Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Rare Birds of North America

Rare Birds of North America
by  Howell, Steve N.G.; Ian Lewington, and Will Russell
2014, 428pp, ISBN: 9780691117966

Basics:  hardcover; a thick reference book with multiple high-quality illustrations for each of 262 "ultra" rare vagrants in the US and Canada; text for each bird covers normal distribution ranges, historical sightings and trends in North America, detailed field identification to include similar species as well as age and sex, and, notes on habitat and behavior

(Also available as a digital download from iTunes).  This relatively large book (10x7x1.5 inches) is an exceptional, first-of-its-kind resource for a niche of birding not well covered.  This book will be greatly appreciated - and eagerly studied - by avid birders and twitchers who've jumped in a car (or plane) to see that nemesis rarity; or, by the traveling birder trekking to Arizona and Texas in search of those borderline rarities.  However, the detailed nature of the material along with historical records might be a little dry (and overwhelming) to some people that gain sufficient pleasure and excitement from the local birds coming into the backyard feeders.

There are a four things that define the scope of this book…
One:  It is an identification guide but definitely not a field guide due to the book's size and weight; and, to the large amount of information in the book not related to identification in the field.

Two: A summary is provided of when and where the rarities were seen along with notes on the bird's status.  Additional resources are also given for further research.

Three: A plethora of multi-decade experience of identifying these birds is given (in writing and illustrations) to any eager birder who wants to learn about rare birds that are more often seen in dreams than in the field.

Four: The book illustrates what I call "ultra" rare birds recorded since 1950.  The authors define "rare" as five (5) or fewer sightings per year.  This limit (frequency and time frame) helps to keep this a one-book project versus a multi-volume effort.

This book definitely is the best source for top-quality illustrations of the North American ultra-rarities.  The artwork by Ian Lewington is, as usual, excellent.  His skills are some of the best in any bird book.  The birds are shown with near-perfect proportions, coloring, and intricate detail.  These illustrations are additionally bolstered by the inclusion of seasonal variations, plumage differences of age and sex, and - for some - comparisons to similar common species.  Many of the birds also have ID tips with the illustrations, helping to point out the key features to be noticed.  Nearly all species are shown with 3-5 illustrations.  Some, such as the Kelp Gull, Steller's Sea Eagle, or Western Marsh Harrier, have 9-11 illustrations.

Within this book, you will see the most up-to-date use of taxonomic changes and trends.  The authors refer to both the IOC and AOU for naming conventions and for referencing the many subspecies and probable future splits.  Their research into the taxonomy informs the reader of the 40 subspecies of Bananaquit that probably make up multiple species; or, Eastern Blue Bunting (of Texas note) that is probably distinct from the Western Blue Bunting.  Other newer trends are the inclusion of the Hen Harrier (split from Northern Harrier), Mexican Yellow Grosbeak (from Southern Yellow Grosbeak), and Mexican Tufted Flycatcher (from South American).  One bird I was curious to see how it would be addressed was the "Stonechat".  The newer and at-large handling of the multiple subspecies can include distinct species of European, Siberian, African, and Stejneger's.  Apparently, all North American sightings (west and east) are of the Siberian.

If you're wondering what rarities are not included in this book, some examples are Black-capped Gnatcatcher, Ruddy Ground-Dove, Bar-tailed Godwit, Shiny Cowbird, and Clay-colored Thrush.  While rare, those are found with greater frequency in the US, if not even being routine.  Other species not included are Worthen's Sparrow and Bumblebee Hummingbird, which are very, very old records.  Darn.  Those are some of the first birds I looked up.  Their records from the US are mystical to me and I see so little written or illustrated about those birds.

Another group of birds not included are vagrant European subspecies that may constitute distinct species, some of which are already considered as such by the IOC.  Some examples include the Eurasian (Green-winged) Teal, Cayanne (Sandwich) Tern, Asian and the European Whimbrels, Common (Mew) Gull, and Eurasian (Barn) Swallow.

There is very little in this book that warrants critique.  Only two petty things come to mind.  One, is the species are arranged a little awkwardly.  Instead of a pure taxonomic order, they're arranged by "Larger Land Birds" or by "Aerial Landbirds" and then further by Old and New World.  This creates a few odd assortments such as swifts being found before and after the hummingbirds; the Eurasian Jackdaw shown before the doves; or, the Common House-Martin separated from fellow swallows by both the swifts and the hummingbirds.  The thrushes are broken apart the most, being separated by 63 pages of Old World warblers, wagtails, pipits, buntings, finches, and flycatchers.

Another nitpick is the random layout of how each bird's account begins, which can be anywhere on the page.  To the extreme, the Citrine Wagtail and Aztec Thrush have their illustrations and text spread across two pages except for the bird's name and a few beginning lines.  These are found on the preceding page, tucked in the bottom right corner.  Okay, that's minor; but, I find my eyes continually darting across the pages as I look for the beginning of each bird's account.

Should you get this book?  If you are an avid birder excited by searching for a rarity; or, if you embrace the challenge of learning those necessary identification features; or, if you are intrigued by the historical presence of a particular rarity, then you must get this book.  There is no better compilation of rarities with such quality illustrations, completeness of researched records, and experienced identification.

(written by Jack at Avian Review with sample pages, February 2014)

See other birding books related to advanced identification and avid birding at this link...HERE.