Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Review: "New" Stokes Field Guides -- East and West

I was quite impressed with the 2010 Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America. So when Lillian Stokes asked me to review their new (2013) Eastern and Western field guides I looked forward to it with great anticipation.

The reason the 2010 Stokes guide was so good was that it used numerous photos of different plumages. Additionally, it was the first field guide to really describe all the variations of subspecies--with photos of many different-looking forms. The book had ample text, too, explaining ID, songs, and identifying birds in flight. To aid the user in general bird identification techniques the Stokes guide emphasized shape as the first ID criterion, before discussing color patterns. It is simply the best photographic field guide for North American Birds and competes nicely with the Sibley and National Geographic guides. [See my review of the 2010 guide.]

That said, however, The New Stokes Field Guide to Birds (Eastern Region and Western Region) is simply a marketing version of their landmark 2010 book. I understand the reasons for producing Eastern and Western versions of their popular field guide. At 800 pages, their original was too large to carry into the field. So it made sense to create less costly guides with 500 (Eastern) and 575 (Western) pages. There's nothing wrong with these guides--the praise for the original guide still applies. For these "new" versions, if a species occurs east of the 100th meridian the publisher took the species photos and text in toto from the continent-wide guide and put it in the Eastern Guide. Same for the Western guide west of the 100th meridian. The only changes are updates to some of the scientific names (no more Dendroica warblers) and a split that gave us back the gallinule.

Since there were no changes to the text and photos in the Eastern and Western versions (except for a juvenile Saw-whet Owl), it creates some real oddities. For instance, of the five subspecies of White-crowned Sparrow, one subspecies occurs in the East, four in the West. However, the Eastern field guide shows photos of 2 Western subspecies and describes them in the text. Photos in the Eastern field guide of Song Sparrow show two from California, one from British Columbia, and one from Alaska--all of forms that look significantly different than Eastern forms of Song Sparrows. The Eastern guide describes 17 subspecies of Fox Sparrows in 4 groups, but only one subspecies of Fox Sparrow is found regularly in the East. Five of seven photos of Fox Sparrows are of forms that do not occur in the East. I think it would have been less confusing to show only the forms found in each region. It would have saved many more pages of the field guides, especially in the East. Perhaps more photos of different plumages of the correct subspecies could have been shown instead.

If one already owns the 2010 Stokes Field Guide to North America (north of Mexico), then I see no benefit to purchasing one of the regional guides. However, these regional guides are smaller and lower priced than the original. If one does not own the 2010 version then they should very definitely pick up the original or one of these "new" 2013 regional guides. They'd make great gifts.