I grew up in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley. The majestic Sierra Nevada Mountains stood to the east, beckoning me toward them with dramatic snow-capped peaks on clear winter and early spring mornings. Just as enticingly, early autumn evenings featured ominous congregations of colossal thunderheads looming above the highest elevations, and summer afternoons celebrated the sun-drenched, grass-covered foothills with scattered oaks.
When I became a birder at the tender age of nine, venturing into the Sierras became so much more than just “going to the mountains.” All of a sudden, traversing the Valley floor and ascending the hills transformed into an enthralling experience that allowed me to enjoy the various habitat types along the continuum of elevations. The foothills grasslands, oak woodlands, dense chaparral, transitional and mixed conifer forests, lodgepole and fir forests, and subalpine habitats I’d visited before took on a whole new life as I excitedly explored the unique array of avifauna each had to offer. While my enthusiasm knew no bounds, I must admit that as a young birder, my knowledge and identification skills were limited; I would have benefitted immensely from perusing Hansen’s Field Guide to Birds of the Sierra Nevada, had it been in existence then.
Authored by Keith Hansen, Edward C. Beedy, and Adam Donkin, and illustrated by Keith Hansen, Hansen’s Field Guide to Birds of the Sierra Nevada is exactly what its name suggests: a comprehensive guide to the birds of the Sierra Nevada, which serves as a follow-up or “companion guide” to the 2013 publication Birds of the Sierra Nevada: Their Natural History, Status, and Distribution by Ed Pandolfino and Edward C. Beedy, and illustrated by Keith Hansen. There are many attributes which make this more recent book an excellent resource for both new and experienced birders exploring the Range of Light, as ______ memorably put it; but I will focus this review primarily on its strengths of richness in information, knack for concision, accessibility to both newer and more seasoned birders, easy navigability, and portability.
I must confess that in addition to being a hyper-passionate birder, I am bit of a field guide junkie, and I have quite a collection of bird books; some cover all of the U.S. and Canada, while others cover specific geographic regions. Of all the region-specific field guides I own, or have ever perused, Hansen’s Field Guide to the Birds of the Sierra Nevada is among the most informative. I dare say that the only Sierra Nevada field guide I own that packs more information within its pages is its aforementioned counterpart.
Prior to delving into the meat and potatoes of the book (the birds!), the authors offer readers insight into the geographical boundaries of the Sierra Nevada, noting carefully that “There are no universally accepted boundaries” for this region. The authors also describe the different ecological zones and special habitat types on both the western and eastern slopes, noting the elevational range and distribution of each, which is incredibly helpful even to me as someone with a long-standing familiarity with the region. I can imagine how much more that would enrich the experience of reading this book for someone less familiar with the Sierras.
When it comes to the birds themselves, the richly informative nature of this book immediately kicks into a higher gear. A full page is dedicated to each of the 275 species that occurs regularly in the Sierra Nevada. At the risk of sounding clichéd or melodramatic, I will say outright that on each of these pages, the authors bring the birds to life, first with the superbly detailed illustrations, then with the species account that follows. Each account begins with a skillfully, at times lyrically, worded synopsis of the bird itself, often providing information such as the bird’s relative size, its taxonomy, its habits, its overall appearance, and any unique character traits it might possess. A fine example of the expert yet vibrant phrasing comes from the account of the Hermit Warbler: “Reaching for the heavens, this bird of lofty conifers seldom surrenders from its realm of fragrant skyscrapers.”
In the sections that come next, readers are offered in-depth descriptions of the following: the bird’s color pattern, carefully noting the differences among males, females, and juveniles; the bird’s flight pattern; the bird’s vocal repertoire, providing phonetic phrases to go along with the sounds; and the bird’s distribution on either slope of the Sierra, including habitat preferences, times of year when it is likely to be present, and succinct discussion of subspecies, if applicable. At the end of each account is a discussion of similar-looking and similar-sounding species, and a brief yet tremendously helpful set of pointers on how to discern the differences. The one thing that I do wish was included in each of these species accounts is when and where the birds are likely to nest—information which its 2013 counterpart contains. But this does seem negligible when considering all the other knowledge this book conveys. Adding to the overall thoroughness of this book, Appendix A contains a list of 52 rare birds in the Sierra region, along with beautiful illustrations of each, as well as a brief description of when and where the species have been recorded.
