19 February 2014


I don't expect everyone to share my passion.  Don't worry, having been interested in birds since I was 10 years old, I've grown up with that already engrained in my head.  My skin is thick.  Fast forward 20 years and I still don't expect everyone to share my interests even within the "birding community".  And it's all too common to hear folks say "Oh, I'm interested in ALL birds" as if to distance themselves from the bird-chasing, rarity-studying whackos.  I'm not sure what category I would fall into or what bin my gangly limbs would be sticking out of, however, the self-realization that "I don't look at Black Phoebes with much interest anymore" is both true and... well, expected (that's not to say that I know everything about Black Phoebes; far from it actually).  For me, like it or not, I always seem to have my eyes peeled on the next step, the next corner to explore, and.... the next rarity that might be within striking distance.  I've long been obsessed with rare birds and I blame it on a lifetime of birding.  Deal with it.

Even at this point, after the news of this newly released book has started to trickle through social media portals, I'm not really sure if most of you are aware of what's waiting for you at Princeton University Press.  I had heard about this "rare birds" book ages ago but didn't really know much in the way of details.  Had I known what I was in store for, I would have been *seriously* chomping at the bit for much longer.

"Rare Birds of North America", by Steve N. G. Howell, Ian Lewington, and Will Russell, was published in 2014 by Princeton University Press.  It is 428 pages long, hardcover, and costs $35.00.

Where to begin?  Well, this book focuses on 262 rare species that have been found in the US and Canada (excluding Hawaii).  But first, the introduction.

I've slowly become (shamefully) disenchanted with introductions of most bird books.  They're usually filled with the same material, the same terminology, the same stuff I skip over (gasp).  Well, the introduction of this book is by far the most interesting one I've ever read.  It contains a multitude of tables covering the regional origin (and seasonality) for the 202 rare birds new to North America during the last 60 years.  An example is a monster Table 3 which covers all the East Asian waterfowl/shorebirds with seasonality descriptions for each of these locations: Western Aleutians, Pribs, St. Lawrence Island, elsewhere in AK, NW USA, CA, and other areas.  In fact, the tables continue to flow about rarities down south, out east, etc.  However, probably the most valuable parts of the introduction are the pages and pages of information about drift, overshooting, dispersal, maps of overshooting patterns and misorientation, etc.  If you're a birding nerd who appreciates vagrants, rarities, and the background of how/why/where they wander, this introduction should put you on the fast-track past Cloud 8.

The bulk of the book is comprised of the 262 species accounts and their corresponding plates.  The plates AREN'T clumped at the start of the book, instead, they're placed within the species accounts.  Personally, I think that's a step in the right direction (I've never been a huge fan of clumping plates).

In fact, probably the best attribute of this must-have book are the truly top-notch illustrations by Ian Lewington.  And guess what... there is a plate for EVERY species covered (which never happens these days in any of the popular field guides... although this isn't a field guide).  Here are a couple of samples, first is the Taiga Flycatcher plate:

I've never actually seen a Broad-billed Sandpiper but here's the plate:

I've been lucky to have seen some of the rare birds listed in this book (36 species) and Dusky Thrush was actually my 600th ABA bird (we found one in Barrow many years ago).  Here's the plate for this boldly-marked thrush:

One specific feature of the plates that I'm really digging is how similar species are sometimes placed together and all in the same poses.  This logical idea, which dates back to Peterson's art, makes for great comparisons of some tough groups.  Plus, if there is a similar species that isn't a rarity, it's also included.  An extreme example is on page 114-115 when 30 different birds are drawn to exhibit the variation between Great, Lesser, and Magnificent frigatebirds.  Here's a different example, a nice side-by-side of snipe complete with Wilson's (sorry for the crappy phone photos):

Here's a look at an entire layout:

Sometimes I find myself flipping through just to read about the dates/numbers of random species.  For example, some of the records from Attu kinda blew my mind:

25 Lanceolated Warblers on 4 June - 15 July 1984
14 Taiga Flycatchers on 4-6 June 1987
27 Siberian Rubythroats on 1 June 1992
27 Gray-streaked Flycatchers on 2 June 1999
40 Pacific Swifts on 18 September 2004

Or, well, these stunning numbers that occurred on Attu during the infamous 17-18 May 1998 fallout: 

225 Olive-backed Pipits
9 Pechora Pipits
193 Rustic Buntings
180 Eyebrowed Thrushes
700 Wood Sandpipers

Of equal interest to me were some records I honestly hadn't heard of before or knew very little about.  Did you know that a Dark-billed Cuckoo was found in the Lower Rio Grande Valley in 1986 but rejected based on provenance?  Or a personal favorite, a Blue Rock Thrush found in British Columbia in 1997 that was also rejected?  Then there is the Azure Gallinule found in New York in the winter of 1986.  I don't know about you but I find this stuff crazy cool to read up on!

Oh, the terminology.  The authors chose to use the term "escapes" to mean birds that escaped.  I've *always* gone by the rule that those are termed "escapees" but Howell et al. isn't following that train of thought.  I also see that the authors are choosing to break down the common names in ways that don't exactly match up with the ABA Checklist.  Birders might notice slightly different names such as:

Eastern Blue Bunting
Mexican Tufted Flycatcher
Slate-throated Whitestart
Mexican Yellow Grosbeak
Gray Silky

It's no big deal but there are a couple of typos here and there; I suppose one would expect some of those to slip through the cracks (Eye-browed Thrush, Pintailed Snipe, Alaska, etc).

So in a world of "revolutionary" photo guides (i.e. useless) comes this book.  The art is consistent, extremely crisp, and comes from people with actual serious skill.  The content is both interesting, very well summarized, and completely eye-opening.  We can break it down like this:

1) Plates are friggin awesome
2) Plates are interspersed within the species accounts
3) Plates will sometimes put similar species right next to each other in all the same poses 
4) Data presented on individual records is unsurpassed
5) New material summarized about vagrancy, disorientation, migration patterns, etc.


1) I'm not a fan of them changing common names but honestly, but that's hardly a sticking point
2) "Escapes" vs. "escapees"... what's the truth???
2) A tiny amount of typos

I don't use this language often but this really is a "must-have" book if you're one of those birders that chases, wants to chase, or just wait on the edge of your seat for the next rarity to show up on the Aleutians or St. Paul.  So my advice?  Sell all your Crossley ID Guides and buy this book instead.  I'm happy to say that of all the books I've reviewed for Princeton University Press, this is my favorite.  I'll end with my biggest complaint; this book has made me completely anxious and needful of some more rare-bird birding!

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