Monday, August 1, 2011

I have another favorite bird guide...
and even I don't believe it!

I've never met Donald and Lillian Stokes, but I owe them an apology. Based on their previous books I didn't take them seriously. I viewed them as a quaint mom-and-pop duo, producing beginner bird books in a "Birds and Blooms" vein--pretty pictures with little substance.

In fact (shameful admission), it was an afterthought to purchase their new field guide. I needed to spend $10 more to get free shipping on my other books ordered from Amazon!

Back in December, John Rakestraw had written a review of the new Stokes guide (The Stokes, Redeemed), so I was curious. He said, "there is currently no better photographic guide to all the birds of North America than the new Stokes. This book has taken the Stokes from the periphery of the field guide genre to the forefront." High praise indeed. But not enough to make me go out and buy it. Rakestraw discussed the abundance of photos, but he didn't discuss the real reasons this is such a great guide.

The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America (2010) has real meat. This 800+ page bird guide really teaches the identification of North American birds. It is the only modern guide that starts out with shape as the first field mark, before plumage colors. Well done! That's exactly correct. Then it follows up with tips to the identification of birds in flight. Birds have wings and most fly. Why is this the first field guide to teach us how to identify birds in flight? Donald and Lillian did this?

The Stokeses use to great advantage an ancient invention severely lacking in many recent bird books: ample text. That's right, this book has words describing bird identification. What a concept!

This book includes a "bonus" CD with the songs and calls of 150 common North American birds. But they didn't use the CD as an excuse to skimp on voice descriptions in the text. Both song quality and mnemonic renditions are given.

I have not been a fan of photographic field guides. There is so much variation that a single photo of one individual bird is not as accurate for the species as a whole as an artists' painting. The Stokeses get around this problem by including many photos of each species. They label each photo with sex, age, plumage, location and date photographed, when appropriate. They have addressed the most common "photos versus paintings" arguments in a satisfactory way.

Yes, the 3400 color photos show all the non-downy plumages of over 850 species, but that's not all. This book describes, and often shows with photos, all North American subspecies. That's right, Donald and Lillian do subspecies. Donald and Lillian!

Paul Lehman drew the 4-color maps. So these are very accurate and include migration paths and the "regular extralimital" range.

Who is this book for? While beginners usually appreciate photographic guides, "photo-matching" will not work here--there are just too many plumages shown. Thus, this book is your next step, helping you go forward toward advanced birding--identifying females, juveniles, non-breeders, and well-marked subspecies by shape, voice, plumage, and flight characters.

For a first edition, this book has been edited fairly well, so that I didn't notice any glaring errors. Some reviewers have complained that the coverage of Western birds is not as thorough as those in the East--especially pelagic birds. And, it is true, some of the photos of seabirds are grainy or pixelated--an artifact of magnifying a digital photo too much. The photo of summer Glaucous-winged Gull in California is an obvious hybrid. Since this guide also discusses known hybrids, that photo should have been labeled as such. Manx Shearwaters aren't shown in the Pacific--they occur regularly from Baja to Alaska and are no longer even on the California rare bird list. And the wonderful addition of the ID of birds in flight is uneven. Some describe flight style (wing beats and pattern), others plumage as seen in flight, but few species accounts describe both. There is room for improvement to this novel and welcome addition to North American field guides.

I look forward to future field guides building upon the work pioneered here.