15 January 2014


Most birders probably thoroughly enjoyed the Field Guide to Warblers published in the Peterson series that came out in 1997.  Yeah, that came out in 1997, a full 17 years ago!  But now comes a warbler book with a very different approach and some very outstanding information that I've never seen before in a book.  The Warbler Guide, by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle, came out in 2013 and is published by Princeton University Press.  It is 560 pages long and costs $29.95.

Unlike many of the books I've been reviewing of late, this book actually seems to be more of a field guide than a reference guide.  Although it's shorter than the full-size Sibley Guide to Birds, it's a little thicker.  It has "flexibound" covers so I'm eager to report that it, too, will make for a far superior spider smashing utensil.

I'll get to one major point right away; I'm generally not a fan of photographic guides.  Yes, I know, you've probably heard me say it before (and will probably hear me say it again) but I just don't think a photographic guide can really shed new light on the intricacies of bird ID like an illustrated book can.  First, it's nearly impossible to standardize images in a way that an artist can ensure.  Not every bird will be in the same light and not every bird will be in the exact same posture.  HOWEVER, this book is not like most photographic guides and they actually do a fairly good job at standardizing things.  In other words, I won't be too quick to dismiss this very interesting book; the authors do try to cover new ground and for that, credit is deserved.

A little bit more about the book though.  First up, the 99 page introduction includes plenty of general information about warblers.  The sections covered are:

How to Use This Book
Icons and Key Terms
How to Use the Maps
Topographic Tour
What to Notice on a Warbler
Aging and sexing Warblers
Understanding Sonograms
How to Listen to Warbler Songs
Learning Chip and Flight Calls

You'll notice that the last 3 sections focus on bird songs and this is where this book distances itself with others of its kind; this book is LOADED with sonograms of chip notes, flight calls, multiple song types, comparisons between species, etc.  I can truly say I've never seen a field guide come anywhere close to including these kinds of details.

The book claims to have everything you need to ID warblers from every angle.  And although I don't strictly believe they do, they certainly try.  For example, there is a series of Visual Finder Guides at the start of the book.  First, here is the 45 degree Quick Finder:
As you can see, the above display is really just a collection of photographed warblers.  Does it shed any new developments on ID?  Not really.  Would it help a brand new birder?  Well, it very well might.  Because if you're just learning that spring Blackburnian Warblers have that flame/orange color on the throat, this page is for you.  If you prefer your quick finder to focus on birds just from the side angle (not 45 degrees), there's this:
The authors also break them down into which half of the country you're birding.  For example, here is a collection of spring-plumaged warblers of the east:
And one for East Fall warblers:
Or if you're a western US birder, there is also a special page for typical western species:

Here is yet another quick finder, this one using the underview:
You'll notice that those undertail photos are not standardized and quite small.  On some of the birds you have them looking down at you, others looking straight ahead.  Plus, the different branches they're all on (and the different angles of the branches) just makes it more busy than it needs to be.  I don't find that page useful at all.

And yet, here's another quick finder; this one of faces:
I should try to pause and remember that if you're just learning warblers for the first time, this collection might be useful for, say, IDing plain warblers with eye-rings.  And truly, who doesn't enjoy looking at the faces of these colorful birds?  But seriously, I just see this as an item we're supposed to be impressed with and not one that is going to help tremendously in the field.  Yes, these guys are skilled photographers but that alone doesn't make me want to use the book.

Now, perhaps my favorite of the quick finders is this collection of undertail patterns.  You'll note they AREN'T photos (and with it being perhaps the most helpful of the quick finders that they include, one would wonder why they didn't do the entire book this way):
You'll note that there are no ID marks pointed out in these quick finders, only the page number where you can read more about the species.  We'll get to that in a bit.  So, are these quick finders helpful to birders who are intermediate and above?  Not likely.  Sure, they're an attractive layout of attractive birds (something you'll find yourself thinking more than once as you flip through this guide) but that's a far cry from claiming this section as an epic step forward in field ID.  Thankfully, these quick finders are only found in the beginning of the book and the rest of the book takes a different direction.

