A Birdwatcher’s Library

It turns out one of the things you tend to collect as a birder is books about birds. Birdwatching is in many ways less about watching birds as it is identifying what in heck you’re watching, and properly identifying birds turns out to be, well, complicated.

The Challenge of identifying birds

That challenge is a big part of what shifted me from being someone who wandered around and pointed cameras at birds into a birder. Bird identification is an interesting technical challenge that I think would be attractive to many with a technical background, but one of the nice things about birding is you can choose how serious you want to be about it.

In my case I find the challenges of ID fascinating. I’ve been doing this a decade now, and it’s only been in the last couple of years that I’ve felt even moderately competent at it, but I’m not close to the caliber of the best in my birding groups, nor will I ever be. One of the birders I see on and off calls himself a “terminal intermediate” and I buy into that identifier completely.

Why is this so complicated? There are birds that are very similar with differences that can be hard to see in the field, like Cooper’s Hawk vs. Sharp-shinned Hawk. Long-billed and Short-billed Dowitchers are a classic because the length of the bills can vary from individual a lot, meaning that a short-billed Dowitcher with a long bill could have a longer bill than a Long-Billed Dowitcher with a short bill. I know people who revel in sorting out those kind of difficult, ambiguous IDs. I’m not that person.

There are plenty of challenges to go around: female of species are often plainer and look very similar across related species. Want to watch a group of birders groan? Mention female ducks, who are IDed by what male they’re associating with more often than birders will like admitting.

Birds often wear different, often stunningly different, sets of feathers in breeding season (“hey, babe! come here often?”) than in non-breeding season – look at, say, a Black-Bellied Plover or the loon species in both breeding and eclipse plumage as good examples. Switching between these plumages isn’t something that happens overnight, which means you run into birds that are part-way through this shift and don’t really look like either.

Some birds go through different looks as they grow up and mature. Gulls generally have three phases that can look very different in their early years vs full adult, where even things like eye color changes over time. And then there’s juvenile birds, just out of the shell, or what we call hatch-year birds, which were born and fledged this year. They sometimes have much different plumage than adults, and often just look off, in part because the beak is large compared to the head of the adult until they grow into it.

Toss in the vagaries of seeing the bird: bad light, backlit, heavy shadows, birds where the colors you see are tinted by their surroundings so they look greenish or bluish. Birds in the canopies of trees, birds obscured in bushes, or birds you don’t actually see but just hear them calling and have to ID by sound.

I really suck as ID by call, by the way, and I’ve decided I’m fine with that.

To me this is a fun chase. Your mileage will vary. Early on it can often feel confusing and humbling, but my suggestion is simple: do your best, learn from your mistakes and don’t take it too personally. It realyl helps to have access to people who can offer advice and feedback and help you get the IDs correct; that’s one reason I’ve gotten so involved with Santa Clara Valley Audubon, because when I was starting out, the leaders of their outings and the people in the organization were great about teaching and mentoring, and now I’m happy passing that experience forward where I can. So are the birding lists like South Bay Birds that I run in partnership with SCVAS.

Bird guides, your new best friend

But if you want to start identifying birds, or get serious about this and take your identification to the next level, you’re going to need guides to help you. Fortunately, there are many good guides available, and the challenge is picking the one right for you. I’m going to explain what you want in a guide and then make some suggestions on the ones I prefer.

Getting started

When you’re getting started, you need to get a guide book that covers the area you live, since that’s where you’ll do the majority of your birding. A guide book covers the species that can be seen in the region it covers. I live on the west coast of the United States, and the area I typically bird can be covered by a variety of guides, from those covering all of North America to those covering just the county and region I live in. They all have advantages and disadvantages: birds do wander out of the places they are “supposed” to be in and these rarities are one of the challenges birders tend to jump at. The guides that cover larger areas are more likely to have references to these rarer birds, but don’t do as good a job at helping you focus on the more likely birds you’re going to see.

Since I live on the West Coast of the U.S., I like a guide book that covers the western half. I find the books that cover the entire continent too broad, because there are enough species that are only eastern or western that it can be confusing. On the flip side, I don’t feel that the California or Bay Area specific guides help me much, and they mean I need to switch guides when I go birding elsewhere on the west coast. It’s nice having one guide that covers the vast majority of my birding.

