Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Review: The Stokes Field Guide to Birds of North America

There are already quite a lot of field guides that cover the birds of all or part of North America. Birders may choose between painted and photographic illustrations, basic and advanced, and regional and continental guides. Into this crowded market steps one more photographic guide, the Stokes Field Guide to Birds of North America, by Donald and Lillian Stokes.

This new guide includes 854 bird species from across the continental United States and Canada. The birds include recent splits and other taxonomic changes. For example, Winter Wren and Pacific Wren are treated as separate species, and Oreothlypis warblers are split from the Vermivora genus. (See this post for an explanation.) This makes it the most up-to-date field guide currently available. The guide includes one species presumed extinct, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, but not the Bachman's Warbler or other extinct North American birds.

The book is large – too large to fit easily into even a coat pocket, but possible to carry in a backpack or messenger bag. (Photos at the end of this post illustrate its size relative to other guides.) Beyond its size, the guide has some heft; it feels heavy in my hand when I pick it up. The size and weight combined will make it difficult to carry the guide with you if you bird extensively on foot, as I do. While this limits its ease of use in the field, the large size is for a good reason: the new Stokes guide contains more photos per species than I have seen in most other photographic guides to the birds of North America.

Photographs depict each bird species in various plumages and postures, including some flight photos. The number of photos varies a great deal from species to species. A few only have one, like the Plain Chachalaca; others have two or three, like many of the pelagic birds; still others have multiple photos; the Red-tailed Hawk has 23 photos spread over four pages. Gulls are shown in the summer and winter forms of each year of their development cycle, whether that is 2 years, 3 years, or 4 years. In fact, the thoroughness of the gull accounts is a major advantage over other photographic guides, which often only show the first year and adult forms. I am not sure of the median number of images per species, but the important point is that the guide includes enough photos to illustrate any significant plumage that a birder is likely to encounter. This level of detail is more characteristic of family-specific guides (such as Shorebirds of North America, Europe, and Asia) rather than general guides.

Species pages provide accompanying text on par with the photographic thoroughness. Each photo is labelled with the plumage type (e.g., "Adult winter") and a code for the location and month when the photo was taken (e.g., "OH/08" for August in Ohio). Notes discuss key identification points, as well as habitat and voice. One helpful feature is that the species accounts also list subspecies and describe how to distinguish them. In some cases, the photos are also labelled with the subspecies or plumage morph, though listed subspecies are not always illustrated. All but the rarest species have a range map, set on the same page as their species accounts. ABA codes are given for each species to show its relative rarity or abundance.

The guide includes a CD with audio files for the sounds of 150 bird species. Most species are represented by a few sound examples of different vocalization types, for a total of over 600 songs and calls. The files are in mp3 format, one file per species. The audio files cover a little over one-sixth of the species depicted in the guide. There are enough sounds to make the CD a nice bonus, especially since the 150 species are covered in a reasonable level of detail. However, it will not substitute for a more complete audio guide since a lot of species that a birder might encounter regularly are left out due to space constraints.

The new Stokes Field Guide to Birds of North America provides a compelling alternative to other field guides currently available. Its level of detail matches or exceeds the best illustrated guides and improves substantially on other photographic guides. Since I first got the guide, I have turned to it regularly to help with tricky identifications. Sometimes it is useful to see some photographs of a bird in real field conditions in addition to an idealized version. In that respect the new Stokes guide would complement an illustrated guide quite well, in addition to being a strong field guide in its own right. I think that birders will be happy to own this detailed and beautifully illustrated guide.

Donald and Lillian Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to Birds of North America. New York, Boston, and London: Little, Brown and Company, 2010. Pp. xiv, 792. List price: $24.99; Amazon price: $16.49.

This review was based on a copy provided by the publisher.

Don and Lillian Stokes recently were interviewed by Scott Simon of NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday on the subject of the new field guide and birding generally. The show was recorded near the bird feeders at Huntley Meadows, a wildlife preserve in Fairfax County, Virginia. You can listen to the interview here. You can see sample pages from the book at the publisher's website.

On the outside:

On the inside: