Identifying warblers can be a pretty straightforward affair, especially here in the East. In the spring, before leaf-out, you can get good looks at these birds, and their plumage gives them away.
But it isn’t always the second week of May in the Midwest. Sometimes it’s fall and many of the warblers are wearing drab colors, leading to the term popularized by Roger Tory Peterson: “confusing fall warblers.”
Sometimes it’s the third week of May, the leaves are suddenly exploding, and you’re lucky to see more than 17 percent of the bird you’re trying to identify. And sometimes you’re warblering in Zion National Park, where the warblers aren’t quite as gaudy and quickly identifiable. American Birding Association president Jeff Gordon, who I interviewed here recently, once said, “The West has warblers like the East has mountains.”
With all of that in mind, I was excited to get my hands on the latest in “family-centric” bird guides, The Warbler Guide by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle. While I’ve been known to exaggerate for the sake of emphasis, and I will swear under oath that my jaw literally dropped when I opened this book.
The Warbler Guide is 560 pages of identification tools that exceed anything on the market I have encountered for any other group of birds. Let’s walk through the section for a favorite warbler, the Common Yellowthroat.
The introduction page leads off with some quick icons that show us shape by silhouette, color impression (what you see in a flash), undertail pattern, range, habitat, and behavior. Six pretty little icons and we already have a general feel for our bird. Then we get a couple typical field guide photos and some typical field marks with those that would be diagnostic marked with a check-mark. That’s the first page. That itself would make a great guide, but The Warbler Guide has barely gotten warmed up.
The second page is a blast of photos. There are some “Distinct Views” that highlight important field marks. The rest of the page is filled with photos of Common Yellowthroats in every conceivable angle. Yes, a shot of just the rear end from below is in there. If you’ve ever looked for warblers, you know how common the “butt view” is.
On the third page we review the prominent field marks with a couple photos and then get to see similar species for comparison, including an under-the-tail photo of a Canada Warbler for comparison of that part.
Have I mentioned that so far, this has all been solely about male Common Yellowthroats? Yes, my friends, things will get even crazier.
Aging and sexing are covered on the fourth page along with range maps in excruciating detail accompanied by bar charts showing typical timing of migration in the spring and fall for both the west and the east.
On the fifth and sixth page, there isn’t a color photograph in sight. In fact, at first glance it looks like a medical textbook for reading some kind of heart telemetry. What it really is, is so much more interesting. It’s a collection of sonograms of bird song. It’s a visual representation of what a Common Yellowthroat sounds like.
This is more than the old mnemonic trick of remembering that they say “Wichita! Wichita! Wichita!” It’s also more than hearing a bunch of different songs on your MP3 player. This shows you tiny nuances of the songs. I have no musical talent and a poor ear, so learning bird songs has always been a struggle for me. Looking at these sonograms, I think I’ve found a way to vastly improve my study. Coupling the image of the sound with the sound itself is invaluable.
Speaking of hearing the sound, there is a companion set of sound files available from the Macaulay Library that covers every example in the book and in the order they appear in the book. You get more than 1,000 sound files in an easy reference format for another six bucks.
On the seventh page of Common Yellowthroat mayhem, we’re back to what the first page looked like. That’s because now we’re talking about females and first-year males. Three pages cover identification of the less-distinctly marked females and young males, including a critically important page of comparison species. There was an incident at Magee Marsh (the warbler holy land in Ohio) this spring in which a female Common Yellowthroat caused a stampede by being misidentified as a Connecticut Warbler. Someone needed this book to have been out in May!
The tenth page has a full-page stunning image of a male Common Yellowthorat so clear you’d swear the bird was going to fly into your face. And that’s the end. The next page begins the whole process for Connecticut Warblers, and then Golden-cheeked, and then Golden-winged, and then… When it’s all over, each of the 56 species of warbler found in the United States and Canada is covered in that depth.
There’s a quiz section in the back along with tables of warbler measurements and even a phylogenetic tree for the taxonomists among us. There’s a lot more, but you’ll need to see it for yourself. I’m overwhelmed just writing about it. Rest assured, whatever warbler information you desire can be found here. Oh yes, there’s a companion website for the book you can find here, complete with a blog, gear recommendations from the authors, and all kinds of other goodies. You can go to the site for free bonus information, but at a list price of $29.95, buy the book. It would be a steal at twice that price, and that is no exaggeration.
I can’t wait for September. Those “confusing fall warblers” don’t stand a chance of getting past me this year.