Hansen’s Field Guide to the Birds of the Sierra Nevada strikes a balance that many other region-specific field guides fail to: While it is abundantly informative, it is also concise. As I alluded to previously, each account of regularly occurring species in the Sierra region fits neatly on a single page, which gives a clean and succinct feel. The illustrations occupy approximately one-third of each page, while the text occupies the remainder. Individual sections within the text may be longer or shorter than others, and this varies widely from species to species; but each conveys what it needs to quickly and efficiently. Though the species accounts are dense in information, the text is never overly lengthy, which, in my experience, is key in keeping readers, especially those less familiar with the subject matter, actively engaged.
Another thing that I believe to be key in keeping readers engrossed in the material is to keep it accessible to both the experienced and the novice. This is definitely something that Hansen’s Field Guide to the Birds of the Sierra Nevada handles with ease. Clearly crafted by experts, the text manages to be engaging for more seasoned birders, but not so full of jargon that it alienates less experienced birders. It is easy to understand, and it is easy to remember.
I wish this book had existed in my early days as a birder. While I might not have been able to fully digest all the material as a nine-year-old who was still quite interested in running around playing with the neighborhood kids, I would have gained a far better understanding of the natural history of many Sierra Nevada species I was used to observing and many others I longed to observe. There are many species I was looking for in all the wrong places! I think about the budding and more experienced adult birders I have encountered over the years and ask myself whether this book would enhance their birding skills and knowledge. The answer is an overwhelming “Yes!” This book is excellent at conveying pertinent information in a comprehensible manner that welcomes both new and experienced birders to the table.
The navigability of this book is another feature that adds to its overall appeal. Rather than strictly following the American Ornithological Society’s AOS Checklist of North American Birds format, which is based on the most current knowledge of taxonomic relationships, Hansen’s Field Guide to Birds of the Sierra Nevada groups birds according to what they look like. Again, this causes me to think back to my early days as a birder. Virtually everything I saw was new, and I found myself eagerly flipping through the pages of my dad’s worn-down field guide trying to identify each bird I’d seen to species. Though I generally found browsing field guides an enjoyable pastime, locating and identifying the birds was often challenging. A book such as this one would have made the process easier, not only because it is region-specific, but also because of the way it is organized.
In my experience, arranging birds according to what they look like rather than strictly by taxonomic relationships makes identifying them an easier task, especially for newer birders. But it is not only this method of organization that adds to the easy navigability of this book; it is also the neatness and concision of the presentation. As I previously discussed, one full page is dedicated to each regularly occurring species in the Sierra Nevada. I like this because when I look to find where the account of a particular species is located, I can flip to that page number and know that the entirety of that page is devoted to the one species, and I will not need to sift through the text or illustrations to find whomever I’m looking for.
The last feature I’ll be discussing is the portability of this book. It may seem odd to focus on the size of the book in a review, but I think this is an important thing to consider when dealing with field guides. I’m a bit of a collector of bird books, I’ve already said, and though I do appreciate the bulkier volumes that contain pages upon pages of detailed information and photographs, taking those into the field is less than practical. I’ve found that most people, when taking books into the field, prefer to carry ones that are lighter and take up less space. While it might not be fitting to call it a pocket guide, Hansen’s Field Guide to Birds of the Sierra Nevada is one that fits easily into a larger backpack or a simple day pack without adding too much bulk or weight. It is the perfect size for someone wanting to carry a comprehensive field guide to Sierra Nevada birds while out hiking in these mountains, be it on a day hike or on a lengthier excursion. It may not be as information-dense as its 2013 companion, but it certainly is certainly easier to carry.
My one critique of Hansen’s Field Guide to Birds of the Sierra Nevada, which I briefly mentioned earlier, is that the species accounts do not all include information about the birds’ nesting habits, which is incredibly valuable knowledge to me as a biologist who often performs nesting bird surveys in the Sierra Nevada. But I will still say without hesitation that this book is among the most informative region-specific field guides I’ve seen. Its information-richness, along with the other features I have explored in this review (concision, accessibility, navigability, and portability) far outweigh my one criticism.
My birding skills have improved dramatically since I first began birding at nine, and my knowledge of birds in the Sierras far surpasses that of my much younger self. Nevertheless, I can say with certitude that Hansen’s Field Guide to Birds of the Sierra Nevada is an invaluable asset among my collection of bird books. It is one that I reference on a regular basis, whether at home or in the field, and it is one that I recommend highly to both new and experienced birders exploring the wondrous Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Rachel Clark is a wildlife biologist based in Fresno, California. Her deep-seated passion for birds began at the age of nine, when she first saw a Western Tanager. When not working, Rachel can often be found birding in the central San Joaquin Valley and the central Sierra Nevada, where she aspires to be a guide.
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