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.


  1. Thanks for the review. One of the prime reasons for making the regional guides is the overwhelming and huge requests by birders we got for making lighter weight, more portable in the field guides than the original national guide which was heavier. Even though the national guide got rave reviews, most reviewers lamented the fact that it was heavy, some suggesting it was not really a "field" guide. So that is why the regional guides were done, to give birders more portable and lighter weight "field" guides. Rather than marketing the national guides, these regional guides more than likely will take sales away from the national guide. There are many birders who do simply do not want the heavier national guide, want lighter guides, so they will never buy the national guide.
    Many birders have told us they are very happy we have come out with these lighter weight guides. Some who own the national guide are buying these regional guides to carry into the field. By the way, the extreme rarities were left out of these regional guides, again to make them more portable. As you know there are many other field guides out there that exist as national versions and then as eastern and western regional versions of the national guides.
    The reason these new Stokes east/west guides are called New (The New Stokes Field Guide to Birds: Eastern Region and Western Regions) is to distinguish them from Stokes Field Guide to Birds, Eastern and Western Regions which were published in 1996 and are now going out of print. Our new regional guides are completely different than the older 1996 regional guides, all photos and text is completely different, and people have been very confused about that.
    In the relatively fewer instances in these new Stokes regional guides, where there are a wide range of subspecies, we chose to leave in those photos of those subspecies because sometimes western subspecies do in fact show up in eastern regions and vice versa.
    We really hope your review will not prevent birders from getting the new Stokes regional guides. We thank you for your praise of our national guide and it would be a shame to deprive birders, who will only buy light weight portable guides, from getting the same quality information and photos found in the national guide.
    Yours in birding,
    Lillian and Don Stokes

    1. I agree that birders would benefit by owning either the Stokes regional guides or the national guide--these are worthy field guides. I, personally, prefer national guides--it is the rare birds from farther away that I will have the most trouble identifying. And I don't want anything possible left out [for instance, National Geographic, 6th Edition]. I haven't used field guides in the field since my first 5 years of birding in the 1970's. I had pretty much memorized several field guides by then and knew how to take notes and accurately describe what I was seeing. My field guides were more for after-birding reference, or to brush up before visiting a distant area with birds I had not seen regularly. So to me small size didn't matter--in fact, I wanted more information. I want status, distribution (including subspecies), and ID all in one volume. In this regard the Stokes national guide is for me. For those actually carrying the book in the field or sticking to either eastern or western regions, the regional guides would be ideal. After all, if more people buy the book, a newer version is more likely to be produced--and that's always good!

  2. Thanks Greg and kudos for taking notes in the field and learning how to accurately describe birds, a skill that more birders could learn better. So glad our national guide provides you with what you want.
    Good Birding,
    Lillian and Don Stokes