on February 7, 2014
My pre-ordered copy of Howell et al.'s Rare Birds of North America showed up early! Thoughts:
- It's basically a field guide supplement. Goes in depth on how to ID each of these species. Also has really interesting info on possible vagrancy routes and timing, habitat and behavior in their native range, etc.. The illustrations are awesome, and apparently this guy (Ian Lewington) is working on a full North American field guide, which I'm looking forward to now.
- Really great introduction, on different causes of vagrancy in birds.
- What I was really hoping for, but is kinda missing, is a region-by-region write-up. So, in the Northeast, what should you keep an eye out for in each season? What kinds of weather patterns might bring interesting things? There's no central place to get that, you have to go species-by-species. It's almost addressed in the introduction, but not quite how I was thinking (it goes region-by-region for their native range, ex: when do most landbird vagrants from Western Europe show up?). And that part's clumsily done. So I was a little disappointed by that.
- There are some absolutely crazy records that I had no idea about. Humboldt Penguin has showed up off Canada and Alaska four times?! But all of those records were rejected, because it seems physiologically impossible. More likely is that sailors kept them illegally as pets or something. There is a record of Magellanic Penguin from El Salvador that could be legit though.
- A Double-striped Thick-Knee in Arizona was being kept by a Guatemalan immigrant as a watchdog/bird. Another one from S TX might've been wild though. Awesome.
- An apparently legendary snipe hunter in Oregon has shot three separate Jack Snipe, which is most of the lower 48's records.
- On a similar theme, Eurasian Woodcock and Corncrake were relatively frequent vagrants to the NE in the early 20th century, but there are very few recent records, probably because people don't hunt those kinds of things often anymore.
- They've chosen to ignore species that have never been recorded in NA. I was hoping for treatments of at least a few of the more likely candidates (Cuban Bullfinch, Black-headed Siskin, etc.). Meanwhile, bizarre stuff like Sungrebe get huge write-ups. Brambling is omitted because it's too common(?). So I'm not totally satisfied by the species list.
- Overall though, I like it a lot. The species write-ups are great, and the illustrations are fantastic. Really makes you wonder how many common birds you've brushed off over the years. I had no idea that Eurasian Siskin was a thing, and I really wish that I'd combed through all of my PISIs more. Or female Baikal Teals, or Little Stints, and on and on. Definitely inspiring. Highly recommended!
on February 13, 2014
BASICS: hardcover; a thick reference book with multiple high-quality illustrations for each of 262 "ultra" rare vagrants in the US and Canada; text for each bird covers normal distribution ranges, historical sightings and trends in North America, detailed field identification to include similar species as well as age and sex, and, notes on habitat and behavior
This relatively large book (10x7x1.5 inches) is an exceptional, first-of-its-kind resource for a niche of birding not well covered. This book will be greatly appreciated - and eagerly studied - by avid birders and twitchers who've jumped in a car (or plane) to see that nemesis rarity; or, by the travelling birder trekking to Arizona and Texas in search of those borderline rarities. However, the detailed nature of the material along with historical records might be a little dry (and overwhelming) to some people that gain sufficient pleasure and excitement from the local birds coming into the backyard feeders. Also, the book does not, and could not, tell one where to go find those rarities that are truly random.
There are a four things that define the scope of this book...
One: It is an identification guide but definitely not a field guide due to the book's size and weight; and, to the large amount of information in the book not related to identification in the field.
Two: A summary is provided of when and where the rarities were seen along with notes on the bird's status. Additional resources are also given for further research.
Three: A plethora of multi-decade experience of identifying these birds is given (in writing and illustrations) to any eager birder who wants to learn about rare birds that are more often seen in dreams than in the field.
Four: The book illustrates what I call "ultra" rare birds recorded since 1950. The authors define "rare" as five (5) or fewer sightings per year. This limit (frequency and time frame) helps to keep this a one-book project versus a multi-volume effort.
This book definitely is the best source for top-quality illustrations of the North American ultra-rarities. The artwork by Ian Lewington is, as usual, excellent. His skills are some of the best in any bird book. The birds are shown with near-perfect proportions, coloring, and intricate detail. These illustrations are additionally bolstered by the inclusion of seasonal variations, plumage differences of age and sex, and - for some - comparisons to similar common species. Many of the birds also have ID tips with the illustrations, helping to point out the key features to be noticed. Nearly all species are shown with 3-5 illustrations. Some, such as the Kelp Gull, Steller's Sea Eagle, or Western Marsh Harrier, have 9-11 illustrations.
Within this book, you will see the most up-to-date use of taxonomic changes and trends. The authors refer to both the IOC and AOU for naming conventions and for referencing the many subspecies and probable future splits. Their research into the taxonomy informs the reader of the 40 subspecies of Bananaquit that probably make up multiple species; or, Eastern Blue Bunting (of Texas note) that is probably distinct from the Western Blue Bunting. Other newer trends are the inclusion of the Hen Harrier (split from Northern Harrier), Mexican Yellow Grosbeak (from Southern Yellow Grosbeak), and Mexican Tufted Flycatcher (from South American). One bird I was curious to see how it would be addressed was the "Stonechat". The newer and at-large handling of the multiple subspecies can include distinct species of European, Siberian, African, and Stejneger's. Apparently, all North American sightings (west and east) are of the Siberian.
