Book Review: American Birding Association State Field Guide Series

There are very few state-level bird field guides that are worth using. They are often generic, cookie-cutter guides that are not tailored to the state. Many organize species in a non-standard way (such as by color, habitat, or size) that may seem like a good idea but is problematic in practice. Worst of all, because they are usually targeted to beginners they tend to be too simple, presumably with the assumption that new birders can’t handle too many options.

So I was very curious when the American Birding Association announced plans to publish a line of such guides. I think the ABA is a great organization, so I was cautiously optimistic that they would avoid the pitfalls that plague such guides. For the most part, they have.

The series premiered with Rick Wright’s American Birding Association Field Guide to Birds of New Jersey (April 2014), followed by Colorado (Ted Floyd, June 2014) and Florida (Bill Pranty, December 2014). The first thing to notice is the authors, who are experienced, local birders. They have the knowledge needed to make the guides valuable to others in their state.

The ABA state field guides are intended for new to intermediate birders, but don’t succumb to the issues that usually afflict such guides. They include all regularly occurring birds likely to be seen in the state (250-300 species each) , organized taxonomically. And each is shown in 1-3 beautiful photographs, most of which were taken by Brian E. Small, one of the foremost North American bird photographers.

aba-birds-nj-blackburnian-warblerThese photos are large and well-reproduced. More importantly, various plumages are included. Male and female are usually shown when different, as are some seasonal plumages and juveniles (I can’t believe how many field guides don’t show juvenile cardinals!). With at most three images over two pages, there’s obviously not enough room to display the full range of gulls, raptors, and other birds with variable plumage. But once you start worrying about identifying those birds, you need a full North American field guide anyway!

Still, there are some surprising omissions. The New Jersey guide, for example, shows only male Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers and nowhere is it mentioned that the females lack the red nape patch. The tan-striped morph of the White-throated Sparrow is neglected in both of the eastern guides. Every user is bound to find quibbles such as these, but for the most part the variation shown is sufficient.

The species accounts are up to two pages, with at most half a page of text. Each author does things slightly differently, but each briefly describes the bird and any relevant behaviors and natural history. Its status and distribution is summarized, including the months of arrival and departure for migrants. Finally, the song and call are described. Each of the photos is also captioned with identification-related information.

This adds up to a considerable amount of text in each account. But I’d recommend that it all be read carefully, as a lot of useful information is packed into it. If you want to learn how to recognize the bird, start with the photo captions, but don’t stop there as you’ll also find relevant information in the main body of text.

One thing that you won’t find in the accounts is range maps. The text does a decent job of describing where and when the bird can be found, but this is still a dubious decision.

ABA-State-Field-Guides-side-small

The introductions include the usual sections on how to use the guide, bird topography, and the like. But some of the best parts are state-specific information like lists of habitats and birding sites. The inside-front cover has a detailed map of the state, with counties, cities, and birding sites shown. The last page has a helpful quick index.

One last thing, something that I don’t usually mention – I love the binding! The covers are made from a textured, somewhat flexible material that gives the guide a distinguished look. Plus, it seems like it will be very durable. Along with a not-full-length jacket, it recalls the binding of the Audubon field guide series, but better.

These are state field guides that I can actually recommend. They are a great choice for newer birders who live, or spend significant time, in Colorado, Florida, or New Jersey. Note, however, that these are not bird-finding guides, so birders traveling to these states would be better served by an actual bird-finding guide and general field guide.

These three are just the beginning, as the ABA has announced plans for at least 12 more:

Scheduled for publication in May 2015 are State Guides to Pennsylvania (George L. Armistead) and California (Alvaro Jaramillo). Those will be followed in October 2015 by State Guides to Texas (Mark Lockwood), New York (Corey Finger), and Massachusetts (Wayne R. Petersen), then in May 2016 by State Guides to Minnesota (Laura Erickson) and Arizona (Rick Wright). Michigan, Ohio, Oregon, Washington, Illinois, and other states are in the planning stage at this time.

 

American-Birding-Association-Field-Guide-to-Birds-of-ColoradoAmerican Birding Association Field Guide to Birds of Colorado

by Ted Floyd, photographs by Brian E. Small

Scott & Nix, Inc.; June, 2014

320 pages

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American-Birding-Association-Field-Guide-to-Birds-of-FloridaAmerican Birding Association Field Guide to Birds of Florida

by Bill Pranty, photographs by Brian E. Small

Scott & Nix, Inc.; April, 2014

368 pages

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American Birding Association Field Guide to Birds of New JerseyAmerican-Birding-Association-Field-Guide-to-Birds-of-New-Jersey

by Rick Wright, photographs by Brian E. Small

Scott & Nix, Inc.; April, 2014

369 pages

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