Sunday, July 13, 2008

Book Review: Smithsonian Field Guide

Does the world need another field guide to the birds of North America? It's a reasonable question, and one BC asked ourselves as we read through the lovely pages and looked at the excellent photographs in the new Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, authored by the well-known Ted Floyd, editor of the ABA's flagship Birding magazine.

Ever since we picked up the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th Edition a few months ago, it's been our field guide bible. We think the illustrations are second to none, and we love the bird descriptions and layout, which has a nice roomy feel to it.

Coming in a close second, in our field guide library, is of course The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America. It was our main field guide for the past 3-4 years, and still accompanies us on virtually every outing.

Both Lisa and I still own copies of our first field guides, The Golden Guides. Mine is a 1983 edition (I believe), so old that it doesn't reflect a lot of the species splits and name changes of the last generation. But it's still where I write down my life birds when I see them.

So what of the Smithsonian Field Guide? The first thing of note is that it is a photographic guide. This is edgy in the birding world, given the tradition of illustrated field guides that goes back to the landmark first Peterson guide of the 1930s. We'll put this plainly: the photographs are excellent, superb even. They show great views of live birds, with the important features clearly visible. This is the best photographic guide we've seen. But that's just it--it is still a photographic guide, and we're unconvinced that photos are superior to good illustrations with references to important field marks, the basic innovation that Peterson made 75 years ago.

That said, there are a lot of other things that Lisa and I like about the Smithsonian Field Guide:

* The range maps are updated and seem to be more detailed than in some other guides (although the colors used for breeding range, year-round range, etc., are different from what most birders are used to).

* Ted Floyd makes an important step toward bringing field guides into the Internet/iPod age of birding by including 587 high-quality MP3 audio files of 138 major species, that are easily uploadable to your audio player. (Some day soon, we will have electronic field guides that can be hooked into a computer and will download updates on range information, species nomenclature, etc. And why not?)

* There's good detail about different species' molting strategies, important information for both beginning and advanced birders.

And the downsides?

* The book has a little bit of a crammed feel to it, no doubt due to the decision to use photographs (all, of course, are rectangles, which can take up extra space) rather than illustrations. Lisa found it a little bit confusing when trying to search quickly for a bird. Some of the photos are portrait-style, others landscape-style, and of necessity, many are different sizes.

* Most of the photos are excellent, as we said, but a handful are too dark to aid as much as they should with identification.

* The book also omits some of the rarities and vagrants that we are used to seeing in field guides. For example, a Little Egret was spotted in nearby Delaware a few weeks ago (this being a Eurasian species that is an occasional vagrant to eastern North America). I checked--the Smithsonian Field Guide doesn't show it.

Our final verdict? Well, our final verdict was made a few weeks ago, in mid-June, when we were walking along the Appalachian Trail and heard what we were certain was an Olive-Sided Flycatcher calling. This is not a bird we had a lot of experience with, although the bird's call seemed diagnostic. Our other field guides didn't help much, and we thought it might be a bit late in spring to encounter the bird. Then we turned to Ted Floyd's new book. The Olive-Sided "migrates late in spring, very early in fall," it noted.

So that answers the question: you can NEVER have too many field guides. The Smithsonian Field Guide will be an important and permanent edition to our library, but not our birding bible.

- W and L


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review of the new Smithsonian guide. I agree that you can never have too many field guides.

Birders will be interested in my new biography of the pioneer of them all, Roger Tory Peterson, called (appropriately enough) Birdwatcher: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson. It's published by The Lyons Press.

Especially exciting is that Peterson played a central role in the expansion of birding not only in the US, but also Europe and East Africa. My book details these things, as well as demonstrating the breadth of his involvement and leadership in many of the most celebrated conservation causes of the 20th century. Also, the reader learns about Peterson the Man: what motivated him, personal and professional challenges he faced, and his personal impact on many of today’s top birders and conservationists.

I ended up talking to well over 100 people from around the world to put together this portrait of a complex and driven man. Birders, natural history buffs, and conservationists alike will enjoy the book.

If anyone has any questions, please feel free to e-mail me at

Warren and Lisa Strobel said...

Elizabeth - Thanks. "Birdwatcher" sounds like a very interesting book. I only know the bare basics about Peterson. We look forward to seeing it!

Warren and Lisa