Total Pageviews

Monday, September 2, 2013


THE WARBLER GUIDE by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle
Princeton University Press 2013
560 pp.
ISBN: 978-0-691-15482-4
also available as ebook

I want to alert you to an excellent new resource as we head into fall migration. THE WARBLER GUIDE may very well become the go-to reference for identifying warblers, no matter what the season. 

Readers of this blog tend to have much more experience birding than my few years, so I will speak to the benefits of this resource for novice-to-intermediate skilled birders. But I would guess this book will prove valuable to any birder, regardless of experience.

Most field guides, whether organized around photos or (the preferred) artist's rendering, show you a side view of the bird. That's fine, except how often have I encountered, say, a Northern Parula from the side? How about from underneath? How about from an angle? Stephenson and Whittle have felt my pain and have endeavored to show each species, via photographs, from the side, at an angle, and from below. And how often have I been puzzled on the identification of a bird? Often! A good field guide will reference similar species, but then you have to fumble around the book to find those other possibilities. And then flip back and forth to try to compare and contrast. But with THE WARBLER GUIDE, the authors have included photographs of those similar species right in the main account of each species. Either this will solve the identification problem, or at least it will serve to narrow the possibilities, making for a faster identification. 

Each species description begins with a series of helpful icons that help the birder quickly learn the silhouette of the bird, its overall color pattern, its undertail pattern, its general range, where it can be found (in the top, middle, or lower portion of trees, for instance), and how it feeds or whether, for instance, it pumps its tail

In addition, there is a series of additional photos and close-up shots of distinctive aspects of each species, along with helpful explanatory text. 

To get the birder started, THE WARBLER GUIDE has a number of "quick finder" charts: a Face Finder (showing the heads of all species), a Side Finder, a 45 degree Finder, and an Underview Finder, all of which include photos showing all species with sex/seasonal differences when necessary. In addition, there are East-Spring and East-Fall and West-Spring and West-Fall quick finders, showing the plumage for the time and region of the country you care about.

In the beginning of the book there is the usual "topography" of a bird (an atlas of bird parts/anatomy) and a very helpful primer, "What to Notice on a Warbler," that includes discussion on noticing contrast (using grayscale pictures to illustrate), overall coloration, wing bars and facial markings, and even a section on subtle color variations.

The main species accounts are organized alphabetically. Jon Dunn and Kimball Garrett's comprehensive WARBLERS (Peterson Field Guide) is organized, on the other hand, taxonomically. Donald and Lillian Stokes' FIELD GUIDE TO WARBLERS, a much thinner volume than the aforementioned, organizes the species accounts more or less by the color of the birds. An argument can be made for each way of putting together a guide. The Dunn and Garrett is too thick and a bit unwieldy in its own way to be carried in the field (although it would be possible). Having carried the Stokes with me from time to time, I can say the color-organizing can be helpful - especially for beginners. In general, however, when a question about a species comes up I don't really want to hunt in the index for it, and with THE WARBLER GUIDE I can go easily to the pages that interest me. But as I will mention, you will not want to carry this book with you as it is too large for a pocket.

But there is much more. We all know one of the best ways to identify a bird is by its song, call, or chip. In most field guides, there is a verbal description or mnemonic that purports to help the birder learn to recognize the calls. But just how helpful is "Krreeet" vs. "Krraat"? Or "tea-kettle, tea-kettle"? Maybe a little helpful. But what if there were a different way, a systematic way to describe and recognize bird sounds? THE WARBLER GUIDE includes a very sophisticated (but fairly easily understandable) system for identifying and learning bird vocalizations. The idea of sonograms, pictorial representations of bird vocalizations, is not new. You might remember them from the old Golden Guide Birds of North America field guide. But THE WARBLER GUIDE has completely re-thought how to use sonograms for learning bird vocalizations. In it, you will find a 37 page detailed explanation on how to read and interpret the sonograms, and by practicing with them you can slowly learn to think of songs in their sonographic "image."

But just as seeing a bird (or a picture of one) might be worth a thousand words of description, so hearing the birds is more powerful than any verbal or sonographic representation of their music. And with THE WARBLER GUIDE, you not only can read about - with the goal of systematizing your learning - bird vocalizations (via sonograms), but the Macaulay Library offers a companion set of audio files that corresponds page by page, indeed line by line, to THE WARBLER GUIDE (You can download the audio files for an additional $5.99 here:

What more could you ask?

Nothing's perfect, of course. As I mentioned, the book is too large physically to work as a field guide, but when you're in the field is often just the moment you'd love to consult it. But there is a kind of work-around. THE WARBLER GUIDE is available as a Amazon Kindle e-book. It is not as handy or as functional as an app (e.g., iBird, Sibley, etc.), but with a free download of the Kindle app for your iPhone or Android device, you can purchase the ebook to have with you in the field. [And, hey, Tom and Scott: It would be a great idea to develop this guide into an app and include the Macaulay audio files!] 

One hates to quibble (said just before he quibbles...) with a resource this valuable, but there may be a few tweaks worth considering for any future edition. I'll give a few examples that matter in particular to those of us who are not yet at the expert level (but who hope one day to attain that level thanks, in part, to the education imparted in books like this one). Note, for instance, in the Topographic tour, the face described on p. 15. On p. 19, the term "auriculars" is used, but it wasn't in face topography that was explained on p. 15. The term can be found in the glossary, but it would have been better to include it on the "map" of the face. Page 24 describes the Chat's "culmen," a term also not in the Topography (but in glossary). This is not the only book imperfect in these matters. Dunn and Garrett's WARBLERS does not illustrate culmen in its "topography" illustrations (pp. 40-42), but lists it in the glossary of "Parts of a Warbler" in the back of the book. Again, this is more problematic for those of us who have not learned our bird parts vocabulary yet but who want to. Those already in the know will have no problems, of course.

Again, on p. 20, a caption for a Blackburnian reads: "Flame-orange face unmistakable." And yet the particular photo does not show off the bird's orange plumage, which might prove confusing to neophytes (and perhaps others).

But these are small things, indeed. THE WARBLER GUIDE is a treasure for anyone interested in these beautiful creatures. My wife and I actually met Scott Whittle when he was photographing a particular plumage of Mourning Warbler at Higbee Beach in Cape May for inclusion in the book. I tried to take pictures of the bird at the same time (which I might never have seen if it weren't for Scott!) When the book came out, we flipped right to that species description to see "our" bird (well, maybe "our" bird is pictured in the book; perhaps it is on the cutting room floor...). It did not take long, however, to recognize the magnificent achievement of Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle.

You can get a feel for the book by following the links below:

Princeton University Press (publisher) page for THE WARBLER GUIDE:

Sample of American Redstart pages: (PDF)

Table of Contents of THE WARBLER GUIDE:

Informative videos that introduce the book, its methodology, and the sonograms:

The authors also have a website for the book with lots more informative material:

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.