14 Feb 2014

What's the Name of That Bird?: A Sampling of Identification Guides (Part II)

by Jan Thornhill 
My 1965 Peterson's Field Guide to Birds

I blame my dad for nurturing my natural propensity to put names to things. He was a walking encyclopedia and knew the names of all kinds of things—of rocks and minerals, of trees and plants, of clouds and bugs—and could easily explain the differences between, say, the flat needles of a hemlock tree and those of a balsam fir (hemlock shorter; fir with two light stripes on the underside). He fell short, though, on the names of birds, and couldn’t differentiate between a Downy Woodpecker and a Hairy one. Understanding that this was a flaw, he bought the family a copy of Peterson’s A Field Guide to the Birds when I was ten.

It was spring thaw when he took me to the Humber River to try it out. We shared the binoculars, but I was given the honour of being Keeper of the Book. Breakup had just happened and the river was swollen and roiling, carrying fast-moving ice floes towards Lake Ontario.

We Were on the River’s Edge When the Awful Thing Happened

A Yellow-rumped, or Myrtle Warbler almost caused
my dad's demise in 1965. (Dan Pancamo)
While trying to find a picture to match the tiny yellow-rumped bird I’d just seen, I did the unimaginable. I dropped the precious book. To my horror, it tumbled down the bank, straight into the freezing Humber. The river was moving fast. And so was the ice. And now, so was the book.

In a family like mine, it was clear to me at a very young age that books were important. I just didn’t know how important until that day.

My dad was no athlete. We didn’t play catch, and I never did see him run. But when that book hit the water and started to float away, he leapt into action. He skidded down the bank, and then—just like a super hero—he pounced onto the nearest ice floe. It tilted precariously, but he maintained his balance. Following the bobbing book, he leapt to the next floe. Then the next. He kept going until the prize was within reach. Somehow he scooped it sopping from the water without falling in himself, then inelegantly danced from one floe to another until he’d made it back to shore.

My dad had just risked his life for a book. A book! Powerful moment. 

The book, of course, was ruined. But no matter. He bought another. Which I still have.

Sibley Guide to Birds

This updated and improved Second Edition
 of the pocket version is due out next month.

Remarkably, that Peterson guide held its position as my birding bible for more than thirty years, and might have remained there if ornithologist David Allen Sibley hadn’t decided to spend ten years hunkered down with watercolours and brushes to paint the 6,600 images of 810 species found in the Sibley Guide to Birds, first published by Knopf in 2000. With multiple depictions showing alternate and juvenile plumages, flight patterns, and comparative perching views, it’s a monumental and irreplaceable work. Though the original edition is too cumbersome to be used comfortably in the field, pocket editions have been available for several years. 

The Warbler Guide

One of the things the Sibley guide has been lauded for is its treatment of the more than fifty species of wood-warbler that nest in North America. These tiny jewels can be challenging to identify, partly because so many of them prefer to spend the bulk of their time flitting amongst the highest leaves of forest trees (hence a birder malady known as “Warbler Neck”), and partly because, by autumn, they’ve traded their fancy, and often brightly coloured breeding plumage for much drabber winter outfits. Making this latter, seasonal task of identification even more difficult is the addition of immature warblers wearing their own muted versions of adult markings. Peterson referred to these duller versions as, appropriately, “Confusing Fall Warblers.”

So what’s a warbler hunter to do? Well, Sibley’s is good, but a new book, The Warbler Guide (Princeton University Press, 2013), completely blows it out of the water. In this unbelievably comprehensive book, Tom Stephenson and photographer Scott Whittle tease warblers apart with a fine tooth comb—not literally, of course, but with more than 1,000 photographs. 
Each species, (presented alphabetically by common name—yes!), is extensively explored with multiple views, close-ups of distinctive characteristics, photographs of comparison species, visual tips on aging and sexing, detailed range maps, and numerous captions that cover behavioural traits. Each species is also given several pages of sonograms to help with identification by song or call. “Quick Finder” spreads show these little beauties from a variety of angles, fantastic resources that are downloadable for free from Princeton University Press.

The Underview Quick Finder from The Warbler Guide that
 will go a long way in reducing "Warbler Neck."

Bird Feathers: A Guide to North American Species

But what if you see a warbler and before you can identify it it flits out of sight, leaving only a falling feather in its wake? Another book comes to the rescue: S. David Scott and Casey McFarland’s Bird Feathers: A Guide to North American Species (Stackpole Books, 2010). The first part of the book has detailed information about avian physiology, conservation, feather morphology, bird flight, tips on flight feather identification, and an explanation of feather colour and iridescence. 
Red-tailed hawk feathers
The bulk of the book, however, shows examples of each species’ right wing feathers, all clearly photographed on neutral backgrounds, along with measurements and range maps. 

Whether you find a stray feather lying at the side of the road, or the fluffy, strewn remains of a predator's kill, this book, like all the others in this post, is a wonderful resource.

  • Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America, Roger Tory Peterson, Lee Allen Peterson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008, 544 pages. ISBN: 0618966145
  • The Sibley Guide to Birds, Second Edition, David Allen Sibley, Knopf, 2014, 624 pages. ISBN: 030795790X
  • The Warbler Guide, Tom Stephenson, Scott Whittle, Princeton University Press, 2013, 560 pages. ISBN: 0691154821
  • Bird Feathers: A Guide to North American Species, S. David Scott, Casey McFarland, Stackpole Books, 2010, 400 pages. ISBN: 0811736180

Click here for Part I: "What's the Name of That Caterpillar?: A Sampling of Identification Guides 

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