Thursday, September 10, 2009

Review: Shorebirds of North America, Europe, and Asia

Shorebirds are one of the most fascinating bird groups, but also one of the most difficult to learn. Birds in this group undertake some of the longest known bird migrations, with the Bar-tailed Godwit perhaps being the longest. In spring and fall, migration hotspots teem with dense flocks of shorebirds numbering in the thousands. These spectacular flocks can make it hard to pick out and identify individual birds. In addition, while some shorebirds are quite colorful, most have cryptic plumage with subtle variations from one species to another.

As such, birders can benefit studying detailed books devoted to shorebird species. Fortunately there are now several quality guides available. This spring, Princeton University Press added a new field guide for shorebirds: Shorebirds of North America, Europe, and Asia: A Photographic Guide, by Richard Chandler. This new guide expands and updates an older guide by the same author, North Atlantic Shorebirds.

The Chandler guide presents all shorebird species that have been recorded in the northern hemisphere. For the purposes of this guide, "northern hemisphere" excludes all of South America and Australia, as well as most of Africa and Oceania. A short introduction contains tips for studying and identifying shorebirds and notes on their behavior. Molt patterns, aberrant plumages, and typical shorebird behaviors are all well-illustrated with photographs. One thing that I learned from the introduction (though I should have guessed it previously) is that shorebirds often cough up pellets of bits of shells and other indigestible debris.

Each of the 134 species has its own 2-5 page account, with most species receiving 3 pages of text and photos. The photographs depict most significant plumage types for each species and include at least one photo of each species either in flight or with its wings stretched out. The text includes detailed notes for identifying juvenile, non-breeding, and breeding plumages, with attention to how first winter and first spring birds might differ from adults. If a species has identifiable subspecies, its account includes a comparison table of relevant field marks for each population. Each account also provides information about seasonal distribution and conservation status, as well as a range map.

I have two minor complaints about the Chandler guide. One is that the species accounts include few, if any, comparison shots of similar species. The text does include tips for separating similar species, but visual comparison is often more helpful for learning differences in shape and size. The second is that the binding on my examination copy became heavily creased after only light use. While the photographs and printing are of high quality, the cover ought to be more durable for field use.

North American birders will want to know how Shorebirds of North America, Europe, and Asia compares to another recently-published book, The Shorebird Guide by Michael O'Brien, Richard Crossley, and Kevin Karlson. On average, Chandler presents fewer photographs per species, with one exception being Dunlin. However, the Chandler guide has better coverage for species that are common on other continents but occur as vagrants in North America. One area in which the Chandler guide improves on O'Brien et al. is in its organization. I much prefer field guides that, like the Chandler guide, place the plates and species accounts together rather than in separate sections. O'Brien et al. place some text on the plates with full species accounts in the back of the book. Finally, this is a subjective impression, but I feel that the photography in the O'Brien guide is more dynamic in that it depicts both field marks and typical behaviors and includes more photos of mixed-species groups of shorebirds.

If your birding takes you to multiple continents in the northern hemisphere, Richard Chandler's Shorebirds of North America, Europe, and Asia will be quite useful. This guide combines excellent photography and a descriptive text to assist the reader in identifying shorebirds in all plumages. North American birders, especially those in coastal areas, should find it helpful for identifying vagrant species, especially ones that are rarely depicted in standard field guides. More than that, it provides the opportunity to study closely related species from across the hemisphere in a single guide. I would recommend this for any birder with a strong interest in shorebirds.

Richard Chandler, Shorebirds of North America, Europe, and Asia: A Photographic Guide. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009. Pp. 448; color photographs, maps, tables, index. $35.00 paper.