Top positive review
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I feel lighter already...
on May 13, 2007
For 95% of the traveler's going to Costa Rica, you'll want to take this book.
For readers interested in natural history, I think it's important to understand what this book is - and what Costa Rica needed. The new Garrigues and Dean field guide, The Birds of Costa Rica: A Field Guide (henceforth the G&D field guide) will not be the new barometer for definitive field guides. Lucky for us, it doesn't need to be. The earlier Skutch and Stiles Field Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica (henceforth the S&S field guide) is a great field guide in its own right, but has no need to be duplicated. On the plus side, the earlier S&S guide has buckets of information about behavior and ecology, and it is highly informative about general natural history as well as birds. The problem has been that for nearly a decade now, the S&S field guide was just too much for nearly every traveler. The limitations become greater with every passing year. It suffers from an extremely heavy weight (especially when wet), has no visual range maps, and has color plates that are small, sometimes dark, and sometimes poorly placed.
Costa Rica simply doesn't need a bird field guide to compete with the S&S guide (who wants to compete with Alexander Skutch!). It needed a guide to solve the aforementioned S&S problem - a lighter weight, better plates, and good range maps. This book, by Richard Garrigues (Author) and Robert Dean (illustrator), solves that problem. It's easy to call the book "excellent" because of the overall mission. It didn't have to be the best ever ... it had to be the most useful for travelers (and, yes, birders) going to Costa Rica. Clearly the authors knew exactly what they were out to accomplish.
The weight and the range maps of the new guide will become obvious right away to those who have walked and used the S&S field guide for so many years (I'm now in double-digit territory on the number of times I've been to Costa Rica). The color plates, however, are a comparison thing. One will have had to have had the S&S guide to appreciate the change - but it's there. So for these three challenges, mission accomplished. Done. Solved.
To get to the proper weight, the G&D field guide had the good sense to remove the ecology, habits, and behavior of all the birds. Adding that information would mostly just duplicate the S&S field guide anyway. The G&D guide concentrates on the physical characteristics needed for identification - just what most of us are looking for. I like the habits and ecology of the birds - but I don't need to lug that information into the field. That's the kind of information I'll look up later. The new G&D guide also eliminates some rather unnecessary pelagic birds and concentrates specifically on what most travelers need... the land birds.
The range maps, thankfully, are large enough to look at without squinting. I would have liked to have seen the maps break down the regional borders, but it's hard to quibble when you've never had a visual range map before. (for the record, I have not looked at the accuracy of the maps. Someone will need to chime in later on that one).
The plates were the biggest challenge. Dean has done an admirable job by making the plates bigger and cleaning up the rather flat, dark, images that occasionally plague the S&S guide. There are fewer images per page, and if anyone has tried to deal with the hummingbird plates on the S&S guide, you'll immediately appreciate the improvement. Finding the right text for the right species for that guide required some visual gymnastics. I also agree with the reviewer who said the images in the new G&D guide seem a little dim sometimes. They do. But after seeing images that were too dark for so many years, I don't feel any room to complain. I'm convinced it's not Dean's plates, but the printing itself. In North America we had a similar problem with the rufous and red colors in the Sibley field guides. Hey... it happens. Still, the detail of the plates is significantly better even if the color isn't as lively or as rich as it should be on some species.
In all, most everyone will likely end up with this as their primary bird field guide. That's really a shocking statement to make and I didn't expect to be making it. That's a real tribute to the author and illustrator. The S&S guide will still be in the suitcase of course, but thankfully I won't need to drag its fat, warped body around with me anymore. Researchers and students may opt for the older S&S guide because of the informative text, but most birders and passive visitors will want the lighter, more useful G&D guide. It's a great addition.