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Book review: Rare Birds of North America

April 19, 2014

This review was originally published here in March 2014 by Birding Frontiers

Rare Birds of North America
By Steve Howell, Ian Lewington & Will Russell

As you’ll hopefully gather from the following paragraphs, there are many good reasons to commend the authors of Rare Birds of North America, but perhaps the most pertinent is their clarity of vision. It’s a book which has a very ambitious reach, attempting to play several major roles simultaneously, and could easily have come unstuck if any one of those roles fell short of the mark. Yet its bold remit and clear identity reflect not only the expertees and knowledge of its creators, but also their patent enthusiasm and authoratitive attention to detail.

A sturdy hardback unlikely to find a place in the backpack, Rare Birds….. importantly makes no attempt to masquerade as a true field guide, and thus avoids the obvious pitfalls and limitations that would otherwise have hamstrung such an excellent work. The overall design benefits from a lack of those restrictions, and this is reflected by the clear, stylish and pleasingly accessible layout from start to finish. It’s a joy to handle, with high production values and an inherent feel of quality.

The positioning of the book as a companion (as opposed to competitor) to established field guides pays off perfectly in various ways. Take each species’ field identification summaries, for example: suitably concise and straightforward, and yet detailed enough to provide all the relevant points (including notes on similar species), the book works under the presumption that cross-referencing is a given, and is all the better for it. Likewise, there is no rigid template applied to the length of each account or the sections within them, allowing the authors freedom to prioritise and develop themes.

Pleasingly, each of the 262 species accounts lack the sometimes arguably necessary (but supremely annoying) abbreviations often adopted elsewhere; instead, all the information is presented in an easily read and digested style, hopefully setting the bar high for similar works in the future. US states abbreviated into standard two-letter acronyms are thankfully about as esoteric as it gets (and if that’s still too much, think of it as valuable research for your next game of Trivial Pursuit).

Likewise, there’s no need to reduce the illustrations into frustratingly tiny representations, or indeed to cram multiple species onto the same plates; nor, on the other hand, are the plates excessively expansive. Instead, they occupy exactly the right amount of space on the page, sitting comfortably alongside the accompanying text, with a comprehensive variety of races / ages / variations etc on display for each species.

Of the plates: Ian Lewington has been understandably revered for his (increasingly) superb artwork over the years, but with Rare Birds… he’s clearly excelled himself once again. Enhanced by the high standard of printing and colour representation on display here, superlatives come easily when flicking through these pages; but perhaps the highest (and rarest) compliment a bird artist can be paid is for their work to considered both beautiful and accurate, which is unarguably the case here.

Picking out highlights is virtually impossible – there are too many to mention in any detail here – but it’s hard to look at the buntings, for example, without involuntarily salivating; they look even better when viewed down the hall through binoculars, and I’m half tempted to plant the Pine Bunting page in the bottom of a hawthorn hedge here in Filey, just for the practice.

Primarily aimed at the North American market, the book nevertheless has numerous insights and much relevance to the British and European birder. There are various cases here where a kind of simple ‘reverse’ referencing is easily applied; notable examples include the Sandpipers and Egrets, although the book is littered with solutions to ID problems well known to birders this side of the pond. Faced with an interesting peep this September on your local wetland, for instance, you could do much worse than turning to the illuminating text and plates (primarily concerning Little Stint) here first, before more traditional choices.

Another less important but similarly enjoyable side-effect of the book is how it encourages the British-based reader to look at familiar species through an unfamilar filter. In an extension of the ‘if only it were rare’ game (we all play it on those boring February days, don’t we?), looking at the Fieldfare plates against the additionally spicy backdrop of vagrancy revitalises one’s appreciation of such stunning yet taken-for-granted species.

Similarly absorbing, and in a sense the outstanding feature of the book, is the inclusion of the comments sections within each species account. Delivered with a refreshingly enthusiastic and conversational flavour, these invaluable paragraphs allow the authors to hypothesise and discuss the minutiae of each species’ vagrancy patterns (down to individual records in many instances), bringing alive the reality of occurrence and the possibility of finding your own.

As someone with a worsening weakness for the unique thrill of rarity-hunting (as well as the good fortune to have birded in the US a fair bit in recent years), I’m doubtless already part of the congregation the book hopes to preach to; drooling over almost unattainable but glittering avian prizes within such pages is practically a hobby in itself, and if you share similarly unhealthy habits, then look no further.

But to confine the book’s appeal to those united by the pursuit of vagrants is to do it a disservice. One of its many strengths lies in its breadth of appeal and accessibility (without feeling the need to dumb down). The extended introductory chapters alone are a pleasure to read, wherever you may place yourself on the birding spectrum. The section on ‘Where Do North American Vagrants Come From?’, for example, is a nerd’s dream, and yet is followed seamlessly by a ‘Topography, Molt and Aging’ chapter that much more generalist and populist works would do well to try and emulate.

This is a book that ambitiously attempts to be many things – part comprehensive identification guide, part commentary, part definitive reference work, part hypotheses reader, amongst others – and impressively succeeds on all counts, without so much as breaking into a sweat. Highly recommended, regardless of where (or how) you enjoy your birding.

Copyright Mark James Pearson 2014



























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