Embracing Birds of the Pacific Northwest
March 8, 2020
A review by Audrey Addison
Birds of the Pacific Northwest, by John Shewey and Tim Blount
Timber Press, 2017
559 pages, hardcover; Kindle
It’s no secret the Pacific Northwest is an extraordinary place to live, visit, and go birding. Nearly 400 bird species use the diverse wildlife habitats of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and British Columbia in some part of their life cycle. To aid in the identification and understanding of these birds, Timber Press Field Guide presents a comprehensive regional photographic guide book, Birds of the Pacific Northwest, authored by expert birders John Shewey and Tim Blount.
The book is slightly larger than an average field guide, solid but not textbook-big. The 559 thick, quality pages are bound in a “flexibound” cover with a layout that will be familiar to anyone who has ever picked up a guide book. Flipping through the pages is easy, and the book is comfortable to hold in the hands. Pastel colors mark the page edges, separating the different sections and bird groups for easy reference. More than 870 bright dazzling photographs pop from the pages, quick to draw in the reader.
From the beginning it’s clear the authors, both “Pacific Northwest lifers,” have a passion for birds and for the region. The introduction includes tools for birdwatching with specific tips for Northwest travel, bird identification content, a glossary of bird topography and plumage variation, and an overview of similar-looking species in the region. There is even a “Best of the Northwest” section highlighting 22 particularly notable birding spots in the Pacific Northwest.
Each species is given at least one full-page account with diverse field marks for identification: length, wingspan, adult breeding and non-breeding or juvenile details, vocalizations, behaviors, habitat, status, and key sites. The guide includes regional notables like Northwestern Crow and Eurasian Skylark. Tricky plumages are noted; for example, differences between Golden Eagles and young Bald Eagles are well illustrated.
Species accounts are interesting and informative, filled with descriptive, sometimes eloquent details: “The echoing rattles of Sandhill Cranes flying in formation high overhead is a harbinger of spring in the Northwest.” The book follows a taxonomic order and mixes in several pages of vagrants and rarities which take up page space. But it’s good to know what is possible—and what to study up on.
The range maps are small with distribution detail color coded for summer, winter, year-round, and migration range. “Status” content in the text complements the range maps by providing further distributional details. One of the best things about this book is “key sites” listed for several birds such as the California Towhee, White-headed Woodpecker, and even Great Gray Owl. The book reveals that Wrentits occur along the Oregon coast and describes which sites you’ll have the best luck at finding them. Some site descriptions are specific while others are more general: The American Three-toed Woodpecker can be found in “fresh forest burns throughout its range.”
The photos are, by and large, this book’s best asset. The majority are bright, glossy, and beautiful. Some are downright delightful. The juvenile Northern Goshawk? Stunning. The Rufous Hummingbird in flight? Precious. The authors explain that photos were chosen which “best depict the key features needed to identify each species,” and on a whole this guide adheres to that strategy for image selection.
Birds of the Pacific Northwest presents flycatcher primaries in good view, aquatic birds in breeding and non-breeding plumage facing the same direction for easy comparison, and a nice selection of raptors in flight. I was pleased to see some iridescence showing through on photos of darker birds like the Brewer’s Blackbird and White-faced Ibis. Comparison photos of similar-looking species are especially helpful for Western Grebe vs. Clark’s Grebe and Barrow’s Goldeneye vs. Common Goldeneye.
Juvenile photos are included for many species, including Spotted Towhee, White-crowned Sparrow, and Chipping Sparrow. But I found myself wanting more—for example, in the case of juvenile Cedar Waxwings, Canada Jays, and especially Song Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos. Most warblers show a male and female photo; however, the Black-throated Gray Warbler has no female counterpart. Important hybrids of the region such as Hermit x Townsend’s Warbler, Glaucous-winged x Western Gull, and Red-breasted x Red-naped Sapsucker are mentioned in text, but no photo examples are included.
It would be challenging to fit all varieties of the Red-tailed Hawk into the two allocated pages. Nevertheless, greater variety should have been possible; missing were a clear photo of an adult light-morph’s “belly band,” a photo of a juvenile’s tail, and an in-flight shot highlighting the diagnostic patagial marks. Additionally beneficial would be a face-forward photo of a Song Sparrow showing the dark central breast spot. Lighting, angle, plumage variation, and a particular individual’s color pattern are all challenges for photographic guides, and these concerns are addressed within the book. Where some photos may fall short, the accompanying text fills in the gaps. To get the most out of this guide, it really requires reading the corresponding text with detailed key field mark descriptions for identifying each species. In the short time I’ve had the guide, it’s already proven useful: I’ve looked up pelagic birds after a trip to sea, checked where Caspian Terns nest, and researched different calls made by Cooper’s Hawks. And I know I’ll be referring to those gull photos as the winter progresses.
The book is not free of errors. The labeled Thick-billed Fox Sparrow photo is of a Song Sparrow, subspecies Heermann’s (Melospiza melodia heermanni), and the juvenile Sagebrush Sparrow is an adult Vesper Sparrow. These aside, the remaining photos are accurate. It is also worth mentioning that, since the 2017 copyright printing, the Gray Jay was renamed Canada Jay and the Thayer’s Gull (formerly its own species) was lumped into Iceland Gull. These changes are likely to be included in subsequent editions. I personally love a good quick index and wish this book had one; the 20-page index can be a bit cumbersome to flip through. And if the species primary account page numbers were printed in bold it would save time flipping back and forth when there are multiple page numbers listed.
Birds of the Pacific Northwest is a comprehensive field guide that all users can enjoy, from casual birders and backyard birders to hardcore enthusiasts. The details specific to the region make it a valuable resource to study at home, toss in a backpack, or keep in the car while on a birding trip. The book can stand alone or complement illustrated guide books nicely. Anyone living in or dreaming of visiting the Pacific Northwest will benefit from owning this book.
A nature lover at heart, Audrey Addison has a particular passion for the birds of the Pacific Northwest. Audrey lives in Portland, Oregon, and has seen 360 bird species in her home state. She regularly contributes to Oregon Birds, the journal of the Oregon Birding Association, and authors the birding blog Tweets and Chirps.