Book Review: “The Warbler Guide”

CoverPhotoRegrettably, the term “game changer” has been reduced to a cliché and its original impact has been watered down. I point this out that so you’ll know I’m not calling this new guide a game changer because it’s en vogue, but because The Warbler Guide by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle is truly poised to change how field guides are presented. Simply put, you’re going to want to make space on your bookshelf, or more accurately on your desk or coffee table so it’s easier to access, for this awe-inspiring accomplishment.

If you haven’t seen it yet, know that The Warbler Guide is much more than a field guide, it is an identification opus, akin to The Shorebird Guide (O’Brien, Crossley, and Karlson, 2006), Gulls of North America (Howell and Dunn, 2007), and the recent Crossley ID Guides (Crossley, 2011, 2013). It is a reference that should be studied before and after your warbler-watching experience. Used to its potential, this guide will improve your understanding and familiarity with the 56 warblers you may come across in the U.S. and Canada, and serves as an in-depth natural history reference when reminiscing on your observations. The target audience is any birder, regardless of experience, who wishes to gain proficiency in warbler identification, even down to age and sex.

Like Dunn and Garrett’s Warblers (1997), Stephenson and Whittle pack an incredible amount of information between the covers, and then go further by spilling over into “online extras.” The larger format pages, bulleted lists, icons, and concise descriptions allow the authors to pack the pages with images. I was at first overwhelmed by the crowded presentation, but soon adapted to their presentation style.

Before jumping into the individual species accounts, I highly recommend reading the introductory material, where the authors step back and explain what to notice when watching a warbler. An illustrative example shows how the contrast among features can help with identification as much as recognizing patterns and colors, a non-intuitive observation that can narrow the possibilities of an unknown bird.

And something I’m very excited about: they introduce how to listen to and recognize warbler songs based on “objective, structural criteria,” displayed in sonograms, rather than subjectively expressing warbler “speak” as vowels and consonants. That latter approach is convenient, but I often hear several different species chanting the same mnemonic phrase, that they are “pleased, pleased, pleased to meet ya.” Using sonograms and descriptions to learn the warbler’s voice rather than their catch phrase allows for more successful birding by ear.

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Listening to singing warblers is a predominant feature, and for some *the* predominant feature, of spring in North America, so it’s refreshing to see a current field guide that not only provides sonograms and descriptions of each species’ songs, chips, and flight calls, but that they train us in how to read, interpret, and learn the presented acoustic information.

The individual accounts are highlighted by loads of high-quality images exhibiting various plumages, postures, and angles, coupled with bulleted lists of general characteristics and diagnostic features. The multiple images of comparison species (those that could be confused with the focal species) with descriptions of how to separate them will be an oft-referenced section, but there is more, a lot more, that is included by way of icons. Important features such as the undertail pattern, a quick view of the expected range, the preferred habitat, typical behavior, and color impression, which generalizes the dominant colors and their pattern (which may be all you get on a briefly-seen bird, but also trains your eye to pick out differences among a mixed-species flock), can be quickly scanned to asses additional information for successful identification.

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But wait, there’s more! The last few pages of the species account, which typically range between six and ten pages, include aging and sexing information, range maps that describe both spring and fall migration and depict wintering, stopover, and breeding areas, and a helpful icon that displays the expected timing of migration. And last, but certainly not least, sonograms of the typical and alternate songs you may hear in the field. Regardless of your experience reading sonograms, listening to the songs (provided in an add-on package you may download from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library here while viewing the sonograms is an invaluable tool to learn the songs, coupling visual and auditory learning, something I expect will become the norm in modern field guides.

Also worth highlighting are the “Quick Finders,” plates that group all the warblers by similar appearance so that quick comparisons can be made. While other guides have used a similar approach, here the authors consider viewing angles and incomplete views, and therefore present a series of different Quick Finders: by Face, by Side, 45° View, or Underview angles, by Undertail appearance, as well as Side angles based on range (east vs. west) and season (spring vs. fall).

Warbler Guide-undertail qg

They even include Song Finder charts, presenting sonograms grouped by similarity. Admittedly, you need to be comfortable with how sounds “look” on sonograms to easily interpret these pages, so if you’re not, let me reassure you: with some time investment in listening while viewing the sonograms, these pages will become as useful as the visual comparisons.

Moreover, the sounds and “Quick Finders” are available for download to your mobile device, a 21st-century approach to birding and a welcome feature, considering the books weight and volume.

The Warbler Guide belongs on the shelf of anyone who wishes to better familiarize themselves with this colorful group of warbling songsters.

CoverPhoto The Warbler Guide
Tom Stephenson & Scott Whittle
Drawings by Catherine Hamilton
ISBN: 9780691154824
560 pp. | 6 x 8 1/2 | 1,000+ color illus. 50
 Click to buy $23.25


Princeton University Press provided a review copy of this book.

Mike Powers is a freelance conservation scientist and educator. Mike developed an expertise in sonogram study and bird sound recording analysis at Cornell Lab of Ornithology, where he was also deeply involved in citizen science programs such as eBird. You’ll be hearing more from Mike, who is now the assistant editor at Nature Travel Network.

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