It’s not often I devote an entire column to a single new book, but The Warbler Guide, by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle (2013, Princeton University Press, $29.95, to be published July 24) deserves such attention.
At 560 pages, The Warbler Guide thoroughly covers all 56 species of North American warblers. The first 137 pages cover introductory material that would make a valuable stand-alone book. It’s birding 101 focused solely on warblers.
It begins with a legend for icons and silhouettes used in every species account. Two pages explain how to use and interpret range maps. Then comes a topographic tour of the basic warbler body. Here you learn to distinguish among primaries, secondaries, tertials and coverts.
In a section titled “What to Notice on a Warbler,” contrasting markings, wing bars, facial patterns and diagnostic colors are superbly illustrated by some of the more than 1,000 colors photos in the book.
There’s even an example of the different forms of blue found on northern parula (powder blue), Canada (slate blue), cerulean (sky blue) and black-throated blue (ocean blue) warblers. The differences are as striking as the variants of blue found on bluebirds, blue jays and indigo buntings.
Another entire section highlights warbler faces. Masks, check patches, eyerings, eyelines, lores and supercillia are clearly defined so even a beginning birder won’t be confused by jargon.
A few pages later variations in bill size and shape become apparent. Similar sections focus on the breast, belly, flank, tail and undertail. Then it’s on to aging and sexing warblers in various plumages. This will help ease the frustration that comes with identifying confusing fall warblers.
Next are 37 pages devoted to vocalizations with emphasis on using and understanding sonograms (graphical representations of bird sounds). This discussion incudes songs, calls, chips and flight calls.
Though I’ve been birding for more than 40 years, I felt like a beginner on some pages, and I know I’ll be a better birder next spring.
The final 38 pages of the “introduction” is a series of “quick finder” sections. It begins with the “Face Quick Finder” on facing pages. Side views of the heads of each species, complete with name and page number reference, make comparing similar species easy.
Next comes the “Side Quick Finder,” facing page side views of all the warblers.
Then comes the “45 Degree View Quick Finder.” I rarely see warblers at eye level from the side, so this helps identify birds from a lower perspective.
And when a hard-to-see warbler perches directly overhead, I’ll turn to the “Under View Quick Finder.” These images show the underside of each species. Because the under tail patterns are distinctive for many species, two pages are devoted to comparing confusing under tail patterns of both eastern and western species.
Finally, 16 pages compare the vocalizations of all the warblers. See on paper the graphical differences among clear, buzzy and complex sounds. The publisher promises that a companion audio package is available separately at www.thewarblerguide.com.
Whew! That takes us through the introduction to the heart of The Warbler Guide, the species accounts — 373 pages devoted to 56 species of warblers.
The yellow warbler account, for example, covers 10 pages and includes 33 color photos of yellow warblers of both sexes and various ages. Throw in nine more photos of similar species and four pages of sonograms, and you’ll get the idea of the thoroughness of this identification guide.
After the species accounts come accounts of “Similar Non-Warbler Species” such as kinglets, gnatcatchers, vireos and sparrows.
And, when you start feeling confident, turn to “Quiz and Review” and “Warblers in Flight” for a dose of reality.
There’s never been an ID guide quite like this one. It’s as if the publisher told the authors to produce a book on warbler identification that includes everything a birder might ever need.
But don’t be misled by my enthusiasm for The Warbler Guide. It will not make identifying warblers easy, it just makes it possible. It’s still up to every birder to find, see and hear the birds before they turn to this remarkable ID guide.