Saturday, December 18, 2010
Reviewing Field Guides
The popularity of bird watching as a hobby has exploded in the last 30 years. Paralleling that explosion has been an explosion in products and publications aimed at the bird watchers. There has also been a revolution in the quality, scope, and design of everything seeking to tap the birding market. The best binoculars of 30 years ago, for example, would be rated average today.
For 20 years, I cut my birding teeth with the Golden guide. My worn copy is now stuck in a back corner of the book shelf, a nostalgic reminder of youth.
In the same year, Kaufman dealt a significant blow to the long prejudice against photographic guides. Digitally edited photographs, simple organization, and vivid descriptions pinpointed field marks, and described habits, habitats, and voice. When I factored in the size of Kaufman’s guide - it fit easily into the back pocket of my blue jeans - it became my favored field guide for many years.
There is no perfect field guide, and no perfect bird identification aid. But there is a tremendous market and that has inspired talented birders, gifted writers, creative designers, and market savvy publishers. They have combined to produce resources that can help bird watchers learn their birds, sort through the complexities, become competent in the field, and nurture their background and knowledge.
But to repeat, no field guide is perfect. If you are only interested in the birds in your backyard, then a “backyard guide” is probably best, since it will focus only the birds most likely to use feeders and save you from getting too confused. If you are going to the next step, actively birding in different habitats, then you need one guide for the field, and two or three additional guides at home, or in the back seat, that you can consult for more difficult identifications, to learn the many variations within species, and to garner information, ID tips, and comparisons.
In the past, for a complete field guide, I have recommended Sibley, Kaufman, and National Geographic. For the first time, I will also recommend a photographic guide.
I am currently engaged in an exercise on sparrows, and other little brown jobs. So I turned to the section in the Stokes guide on the sparrows. Turning the pages is a reminder that there is no substitute for careful observation. Superficially, the birds look similar. But they have included many variations for many species. On my blog I recently posted a photograph of a very young Chipping Sparrow, and identified it as such. Then I began to study it more closely, and doubts crept in. Stokes came to the rescure. One of the six Chipping Sparrow photos included a heavily streaked juvenile Chippy. Thank you.
Last January, I did an overview of electronic applications for bird watchers. The changes, improvement, and upgrades to these “apps” are many. I am comfortable with the new technologies, but not obsessive about their use, or about having the latest gizmo. However, I have had over a full year of birding with my iPod applications, and I find it very useful, although not a replacement for the guides in the car or home on the shelf. None of the applications are expensive, so you won’t be out much money if you buy them all.
Late in the summer I added “The Sibley eGuide to the Birds of North America.” With all of the illustrations from the Sibley guide, this app puts “big” Sibley in your breast pocket. Its touch design is somewhat awkward, and it does not have the “similar” features of iBird Pro, or the wealth of additional material, but otherwise it is an excellent adaptation.
The disadvantage of these applications with my iPod is that I cannot run more than one app at a time, and toggle back and forth. I consult one, then have to load the second, then go back and reload the first, and so on. Life is tough.
But birding is good. Even in the winter those little feather balls outside of the window entertain and amaze. I watch them while browsing one of the armchair guides during these indoor days.