Field Guide to North American Flycatchers is another addition to the growing catalogue of advanced identification material that focus their efforts on comprehensive accounts of a single challenging-to-identify group of species. While more general field guides are adequate for identifying most species of bird, their scope limits their ability to cover the finer details so valuable to the identification of certain challenging groups. In this respect, Empidonax flycatchers and Contopus pewees have long been overdue their own dedicated identification guide. I have all too often found myself sifting through online catalogues of photographs trying to develop my understanding of the finer details of this group of birds in an attempt to identify a particularly troublesome flycatcher that I’ve been confronted with in the field. While this method can at times prove fruitful, it is far from efficient and I undoubtedly miss some important points.
Cin-Ty Lee and Andrew Birch have approached the challenge of identifying this group in a systematic and well-organised manner. They first lay down the basics of their ‘holistic field-identification approach’, noting that no single field mark ought to be focused upon, but rather the collection of characteristics as a whole. From here, a user-friendly guide to the identification features that are particularly significant is given, with a simple but meticulous illustrated breakdown of where each species sits when it comes to each of the characteristics, such as forehead angle, eye-ring shape and prominence, and tail length. Each of the characteristics gets its own page, with several illustrations to show the different ‘scores’ (e.g. shallow, intermediate and steep forehead angles). In addition to these graded characteristics, several pages are devoted to behaviour, habitat preference, migration range, age, and moult, and the significance these play on weighing up an identification. This section is rounded off by a ‘field-mark matrix’, which condenses these characteristics into a table with a similar logic to that of some insect identification keys. I find this systematic key to be an incredibly helpful resource, far more efficient than wading through photos to try to gain an impression of each characteristic myself.
The second half of the book moves beyond the systematic analysis of field marks to a more traditional field-guide framework. Each species account covers general identification, vocalisation, range and habitat. What sets this guide apart, however, is the depth of these accounts. Rather than a simple description of the most common vocalisations, a full range of descriptions and relevant comparisons is given alongside spectrograms of each vocalisation. The range maps are large and detailed, accompanied by migration timings by region and notes on vagrancy. Perhaps most impressive of all are the illustrations – the quality of Andrew Birch’s artwork is excellent, and each species is illustrated in a variety of different poses, with the most similar species often illustrated in direct comparison. A flycatcher’s posture can entirely transform its appearance, making the broad array of poses an invaluable resource. I also felt that many of these poses were able to capture the subtle jizz of the species I am familiar with in the field.
Overall, despite its relatively small size, I found Field Guide to North American Flycatchers to be a worthy addition to my bookshelf and an important step forward in the available identification material for this group of species. User-friendly and interesting information is given throughout, and I found the systematic-key approach to identification intuitive. Even experienced birders from within the ranges of these species will likely learn from this book, and I look forward to using my new-found knowledge on some silent Empidonax as migration gets under way in North America this autumn. Western Palearctic birders positioned on the Azores or perhaps a windswept Scottish isle will likely be equally as excited to use the book in the field – not least since it will undoubtedly make the identification of a vagrant North American flycatcher just that little bit less daunting.