The Warbler Guide, by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle

Published on 09 November 2013 in Book reviews

M21651Princeton University Press, 2013; pbk, 560pp; many colour photographs, maps, sonograms

ISBN 978-0-691-15482-4 Subbuteo code M21651 £19.95

This innovative guide brings together the North American Parulidae warblers in an entirely novel format and presents a refreshing approach to their identification. Although primarily a photographic guide, it presents each species in a variety of postures, positions and half-takes that typify the views that you get when trying to identify warblers in dense cover. Although termed a ‘guide’, this isn’t a book to lug around in the field (weighing in at over a kilogram). But neither is it a traditional handbook, as it lacks the scope and depth of that genre. Instead, it is better described as a photographic compendium, bringing together 20 or more colour photographs depicting each species from almost every conceivable angle and in multiple postures – and this excludes images of comparison species. For a superb collection of photographs of these brightly coloured gems, this guide is without peer.

The introductory chapters alone extend to 137 pages and provide detailed explanation of the species accounts and what to expect. A series of icons form a quick key that summarises silhouettes, colour impression and undertail patterns, with others outlining range, habitat preferences and behaviour. ‘What To Notice On A Warbler’ guides readers on a topographic tour and through a plethora of field marks, structural nuances and bewildering sonograms. Some users may find this a bit excessive or even intimidating, although the section on ‘Understanding Sonograms’ is particularly informative, one of the most enlightening interpretations I have come across, and includes song mnemonics where relevant. Putting all this into practice is detailed in ‘How To Listen To Warbler Songs’ and ‘Learning Chip And Flight Calls’, together amounting to 31 pages! I then discovered a discreetly hidden reference to a companion file (on page 69) containing all the vocalisations covered by the book, in excess of 1,000 files, and presented in the exact page-by-page sequence as in the text. This file is available from the Macaulay Library at Cornell Lab of Ornithology http://macaulaylibrary.org/guide/the-warbler-guide for $5.99. If you really want to understand sonograms, this is the bargain of the year, don’t order one without the other.

The remainder of the text comprises detailed accounts for species that breed in Canada and the USA, presented in alphabetical order. On average, six pages are devoted to each species, the first with between two and six images followed by a multitude of smaller additional photos highlighting diagnostic features and showing the species in a variety of postures. Another page of comparison species follows, with images of similar warblers plus a selection of unrelated and only vaguely comparable species that might include chickadees or sparrows – it is really possible to mistake a chickadee for a Golden-winged Warbler Vermivora chrysoptera? A short summary of ageing and sexing comes next, again illustrated with relevant photographs, although in most cases these are a bit too small to convey the detail in the captions, and I felt this could have been explored in greater depth with additional text. Maps illustrate the breeding and wintering ranges and main migration routes, and the distribution of distinctive races. Each account concludes with a page or two of sonograms comprising up to four of the review species, plus several of songs of potentially confusing species. Where sexes differ greatly, for example Black-throated Blue Warbler Setophaga caerulescens, the female is treated completely separately from the male and given equal treatment. In some species where drab and bright ‘morphs’ occur, as in Connecticut Warbler Oporornis agilis, these are also discussed in separate sections, whereas the distinctive Audubon’s and Myrtle races of Yellow-rumped Warbler S. coronata are not, although the combined account here extends to a whopping 16 pages that include 49 photographs, 20 sonograms and three maps!

A further seven species from the tropical regions to the Mexican border that have occurred in the southern USA, plus two ‘former warblers’ (Yellow-breasted Chat Icteria virens and Olive Warbler Peucedramus taeniatus) are given two-page spreads. Potentially confusing families including Kinglets, Bushtits, Gnatcatchers, Chickadees and Vireos and even Sparrows are summarised, hybrids are addressed briefly and the book concludes with eight pages devoted to quizzes and reviews, images of warblers in flight, an overview of North American warbler taxonomy, a synopsis of habitat and behaviour, measurements and a glossary of terms.

There are a few minor niggles: some photos are too small to show what they are intended to depict; there are gaps where additional material could have been included or existing images enlarged to fill the blank space; dates could have been added to the photo captions; the Distinctive Views of the seven vagrant species actually depict Comparison Species, and I just don’t get the full-page image on page 339.

The only thing missing from this guide are the warblers themselves. Once you’ve picked up and browsed this book, you will be hooked. So be warned, this book may be a bargain, but the consequences come with a hefty price tag.

Peter Kennerley

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