Saturday, November 27, 2010

Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America

The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America: A review

The Stokes Guide to the Birds of North America
Donald & Lillian Stokes
Little, Brown & Company
791 pages
Includes CD with 600+ songs and calls

I rarely use posts on this blog as a way to promote anything other than natural history in its purest sense: plants, animals, perhaps a bit of geology, and the wonderful ecosystems that they form. It’s not that the opportunities aren’t there. I routinely get requests to plug this or that, and sometimes do, but not very often other than events that I think readers might enjoy and will help to get people outdoors.

Thus, when a publicist for Little, Brown and Company sent me an e-mail asking if I’d be interested in a copy of the brand spanking new Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, I ignored it. After all, they wanted a review, but of course didn’t say it had to be a good one. A few weeks later, I ran across someone who had an advance copy and was very impressed with the book. So much so that I e-mailed the publicist back and asked for the copy.

There has been a blizzard of bird field guides migrating onto the market in recent years; so many that I can hardly keep track. And I’ve got nearly all of them, being a voracious collector of such literature, and would have eventually purchased the Stokes Guide (hereafter SG), review or not.

You’ll not be stuffing SG into your back pocket. It’s big, at 5 ½ by 8 ½ inches, and a whopping 1 ½ inches thick. Upon first heft, the weight is certainly impressive – this guide weighs three pounds; the same as a well-fed Glaucous Gull. But it’ll certainly fit in the car, and that’s probably a better place for a field guide than on your person. Observe, take notes and photograph when afield; consult resources later.

SG has curb appeal, as the cover is adorned with a beautiful photo of a male Painted Bunting. Yes, photo – this is a photo guide. There are endless, irresolvable debates as to what’s better – illustrations or photos. Both have pros and cons, but if you are a died-in-the-wool fan of Sibleyesque illustrations, the SG might persuade you that photos have a place in field guides, too.

There are over 3,400 photos, and the list of photo credits reads like a who’s who of ace photographers. A great many were taken by Lillian Stokes, who is also a spectacular lenswoman. Most species have multiple photos, depicting nearly every plumage one might encounter. Trickier species that go through multiple plumage stages, such as the four years to adulthood Herring Gull, have as many as eight photos. I kid you not – the book is worth having just to ooh and ahh over the wonderful photography.

I think SG does an admirable job in providing aid to the new birder, as well as catering to the hardcore propellerheads. If newbies will have a gripe, it’ll probably be that the guide covers everything in North America and that’s about 854 species to leaf through if you are starting from scratch.

A few innovations that I find appealing: each photo includes the month and state in which it was taken. Information on subspecies is included, which I feel is very important for a variety of reasons. No guide has this level of detail. If you are a fanatical twitcher, you’ll be pleased. SG includes even the mega-rarities, such as Jabiru, Fork-tailed Swift, and Reed Bunting. Finally, and I think this is quite cool; all known hybrids for each species are listed. Including facts such as these makes the book useful for researchers in a way that most field guides are not. And SG is as up-to-date as they come, even including the latest changes from the American Ornithologists’ Union, such as the new genus name Oreothlypis for what were formerly some of our Vermivora warblers.

Let’s have a quick look at one of the accounts, the Solitary Sandpiper, which is a common migrant throughout Ohio. There are five photos: adults in both alternate (breeding) and basic (winter) plumage; a juvenile; and two in-flight shots that show wing and tail characters. Most of the account is devoted to describing appearance, including a nice synopsis of the differences between the two subspecies. Studies have suggested that these two subspecies differ markedly in genetic makeup, indicating the possibility that they could be split somewhere down the line, hence the importance of including such information.

There are also brief descriptions of habitat and voice, and these tend to be quite good. In the case of the Solitary Sandpiper, SG points out how it differs from the similar-sounding Spotted Sandpiper. Finally, a note about the maps. They are topnotch, as is to be expected when leading bird distribution expert Paul Lehman made them. The maps typify the thought and detail that went into the production of SG, a book that was some six years in the making.

A minor quibble is that species accounts only list the length of the bird, not wingspan or weight. The latter two characters can be quite useful in understanding the look of a bird, and including those points shouldn’t have created space issues. Also, the maps depict only the primary distributions and most common vagrancy patterns. The user will not find little dots showing every nuance of vagrancy, such as Ohio’s only Rock Wren record. After experiencing the absolute dot-fest of vagrants in Sibley’s guide, these cleaner, more pragmatic maps are much appreciated, at least to me.

As SG becomes more widely circulated and inspected, I am sure that more nits will be picked, and probably a few outright errors will be detected. In my skimming, I didn’t see any, though. As the Stokes involved some of the most knowledgeable birders and ornithologists in North America in the making and review of this guide, its accuracy is sure to be quite watertight, though.

If you’ve made it this far, you can probably guess that I’ll end with a strong recommendation to add the new Stokes guide to your arsenal of bird literature. It’ll help your growth as a birder, and enrich your appreciation of our birds with its unrivaled collection of outstanding photographs.

1 comment:

Hallie said...

I resisted buying one as well, at least until I thumbed through one in the book store. I snatched it right up. I agree, too big for for a pack, but definately an asset for the reference library.