What are the rarest birds in North America? If we’re talking about birds that breed on the continent, Whooping Cranes and California Condors come to mind. There are only a few hundred of each alive today. Kirtland’s Warblers are the rarest songbird, with a little more than a couple thousand pairs in existence.
But what about birds that don’t call North America their home? Those are the focus of Rare Birds of North America from Princeton University Press. Rare Birds is a collaboration among three authors: Steve N.G. Howell and Will Russell of WINGS Birding Tours, and illustrator Ian Lewis. It is essentially an identification guide to all the birds you might see in North America that aren’t in any of the other field guides.
The first thing the Rare Birds authors had to figure out was how to define “rare.” An arbitrary line has to be drawn somewhere, so they settled on an average of five or fewer annual records in North America since 1950. Some of the birds in the book are slightly more regular than that, but the authors have allowed themselves leeway for those additions when warranted.
When I first heard about this book, I knew it was something I wanted if only because Steve N.G. Howell’s name was on it. I had the pleasure of birding with Howell a couple times in Texas and found his dry humor compatible with mine and his knowledge of birds and attention to detail extraordinary. He was also on a bus that almost ran me over in Laguna Atoscosa National Wildlife Refuge while I was chasing a possible American Golden Plover and the bus was after a Marbled Godwit, but that’s a story for another column.
My second thought was why would I want a guide to birds that I am likely to never encounter on my own?
That question is answered right in the introduction to Rare Birds. It is surmised that most vagrant birds, that is to say birds from outside North America showing up here by accident, are, in the authors’ words “routinely overlooked.” Plenty of rarities are indeed recorded in some spots like Point Reyes National Seashore. Several factors contribute to hotspots like this. First, the geographic position is excellent for catching Asian birds blown wildly off course during migration. Second, the habitat is conducive to easy birding with plenty of wide open areas. And finally, because it has a good reputation, it is very heavily birded.
There are plenty of other coastal spots that receive far less birder attention, and consequently fewer rarity sightings, for one reason or another. The birders who do bother to hang out at lesser known locales might not always have their rarity eyes on. A guide like Rare Birds allows a birder to study some likely candidates for his region. The next time a Siberian Accentor turns up in Yellowstone, you won’t pass it off as a sparrow after a quick glance. The Siberian Accentor is a small songbird that breeds in, predictably, Siberia, and winters in Southeast Asia. Sometimes they get blown toward North America during their migration and carried around Alaska or even across the Pacific. Eventually these disoriented individuals can end up far inland. There are records on two consecutive winters from a spot along the Yellowstone River just north of the park a decade ago.
Rare Birds is truly an identification guide designed to get the birder to a proper identification of a potential rarity. The introduction covers aspects of migration and vagrancy before getting into the nitty-gritty of bird topography and molt. Since most vagrant birds are juveniles unskilled in migration, being able to age the birds based on plumage and molt is important. The species accounts cover 262 species of bird from the Old World, Neotropics, and the Oceans.
I wasn’t familiar with Ian Lewington’s art before seeing this book, but I’m certainly a fan now. The plates are exquisite, photo-like paintings of the birds. I can’t attest to the accuracy of the paintings or trueness of the colors, given that I have yet to see most of these birds myself, but those I am familiar with appear to be rendered and printed perfectly.
The book is worth its price for the plates alone, but there’s a thorough textual account for each species as well. Each account includes location and season of previous records followed by identification tips and expectations for finding vagrant individuals.
The introduction and species accounts can both tend toward the technical, but with a personal and welcoming voice. Discussions of molt are inherently and unavoidably riddled with jargon (feather groups, etc.), but are presented clearly and concisely. At other times, the authors’ honesty and enthusiasm with the subject are laid bare, as when they open the comments on the Jack Snipe with the simple sentence, “Jack Snipe are amazing.”
What’s missing? If I could point to one disappointment, it’s the lack of natural history presented for the individual species. Habitat and behavior are covered in a very short, often one-sentence, addendum to each account. This is not atypical for an identification guide, of course, but with these authors’ base of knowledge and flair for prose I can only imagine how eloquently they’d approach the ecology and natural history of each bird. With 428 pages already packed with information, additional information would take the book from a pleasant read to a cumbersome reference work, so I really can’t complain about this.
If you’re a serious birder, there should already be a slot for this book on your shelf, since no other guide has ever filled this niche. I’m going to make Rare Birds of North America coffee table (or perhaps bathroom) reading material, absorbing a species here and there. It can’t hurt to have the images and descriptions in my head the next time I’m in the field in the rarity-rich autumn. With the help of this book, I might grab 15 minutes of fame for finding the next great rarity. And the rarities, if enough birders study this book, might get seen often enough that they won’t qualify as rare enough for the second edition!