This is a wonderful book, exceptionally well researched and beautifully produced. A real masterpiece. That should be no surprise, given the authors and publisher. Nevertheless, it surpassed my expectations. It is not often that a technical manual will serve just as well as a coffee table book but Howell, Lewington and Russell and Princeton University Press have achieved that in this guide.
Rare Birds of North America is a 'must-buy' for any North American birder with more than a cursory interest in vagrant birds or bird migration. What about a British or European readership? Some will judge from the title that there can be little of relevance here for Old World birders. They would be wrong. A large proportion of the species covered have occurred, or could potentially occur on this side of the Atlantic. This book is another tool in the birder's kit, and will very definitely help western Palaearctic birders sharpen their identification skills. How? On one hand, this book provides the inverse perspective on identification of American vagrants - how to tell a Golden Plover from an American Golden, a Hen Harrier from a Northern, rather than vice versa - and in doing so it gives many insights into field separation of similar species. On the other, it is often quite simply the best source of information available for species which present identification pitfalls here. Considering solely non-passerines, European readers will find a great deal of useful information in the accounts of snipe, smaller Tringa waders, Cuckoo & Oriental Cuckoo, besides a host of pelagic birds. Added to that, the introductory information on bird migration is an essential summary of what is known to date.
From the cover onwards, the plates are of the very highest quality: amongst the most accurate and helpful to be found in any identification literature. The text is masterful, a distillation of decades of field experience, offering countless insights. In this case, the layout and design deserve the highest praise too: plates are close to text, the text itself is extremely well laid out with clever use of different fonts to enhance clarity.
This will doubtless prove to be one of the most important birding books of 2014. It is a pleasure to browse through, an endless source of curious and surprising information and a key reference in the identification literature.
This is an impressive work that analyses the occurrence of the rarest 262 species that arrive as vagrants in the USA and Canada. It therefore includes birds that are common here in the UK, but also others that make it up from South America or across from Asia. Because the book features common UK birds like Grey Heron you might assume that it is of little value to you, but what it will tell you is how to tell a Great Blue Heron from the Grey Heron – and so immediately it’s extremely valuable.
The book starts with a 32-page introduction which explains why some birds end up in the wrong place. In fact it considers six possible causes of displacement and then offers a detailed tabular analysis of the seasonality and geographic origins of these vagrants. So this is not a field guide – it is really designed as a reference book.
Not all vagrants in North American are included, but all species to have occurred in the period 1950 to July 2011 are covered. In fact 209 of those included were first recorded during that time period under review, and 50 of them were added between 2000 and 2011.
There are many tables in which such occurrences are analysed from different angles and these are for 1950-2009, allowing the six decades to be compared equally. Just as in Europe, the number of new vagrants being reported has grown hugely, along with the interest in birding and our ability to recognise what we see.
The order of species is somewhat different to that in most North American field guides, but it does start with waterbirds and ends with landbirds. Basically you’ll probably have to use the index a bit more than usual, but that is not a problem.
Amongst the species are some that we see in the UK but which always challenge your ID skills. Take for example Tundra and Taiga Bean Geese and other rare visitors such as Lesser White-fronted Goose. There are plenty of birds included that are relatively familiar to us – such as Garganey, Pochard, Shelduck and Smew among the waterfowl. There are a number of familiar waders included, and among those that we all know extremely well there are a few that set us a challenge every time – such as Little and Temminck’s Stints, and Marsh Sandpiper and Greenshank – plus real testers such as Greater and Lesser Sand Plovers. The gulls include Yellow-legged Gull, while among the terns are White-winged Black and Whiskered.
Each species is analysed in detail. Occurrences in the USA and Canada are summarised and there is a brief explanation of taxonomy and world distribution. Some general comments put these records into context and sometimes throw up interesting challenges. For example, is it possible that sightings of Eurasian Hobbies in Alaska were perhaps Amur Falcons instead? It would certainly seem likely. The authors also make a few predictions about future sightings which are useful.
There is an extensive description of the plumage of each species – in every possible combination of age and sex. Finally there are brief comments on habitats and behaviour. But for me a particularly interesting group of species on offer are the various albatrosses, petrels and shearwaters – which are a speciality of Steve Howell.
The 275 plates by Ian Lewington are outstandingly clear, and in a book like this that is exactly what you need. Each bird is shown perched and often in flight, and once again, many combinations of plumages are shown.
Just over 70% of the birds featured in this book are never likely to reach the UK, so you could argue that the use of it for birders here may be limited, but it is a combination of thorough research and beauty – two qualities you often don’t see combined together. Personally I recommend getting it just for the analysis of why birds become vagrants in the first place. A complex set of issues are explained very clearly.
The book for serious world birders worldwide, not just in North America..... This is an amazingly exciting book for all serious birders and twitchers. It deals (in staggering detail) with "vagrant" or "incidental" birds of North America. It is not really a book for beginner birders, but it is (most certainly) a MUST-HAVE book for every serious birder and lister out there - the book features only species that you're NOT likely to see on the continent, but which all serious listers spend most of their time dreaming about, i.e. their next rarity for their ABA list! Now you have an opportunity not only to dream about these birds, but to read about them in lots of detail. You cannot do without this book if you're a twitcher in North America. And, the book transcends boundaries: it is a highly pioneering work with detailed discussions about concepts of vagrancy and other topics that will get any birders' juices flowing, the world over: this book is surely brilliantly exciting and useful to twitchers the world over, not just in North America. Perhaps authors on other continents will follow the example and consider publishing similar works for their own areas? - But it will be an extremely hard act to follow - considering the profound track record and solid credentials of the authors, its not surprising that this is a work of amazing depth. The text theorizes about why vagrancy happens, it details where American vagrants come from (and why), and it provides voluminous information on identification (both in general and specifically for each species of vagrant that has been recorded on the continent). My advice to any lister/serious birder out there: 'ORDER THIS BOOK, AND DO IT NOW". Even if you're not based in North America, you'll find it great value for money even if its just for the general concepts put forward about vagrancy, which is the MOST exciting thing to any good twitcher.
Excellent introductory sections on the the different weather systems driving vagrancy patterns in North America, and very informative and authoritative texts for each species covered. This is coupled with superb illustrations of each species, and in different plumages where relevant. Overall a fantastic book that will hopefully inspire similar treatment for rare birds in Britain and Europe.