Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America

I recently received a promotional copy of The Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America . Actually, I received it a while ago but it was quite some time before I really took a good look at it. By accepting a copy, I was agreeing that I would write about the book on my blog. This brought back memories of two things that I really never cared for-school and homework. In a way, I wish that I had just bought it. That being said, here are a few of my thoughts about The Smithsonian Field Guide .

Every field guide has its strong points:

I now have six field guides for birds of North America. No field guide is perfect. Each one has its strengths and weaknesses. Here is a brief overview of each.
  • My first serious field guide was Peterson's Birds of Eastern and Central North America. This field guide is considered to be a little outdated by many birders but it helped me identify more species for the first time than any other field guide. It emphasized the most obvious field marks for each species using arrows to point them out. It seemed the perfect field guide to help me make the transition from backyard birdwatching to birder.
  • The Sibley Field Guide To Birds of Eastern North America: After a year or two of birding on my own, I started to join other birders on field trips. Just about everyone was using Sibley field guides. It almost seemed as if there was a secret birder's bible somewhere with a commandment that said-"Thou shall own a Sibley guide." When I first bought this guide, I didn't like it. The birds in the sketches looked like they had been dipped in bleach. They were so bland looking-nothing like real birds. It took a while to get used to this one but it eventually became my primary field guide. It seemed to be a little more sophisticated and detailed than Peterson's. When I really need to check something specific about a particular species, this is my go to book.
  • Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America: The Kaufman Guide may not be as detailed as Sibley's but it sure is convenient to use. It easily fits in my back pocket which is a big plus for me. It covers all the birds of the United States so if a western species shows up in Connecticut it might come in handy. It is easy to use and Kaufman provides unique tidbits of information from his many years of birding experience.
  • The Sibley Guide To Birds: This is what I refer to as the "Big Sibley". It's too big to carry around but it serves as a handy guide that I keep near my computer.
  • National Geographic Field Guide To The birds of North America: I just bought this one recently. It uses sketches, not photos. I'm not sure what to think of this one yet because I haven't used it for anything.

How is the Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America different from the others?

The Smithsonian Field Guide is the only one of the six that uses pure digital photos. There are some birders who prefer field guides that use sketches instead of photos because it is a more accurate way to show the important field marks of birds in various stages. There may be some truth to that but with today's state of the art digital cameras it is possible to capture high quality images of birds at various angles that best display the desired field marks. This guide has done an excellent job in that regard. I'm not going to go into to much technical detail about this book.

Visual Appeal of this book

One thing that caught my attention about The Smithsonian Guide is that it is visually appealing from cover to cover. I enjoy seeing photos of birds in their natural as I read about them. One of the things that first attracts many people to watching birds is their beauty. For that same reason, I think that some people who are just starting to become interested in birding may be better able to relate to this field guide versus others. For those of us who have already been birding for a while this book may serve as a reminder of why we first became interested in birding.

I like the introduction

There is a nice introduction to birding at the beginning of the book which includes variety of topics about the basics of birding. I especially enjoyed the section that talks about how to identify birds. The author-(Ted Floyd)- emphasises that there is more than just pointing your binoculars at a bird and looking for field marks. He says there are times that a bird may be better observed without the use of binoculars. He also encourages new birders to go out on a limb by identifying birds in front of others and provides a strategy about how best to go about this. In the section about birding by ear, the author suggest closing your eyes as you take in the sounds of birds singing around you. The author seems to have a passion for birding by the way he conveys information to the reader.

Can this guide help someone properly identify a bird?

I don't want to get into all the technical details about what's in the field guide. It provides the information and photos necessary to help someone make an accurate identification of a bird. A lot can depend on the degree of difficulty of the species you're trying to identify and how well you are able to observe the field marks. If you're not able to observe enough details then no field guide will help.

How Do I plan to use this field guide?

  • When a non-birder asks me what a particular bird looks like, I show them a photo from this guide. They always seem disappointed by what I show them in other guides.

  • If I ever decide travel to a different area in the United States, this book will make the trip with me.

  • Once in a while, I just like to sit down and flip through a field guide to review information about one or more particular species. I like the fact that this guide includes wingspan, weight and information about how each species molts.

  • Even though I only carry one field guide with me when I'm birding, I like to carry others in my truck. Sometimes one field guide will have some information that another field guide doesn't.

The Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America is different from all of the other field guides that that I own and is a welcome addition to my collection.

*A DVD of featuring birds singing comes free with the book. It only contains a limited number of birds but it would seem that this would be a nice tool for a beginner to start learning some bird songs.


