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.
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.
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.