Birding In The National Parks: Grab A Field Guide, There Are Many!

How many field guides do you turn to for identifying birds? Kirby Adams' collection.

Finding the birds and getting some good glass (binoculars, scope, or camera) on them is only half the battle of birding. Once you see the birds, you then have to identify them. This can be as simple as taking an accomplished and experienced birder with you everywhere, but sooner or later you’ll need to do the book work yourself.

For decades that has meant you’d open an actual book – the trusty field guide. These days it may mean a website or an app for your phone or tablet. Let’s start with the old-fashioned method, which remains my identification resource of choice, the field guide.

Field guides are exactly what they claim to be, a guide that’s compact enough to take into the field. There seem to be as many different preferences for field guides as there are birders, but as with anything the best ones keep getting mentioned over and over. Bird identification guides can be broken into roughly two groups: those that rely on paintings of the birds and those that use photographs.

Getting an opinion on which is better is like asking a birder if 8x or 10x binoculars are better. It’s mostly a matter of personal taste. Photographs show an actual bird, which is great for identification for all the obvious reasons. Paintings, however, can be drawn so as to show all of the best field marks (diagnostic markings that help identify a bird) and can present a composite of what variations within the species may look like.

Peterson, Sibley, Or Both?

The patriarch of the field guide, Roger Tory Peterson, published his first Field Guide to the Birds in 1934 and through five editions it hasn’t quit selling since. For generations of birders, the name Peterson has been synonymous with the field guide. Peterson uses paintings of the birds and arrows pointing to relevant field marks. The Peterson guide series has also produced some specialized volumes like Hawks of North America, Hummingbirds of North America, and the 656-page Warblers.

While it might be old-school, you’ll still see a lot of young birders heading out to the woods with “Peterson” in their hip pocket.

Following up on Peterson’s use of paintings and identification by field mark, ornithologist and painter David Allen Sibley produced the first Sibley Guide to Birds in 2000. This beast of a guide is considered the most comprehensive identification tool for North American birds by many birders.

In 2003 two smaller volumes covering the eastern and western portions of North America were released, allowing for more ease of use in the field. As with Peterson before him, Sibley’s name has become interchangeable with the guides. “Do you have a Sibley with you?” is a typical query when a group of birders come across an unknown bird. I keep a Sibley at home and one in the glove compartment of each of our cars and consider it my go-to guide for bird identification.

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Since their debut in 2000, Sibley birding guides have been highly popular with birders.

If photographs are more up your alley, there are plenty of options for you as well. The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America is a very popular photographic field guide with stunning, clear photographs of the birds in their natural surroundings. One unique thing that Don and Lillian Stokes have done in this guide is provide a visual representation of each bird’s flight pattern. Some guides mention flight for some birds, but the Stokes Guide actually shows you with a diagram.

A couple guide authors have taken the photographic method in some other interesting directions. Kenn Kaufman has used digitally altered photographs in his Kaufman Field Guides. The photos are placed on a neutral background, making the bird stand out more. The result is something of a hybrid between a photo and a painting that, in Kaufman’s opinion, offers the best of both worlds.

More And More Guides Relying On Actual Photos

The most recent addition to the field guide family also plays with the traditional photo method. Richard Crossley’s Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds has generated more hype than any new book since the Sibley Guide. Crossley uses unretouched photographs, but places many of them on a background image of a typical habitat for the bird. The plates cover as much as an entire page, with images of the birds flying and perched from every possible angle. The effect is supposed to simulate the field experience – seeing the bird at a weird angle in a jumble of background distraction.

I found it a bit jarring at first, which is exactly what Crossley says he had in mind. This guide has grown on me, though. Crossley is quick to point out that his book is not a field guide, but an ID guide. This is good, since it’s far too large and heavy to carry into the field. It’s intended as an at-home learning and identification tool, and I’ve found it quite useful for that purpose.

The photographic camp also has its specialty guides. Jerry Liguori’s Hawks at a Distance: Identification of Migrant Raptors tackles the notoriously difficult problem of identifying soaring raptors that all tend to look alike to the untrained eye. The book is essentially pages and pages of photos of small birds against a bright sky, but after looking at it for a while they begin to start looking different from one another. This book is indispensible for your next hawk-watching outing.

The final genre of specialty field guides to mention is the geographic niche guide. Lone Pine Publishing has a series of guides with appropriate titles like Birds of Oregon and Birds of Atlantic Canada. I collect one of these books for every state or region I visit. The paintings are admittedly not extremely useful for identification by field mark, but these books make up for it in content. Each bird gets a write-up about its natural history with interesting facts and trivia.

Most field guides can’t afford to use valuable space for nature prose like these localized guides can. Additionally, each guide can tell you where the best spots are in your state to see each bird, and the front of each book has a collection of descriptions of the best sites in the region.

Roger Tory Peterson certainly couldn’t have envisioned it in the 1930s, but these days many birders are also turning to a computer screen for identification help.

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Crossley guides are a relatively new player in the birding world.

There are countless places to visit online for a quick ID confirmation, but few can match the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds site. You can search photos, sounds, and even video. Links to similar birds are provided for ease of comparison.

