Three Shorebird Guides
Shorebirds of North America. The
Photographic Guide. 2005. Dennis Paulson. Princeton University Press.
361 pp. ISBN: 10 0-691-12107-9. Suggested Retail Price: $29.95 (flexible
Three superb new shorebird guides-what could possibly be better than this if you are, like most of us birders, a shorebird fanatic? Of the three, the Message/Taylor consists of paintings as in traditional guides, while the other two are photographic guides. Another difference in the Message/Taylor guide is that it covers all 124 Holarctic waders, while the photographic guides focus on North American species, although also including vagrants.
Because these guides present an overwhelming amount of information on shorebirds, I decided to focus on four aspects of each, field “ease” of use, accuracy of descriptions and drawings/photos, book layout and organization, and treatment of the Willet subspecies.
The Message/Taylor guide is the smallest and most portable, but I suspect the binding won’t hold up to heavy field use. The book is organized into three basic sections, an introduction to shorebirds, a section on birds in standing poses, and a section on birds in flight. The introduction is one of the best I’ve seen for shorebirds. The section on standing birds includes plates with descriptions on the facing page. For some odd reason, the distribution maps are located with the section illustrating the species in flight. Thus, if you are looking at a standing bird, you would have to flip to a different section for distribution and also voice. The paintings are beautifully done, almost works of art. The feather details are simply gorgeous, perhaps too perfect at times. There are illustrations of non-breeding, breeding and juvenile plumages, but they don’t show the daily wear and tear that feathers go through as they age. Also, another problem is in the overall “look” of some of our North American species, especially some of the smaller sandpipers and peeps. Check out the Least Sandpiper, and then compare it with David Sibley’s illustration. The Message/Taylor bird looks too plump and heavy-bodied to me, while the Sibley illustration does a better job of capturing its delicate “least” structure. For several of these species, the bills seem too short and heavy, again especially so in the Least Sandpiper. Also, there don’t seem to be any illustrated variations in bill length among males and females, which are common and well-known complicating issues in field identification. Subspecies are discussed and in some cases illustrated, but there is little discussion of the differences between eastern and western Willets, and only the western subspecies is illustrated. The section on flight is better, with side-by-side comparisons of related species in flight, and a nice illustrated section at the end showing flight feathers. Despite the above complaints, Shorebirds of North America, Europe and Asia is a wonderful guide, with generally great illustrations, and a flight section that will rapidly become essential for most birders
Turning to the Paulson guide, 94 species are covered, including all known vagrants. This is not just an expanded edition of his Shorebirds of the Pacific Northwest, which is much more detailed and the standard reference for western waders. This guide is a new work covering all North American shorebirds, but in less detail. North American species are shown first, then rare peripheral species and vagrants. There are no range maps. The book is well organized, and relatively easy to use, with a fairly sturdy flexible binding. Paulson is one of North America’s experts on shorebirds, and this shows in the generally thorough descriptions. However, beware of the section on White-rumped Sandpiper. Other reviewers have pointed out that it is a disaster, badly written and wildly inaccurate. One reviewer even suggested taking a black marker and crossing out the entire description! The number of photos varies from one for Double-striped Thick-knee to a dozen or more for many widespread species. Overall, the guide works well in the field, and its simple organization makes it possible to find a particular species quickly. I would have liked to have seen more photos of worn birds, male and female comparisons, and especially side-by-side pictures of closely similar and confusing species. Also, I would have liked to have seen more discussion of molt, as the descriptions are relatively brief on this important topic. The section on Willet subspecies is better than in the Message/Taylor guide, but there are no photographs of the two forms together, making identification a difficult problem. Overall, Shorebirds of North America is a relatively conventional and well done photographic guide, and is likely to become the standard photographic guide taken in the field.
And now for something completely different. The O’Brien et al. guide is remarkable for many reasons. First, and foremost are the incredible number of photographs of birds, in all conditions, in side-by-side comparisons, of different subspecies and look-alikes. Western Sandpiper has 17 photographs devoted to it, including side-by-side comparisons with Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers. For some photographs, they were probably included just for their sheer beauty and the high quality of the images. Check out the American Golden Plover on p. 37, or the Buff-breasted Sandpiper on p. 193 to name just a couple of examples. Clearly, aesthetics was one consideration in choosing photographs. But this book is more than just a bunch of pretty pictures. It has an unusual and new style of organization and layout to it.
The Shorebird Guide is fairly large, heavy, but with a good flexible cover and substantial binding which should hold up to field use. The guide covers 91 species, three less than Paulson. It is organized into three sections, “domestic” species, rarities and regional specialties, and species accounts. Domestic is an odd word to use, conjuring up for me images of house sparrows or domestic pigeons. A brief description plus map is shown in the photographic section for each species, with the page number for the full account listed prominently. Breeding range is given a different color than migration, as in the Message/Taylor guide. The heart of this section are the 870 well chosen and exhaustively comprehensive pictures of literally every phase and age for all North American species. The rarities receive less, but still thorough, coverage, such as the 13 photographs of Ruff or four of the remarkable Spoon-billed Sandpiper. There are even photographs illustrating the extinct Eskimo Curlew, various hybrids and aberrant plumages! The Willet is separated into eastern and western subspecies, reflecting the real possibility of a future split, with several photographs showing both together. The species accounts are relatively detailed, and unlike the other two books under review, there are excellent and detailed descriptions of molt patterns. This is one of the strongest sections of the book, and well worth getting for this alone. The back inside cover has silhouettes of shorebirds to size, which is a nice touch. However, the page numbers are not always to the correct bird! Overall, this book sets new standards for photographic bird guides.
Shorebirds are in serious trouble, with many species declining rapidly. Both Paulson and O’Brien et al. provide estimates of North American shorebird populations. These vary from ~5,000,000 for American Woodcock to only 3,600 for American Oystercatcher. In Eurasia, the disturbingly small ranges of rarities like Nordmann’s Greenshank and Spoon-billed Sandpiper reflect the potentially grim future for these and many other shorebirds in a world of rapidly increasing human populations and climate change. Many species breed in Arctic tundra, and this is the region likely to be most affected by global warming. Hopfeully, these new guides will bring about a greater understanding of the plight of our shorebirds.
All three of these reviewed books are worthwhile. For those who prefer the standard paintings of birds, the Message/Taylor guide is a clear first choice, as it presents up-to-date information generally not found in standard bird guides. For those who prefer photographs of shorebirds, either the Paulson or O’Brien et al. would be good choices. All three have problems, and we may be waiting a long time for the perfect guide. I noted a variety of typos and other mistakes, including incorrect captions and a few mis-identified birds and ages, although nothing too serious.
We have come a long way in shorebird identification since the days of Petersen. All three of these books reflect new information and a vastly greater understanding of shorebird morphology, ecology and behavior. Any serious shorebirder will want to get all three, but for the price conscious who only has the funds to buy one, or for those looking for a specialized shorebird guide to supplement the standard field guides, I would recommend The Shorebird Guide. It is quite simply a breathtakingly beautiful and remarkable book.
John R. Spence, Editor, Utah Birds