Rare Birds of North America, by Steve N.G. Howell, Ian Lewington, and Will Russell
Princeton University Press, 2014
448 pages | $35.00 | Hardcover | 275 color plates. 2 line illus. 9 tables. 17 map | ISBN: 9780691117966

rbnaNorth American birders have field guides for everything from wood-warblers to all North American birds, to region-specific. Now comes one more guide to add to the shelf: Rare Birds of North America by Steve N. G. Howell, Ian Lewington, and Will Russell.

Unlike the title may suggest, this is not a book on rare, endangered, or endemic North American birds. It features birds that don’t belong here, but show up anyway. While it isn’t going to replace your Sibley, Nat Geo, or other favorite guide, it is a wonderful supplement, something to consult when you have a potential rarity in your binoculars.
So what defines rare? Everyone has their own definition, but the authors chose to include birds that have occurred five times per year or less since 1950. This doesn’t seem to limit the number too much; 262 species met this criteria.
Birders who love learning about bird behavior will enjoy the strikingly detailed section about migration and vagrancy, which includes specifics about each vagrancy pattern and why birds end up where they don’t belong. Another feature they will appreciate is the piece regarding molting patterns.
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But onto the meat of the book: the individual species accounts. If you’re the type, like me, who devours the text of field guides, you’ll really enjoy these! My personal favorite sections were “Comments”, with detailed notes (sometimes taking up a full page) explaining the species’ vagrancy patterns, where they have been found, details on the sex and ages of individual birds, and “Similar Species”, where the authors summarize how to separate the particular species from similar species, both common and rare.
Some birders may find the organization of the book difficult to follow. In the “How to Use This Book” section, the authors give the logic behind the organization. “Rather than trying to keep pace with everchanging sequences of higher-level taxonomy, we have ordered species in the practical categories…waterbirds followed by landbirds.” Another element that might create confusion is the division of Old World birds from New World ones. For me, it was only a minor problem.
However, the plates alone are enough to make Rare Birds a good addition to your bookshelf. Lewington’s illustrations are beautiful as well as useful for identification. Even the illustrations of Gray Buntings make me want to rush to Alaska and find one. Very alive looking Masked Ducks bring back memories of scanning the marshes of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, scrutinizing each Ruddy Duck in hopes of finding a Masked. Evidently the Gray Silkys made an impression on me, because they showed up in my dreams hours later. And this is only a sampling of the bird beauties!
This is a guide for a wide variety of birders, from those who want to learn more about vagrancy and vagrancy patterns to those who would like help on identifying potential vagrant birds, beginner to advanced. While it won’t be used everyday, it is a fascinating addition to the bookshelf and pretty enough to be a coffee table book. Besides, you never know when you might have a rarity, so pick up a copy today!