If you're wondering what rarities are not included in this book, some examples are Black-capped Gnatcatcher, Ruddy Ground-Dove, Bar-tailed Godwit, Shiny Cowbird, and Clay-colored Thrush. While rare, those are found with greater frequency in the US, if not even being routine. Other species not included are Worthen's Sparrow and Bumblebee Hummingbird, which are very, very old records. Darn. Those are some of the first birds I looked up. Their records from the US are mystical to me and I see so little written or illustrated about those birds.
Another group of birds not included are vagrant European subspecies that may constitute distinct species, some of which are already considered as such by the IOC. Some examples include the Eurasian (Green-winged) Teal, Cayanne (Sandwich) Tern, Asian and the European Whimbrels, Common (Mew) Gull, and Eurasian (Barn) Swallow.
There is very little in this book that warrants critique. Only two petty things come to mind. One, is the species are arranged a little awkwardly. Instead of a pure taxonomic order, they're arranged by "Larger Land Birds" or by "Aerial Landbirds" and then further by Old and New World. This creates a few odd assortments such as swifts being found before and after the hummingbirds; the Eurasian Jackdaw shown before the doves; or, the Common House-Martin separated from fellow swallows by both the swifts and the hummingbirds. The thrushes are broken apart the most, being separated by 63 pages of Old World warblers, wagtails, pipits, buntings, finches, and flycatchers.
Another nitpick is the random layout of how each bird's account begins, which can be anywhere on the page. To the extreme, the Citrine Wagtail and Aztec Thrush have their illustrations and text spread across two pages except for the bird's name and a few beginning lines. These are found on the preceding page, tucked in the bottom right corner. Okay, that's minor; but, I find my eyes continually darting across the pages as I look for the beginning of each bird's account.
Should you get this book? If you are an avid birder excited by searching for a rarity; or, if you embrace the challenge of learning those necessary identification features; or, if you are intrigued by the historical presence of a particular rarity, then you must get this book. There is no better compilation of rarities with such quality illustrations, completeness of researched records, and experienced identification.
(written by Jack at Avian Review with sample pages, February 2014)
on February 10, 2014
This book is great! Each species account has several sections to it: summary of places it has occurred, taxonomy, distribution and status (on both birds natural range and in North America), comments, and field ID. The book is current through the summer of 2012.
For starters the drawings are incredible and with 4+ for each species, also as needed drawings of similar North American birds are included. The beginning also goes into detail on how vagrants arrive in North America, it was very interesting. In particular it explained how some birds are found in Alaska and southern California but there are no or few records in between (from Washington, Oregon, coastal Canada). And I thought the birds just got lost!
The species accounts: Included in this book are birds that average 5 or less records per year. The accounts are broken up by where they originated (old world, new world, and ocean) and what type of bird they are (old world waders, new world songbirds, etc.)
In a perfect world it would have been nice to have the birds arranged by region of occurrence in North America, but although some birds may be most common in one area there are often records for other areas as well. For instance Green Breasted Mango is most often found in Texas, but has also been recorded in NC, WI, GA, and LA. Or many birds have been found on the famous birding islands of Alaska but often a few have turned up elsewhere in North America.
For each account it gives an overview of where and when the bird is most likely to occur. For instance under Siberian Stonechat it says “Alaska: Very rare in spring and fall on St. Lawrence Island. Single records on mainland and (fall) in s-coastal AK. Elsewhere: Single fall records from CA (1995) and NB (1983).” Further on it breaks down the records in more detail.
My favorite part of the book is the comments which it often explains how the bird probably got here, patterns of occurrence, behavior while in North America, trends and more.
I had been planning on buying field guides for Europe, Mexico, and Asia, but this book eliminates the need to do that and describes the birds relative to North America. The only plus I can see of getting those books is for a bird that has yet to occur here (the end of the book has a list of hypothetical occurrences that goes into detail but without pictures). If you keep a list or are interested in rare birds in North America it’s a must have!
on May 15, 2014
This is a wonderful book, exceptionally well researched and beautifully produced. A real masterpiece. That should be no surprise, given the authors and publisher. Nevertheless, it surpassed my expectations. It is not often that a technical manual will serve just as well 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 a 'must-buy' for any birder with more than a cursory interest in vagrant birds or bird migration. The plates are of the very highest quality: amongst the most accurate and helpful to be found in any identification literature. The text is masterful, a distillation of decades of field experience, offering countless insights. In this case, the layout and design deserve the highest praise too: plates are close to text, the text itself is extremely well laid out with clever use of different fonts to enhance clarity. Added to that, the introductory information on bird migration is an essential summary of what is known to date.
This will doubtless prove to be one of the best 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.
Chris Sharpe, 15 May 2014. ISBN-13: 9780691117966
on July 7, 2014
First of all, this book is not for every birder. It is for those who are interested in the identification and status/distribution of the rarest birds that have been found in North America. However, for those species, the information is exhaustive, clear, and concise. The drawings are beautiful and highly accurate. I have rarely found a guide so well done. It is a great pleasure simply to leaf through and learn, even if the birds you are reading about are not immediately pertinent to your circumstances.
I now live in Colorado. You'd think a book that covers exceptionally rare species in the USA and Canada would not be of much use. However, a Snowy Egret with head plumes like a Little Egret appeared here, and Rare Birds of North America really helped nail down that it was an aberrant Snowy. Similarly, a friend of mine had a frigatebird that looked like a Great Frigatebird in Bonaire (I know, the Caribbean, not the USA or Canada). However, I could find no source that was as useful for identifying that bird as this guide.