A review by Aidan Place
The Warbler Guide, by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle
Princeton University Press, 2013
560 pages, $29.95—Paper Flexibound
Warblers: those amazing, awe inspiring, tiny, and sometimes confusing birds that we all love. Thanks to The Warbler Guide by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle, they have now become easier to identify than ever before.
The Warbler Guide is an identification guide to North American wood-warblers. However, it is also so much more than that. The amount of information that is contained in this book is staggering and hard to fit into one review. This, on top of being easy to read and understand, as well as having great photos and illustrations, makes it a must read.
The majority of the guide is taken up by very detailed species accounts. Unlike other books, these are organized in alphabetical order instead of taxonomic order. There are pros and cons to this method. On the one hand, it makes it very easy to find a species quickly in the guide. However, it is also harder to see taxonomic relationships between species. The species accounts are chock-full of information. The core of the accounts, as with most photo guides, is composed of photos of the warbler with ID points on the side. However, what makes these accounts stand out in my mind is the extra information that is provided. For example, at the beginning of the species accounts is a number of small icons. There is a Silhouette Icon that shows the general shape of the bird, a Color Impression icon that shows the general color pattern of the bird, a Tail Pattern Icon that shows a rough sketch of the undertail, a Preferred Habitat Icon, and more. In short, there is a lot of useful information which you can see at a glance.
The species accounts also have a section for comparison species. This shows photos of similarly appearing species and then explains differences between the two, something that is very useful for some of the harder to identify species.
As if this wasn’t enough, each account includes a section on aging and sexing warblers. While this has been covered quite extensively in other books (the Pyle Guide comes to mind), The Warbler Guide concentrates on points that can be seen in the field and are therefore useful to most birders and not just banders who can view the bird in the hand.
The final great strength of The Warbler Guide‘s species accounts is the section on vocalizations. This is where the accounts are really unique and original. Each account shows sonograms for all vocalizations of the warbler being discussed, as well as sonograms for the songs of similar species. This is quite a new idea and one which I haven’t seen utilized much in the past.
Despite how awesome the species accounts are, what I enjoyed the most about this guide is what was contained in the rest of the book. The book starts out with quite a long section about general warbler identification knowledge. There is a section on warbler topography, what to look for on a warbler, what to listen for in a warbler vocalization, how to age and sex warblers, and even how to best learn warbler flight and chip notes. That’s a lot of solid information which I found to be quite interesting and informative. There is also a section on how to understand sonograms, which is very useful for the species accounts.
Also at the beginning of the book is a section of “quick finders.” These are index pages with small images of the birds in the species accounts. These allow someone who is looking at a warbler to quickly flip to the quick finder page to try to identify the bird. What makes the quick finders even better is that there are also quick finders for warbler undertails and the entire bottom view of warblers. This is a very valuable asset to have and is quite useful when all you see of a warbler is its underside (which, sadly, happens a lot more than most of us want). The final thing that needs to be mentioned about the quick finders is that they are all available for download online. This is just one of the many cool ways that the authors of this book are employing technology to make their guide even better. I will cover their other uses of technology later on.
However, there is more to the book than species accounts and an introduction. What follows the species accounts is just as valuable as what precedes it. There is a section detailing how to identify warblers in flight, a section which has silhouettes of every warbler, a section on habitat of each warbler species, and a whole lot more.
There is also a series of warbler photo quizzes at the back of the book which allow you to test out your new warbler knowledge in field-like situations. There are eight quizzes in this section, each followed by detailed explanations as to what the bird is and (more importantly) why the bird is what it is. This is a cool idea which works quite well and adds just a little bit more to this already awesome book.
However, as awesome as all of this is, what I think to be the most interesting and unique character of this book is its online presence and the amount of supplementary information that is available on the book’s website. Not only are the quick finders available for free download, but so are the recordings to match every sonogram which is in the book. There is also a blog on the guide’s site where warbler related photo and audio quizzes are routinely posted. If this doesn’t make you want to go out and buy the book, I don’t know what will.
Overall, The Warbler Guide is an amazing addition to every birder’s library. Between the revolutionary use of technology, great species accounts, and tons of supplementary information, this is a book which I would recommend to any and every birder.
A review by Aidan Place