Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Warbler Guide - 28 Jun 2013

The Warbler Guide
Tom Stephenson & Scott Whittle
Drawings by Catherine Hamilton

Paper Flexibound | 2013 | $29.95 / £19.95 | ISBN: 9780691154824
560 pp. | 6 x 8 1/2 | 1,000+ color illus. 50 maps.
eBook | ISBN: 9781400846863 | Where to buy this ebook

July 24, 2013 is the publication date for the much-anticipated blockbuster of the summer.  Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle have combined to produce a stunning new approach to identifying warblers.  The Warbler Guide, published by Princeton University Press will soon be in the hands of birdwatchers all across North America.  My consensus? "The Warbler Guide is Music to My Eyes!".

I was fortunate enough to receive a pre-publication copy of The Warbler Guide by Princeton University Press.  My immediate impression upon lifting the book was that this would not be a guide to carry into the field.  At 560 pp. and weighing in a little over 2 lbs. this book is heavy.  I immediately thought of Richard Crossley (author of the also-heavy Crossley ID Guides) who spoke that field guides should be left at home, and more effort should be put forth into taking field notes of observations and behaviors.  The Warbler Guide fits into this category.  After pouring through the book twice, I was also left with the impression that this is a reference guide, and not a field guide, i.e., not an easy guide to use in the field. But what a reference guide it is!  By the coming fall migration The Warbler Guide 'will' be considered the ultimate, must-have guide for any birder serious about identifying the 'butterflies of the avian world'.  And get this! It will be available as an e-Book shortly, meaning that I'll be able to carry it around w/ my iPad-mini.  Sweet...

Tom Stephenson is a musician, and a former director of technology at Roland Corporation.  He (and Scott Whittle) has put forth the first concise bird guide that makes use of sonograms, or song analysis symbols, for learning and identifying warbler song and calls.  For those of us (including me) new to this newly-promoted technology, sonograms are 3-D  graphical representations of an audio source (warblers, in this case).  It is a plot of frequency vs. time, displaying the call in terms of a pitch and intensity to help one 'hear' visually the songs of warblers.  It is a daunting subject, and one that will undoubtedly intimidate many birders, but once understood, it provides a way of seeing the vocalizations of the 56 species of warblers found in the United States and Canada (and northern Mexico).  A large portion of the Introductory chapters covers the subject of sonograms, and each individual species is given several pages of sonograms describing the variations in calls and song that occur on a regional or local basis.  But, they also go a step further, and provide comparison sonograms of other species that might be confused w/ the warbler of subject.  So, not only do you get the most comprehensive visual guide for identifying warblers, but you get the most comprehensive audio-guide identifying, comparing and contrasting the vocalizations of each species.  One thing I would like to see come from this guides is a companion CD, or QR Codes (?),  that would allow the reader to hear the actual calls that produced each sonogram.  The authors reference the source of the sonograms in the Glossary of the book, but I only found the two Audio references in the Resource Section at the very end of the book.  I believe that  understanding sonograms will be much easier if the student can hear the call and see the sonogram at the same time.  - Addendum - I just found a link to a download option that will allow us to get these sonograms/vocalizations - price to be determined.

Before you start thinking that this is only a music book, though, let me put your mind at ease.  Never before has there been more warbler photos of every age, sex and molt pattern crammed between two covers.  (A quick shout out to Allen Chartier and Willie McHale, two of our hometown boys w/ photos in the book). The Introductory chapters take us on an extensive tour on how to look at warblers.  There are sections on How to Notice Warblers (shape, color, silhouettes, tail patterns (thank you!), quick range icons, preferred habitat icons, behavioral icons, song mnemonics, separate spring and fall migration route maps, migration time spans, and on...).  The use of black and white photos is one way of noticing contrast differences between confusing species. What to look for in facial contrast.  Wing bars, color, lighting conditions - all different ways of looking at a warbler.  Here is the species account for the American Redstart.  Here is the link to several author videos of the book.

I believe that once you look through this book you won't be able to wait until this fall to witness the onslaught of those confusing fall warblers.  Each species is covered in extensive detail, so you'll know exactly what to look for for identifying the difference between an Orange-crowned Warbler and a Tennessee Warbler in fall plumage.  There are sections for ageing and sexing individual species, even in fall plumage.  Did you know that an adult male Tennessee Warbler has blue/gray in the crown that helps to distinguish it from adult/juvenile females? I didn't.  I also don't think I've seen a more beautiful bird than a fall-plumaged female Chestnut-sided Warbler, with its bright green feathers and bold white eye ring.

There are 'quick-finder' guides for comparing all of the species - head shots, side shots, 45 degree view, under view, east and west spring plumages, east and west fall plumages, and the undertail covert views. Check marks indicate diagnostic ID marks for ID'ing the birds in any season.  There is even a quiz section at the end of the book, and another quick view section on birds in flight (why this section is at the end of the book is a bit confusing - it should be with the rest of the quick finders).  And finally, there are sections on habit and behavior notes, silhouettes, physical measurements, and a taxonomy tree - important since the recent AOU reorganization of genus and species names.

It was refreshing to see comparison species like vireos, sparrows, etc. included.  It was also nice to see species accounts for several of the Mexican warblers that drift into the SW States from time to time.  Curiously, the species account for Yellow-breasted Chat - a bird that is and is not considered a warbler - nested between several Mexican Warbler spp. at the end of the book.

In all this is a wonderful guide, and one that will provide discoveries with every page turn.  I cannot recommend this book enough.  Thank you, Jessica for a review copy of this book.

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Cathy Carroll said...

Hi Jerry,

Thanks for your thorough review of this new warbler guide. I rarely know there is a new guide available until I read of it on your blog. I clicked through the link you provided for the American Redstart. I was amazed at the sonographic detail that is provided and also listened to the authors explanation for the detail. As you point out, one of the authors is a musician and, knowing this, the sonograms reminded me of looking at a musical score that I cannot read. I have no music background at all, but for me hearing bird songs and vocalizations is one of the most enjoyable parts of birding. But I have never been able to make heads or tails of a sonogram. The author assures the reader that the introductory instructions for understanding sonograms will help the guide user remember songs. I wonder if this is true. Many warbler songs are very distinctive, but others are similar sounding. If so, this alone might make this guide very useful. Thanks again. Cathy.

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