Smithsonian's new field guide, plus books on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail, backyard bird song, woodland birds, and Veracruz
The editors of BirdWatching magazine review Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, Finding Birds on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail, The Backyard Birdsong Guide: Western North America, Woodland Birds of North America, and Site Guide to the Birds of Veracruz.
Published: June 20, 2008
|Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America by Ted Floyd, HarperCollins Publishers, 2008, 528 pages, includes DVD of birdsongs, $24.95, paperback.|
Let's let this excellent new field guide be the final word in the age-old debate over whether artwork or photography is best for illustrating a field guide.
You might have thought that Kenn Kaufman's ground-breaking Field Guide to Birds of North America, Sheri Williamson's Hummingbirds of North America, David Beadle and Jim Rising's Sparrows of the United States and Canada, Brian K. Wheeler's Raptors of Eastern (and Western) North America, Michael O'Brien, Richard Crossley, and Kevin Karlson's The Shorebird Guide and Steve N.G. Howell and Jon Dunn's magnificent Gulls of the Americas, to name just a few of my favorites, would have put paid to the question long ago. (As would Kenn's regular contribution to this magazine, "I.D. Tips," which also relies on photography.)
They prove that what matters isn't whether an illustration comes from a paintbrush or from a camera, but whether it does the job. Assuming that enough high-quality photos exist and that the production schedule allows the editor enough time to find and obtain them, the only real question is whether he or she knows what to look for.
Floyd, the knowledgeable editor of the American Birding Association's journal Birding, an instructor with the association's Institute for Field Ornithology, and a co-author of the Atlas of Breeding Birds of Nevada, obviously does.
"The Smithsonian Guide has two special emphases that reflect emerging trends in the field identification of birds," he writes. "The first is a focus on natural variation within and among species, and the second is a 'holistic' view of the bird as the sum of its behavioral, ecological, and morphological parts."
Some 2,000 color photographs (almost all of them from contributors familiar to Birder's World readers) serve both aims, showing not only field marks but also preferred habitats and regional and life-stage variations for more than 730 species. Northern Harrier, for example, is pictured three times - as a cool gray male, a gray-brown female, and a tawny juvenile. Fox Sparrow is shown in five guises: a gray "Slate-colored," an even grayer "Thick-billed," a dark "Sooty," and a bright eastern and a darker western "Red." Especially helpful are photo captions that tell where and when each was taken.
Floyd's concise writing builds on the variation theme, describing habits, habitats, and seasonal, geographic, and sex- and age-related plumage differences for each species and listing not only how many molts each undergoes per year but also which molt strategy it employs. Since molt (like it or not) is a major source of variation in birds, this is welcome information, indeed. (For more on molt, see David Sibley's latest column.)
Also welcome is the included birdsong DVD. Although it contains the songs and calls (and pictures) of only 138 species, not all the birds in the book, the files were a snap to load into my MP3 player and the recordings are splendid, as instructive in the field as in the armchair. More, please! - Chuck Hagner
Chuck Hagner is editor of Birder's World.
Finding Birds On The Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail: Houston, Galveston, and the Upper Texas Coast by Ted Lee Eubanks Jr., Robert A. Behrstock, and Seth Davidson, Texas A&M University Press, 2008, 272 pages, $23, flexbound.
Don't bird the northeastern portion of the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail without this new guide. The introduction explains what to know about birding in different habitats and at different times of year, and it offers advice on birding by ear.
The bulk of the book covers 15 loops or driving routes and their 125 birding sites from the Louisiana border to just south of Freeport. Especially useful are sidebars sprinkled throughout the book explaining how to find high-interest birds, such as Red-cockaded Woodpecker (page 81) and Le Conte's Sparrow (page 193).
The Backyard Birdsong Guide: Western North America by Donald Kroodsma, Chronicle Books, 2008, 192 pages, $24.95, illustrated by Larry McQueen and Jon Janosik, hardcover with audio player.
Donald Kroodsma is one of the world's leading experts on birdsong and the author of the highly acclaimed book The Singing Life of Birds (Houghton Mifflin, 2005, reviewed here). Who better to produce a guide to the calls of common species? This one covers 75 species in the West, and a companion book describes 75 birds of the eastern and central regions. We enjoy listening to the songs, which are supplied by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, on the push-button audio player. And Kroodsma's brief, insightful essays on each bird's songs and calls are guaranteed to make anyone a better birdwatcher.
Woodland Birds of North America: A Guide to Observion, Understanding and Conservation by Scott Leslie, Key Porter Books, 2008, 352 pages, $19.95, softcover.
Award-winning bird photographer Scott Leslie wrote for us about where to find shorebirds at Canada's Bay of Fundy in August 2006, so we were excited to receive his new book, Woodland Birds of North America. Not only does Leslie present his great photos of warblers, owls, flycatchers, jays, vireos, and other species, but he also provides insights on bird behaviors, field marks, habitat, calls, diet, and family life. And he devotes much-needed attention to each bird's conservation status. In his introduction, Leslie says, "Saving migrant songbirds may be one of the most difficult tasks facing North American conservationists and bird lovers." This book is a significant step in the right direction.
Site Guide to the Birds of Veracruz by Robert Straub, Pronatura A.C., 2006, 238 pages, $19.95, softcover.
The Mexican state of Veracruz is famous for being home to the world's largest concentration of migrating raptors and vultures, but it's also a place to see hundreds of other species, including endemics such as Mountain Trogon, Red-crowned Parrot, and White-bellied Wren. This easy-to-read guide describes 56 birding sites and 25 "sub-sites." It includes maps, driving directions, and thorough notes on trail conditions and other variables birders need to know. And of course it covers Cardel and Chichicaxtle, the two main hawk-watching sites.
If you're like us, you like to read about birds almost as much as you like watching birds. To make it easier for you to obtain good bird books, we've partnered with online bookseller Amazon.com. Read about a book in "Bookshelf" or any other part of our website, and if it interests you, click on the title to buy the book.