Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Birds of the Southwest

Birds of the Southwest
Arizona, New Mexico, Southern California and Southern Nevada
by  Rappole, John H.
2000, 329pp, ISBN: 0890969582
Basics:  softcover; broader overview of the 457 species found in the Southwest region of AZ, NM, southern CA and southern NV; a single color photo (quality ranges from poor to good) shows only the male for all but a few of the species; another 45 b&w photos show various habitats; text describes the bird plus addresses habits, voice, habitat, seasonal presence, and possible locations to find the bird; range map given for each bird; at least 17 species misidentified in the photos

This is really the only book to focus on showing and discussing all the expected (non-rare) birds found in the Southwestern US (see Wyman's book of 1925).  The region covered is Arizona, New Mexico, the southern third of California and, the southern tip of Nevada.  In all, 457 species are discussed and shown with a range map; and, all but one (Gilded Flicker) are shown with a single, medium-sized color photo of varying quality.
This book is not really a field guide nor an identification guide.  This is due to its layout, the amount of text dedicated to natural history, and the selection of photos.  Although the photos and information may be a helpful resource for some of the species, all but a dozen of the photos are limited to only the breeding male.  In a sense, this book is an extra long, annotated checklist.  It's a reference to document all the birds expected in the Southwest.  The quantity of photographs (just one per bird) and their quality (poor to good) serve little more than to give the reader a generic view of the bird's appearance.  For some birds, the photo is too small or dark to be of use for identification.  At the extreme for "poor" photos, at least 17 birds are misidentified.

Some of these errors might be understandable, such as switching the Cassin's and the Western Kingbird.  Less likely races for the Southwest are shown, such as a "Myrtle" Yellow-rumped Warbler and the "Slate-colored" Dark-eyed Junco.  Mistaking a Tree Swallow for a Violet-green is pushing the envelope of reasonableness.  However, there are some truly inexcusable errors.  At least six (6) of the shorebirds are wrong.  A breeding Sanderling is labeled as a Pectoral Sandpiper.  Worse, the Surfbird is actually an American Dipper.  The Marsh Wren is really a Dickcissel; a winter plumaged Lark Bunting is labeled as a Sage Sparrow; and, how could anyone confuse a House Finch with an Olive Warbler?  Perhaps it was the tiny size and low quality of these photos that attributed to these editorial gaffs.
Another interesting choice of photos was showing the Gray Hawk and the Northern Goshawk as immatures.  On a different note, additional 45 black-and-white photographs are interspersed throughout the book to show various habitat types across the Southwest.  These help to give a nice representation of the wide array of environments to be encountered in the area.

The text for each bird ranges from one-quarter to one-half page.  This material gives a general description of the bird, covering the plumages for gender, age, and season.  These descriptions offer the basic portrayal of the birds, sometimes giving a few specific points that might help with the bird's identification.  The remainder of the text covers voice, habitat, abundance, distribution, sometimes a similar species, range and, where to find the bird.  This last bit of information lists several places by name where the bird may be most likely to be seen in the four states.  These place names are given more detail in Appendix 2.
Accompanying each bird is a range map.  The bird's range is denoted with four different black-and-white patterns that represent summer, migration, winter, and permanent.

A very handy addition to this book is a 37-page appendix that lists 406 birding sites across the SW region.  Although brief with 3-5 lines each, they provide concise, detailed directions.  These include specific highway exit numbers, road names, and driving distances.  Of the six or seven sites in Arizona I randomly examined, the directions were correct.  I can't speak for the accuracy of the other 400.  The breakdown for the number of sites per state is the following: Arizona=128, California=136, Nevada=22, New Mexico=120.

For those birders who buy this book, the two things considered as useful will be the range maps and the specific birding sites.  These will help to familiarize the birder with where the birds are found across the region; and, will help guide him to locations for any target birds.  If you want a book that is geared towards truly identifying the southwestern birds, you will be much better off with a western guide by Sibley, Peterson, or National Geographic. Those books have more plumages, higher quality artwork; and, identify all the birds correctly. - (written by Jack, shown with sample pages at Avian Review, May 2011)

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