For that reason, you’ll see I recommend and use a western U.S. guide as my primary guidebook. If you live in the eastern U.S., you should use that version instead. If you live elsewhere, I can’t really help you because I haven’t studied international guides enough.

Photos or drawings?

One major choice you need to make – and you won’t know which works better for you when you start – is whether you want a guide that uses photos, or which uses drawings to show off the birds. My general sense is that newer birders often prefer photo-based guides where more advanced birders prefer the illustration.

What’s the difference? The photo guides will show you a few images of a species in typical plumages or forms. The challenge here is that these are individual birds and there is variation from bird to bird; I also find with photos subtle ID markings can be hard to see well or get lost.

The books that use illustrations as a guide will show the birds in typical plumages in fairly standard poses, so you can look across the species and see them all described similarly – not always possible with photo guides. The advantage – and challenge – of illustration-based guides is that these drawings are idealized versions of the birds, with some detail left out to help focus you on the identifying marks of the bird. When you’re starting out that simplification of the bird can trip you up until you get comfortable with comparing the bird you’re looking at with the drawing of the important aspects and being able to see how they mesh up. That’s a skill learned over time.

I started out with an illustration guide, and I still use and depend on that kind of guide for my birding. Except, of course, when I don’t, because sometimes I find it useful to fall back on photos, especially if I can find a good variety of them. Online searches for images is a good way to do that, but be aware that not everyone online is good at ID so you need to be aware there may be mistakes in uncurated collections of images.

The core set

There’s one more complication; when you’re in the field, you need a guide, too. We used to carry a small, compact field guide; today, most birders have migrated off to apps on their phones or tablets. What you need in the field is different than what you might want at home for study.

In the field

When out in the field, I keep a couple of apps on my phone at all times:
* eBird: The eBird app is how I track my outings and keep my lists and sightings. It’s available for both IOS and Android and it’s free.
* iBird Pro: I use the iBird Pro app as my primary app in the field. It’s been recently updated so you can add in regions outside of North America, and it works well on the phone and takes advantage of the bigger screen of an iPad. An Android version is available. Two things I particularly like about is: it shares Similar Species, so you can quickly look for alternatives if you aren’t sure exactly what you have, and it also includes photos of the birds as a backup for when you’re still not sure. That hybrid approach really helps in the field at times.
* Sibley eGuide to Birds: I also carry the Sibley eGuide to Birds, the app version of the printed Sibley books. I like it a lot, but I find myself gravitating to iBird as my first reference in the field. Sibley is an illustration guide.

In the home

When I’m home, I switch to printed books. I should also note a couple of online resources. One is All About Birds from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology (who also do eBird), which is a really good, photo-based guide to north american birds. I actually use it a lot when trying to sort out possible IDs and point people to it when they ask me about IDs.

The other thing I use online is images.google.com. I’ll type in a species and go exploring. Sometimes you find a bird with just the right variation in plumage to sync up with the one you’re looking at.

I have a small set of books I consider essentials, too. These are the ones I suggest people consider getting first when setting up a birding library:

These are the three guides I use all of the time. I depend on the Sibley pair (one is larger with more detail and bigger images for all of North America, the other is Western region and smaller) for my ID and species study, I call back on the Jaramillo guide when I want to look at photos. Alvaro’s guide has some of the best photography I’ve seen in any guide I’ve studied.

Sometimes you need more than a few photos, because variability is high in a species – and we haven’t mentioned hybrids and other weird things yet. I’ve found two groups of birds where I really need help sorting out subtle differences so I’ve got books that specialize in them that use many photos of species in many situations, ages and plumages to help sort through the variability. The two I use a lot are:

I also have a few books that I use that are either specific to my home territory (Santa Clara County, CA) or as books that have helped me learn how to advance my skills as a birder. If you’re looking to move beyond the basic guides, these are ones I think you should consider first:

Deep Cuts

When you’re ready to take your birding further, these are the books I suggest you consider adding to your collection. This set is more about learning how to bird rather than species identification, and help grow your stills and understand what to look for in birding and bird identification:

For the Completist

And, for the completist, here are the rest of the books in my collection – I currently have 60 in my library. All of these are good books if they are of interest to you, but they’re ones I don’t use often. Probably the ones I pull out most are the hawk books when I have an ID I’m not sure of. That, and when I travel to other regions, I’ll take along the regional guides to those areas to understand both species and what locations are good birding spots to find them.

