[BIRDCHAT] Sibley Guide (Long) (fwd)

ian paulsen ipaulsen at linknet.kitsap.lib.wa.us
Sat Sep 30 09:53:00 PDT 2000

Here is the long version of Rob Fergus's review of the Sibley book.

Ian "Birdbooker" Paulsen
Bainbridge Is., WA, USA
ipaulsen at linknet.kitsap.lib.wa.us
"Rallidae all the way"

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Sat, 30 Sep 2000 15:02:40 GMT
From: Rob Fergus <birdchaser at HOTMAIL.COM>
Subject: [BIRDCHAT] Sibley Guide (Long)

After having spent the evening alternately clutching the new Sibley Guide to
Birds tightly to my chest then staring at it intently with slobber drooling
down the side of my chin, I can make an initial assessment of this book
which has instantly become THE field guide to North American birds.

Those of us who started birding in the Golden Guide and Peterson Guide days
of birding remember how the National Geographic (NGS) guide rocked our world
when it came out in 1983. If the advent of the NGS guide registered a solid
6.0 on the Richter scale, the long-awaited release of the Sibley guide is at
least two orders of magnitude stronger. To get this out of the way, on a
scale of 1-10, the Sibley guide registers a solid 9.7.

The more than 6,600 illustrations of 810 species will change the way we see
birds for the next 20 years. If the NGS illustrations seem old and
familiar, these Sibley illustrations will challenge your perceptions of even
the most common birds. For instance, in this book there are paintings of
almost every bird in flight--both from above and from below. We're used to
seeing plates of ducks in flight--but how about flight shots of flycatchers,
thrashers, warblers, and sparrows. They're all here--dripping with detail,
and just begging for us to attempt identifying those high-flying passerines
as they dart overhead.

Each species is illustrated numerous times, and average at least twice the
number of illustrations/species as the NGS guide. For a comparison, check
out the number of illustrations in both books for each of these species:

Sibley NGS
Great Horned Owl 10 2
Green Violet-Ear 6 2
Green Kingfisher 8 2
La Sagra's Flycatcher 5 1
Greater Roadrunner 7 1
Black Scoter 12 5
Wood Stork 8 3
Merlin 23 9

All species regularly recorded in the lower 48 states are illustrated,
though a few of our favorite dream birds from Alaska are omitted--such as
Terek Sandpiper, Wood Sandpiper, Long-toed Stint, and Temminck's Stint.
However, the space they would have taken up is generously filled with
detailed pictures of the many more species we have a better chance of
seeing. Common birds recieve equal treatment with raritites--Downy
Woodpecker gets 10 illustrations, Purple Martin 13, Horned Lark 14,
White-crowned Sparrow 16, etc. Birders will be pleased to find
illustrations and a species account for the "new" Gunnison
Sage Grouse, and city birders will be well served by the depictions of 28
parrot species commonly found free-flying in urban jungles across the

The illustrations are delightfully well executed. Those accustomed to
flash-photo magazine cover shots of birds blown up 1000 times life size may
not appreciate the almost spare nature of some of the paintings, but given
their purpose as guides to plumages rather than magazine covers the
illustrations are outstanding. Though mostly depicted in standard field
guide profile poses, the illustrations somehow seem quite lifelike, and at
first glance appear to breath new life into the North American field guide
genre dominated for two decades by the NGS illustrations which, for many of
us, have not aged particularly well.

Others will no doubt quibble with particulars of individual illustrations--I
personally think the Yellow-legged Gull is depicted with a mantle color
lighter than in life, some of the reds and greens appear too bright in my
copy of the book, and there is no Hudsonian Godwit illustration that really
looks like the pale, molting birds that regularly pass through central Texas
in May. However, all in all, the illustrations will provide many, many
weeks of pleasurable and informative perusal.

Sibley differs from the NGS guide in labeling birds according to their
geographical population rather than to official subspecies. There are no
caurinus, griseus, and hendersoni Short-billed Dowitchers in the Sibley
guide--only Pacific, Atlantic, and Prairie populations.

The layout of the species accounts differs from previous guides North
American. Instead of illustrations and text on opposite facing pages, each
page includes both illustrations, text, and maps. Most often two species
share a page--each with its own vertical column of illustration and text.
However, a fair number of species merit their own entire page--including
such common species as White-breasted Nuthatch, and such vagrants as
Slaty-backed Gull.

