Thursday, 15 May 2014

Book review: Rare Birds of North America by Steve Howell, Ian Lewington & Will Russell

Rare Birds of North America 

Steve N. G. Howell, Ian Lewington & Will Russell
Princeton University Press | 2014
448 pp. | 18 x 24.7 cm | 275 colour plates. 2 line drawings. 9 tables. 17 maps
Hardcover | £ 24.95 / $35.00 | ISBN: 9780691117966

I have spent the last few weeks looking through a review copy of the Rare Birds of North America, kindly sent to me by Princeton University Press. It has taken a while to get down to the review itself because of the temptation to revel in the craftsmanship and absorb the fine detail. This is a stunning book. Not surprising, given the authors and artist. Nevertheless, it surpassed my high expectations. The text is masterful, the illustrations as good as anything yet produced in the bird identification literature. The publisher must take credit for the clarity of design and quality of production. I wish all new bird books were produced to this high standard – not just on the part of the authors, but also the publisher. It is not often that a technical manual will serve equally as a coffee table book but Howell, Lewington and Russell and Princeton University Press have achieved that in this guide.

Rare Birds of North America is quite simply a 'must-buy' for any North American birder with more than a cursory interest in vagrant birds or bird migration. 262 species fulfil the selection criterion of fewer than five records per year since 1950 (the approximate year that birding became popular, according to the authors). Of these, 50% are Old World, 33% New World and 16% pelagic. With an increasing tally of Palaearctic vagrants on Trinidad & Tobago, and records of Redwing from Brazil (Brito et al. 2013), it will perhaps have relevance even for those south of the US-Mexican border. The comparative illustrations of Piratic and Variegated Flycatcher (p. 355) are better than those available in Neotropical field guides!

What about a British or European readership? Some will judge from the title that there is likely to be little of relevance here for Old World birders. They would be wrong. A large proportion of the species covered have occurred, or could potentially occur on this side of the Atlantic. This book is another tool in the birder's kit, and will very definitely help western Palaearctic birders sharpen their identification skills. How? On one hand, this book provides the inverse perspective on identification of American vagrants – how to tell a Golden Plover from an American Golden, a Hen Harrier from a Northern, rather than vice versa – and in doing so it gives many insights into field separation of similar species. On the other, it is often quite simply the best source of information available for species which present identification pitfalls on the E side of the Atlantic. Considering solely non-passerines, European readers will find a wealth of useful information in the accounts of snipe, smaller Tringa waders, Cuckoo & Oriental Cuckoo, besides a host of pelagic birds.

From the cover onwards, the plates are of the very highest quality: amongst the most accurate and helpful to be found in any identification literature. Apart from their accuracy (only a few of the tropical species are anything but completely convincing, and even they are extremely lifelike), they are charming works of art. The text is masterful, a distillation of decades of field experience, offering countless insights. The re-evaluation, documentation and referencing of individual records is scrupulous, allowing the user to consult original sources and perhaps arrive at his or her own conclusions. In this case, the layout and design deserve the highest praise too. The plates are placed close to the appropriate text, and they are reproduced large enough for the reader to appreciate the artwork itself and for field characters to be easily visible, while the text itself is extremely well laid out with clever use of different fonts to enhance clarity.

Quite apart from the identification section, the introductory information on bird migration is the best non-academic summary I have seen of what is known to date about migration and the causes of vagrancy.

This will doubtless prove to be one of the most important birding books of 2014. It is a pleasure to browse through, an endless source of curious and surprising information and a key reference in the identification literature.

So, a hearty approval from me. A wonderful book!


Brito, G.R., Nacinovic, J.B. & Teixeira, D.M. (2013) First record of Redwing Turdus iliacus in South America. Bulletin of the British Ornithologists' Club 133(4): 316–317.

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