Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Book review: The new Sibley field guides

Dog-eared, warped and battle-tested - that's my first edition of the Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America.  Can probably tell from this yellowed photo taken on my dining room table - taped together at the binding and edges and with faded-to-white American goldfinch on the cover - my favorite field guide.  Fits nicely tucked in the waistband of my jeans or shorts leaving both hands free and an absolute delight to use in the field.  I remember when once I thought that I had lost my first Eastern guide I felt a brief funk.  Then I found it and breathed a grateful sigh.  I think all birders have some field guide preference and we all have more than one on our bookshelf or in the side pocket of our car door.   For my money, the Sibley guides are the gold standard for birding in the field or on the couch. 

All good things must come to an end; or all good things can be continued.  

Hot off the press, direct from Amazon last evening - fresh, clean, with intact bindings, even made a crisp snapping sound when I opened it wide to look through the pages - I received my new Sibley field guides.

Since I do 95% - 99% of my birding in the east, for now I've just looked through this guide.  But some aspects of both books are exactly the same.

I loved Sibley's preface to the 2nd edition.  You'll recognize his words in your own love for birding.  The Introduction, pages ix - xv is great. Reading this alone will help intermediate and novice birders become better birders in the field.  For the record, I used to think of myself as a good birder, but I've down-graded my skill level secondary to working so much over the past 4-5 years and just not getting out enough. During my recent trip to Panama, I realized that I'm no longer a "good" birder.  Of course, on the trip I feel like I was limited by a cataract in left eye (now removed with new lens implant). But I recently learned that I also have an epiretinal membrane in my left eye which causes distorted vision that will not improve with my new lens implant and new eyeglasses.  Perhaps I also suffer from excusitis.  I just need to get out more.

Sibley's bird topograpy, pages xvii - xxxiii, is second to none.  Molt and plumage, pages xxiv - xxv, is often ignored by many birders.  (Hey, I'm just out here to find birds and have fun.  Don't bore me with molt.) Nevertheless, it's essential.

Then we move on to the images - Sibley's mark of excellence.  I will note that in the 2nd edition full volume guide some of the sparrow/towhee drawings (and a few others that I can't recall just now) were over-saturated.  Of course, something like this is the printer's fault, not the authors's.  I didn't notice this in the new East or West guides.

One thing that I have always liked about Sibley's split guides is that he includes common vagrants.  For example, vermillion flycatcher is not an Eastern bird but is included in the Eastern guide.  His drawing of the vermillion flycatcher first year male will be memorable to many birders who chased a first year male vagrant in Michigan's upper peninsula last autumn.  I didn't see that bird but I saw excellent photos of the bird and Sibley's drawing is spot on.

Seems a little heavier and maybe slightly fatter, but perhaps this is because of the newness. If so it's not significant.  A quote taken from the New York Times book review and on the back cover of the 1st edition is also on both second editions.

"Once in a great while, a natural history book changes the way people look at the world.  In 1838, John James Audubon's Birds of America was one ... In 1934, Roger Tory Peterson produced Field Guide to the Birds ... Now comes the Sibley Guide to Birds."  Pretty much says it all.

David Allen Sibley doesn't need my review of his new East and West guides to help sell them.  They will become bestsellers all on their own.  I wanted to write this for the few birders who might find it helpful.

My 1st edition is now safely retired on my bookshelf and I have a Rose-breasted Grosbeak in my car door pocket.

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