So, let's imagine you had a side view of a Hooded Warbler and you matched it up to the East Fall Quick Finder, see that page 300 has more info, and you turn there.  You're now looking at the species account for Hooded Warbler.  This is where things start getting slightly more interesting.  At the start of every species account, there are a few icons at the top that show silhouette, general color scheme, undertail color scheme, roughly which half of the country they're found, and at what height in the forest they're likely to be seen at.  So, for the Hooded Warbler, this is what they show:

And here's an example of the same graphic but for Connecticut Warbler:

See the differences?  So, sort of clever, I suppose.  Instead of being all that helpful, though, I find them just amusing to look at.  I suppose it could be fun to quiz yourself by covering up the names.  Try this quiz bird:

Each species account comes with 1-2 maps.  Alongside the maps are timeline scales showing roughly when, compared to other migrants, this species is expected to migrate.  So for this Hooded Warbler map below, you'll see the arrows on the map point both directions with would seem to indicate that they follow roughly the same route to/from the breeding grounds.  Also, you'll see that timing-wise, they seem to migrate right down the middle:

 However, a different particular species has two maps and a different timeline:
You'll see that the map on the right shows a different pattern; the warblers migrating south follow a more easterly route.  You'll also notice that the spring migration is extremely late.  By these two indicators, it might be obvious that we're discussing Connecticut Warbler.

Oh, before I forget, the correct answer for the above quiz was Painted Redstart:

A major emphasis of this book, and perhaps where it surpasses all others, is the focus on songs and sonograms.  Remember the Quick Finder series at the start of the book?  Well, the authors also created one for warbler songs.  You'll see the authors break the species' songs down into categories like "Buzzy" (rising pitch, falling pitch), "Partly Buzzy" (rising pitch, variable pitch), "Trilled" (rising pitch, steady pitch), etc.  This really isn't a bad idea and it's pretty fun to test yourself by looking at the sonograms and seeing if you can ID them: 

The Quick Finder guides aren't the only places you'll see sonograms though.  In fact, each species account throughout the book has 2+ pages of sonograms.  In looking at those pages, first you'll see a "helpful hint" under the species name which may or may not help you remember what the song sounds like.  In the case of the Yellow Warbler, it says "Bright yellow lemon meringue pie is sweet, sweet, oh so sweet".  Or the Swainson's Warbler account says "Professor Swainson started classes with well, well, well, I'll teach you well".  Others are more of a stretch; like the Common Yellowthroat "Only in Wichita do common folk wear yellow bow ties on their throats".  Um.... whatever.

Here's a sample of the sonogram pages from the Yellow Warbler species account:

This page shows some sonograms of species that sound similar to Yellow Warblers:

As you can see, there is plenty of sonogram info to keep you busy for a while.  And as I said before, I think this is where this book goes beyond anything I've seen before in a field guide.

Another interesting portion of each species account is the "Distinctive Views" section.  Here they crop down photos into just pieces of the bird, maybe a tail here, a wing panel there, etc.  The whole idea is that even if you see that cropped view of a warbler in the field, you can conclusively ID it.  Here are some examples.  Do you agree that they're distinctive?

I admit that I kind of like this neat idea; it's like nothing I've seen before in a field guide.  Here are some without the names; can you ID them?

So after it's all said and done, here's a quick look at an entire first page of a species account:

Likewise, here is the first pages of the Yellow Warbler species account:

The first "Distinctive Views" quiz above is of course a Black-throated Gray Warbler.  The second one is less obvious, a Common Yellowthroat.

Lastly, the back of the book has a few interesting features as well.  For example, it has a 2-page spread of silhouettes (warblers and other similar species), a table of measurements, a diagram of North American warbler taxonomy, warblers in flight (photos), a couple of quiz birds with in-depth answers, and a table including brief foraging behavior, foraging location, general breeding habitat, and vagrancy.  These sections are easy to miss though, tucked away in a book with 560 pages.

Anyway, The Warbler Guide is an interesting book to flip through, especially if you're interested in sonograms.  But note, it doesn't contain much natural history information (other than the silly icons) like the Peterson Guide does.  I think a more accurate title would have been "The Photographic Guide to Warbler Sonograms and Quick Glances".  Even though it's a photographic guide, mad props to the authors for their hard work, stellar photos, and trying to include material never before covered in a field guide.  In the end, would this be my one-and-only warbler guide if I had to chose?  No!  I still strongly prefer the Peterson Guide to Warblers.  But don't take my word for it, pick up a copy of The Warbler Guide and see what you think.

I received a complementary copy from the publisher for review purposes, 
but the viewpoint expressed in this article is entirely my own.