Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Smithsonian Field Guide to Birds of North America - 02 Jul 08

These books keep getting better and better! First off, kudos to Ted Floyd and Smithsonian Books for another great addition to a long list of fine birding guides.
Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America showcases the talents of some of the nation’s best photographers* to bring you the first comprehensive ‘photographic’ field guide to North American birds. It’s heavier than most field guides, but at 512 pages it’s packed with over 2000 color photos of birds in their natural habitat (including many flight pics). The book covers 750 species with over 725 detailed distribution maps, and even includes a DVD with 587 bird songs (covering 138 spp.) in MP3 format that can be uploaded to your iPod or MP3 player.

Ted Floyd is the well-known editor of the American Birding Association’s Birding Magazine, so he brings with him the knowledge and expertise of the ABA in providing concise descriptions of bird habitats, ecology, behavior, vocalizations and field markings. Paul Lehman, another well-known ABA staff-member, puts his talents to work at providing detailed distribution maps that not only show wintering and breeding grounds, but also includes migratory routes (orange) and rare occurrences (yellow). Each of the 46 groups of birds are broken down so that each species is given an ABA Code ranging from 1 (common), 2 (regular but restricted), 3 (rare but regular), 4 (casual) 5 (accidental) and 6 (extinct).

A short but comprehensive Introduction provides essays describing bird biology, vocalizations, coverage, natural variations in molt, sex/age/seasonal-related differences, and geographic variations within and between species. Habits and ecology, natural history, behavior, food, vocalization, courtship and breeding behavior are also described. I especially liked seeing photos of birds (duck, sparrow, hawk, hawk-in-flight, gull and shorebird) next to detailed diagrams outlining parts of the bird. These diagrams are essential when describing field markings that help identify an unknown bird, which is also covered in the Introduction.
I am a big fan of how the species accounts are laid out. Photos are bright, detailed, and sharp, and many include the birds in flight! The short-coming of any photographic field guide is, of course, the fact that you’ll never see a photo for every molt or age-variation that a Sibley’s or Peterson’s guide will give you, but I was pleasantly surprised at just how many photos were packed into this book. For example, I recently photographed an immature Black Tern in flight, and was able to use this field guide (p. 203) to verify its ID based on the photo of an immature bird included under the species account.

I’ve read a number of other reviews regarding the Smithsonian Field Guide to North American Birds, and was surprised that none of the reviewers commented on what I find to be the best part of this book, i.e., species that can be confused with similar-looking birds are paired side-by-side (when they normally would not in an AOU checklist-based guide). For instance, Common and Forster’s Terns are paired together in this book when they are not in Sibley’s or the National Geographic guides. White-faced and Glossy Ibis are paired on the same page, as are Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks, Clapper and King Rails, Iceland and Glaucous Gulls, Allen’s and Rufous Hummingbirds, Black-capped and Carolina Chickadees, Marsh and Sedge Wrens, and Purple and Cassin’s Finch. This may be a minor point to make, but I appreciate not having to flip pages when comparing these similar-looking bird pairs.

My only real ‘nit’ with this book is the bird-song DVD. I had hoped that I could just pop the disk into my computer and have it automatically imported into my iTunes for uploading to the iPod. Not so! Each bird species has its own folder with at least one common call. This means having to import each bird separately. The consolation, however, is that each species comes with its own photograph that can be viewed when the song is played.

I’ve enjoyed pouring through this book. Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America is a must-have compliment to the traditional Sibley’s, Peterson’s, Kaufmann’s, National Geographic, or Audubon Field Guide that you already own. I think it’ll be an instant classic!

* - Brian E. Small, Mike Danzenbacker, Brian Wheeler, Jim Zipp, Brian T. Karlson, Bill Schmoker, Garth McElroy, Jeff Poklen, Les Chibana, Brian Patteson, Robert Royse, Gary Nuechterlein, VIREO, The Academy of Natural Sciences.

Ted Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America. New York: HarperCollins, 2008. 512 pp.; maps, color photographs, figures, references, glossary, checklist, index, DVD. $24.95 softcover.

Website: smithsonianbirdsofnorthamerica.com

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