on specific groups of birds with more than their share of identification difficulties. Two Hindsight articles were devoted entirely to listing these resources: cited some books worth buying or borrowing, while listed some articles worth reading.
Since that Fall 1998 article, by the way, some new and recommended books on ID have been published:
• The third and fourth editions of the Geographic field guides have come out in the last four years. While the third edition is a noticeable improvement over the second edition, I’m not so sure the fourth edition is much different from the third.
• The publication of The Sibley Guide to Birds is no longer news, of course, but be aware that separate Eastern and Western editions are in the works for 2003. These smaller editions will be more pocket-friendly, and the illogical and inaccurate maps of the first edition will be revised.
• The second edition of A Field Guide to Hawks of North America by Clark and Wheeler is a big improvement over the first, especially in its new photos and illustrations.
• Reportedly due for publication in 2003 is Gulls of Europe, Asia, and North America by Olsen and Larsson. I would be surprised if this book isn’t far better than the now somewhat dated reference by Peter Grant.
• Two new hummingbird guides are out: Hummingbirds of North America: The Photographic Guide by Howell, and A Field Guide to Hummingbirds of North America by Williamson. I am no hummingbird expert, but I suspect Howell’s book is a bit better.
• A good supplement to James Rising’s 1996 sparrows guide is Sparrows of the United States and Canada: The Photographic Guide by Beadle and Rising.
And, since the Hindsight article, several journal articles on specific ID problems have appeared, with these articles on three species/groups of particular interest to Minnesota birders:
• Slaty-backed Gull — American Birds 40:207–216; Birding 26:243–249; Birders Journal 6:251
• Eurasian Collared-Dove — American Birds 41:1371-1379; North American Birds 53:348–353;
• Thrushes — Birding 32:120–135, 32:242–254, 32:318–331, and 34:276–282
But I’m still digressing somewhat, still not entirely addressing the topic in the title. Geezers like me, you see, often are slow to get to the point. We’re even slower to catch on to new stuff. So, when that odd gull showed up in the Twin Cities late last fall, and the possibility of it being an immature Slaty-backed was raised, I was relatively clueless. (So was everyone else.) None of the standard field guides were of much help with this ID problem, of course, but neither were the other books or journal articles I had. The time, then, is long overdue to be aware that there are ID resources other than books and journals.
Even I don’t own a record player any more, and I even quit using cassette tapes a couple years ago. When working with bird songs and call notes, I rely on CDs and a minidisc recorder/player. (But don’t ask me what an MP3 is.) Bird vocalizations are best learned in the field, of course, and there is only so much that studying a book or article can accomplish on this subject. Some sort of machine is necessary, and both cassettes and CDs will work as you supplement your study of sound identification at home or in the field.
There are four sets of recordings which Minnesota listeners might find the most useful:
• Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs: Eastern Region (370+ species on cassettes or CDs) and Western Region (550+ species on cassettes or CDs). Note that Don and Lillian Stokes did none of the recordings; their name is in the title for marketing purposes. Also note the collection of eastern songs recorded by Lang Elliott are better overall than Kevin Colver’s western recordings.
• Field Guide to Bird Songs of Eastern and Central North America (260+ species on cassettes or CD keyed to Eastern Peterson field guide) and to Western Bird Songs (520+ species on CDs keyed to Western Peterson). These recordings will certainly work, but note the tracks are generally shorter than those on the Stokes recordings, and there are fewer of them. There are tracks which are better on Peterson than on Stokes, but more often the opposite is true.
• National Geographic Guide to Bird Sounds (180 songs on cassettes or CD keyed to the Geographic field guide). The tracks are long and of high quality, but there aren’t enough of them.
• Songs of the Warblers of North America (57 species on cassettes). These recordings by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology include several tracks for each species of warbler, some of them quite surprising and atypical.
There are certainly some slick and sophisticated CD-ROMs on birds, but with one exception, I am unaware that any of them include any ID information not found in the field guides or the above recordings. That one exception is Flight Calls of Migratory Birds by Bill Evans (a former Minnesotan) and Michael O’Brien. Available from , this groundbreaking and unique CD includes flight calls of 211 migrant landbirds, many of these recorded at night, and many which you have never heard before.
Yes, I do own a VCR, and I even know how to program it. (But don’t ask me what a DVD is, however.) And there are some videos which include far more ID information than what can fit in any field guide. In a sense, these are photographic field guides in which the pictures move (and can be frozen on your VCR), and in which the text is narrated rather than printed. Though not portable into the field, a good identification video can obviously be a better home reference than a good field guide.
As with the CD-ROM medium, there are several fancy videos on birds, but I am aware of only a few of them including advanced ID information unavailable in the field guides. There are three by John Vanderpoel of Peregrine Video Productions I would recommend: Small Gulls of North America, Large Gulls of North America (note its Slaty-backed Gull footage), and Hummingbirds of North America.
Though I haven’t seen it, I also suspect Paul Doherty’s Shorebirds: A Video Guide to the Key Shorebirds of North America, Europe and Asia would be an excellent ID reference. ABA Sales () also lists other videos on waders, hawks, shorebirds, flycatchers, warblers, and sparrows, but I suspect these have little or nothing not found in Sibley or Geographic.
[Author's Note, August 2016 – Some of the websites in the original article have been discontinued or had a change in their http address, and the listings below have been updated accordingly.]
No, I don’t have a laptop, but those I’ve seen are not that much larger than Sibley’s field guide. Accordingly, if you own one, why not download some of the excellent ID material available on various internet websites, and it would be just as easy to lug your laptop into the field as your copy of Sibley.
There are now several websites with accurate and comprehensive information which equal or surpass what the best identification references in print have to offer. Additional ID websites will certainly appear in the coming months and years. It is not easy to keep track of what is out there, however, with many sites including seemingly endless and overlapping links. Note that relatively few specific bird groups are included on ID websites, with perhaps too many sites obsessed with the subject of gulls! Also note these sites tend to be long on photos, which can take forever to download, and relatively short on text.
The following list is certainly incomplete, since there are probably other websites with useful ID information I have yet to run across:
• Patuxent Wildlife Research Center – (Includes photos and basic ID information for all North American birds; the extensive collection of photos is impressive, with many illustrating useful field marks, though the text is just basic field guide information)
• Don Roberson’s website – (Many useful photos and lists of ID books and articles, and it addresses a few specific ID problems)
• Joe Morlan’s website – (Though somewhat datesd, includes a link to an extensive bibliography of ID articles)
• Maryland Ornithological Society – (Includes an equally impressive comprehensive list of ID journal articles whuch is kept up-to-date.)
• Frontiers of Bird Identification – (The archives of subjects discussed includes a wide variety of bird ID topics, although its members have a special fondness for gulls)
• Louisiana Ornithological Society – (Currently includes its newsletter’s articles on Myiarchus flycatchers, jaegers, Calidris sandpipers, Sterna terns, longspurs, Carpodacus finches, hummingbirds, Kelp Gull, vireos, godwits, and swallows)
• Shorebirds –
• Gulls –
• Gulls –
• Red Crossbill – (Website on the proposed splits of this crossbill into several species)
* * *
To conclude, I have two requests. First, I would appreciate any input from readers who know of additional CD-ROMs, videos, and websites which have useful identification material. And, second, does anyone want to see my AARP card?