  • Alderfer, Jonathan & Dunn, Jon L: National Geographic Birding Essentials
  • Alsop, Fred J III: Smithsonian Handbooks: Birds of North America, Western Region
  • American Bird Conservancy’s Field Guide: All the Birds of North America, a Revolutionary System Based on Feeding Behavior and Field Recognizable Features
  • Audubon: An Audubon Handbook, Western Birds
  • Backhouse, Frances: Owls of North America
  • Baron, Nancy & Acorn, John: Birds of the Pacific Northwest Coast
  • Bovey, Robin et al: Birds of Vancouver and the Lower Mainland
  • Cooper, Jerry A: Birdfinder: A Birder’s Guide to Planning North American Trips
  • Crossley, Richard et al: The Crossley ID Guide, Raptors
  • Curson, Jon, Quinn, David, & Beadle, David: Warblers of the Americas
  • Dunn, Jon L & Alderfer, Jonathan: National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America
  • Dunne, Pete, Sibley, David & Sutton, Clay: Hawks in Flight, Second Edition
  • Farrand, Bull Jr: The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds, Eastern Region
  • Fisher, Chris C & Morlan, Joe: Birds of San Francisco and the Bay Area
  • Fitchen, John: Birding Portland and Multnomah County
  • Floyd, Ted: Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America
  • Garrett, Kimball, Dunn, John, and Small, Brian: Birds of Southern California
  • Gibson, Graeme: The Bedside Book of Birds, an Avian Miscellany
  • Holt, Harold: A Birder’s Guide to Southern California
  • Karlson, Kevin T. and Rosselet, Dale: Peterson Reference Guide to Birding by Impression, a Different approach to knowing and identifying birds
  • Kaufman, Kenn: Peterson Field guide, Advanced Birding
  • Kemper, John: Birding Northern California
  • Laws, John Muir: California Academy of Sciences Sierra Birds, a Hiker’s Guide
  • Lentz, Joan Easton: Introduction to Birds of the Southern California Coast
  • Liguori, Jerry: Hawks from Every Angle, how to Identify Raptors in Flight
  • Lovitch, Derek: How to be a better birder
  • Mac Rae, Diann: Birder’s Guide to Washington
  • Marzluff, John & Angell, Tony: Gifts of the Crow, How Perception, Emotion and Thought allow Smart Birds to Behave like Humans
  • Marzluff, John & Angell, Tony: In the Company of Crows and Ravens
  • National Geographic: Field Guide to the Birds of North American, Fourth Edition
  • National Wildlife Federation: Where the Birds are, the 100 Best Birding Spots in North America
  • Parish, Steve: Birds of Australia
  • Peeters, Hans: Field Guide to Owls of California and the West
  • Scott, Leslie: Sea and Coastal Birds of North America
  • Sequoia Audubon Society: San Francisco Peninsula Birdwatching
  • Sibley, David Allen: The Sibley Field Guide to birds of Eastern North America
  • Stokes, Donald and Lillian: The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America
  • Taylor, keith: The Birder’s Guide to Vancouver Island
  • Tekiela, Stan: Birds of Arizona Field Guide
  • Tekiela, Stan: Birds of Oregon Field Guide
  • Udvardy, Miklos D.F. & Farrand, John Jr: National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds, Western Region
  • Wauer, Roland H: The Visitor’s Guide to the Birds of the Central National Parks of the United States and Canada
  • Westrich, LoLo and Jim: Birder’s Guide to Northern California
  • White, Mel: National Geographic: Guide to Birdwatching Sites, Western U.S
  • Zimmer, Kevin J: Birding in the American West

Hopefully you find this some help if you’re getting started in birding, or if you’re looking to improve as a birder. There are lots of great resources out there, and I hope this helps you find the ones I think were best for me as I matured as a birder.