All About Birds integrates Cornell’s eBird project to provide dynamic maps of sightings for any particular bird, essentially providing an up-to-the-minute range map. You won’t see that in a printed field guide!

Birding By Song?

Of course, the web is beginning to be supplanted by apps for mobile platforms and birding guides are available for your phone, tablet, reader, MP3 player, or whatever other gadget you have that can run apps. Peterson and Sibley both have their full guides available as apps where they compete with one of the most popular bird guide apps, iBird.

All of these allow for easy browsing of pictures, and perhaps even more importantly, sounds. It’s not too difficult to remember what an unknown bird looks like until you get to you field guide, but songs can be very difficult to retain. If you can pull out your phone and check the song against what you’re hearing, the ID is a cinch.

Speaking of bird songs, there’s a project called WeBird (Wisconsin Electronic Bird Identification Resource Database) that does the song identification for you! With this app on your phone you can record a singing bird, send it to the database server, and receive an identification.

Does this take some of the fun and skill out of birding? That’s open for debate, but there’s no denying technology is making field identification easier.

So there you have a short list of some of the best resources out there for bird identification. Just like with binoculars, I recommend taking a look at a guide and holding it in your hand before buying. Unless, that is, you’re a bibliophile like me and can devote an entire bookcase to field guides.

Comments

Great piece. I would add one other significant feature that sets Peterson apart and way above ALL the other guides -- iff you are a bird watcher and not an ornithologist. Peterson is the only one who gives the 'rules' for identifying the birds, rather that a detailed litany of field marks. Take the Common Yellowthroat, for example. Peterson mentions the whitish belly as a key field mark (in the east edition) which will clinch the ID among similar birds. Sibley (east) does not even mention the white belly. Yet it is only western bird watchers that have to be concerned about yellowish bellies on Common Yellowthroats. I own almost all the guides you have mentioned and I refer to them all. But when I am learning a new bird, I start with Peterson, to get the simplist rules for clinching an ID. I appreciate birds in the wild, I don't analyze them.

Why is the National Geographics Field Guide missing in this list? It is much more accurate than the good old Peterson and if you prefer the illustrations in Sibley's seems to me mostly a question of personal taste.

@MRC, Nat Geo isn't the only missing. I didn't even mention the National Audubon Society's Field Guide to North American Birds or the Golden Guide series' Birds of North America updated from the admittedly dated, but underappreciated original Golden Guide. I did almost include National Geographic in this piece, but didn't because I've only persused it on a few occasions and it hasn't made it onto my bookshelf yet - a situation that needs to be remedied. Many birders certainly speak highly of it. And yes, any preference for one artist's illustrations is as much a matter of personal taste as the photo vs. illustration preference is. The best field guide is the one that helps *you* identify the birds most efficiently and easily.

@Anonymous, that's an interesting thing you bring up about descriptions in Peterson vs. Sibley. You're saying the Peterson method addresses the "process" more. The white belley on COYE is a clincher and makes the ID more efficient and definite, as opposed to collecting a list of field marks for multiple candidates and assessing it that way. As I said above, if that method gets you to the bird the best way for you, that's your guide. (Now you just need to get the yellowthroats out of the cattails where you can actually see the whiteish belly!)

hi from
GA. . . I have all of the usual suspects in my library, but my question remains unanswered. . . Which 'app' should I buy for my iphone ? I would like to buy only one, but I do in fact go back and forth with the books, soooo ? A quandry for me. Thanks for the article, Cb

Hi Craig,

I think you answered your own question...you need to buy more than one app!

I'm a grumpy young man who is resisting the pressure to buy a smartphone, iPad, or anything of the sort. That said, I've played with all the apps mentioned above and if I do get a phone it will be because of birding apps. Being familiar and happy with Sibley's illustrations, I found his app easy to use. iBird is also impressive, though.

You really should find people that have the apps (your local birding club) and try them out. Features like a built-in life list and integration with eBird are things that may or may not be all that important to you.

But since you're a birder, I'm guessing you'll end up with more than one! That's just how our personalities work...

For what it's worth, I've had trouble reading apps outdoors. It's simply too bright.

That's because you don't have enough trees in Utah, Kurt. It's no problem in Olympic NP!

Craig: I've created a comparison of iphone field guide apps here - iPhone Bird Guide Comparison. I really need to update it (especially regarding the Audubon app), but I hope it may prove of use to you.

Kirby: Nice list, but you should really check out the latest NatGeo. Sibley is still my personal favorite, but NatGeo 6th is really good, especially when it comes to subspecies. And I'm glad to find out that I'm not the only one who collects field guides from places I visit :) (And I must say that I'm also relatively impressed with that Lone Pine series, at least the one for GA).

Grant,

Just when I was becoming proud of my bird book collection, you show up! ;-) Glad you stopped by.

I was discussing this list with some random folks at Magee Marsh last weekend (and conducting an informal poll) and got enough of a look at the new NatGeo to want to buy one. It'll make the next list! (I also saw plenty of people with guides that were just plain weird.)

I like the Lone Pine series because it blurs the line between a natural history guide and a field ID guide. I suppose you could make the case that they consequently fall short of excellence on both marks, but I really like the result when taken for what it is.