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Fieldfare: Become a Better Birder
How to chose the best Field Guide for Bird Identification
There are so many great books out there now to help you identify birds that choosing even one to start can be a challenge. Most Birders end up with not one or two, but a stack of field guides that they rely on: a few books that have almost the same information on North American or only Eastern North American Birds and then more specific guides for bird groups they are fond of. Since they can’t carry a library with them, in the end many become attached to one book which they find easy to use and access information from quickly, carrying it into the field and writing notes in it. Here are some things to consider when you want to find your favorite field guide.
Photos vs. Graphics
This is one of the most personal tool decisions that a birder can make. If you are someone who chooses to recall the bird you have seen as a photographic image or breeze through similar images, then a book with photo plates is right. But, If the recall is more a mental list of the colors, sizes and shapes, graphics are better.
Most popular guides contain graphics and lead the birder through a map of the bird in order to compare it to look-a-likes. The classic Peterson Field Guide to Birds uses the Peterson Identification System with a series of arrows to point out differentiating ID marks. Roger Tory Peterson started this system back in 1934 and it continues to this day. At times, graphics need a little mental translation to envision the bird that you have seen.
Field Guides containing photographs have a little more dazzle to them but photographs may have shadows or a change in perspective. Some of the books will group all the photos together in forward plates and then the birder has to search the pages for descriptions, flipping back and forth. Kenn Kaufman’s field guide is now kind of a combination of both photos and graphics. He has taken the wonder of technology and edited photographs to show a very accurate depiction of each bird and the descriptions are on the same page.
All of North America vs. Regional North America
It may be easier when starting off by narrowing the field of search by using a book solely for your side of the US; many are published for either East or West Coast birding. Without the birds from the other coast you do not have as many birds to chose from and will not spend extra time in comparing an ID for a confusing look-a-like bird that lives on the other side of the country. On the other hand, some people learn more and benefit by having choices that would make them carefully study each representation. The National Geographic Society’s Field Guide to the Birds includes all of North America and is very popular. It is especially helpful if your birding travels take you to each side of the country and you would not have to get two field guidebooks.
Small or Large Range Maps with Seasonal Information
Here again birders can be very particular about their books. For years Peterson guides were published with what is called a range map of each individual species on the same page as their description. The range map depicts not only where the bird can be found but also, is color-coded to show its seasonal range. This is very helpful for many of our migrating songbirds and waterfowl. At one point the Peterson Guide was changed with all the range maps located at the back of the books and the birder would have to flip to the end to find out if they were in the right neighborhood. This did not go over well and they have changed it back. With a range map to easily access, a birder may be more inclined to get an all-inclusive North American guide.
Preference on how much you would glean from more or less text and things being pointed out including similar species comes down again to how someone visualizes a bird in their memory. Some books do have a little extra information on the species behavior and nesting habits. One of the best pieces of information the text holds is the names of any similar looking birds, so you can go right to that bird and compare your sighting.
Any field guide that you chose should not be left behind, that’s why we make our Field Guide Covers so that you can carry your guide and protect it even if it goes in your pocket or bag. The very popular Sibley’s Guide to Birds is a larger guide, maybe originally intended to be a reference, but many birders encouraged Fieldfare to make a cover to carry the book and they don’t find it cumbersome in size.
To really engage in the hobby of birdwatching or the sport of Birding a serious field guide is needed. There are some beginner guides that are geared mostly to the person watching their birdfeeders from the window. Someone who wants to pursue birding would be missing a lot of bird id’s since those beginner books may only show the most colorful male birds in their breeding plumage. Some books are good to keep close by at the window to reinforce all of your most common feeder bird identifications and perhaps show off to your non-birding friends and family what great fun it is to watch and ID the Birds.
“Bonding” with your Book
A good way to improve your birding skills is not just to take out your field guide when you see or hear a different bird, but to get to know the book by reading through it and writing down field notes in it. If you find that the book you are using is not letting you identify what you see, then switch to a different Field Guide. It can sometimes be what is holding a birder back from true enjoyment and the “Good Ones” are getting away!
More than Birds…..
A lot of Birdwatchers are Naturalists too, so we don’t want to forget that there are excellent field guides now for Butterflies, Dragonflies and other insects, Mammals, Reptiles, Animal Tracks, Plants, Marine Life, Rocks and Stars. You don’t have to limit yourself to one thing to study in nature.