New to North American guides is also a page introducing each family of birds
with thumbnail illustrations showing each species in the family to scale,
facilitating rapid comparison of size and giz.

Another innovation in this guide is the extensive use of small sketches
showing head-on or tail-on views of birds in flight showing characteristic
wingbeats and wing positions.

There are other gems scattered throughout the book, including a page of
showing hummingbird aerial displays, a treatment of pollen dusted
hummingbirds (nice for begginers puzzled by startling yellow hummers), a
discussion of typical flock behavior of small grassland birds, essays on
identification of Accipiters and Buteos, etc. The seven pages of
illustrations and discussion of bird topography is instantly THE best source
of information on this topic for the average birder, and the page discussing
molt sequences quickly explains the differences in terminology used to
describe the various plumages aquired by birds as they mature. This book is
loaded with nuggets that will keep us all digging for a long time.

Voice descriptions for each species average several sentences, and cover
both songs and a range of calls. This coverage is easily 5 times greater
than the voice treatment found in NGS, and is more similar to the level of
coverage found in Howell and Webb's guide to Mexican birds.

Maps, as interpretations of bird distribution, are commonly the source of
contention and debate. The maps in the Sibley guide indicate summer and
winter ranges, as well as migratory routes and records of extralimital
vagrants. On the whole, they are quite good, though as a geographer, I
can't pass up the opportunity to make a few comments. The choice of yellow
as the color representing migratory paths is a bit unfortunate, as it can be
hard to see, especially on the shorebird maps where migratory routes are
indicated as thin yellow lines along coastlines.

Green dots indicating extralimital records are "included to show broad
patterns of occurence, not necessarily precise details of rare records."
However, that said, the placement of the dots will probably become a source
for much discussion and possibly dissent among birders. For instance,
inland Texas Short-billed Dowitcher records are represented by three green
dots in the state, though these birds are only uncommon migrants at many
sites such as Hornsby Bend. Texas Sanderling, Ruddy Turnstone, and
Long-billed Curlew records away from the coast are also represented by a
scattering of green dots rather than a yellow migratory path, even though
these species regularly migrate through the area.

The maps are mostly up to date, including many recent extralimital
records--such as last year's first Louisiana Waterthrush in Oregon.
However, the green dots are not always satisfying. Birders in College
Station may be surprised to see how close they are to the green dot
representing the only Texas sighting of Red-necked Stint--which we all know
occured closer to UT-Austin than to Texas A&M, and was in all fairness
actually hundreds of miles west of either site ;-) The Boreal Owl map
correctly extends the range of that species southward into Oregon and the
Rocky Mountains--as discovered in the past decade, however the Utah
population is curiously missing. As a former Utah birder, I was struck by
how many vagrant records from that state were not depicted in the maps--a
tough blow to birders who have to scrape and scratch for every new state
record like Yellow-crowned Night-Heron and Lesser Black-backed Gull,
and--what about those poor birders in Idaho who won't be afforded the joy of
seeing the green dot marking their precious Tufted Duck record?

Also, every distribution map (which measure roughly 1.5 inches by 1.5
inches--as compared to the NGS 1 inch by 1 inch maps) cover all of North
America--which does little to aid our appreciation of the distribution of
birds with a limited range within that area--such as Brown Jays and
Tamaulipas Crows, which can barely be seen to enter the United States on
these small scale maps. In this instance, the NGS maps showing smaller
portions of North America do a better service in showing the range of these
birds. The acknowledgement section credits three birders with assisting in
map preparation, including fellow geographer Paul Lehman. Perhaps in future
additions the Sibley guide maps could be improved by a range of birders from
each state--giving the maps a greater precision and value as a guide to bird

In conclusion, the Sibley guide is hands down the best bird guide to North
American birds that we have ever seen, and may ever see. I feel a little
petty pointing out small weaknesses in this monumental book. I would
recommned an immediate purchase of the book, sight unseen, to any and all
Birdchatters. Just remember to put on an old t-shirt and a bib before you
start thumbing through its 544 pages--you wouldn't want runaway drool to
spoil your nice clothes.

Rob Fergus
Hornsby Bend Bird Observatory
2210 S. FM 973
Austin, Texas 78725

Phone: (512)929-1019
Email: fergus at hornsbybend.org
Website: www.hornsbybend.org

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