Book Review: Rare Birds of North America

“This book… intertwines occurrence patterns and identification criteria to provide an overview of where and why rare birds occur in North America, and how to identify them.”
-From “How To Use This Book”

Rare Birds of North America - CoverRare Birds of North America, by Steve N.G. Howell, Ian Lewington, and Will Russell, covers 262 species that have been found an average of five or fewer times per year in North America. Although in some ways it is written for advanced birders, this book says that it is intended for “anyone interested in finding and observing rare birds,” which should make it justly popular with a wide audience.

Steve N.G. Howell is the author of A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America and Molt in North American Birds, among others, and is a co-author of Gulls of the Americas. Ian Lewington has illustrated many books, including Rare Birds of Britain and Europe, Auks of the World, and Birds of the Western Palearctic. Will Russell is the co-founder and managing director of WINGS.

The book’s introduction is 41 pages long, and while the overview of how regular migration works is interesting enough, the discussion of how birds from other places go awry in their regular migratory and dispersal patterns and become vagrants to North America through drift, misorientation, overshooting, dispersal, association, and true disorientation is engrossing. The discussion of molt is adequate for the scope of this book, but enthusiasts will want to avail themselves of Howell’s larger work on the topic. Each species account has dates and locations of North American records; taxonomic information; worldwide distribution and status; habitat and behavior; comments about distribution patterns; and a discussion on identification, including similar species as well as aging and sexing information.

Lewington’s plates are clear, subtle, and lifelike. Even though the illustrations are in the service of a practical end, this is one of the few books I’ve seen where most of the plates make you want to enjoy them as one would fine photography. Most of the plates treat a single species and are embedded in the associated text, and many of the plates show a range of plumages.

Northern Lapwing from Rare Birds of North America

The plates are stunning; however, they can’t be approached lazily. Because each illustrator has his or her own perspective and comparing illustrations from different field guides can be a challenge, the inclusion on some plates of readily confusable North American species was nice, but I wish this had been done for a few more species, such as showing a representative Indigo Bunting or two in with the Blue Buntings. On the two-page spread that covers Great Frigatebird, Lesser Frigatebird, and Magnificent Frigatebird, it’s unclear from the illustrations and accompanying captions which features are diagnostic and which may be subject to individual variation. The text next to one of the female Baikal Teals says “striking head pattern,” but the species account advises that females should be separated with care from other dabbling ducks. Finally, in a few places, such as for the Thalassarche albatrosses, it’s a little hard to tell which of the five species on the plate is which. Fortunately, although it would be a shame to mar such a fine book, there’s plenty of space for notes.

The layout of the book as a whole is a little odd. Birds are split between old and new world species, and the book does not follow traditional taxonomic organization in some places. For example, Common House Martin and the hummingbirds divide the old and new world swifts, and the tyrant flycatchers fall under the heading of “Songbirds” while the swallows don’t. The division of old and new world species may be practical in Alaska or Texas, but in California, the rarities can and do appear from both the neotropics and Asia, so this just makes the book harder to navigate.

Since the book is not intended to be a quick reference, these things are not serious flaws but rather minor quibbles that only highlight the demanding nature of the book. Birders who need to use this book to confirm an identification will undoubtedly have consulted a standard field guide and decided what the possibilities are.
The only place where the book is obviously limited is in the treatment of the old world warblers. These species are notoriously difficult and many North Americans, who the book is ostensibly written for, may have never seen a single species in the group. The one long sentence in the group introduction that describes the different genera isn’t enough, and the comparisons with similar birds in each species account are a little too blithe and don’t enable an observer to safely rule out species that would be new to North America. Having cogeneric species illustrated on the same page would have been extremely helpful. Finally, Arctic Warbler, which breeds in Alaska but which meets the criteria for vagrancy elsewhere, is not illustrated, and a less-than-diligent reader may not realize that the formerly conspecific (and visually identical) Kamchatka Leaf Warbler is shown instead.

Key West Quail-dove, from Rare Birds of North America

As far as recent books on the birds of North America go, this book is unique. Although the book compares itself with Rare Birds of California by Robert Hamilton, Michael Patton, and Richard Erickson in the preface, Rare Birds of California is mostly a compendium of dates, times, and numbers, and doesn’t concern itself with identification. On the other hand, while this book does share some features with traditional field guides, it has a much broader scope.

An intimate understanding of the identification of “common” (and some not-so-common) birds is assumed, and although the book is masterful in discussing patterns of vagrancy, I suspect that the identification portions of the book are intended to be used in conjunction with other resources. Since most birders who buy Rare Birds of North America probably already own a variety of field guides for North America and neighboring regions, this should be an invitation to earnest study rather than a dissuading factor.

This book demands a lot from the reader, and refuses to do the reader’s thinking for him or her. Even though the reader isn’t allowed easy access to the material, the more challenging aspects of this book serve to engage the reader and provoke more serious thought than most bird books require. Overall, this book is a beautiful, quirky, and exacting resource that will undoubtedly shape the discussion of the identification and provenance of rarities for years to come.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll Up