Friday, April 4, 2014

Rare Birds of North America review

The latest of the intermittent advertisements, errrrrr, reviews for Princeton Books (who provided a free review copy).

I think this is my favorite bird book that I've received from Princeton (the dragonfly book passed the test that I bought one myself when I'd promised the review copy to someone else and ended up having to own it after looking at it).   As the name implies it covers North American rarities, specifically 262 species that have generally occurred less than 5 times in North America.  The book has extensive discussion about patterns of vagrancy and occurrence, which I expected.  What I didn't expect was excellent identification discussion (I probably should have given that Steve Howell is the lead author) and even better illustrations. 

Here's the Lesser Sand-plover plate; this would have been very helpful last fall when the bird appeared in Indiana and I was kind of stretching on a resource that would eliminate Greater.

The illustrations (apologies for my photographs of them) are better than Sibley's (more on him later).  My only criticism of them is that the artist's (Ian Lewington's) style is to paint most of the birds in a fluffed relaxed affect; the shapes are a little off from what the bird's typically show.  That being said, with just one painter, you can kind of get your eye in for how they're pictured and how they're likely to look in life.  Here's plates of 2 of the birds I have seen recently, Green Violet-ear,
(Note in the Violet-ear plate the comparison with a Ruby-throat; the book commonly will show the rarity next to the regular bird it most resembles or would be encountered with.  It reminds me of the European Collins Guide in this manner.)

and Cinnamon Hummingbird.

The problem this book has is its timing.  It reminds me a lot of 10-15 years ago when Kaufman and Sibley came out with their field guides within a few weeks of each other.  They claimed there was no competition since Kaufman was billed as a replacement for Peterson and Sibley as a replacement for the National Geo.  The problem was that Sibley didn't include the rarities.  Illustrations of the Aleutian, pelagic, or southern border state rarities remained only in National Geo or specialty guides.  Sibley replaced Peterson, Kaufmann was an afterthought, and National Geo with all of its problems retained at least some of its niche.

This book was supposed to come out a year ago.  I'm not sure what the delay was, but now it's being released about the same time as the new Sibley which now contains illustrations of a lot of these same birds.  The question is how many birders are going to get this book when the new Sibley covers most of them at least in passing.  I think I've seen exactly 3 birds from the book in the ABA area and unless I move to SE Arizona my odds of discovering one on my own is close to nil.  Unless you're birding the Alaskan islands, doing a lot of pelagics, or living in one of the border regions (or conceivably even California) this book is of academic interest, really nicely done, but may not have that much practical use.  Off Amazon this book is $20-25, the dust jacket says $35.  Honestly though, this book is certainly worth owning at that price even if my Midwestern readers are probably only going to be chasing (or dreaming) about these birds.  If you've got a family of 4 you can't get out of Panera Bread without spending more that that.

Want others' opinions?  Here's Cory Gregory and Jerry Jourdan.

No comments: