More than 10 years in the making, David Sibley's Guide to Birds is a monumental achievement. The beautiful watercolor illustrations (6,600, covering 810 species in North America) and clear, descriptive text place Sibley and his work squarely in the tradition of John James Audubon and Roger Tory Peterson; more than a birdwatcher and evangelizer, he is one of the foremost bird painters and authorities in the U.S. Still, his field guide will no doubt spark debate. Unlike Kenn Kaufman's Focus Guide, Sibley's is unapologetically aimed at the converted. Beginning birders may want to keep a copy of Sibley at home as a reference, but the wealth of information will have the same effect on novices as trying to pick out a single sandpiper in a wheeling flock of thousands. The familiar yellow warbler, for instance, gets no less than nine individual illustrations documenting its geographic, seasonal, and sex variations--plus another eight smaller illustrations showing it in flight. Of course, more experienced birders will appreciate this sort of detail, along with Sibley's improvements on both Peterson and the National Geographic guide:
- As in Peterson, Sibley employs a pointer system for key field markings--but additional text blurbs are included alongside the illustrations to facilitate identification.
- Descriptive passages on identification are more detailed than those in most other field guides. For example, Sibley includes extensive information on the famously hard-to-distinguish hawks in the genus Accipiter (sharp-shinned, Cooper's, and northern goshawk), noting differences in leg thickness and wing beat that will be of use to more advanced birders. A section on the identification of "peeps" (small sandpipers) includes tips about seasonal molting and bill length. Confusing fall warblers, Empidonax flycatchers, and Alcids receive similar treatment.
- As previously mentioned, ample space is given to illustrations that show plumage variations by age, sex, and geography within a single species. Thus, an entire page is devoted to the red-shouldered hawk and its differing appearances in the eastern U.S., Florida, and California; similarly, gulls are distinguished by age and warblers by sex.
- Range maps are detailed and accurate, with breeding, wintering, and migration routes clearly depicted; rare but regular geographic occurrences are denoted by green dots.
- The binding and paper stock are of exceptional quality. Despite its 544 pages, a reinforced paperback cover and sewn-in binding allow the book to be spread out flat without fear of breaking the binding.
Some birders will be put off by the book's size. Slightly larger than the National Geographic guide, it's less portable than most field guides and will likely spend more time in cars and desks than on a birder's person while in the field. For some it will be a strictly stay-at-home companion guide to consult after a field trip; others may want to have it handy in a fannypack or backpack. But regardless of how it is used, Sibley's Guide to Birds is a significant addition to any birding library. "Birds are beautiful," the author writes in the preface, "their colors, shapes, actions, and sounds are among the most aesthetically pleasing in nature." Pleasing, too, is this comprehensive guide to their identification. --Langdon Cook
Amazon Exclusive Essay: Author David Allen Sibley on Spring Birding in the United States
|photo credit: Erinn Hartman |
Birders are an optimistic lot--always looking forward to the next day, the next season--and no season is as keenly anticipated as spring. Everyone loves spring, of course, but to a birder that feeling is multiplied as
spring is the season of discovery. Migrating birds make their way north from wintering grounds in the south to breeding grounds in the north, and no matter where you are you can see this migration in action. Every day brings new arrivals and new sightings, and the flood of birds can be overwhelming at times.
If you’re lucky enough to be able to travel to a place like Gray’s Harbor in Washington state, Cheyenne Bottoms in Kansas, or Delaware Bay in the east, you can see hundreds of thousands of migrating shorebirds as they stop for a few weeks to refuel on their way to the arctic. Along the Gulf Coast beaches you can see birds that have just flown from the Yucatan or from South America and are dropping into the nearest patch of cover to rest. Even in urban areas--places like Central Park in New York City, Rock Creek Park in Washington DC, Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, and countless other parks in cities and towns across North America--you will find outstanding birding. During spring migration these natural oases can be filled with brightly-colored songbirds, and seeing an exotic bird like a Blackburnian Warbler or a Western Tanager, where there were none the day before, is a thrill unique to birding. You don’t even have to travel. Whether you’re a seasoned birder or a neophyte, just grab some binoculars and a bird guide, and head out to your backyard, or to your local park or beach to see what’s happening. Those warm spring days when all you want to do is take a long lunch break and sprawl out on the lawn are the same days that the birds will be migrating north, and all you have to do is look up.
--David Allen Sibley
From Publishers Weekly
The bird-watching world knows Sibley best as an immensely talented painter. His thick, attractive and data-packed color guide offers nearly 7,000 images, along with range maps and detailed descriptions of songs, calls and voices, for all the birds North Americans might see. It's a more informative volume than Kenn Kaufman's forthcoming Birds of North America (Forecasts, Sept. 11) but less portable and harder for beginners to use. An introduction describes the key parts of major classes of birdsDthe tomia and culmen of a gull's bill, the scapulars and coverts of passerines (songbirds). Sibley then moves on to hundreds of pages of birds in 42 categories, from Loons and Grebes to Silky Flycatchers and Bulbuls. A typical page has two columns, with one species in each: that species gets a color-coded range map, a description of its voice, and four to eight illustrative paintings. These multiple images of single species are the guide's most attractive feature; they let Sibley show some birds in several poses, as well as important seasonal and regional, juvenile and mature, breeding and nonbreeding, or male and female versions of the same bird. (Gulls, terns, and many other seabirds, in particular, change their patterns completely when breeding.) Sibley assists viewers by giving, on the same page, images of species that might be mistaken for one anotherDone column shows 13 kinds of thrushes. He also describes calls for every bird (not just the more common ones), and makes many more comparisons. If Kaufman's guide belongs in birders' coat pockets, Sibley's big, detailed book belongs on their desks; it's easy to imagine birders rushing to Sibley's guide to check details of plumage or to confirm an ID the smaller guide has helped them make.
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