Lynne at Hasty Brook said...

I just happened to buy that field guide about an hour before I got the email offering a free copy. I like the guide for the same reasons you noted. I plan to keep mine in my car for when I'm birding on the go.

Jayne said...

Nice review Larry. I find I use the Stokes and Sibley guides the most, but this one looks worth looking into.

Nan said...

I so liked reading about all the guides including this new one. We have two, one with drawings and one with photos. I think my husband prefers the photo one, but I just use it as a back up because I don't care for the photos. It came out in 1977, so I'm sure the Smithsonian one is much, much better. Ours is The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds - Eastern Region. The one with drawings is simply called A Guide To Field Identification - Birds of North American - A Golden Field Guide. Do you suppose it is the same "Golden" who put out the kids' Golden Books? :<) Anyhow, I like it, and always thought it was a good one. Somehow drawings seem less garish to me, but as you said, digital photography would improve pictures. I'll show Tom your post and see if maybe it is time for an update in this household. We aren't 'birders' as such - we don't go out looking but just see what is around our land. Thanks for such a good posting.

Larry said...

Lynne-It's nice to have some field guides to choose from.-I like to switch around every so often just for a change of pace.

jayne-The nice thing about field guides is that you can use them over and over.for that reason, it doesn't hurt to own all of the major ones.

nan-I'll bet the photos are a lot better than the 1977 one too.I have an oldaudubon guide that actually has the bird descriptions and photos in seperate sections-and there is only one photo per species-it's really not a good field guide. the best thing is to go to a birding store or a major book store like Barnes and Noble so that you can check out all of the latest field guides to see which ones you like best.

Marie Louise said...

Peterson's was my first too and I think it's drawings do help to easily identify birds, especially for a beginner. I later bought an Audubon guide with photographs but found it difficult- not all birds look like the one in the photo and it's sometimes hard to see details. BTW, I give you an "A" on your assignment!

Lana Gramlich said...

That DVD sounds like a nice bonus. Thanks for the info.

Ruth said...

I prefer my Birds of Ontario for the field because it narrows the options down considerably. North American guides have too many irrelevant birds for me. But I do have a Sibleys at home and love that they show juveniles. Great review!

RuthieJ said...

Hi Larry,
Sounds like you and I like the same things about this field guide. Since there's no more room for books in the shelf on my desk, this one has been sitting out since I got it and I've been using it a lot lately.

Mary C said...

Larry, I really liked the review you gave here. I'm glad you also mentioned some of the other guides, too, and their strengths. I think I'm gonna check this Smithsonian one out, too. As they say, you can never have too many field guides -- they each have their own strengths and weaknesses. The one I've been using most often (in the field) is my Stokes-Western, and most others I go birding with seem to carry around their Sibley. That's another one I probably should invest in.

Larry said...

marie louise-I agree with both points as I had both of those field guides.-The photo field guides have improved dramatically though. If you were my teacher, school would have been a bit easier.

lana-Yes-that was a nice little extra.

ruth-I understand what you're saying.-That's why I bought Sibley's eastern version.-Now that I've seen a lot of Connecticut's birds,I'm hoping that I'll get lucky by seeing a species that's out of its natural range.

ruthiej-It's nice to try different field guides now and then to keep things fresh as long as you have a relable standby when needed.

Sibley seems to be the most popular.-I forgot all about Stokes.I might as well get that one too some day-(if it's any good which I'm sure it probably is).

The Zen Birdfeeder said...

Glad to hear someone put off their "homework assignment" even longer than I did.
This guide is falling in nicely with my shelf of guides I pull out when researching a bird.

Kathie Brown said...

My very first field guide was Golden's. I really like it because it descibes habitat and behavior which are very helpful clues. I still have it, but it sits on my shelf nowadays because the copy I have is over 30 years old! Since then I have added Sibley's, Kaufman and NatGeo. I use Sibley's and Kaufman the most and I use the others as back-up. The Nat Geo one has helped me out a few times but it mostly stays home also. If I am having difficulty I like to check more than one guide and now I even use the internet. With the more challenging species and juveniles I am finding I have to consulte books about specific species, like Hummingbirds, hawks, and sparrows. Well written. Thanks for all this info. I will have to check this book out!

Sandpiper (Lin) said...

Good review, Larry. I did one, too, awhile back. I took the book with me on a recent trip and it worked out great. I like that similar birds are next to each other so it's easy to compare and it's great having the info on the same page as the pictures, too.