Four Birding Field Guides


(This 1049th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on May 1, 2011.)


One of the Four New Birding Field Guides


To enjoy birding the first tool you need, even before binoculars, is a good field guide. I'll consider four in this column.


Before I do, however, I record my jealousy of those who take up this activity today. When I began birding over seventy years ago, my only reference was my mother's "Reed Bird Guide" with its single drawings of each species. At home I had her copy of Chapman's "Handbook of Birds". That book, still in my library, was as good for field identification of birds as my shoe. Today's birders have truly outstanding reference books. Each of the books discussed in this column is bargain priced. You could buy all four for under $100. The reason: they are widely and deservedly popular.


As most birders come to understand, different books play slightly different roles. Just as I carry two wildflower guides with me - Newcomb and Peterson - I carry two bird guides as well. (On canoe trips when every ounce counts I carry only the excellent Reader's Digest "North American Wildlife" While not including every species of plant and animal, it is a more than adequate resource.)


The first book I discuss here is the new "Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds" (Princeton). This book deserves special attention because it represents a very different display of bird photographs. Each page is a collage of photos of an individual species in its normal surroundings: creepers and nuthatches on tree trunks, gulls and pelicans at the beach, warblers and vireos on branches among leaves.


In most cases this is an interesting and useful device but there are two problems: birds in plumages from different seasons are grouped together and the naturalness of some of the portrayals is compromised by the number of birds. The next time someone sees fifteen peregrine falcons together (not trying to kill each other) will be a first.


I am impressed by this book and I recommend it, especially for beginners. That recommendation is, however, not as a field guide but as a book to enjoy at home. It is too heavy and bulky to carry in the field and it would be difficult to use as a quick reference. I have spent many pleasant hours paging through my copy.


Now to the two books I carry in the field.


The best guide for beginners and intermediate birders since the first edition was published 75 years ago, is the "Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). It sets a standard that I do not believe will be surpassed. The sixth edition supplements Peterson's art with paintings of a few additional species by Michael O'Brien. My one complaint about this sixth edition is the unnecessary duplication of range maps that takes up 88 pages while adding little additional information.


Most intermediate and advanced birders I know use "The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America" (Knopf) as well. This book provides more detail than does Peterson by assigning a full page to each species. While this is useful when your attention is fixed on a single species, I find Peterson's inclusion of similar species together on a page a very useful prompt to identification.


Finally, the "Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding" by Kenn Kaufman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) is a book for those birders who have already spent many hours in the field and who can already identify most of the birds in their region. Kaufman provides the kind of guidance necessary for them to rise to the ranks of top birders.


The ten chapters of this book describe how to identify individual species among the hard-to-differentiate groups: scaup, loons, gulls, Accipiters, the Empidonax flycatchers and others. However, unlike Kaufman's earlier book, "Advanced Birding" which this new edition supplements rather than replaces, it takes a more general approach to identification. This guide suggests the characteristics to look for (and listen to) for all birds.


On Saturday, May 7th, at 8 a.m., Mike Galas and I will lead a birding walk in Amherst State Park. Take the park entrance off Mill Street and meet behind the former Mother House. If we finally get a break in the weather, we might find some interesting birds and I will bring copies of these books.-- Gerry Rising