Monday, 14 October 2013

Book review: The Warbler Guide by Tom Stephenson & Scott Whittle


The Warbler Guide

Tom Stephenson & Scott Whittle
Drawings by Catherine Hamilton 
Princeton University Press | 2013
560 pp. | 16.5 x 22 cm | 1,000+ colour illustrations. 50 colour distribution maps
Paperback flexibound | £19.95 / $29.95 | ISBN: 9780691154824

Last month, Princeton University Press kindly sent me a review copy of The Warbler Guide. Being a long-time admirer of American warblers, or Parulids, and fortunate enough to be able to feast my eyes on an assortment of them on a regular basis, I was eager to get my hands on this book. I had already looked greedily at some of the material on the authors' website and had read some of the reviews and comments elsewhere. When I finally got the chance to flick through the book at the UK Birdfair, I realised that this new guide had taken American warbler identification to a higher level – and I found it hard to drag myself away! This is definitely my kind of guide!

I already have Curson, Beadle and Quinn's superb New World Warblers and Dunn and Garrett's Peterson Field Guide to Warblers of North America. The latter is as close as one might reasonably expect to a definitive guide to Nearctic Parulids: my copy is well-thumbed and has seen service everywhere in America except for the United States and Canada! Neither of the previous works are diminished by Stephenson and Whittle's efforts; they are different reference tools with different functions, each has passed the test of time and they remain indispensable. But The Warbler Guide is something else.

More than a guide, this is an identification compendium, an encyclopaedia. With over 550 pages of high-quality paper, The Warbler Guide weighs in at 1.3 kg (almost 3 lbs) – about the same as Sibley. Even so, if I were learning these birds, I would still heft this into the field with me. I can see it being used at bird observatories, migration watchpoints, banding stations and birding lodges across the Americas. It will be a home reference for almost every keen birder in North America and, notwithstanding its geographic coverage, many from outside the region.

Why so big? The main reason is the huge number of photographs and figures: to illustrate with the species account of one of my favourite Parulids, there are 58 photographs of Blackburnian Warbler, as well as a pair of good-sized range maps and a double spread of sonograms. Another example, American Redstart, is here. In addition to the species accounts, there are also over 150 introductory and supplementary pages – and these are not 'fillers' but useful syntheses of comparative data for field identification. To get an idea, have a look at the 'quick finders' on the Princeton University Press blog.

So, over a thousand photographs make this a highly visual guide. A picture being worth a thousand words, sonograms are a big and fairly unusual feature of this guide. They may be daunting for those who have not come across them before, but the helpful annotations and 38 pages of introductory text on vocalisations should ease the reader into the art of interpreting them. Some very nice, original mnemonics of the songs are also provided for those who do not want to get into too much detail. But, like it or not, songs and calls are vital in identifying warblers.

Apart from the introductory chapters, text is kept to a minimum. It is short, concise and used to summarise ID points or emphasise particular ID features in photographs. This is just what an identification guide requires. Excellent!

The maps have two innovations. First, unusually for a North American guide, the maps show wintering ranges south of the US-Mexico border. This not only broadens the knowledge of the North American reader, but greatly enhances the utility of the guide outside the Nearctic – in the Neotropics, where most of these warblers spend most of their time! Secondly, where appropriate two maps are used to illustrate both spring (northward) and fall (southward) migration routes. Subspecies are clearly indicated on the range maps, using scientific names – another welcome feature.

Any downsides? I have already mentioned weight, and some will find this a hindrance. As for me, unless I actually intend to take a book deep into the field, I prefer a weighty tome that aims to be exhaustive: and at £15 per kilo, this is better value than most things you'll find in the supermarket. The other slight detraction concerns the order of the species. I am not an advocate of following strict systematic order, since this changes over time – sometimes quite dramatically – and there is often disagreement over the order at a particular time. However, alphabetic ordering seems to me to be even less natural. I would have preferred to have closely-related species grouped together, with those that present a particular ID challenge laid out consecutively. This would have put, for example, Black-throated Green and Golden-cheeked together, grouped Blackpoll, Pine and Bay-breasted, and avoided splitting the waterthrushes. The authors get over this by repeating information on each species account – it works.

Who will buy this book? Those with an interest in identification of Nearctic birds will find it essential. Since the majority of these birds move south after breeding, at which time they sport their rather less distinctive first year or non-breeding plumage which can be a challenge for birders (not least because many Latin American field guides opt to leave out the 'familiar' Nearctic breeders), Neotropical ornithologists will also find much of utility here – that's where I will be using my copy. With a good scattering of these birds hitting Palaearctic shores this autumn, I suspect that British and European birders will not want to be left behind.

A wonderful book that has been a joy to explore. I anticipate many happy hours using this guide in earnest, and perhaps many more as I indulge at home. Congratulations to the authors on producing such a marvellous resource. More information, including free downloads, from Princeton University Press and from the authors.

The Shorebird Guide next?

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