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To guide or app?

April 22, 2014
This doesn't include the 4 apps on my iPod Touch!

This doesn’t include the 4 apps on my iPod Touch!

I was recently trying to answer questions from an intellectually curious beginning birder seeking information on our local birds. And it was fairly obvious that for those who are not accustomed to spending hours on the web, we have not recently put out much information on our “secret sources” to bird identification.
Far from having secret arcane knowledge about birds, we are citizen scientists and nature enthusiasts awash in a corpus of popular reference books and phone/pad apps. Here are a few ideas for a first-time visitor on one of our monthly Malibu Lagoon walks.
Try the library first! Just like choosing binoculars, find out what you like by reading and using a field guide first.
I think there is value in starting with a local guide that makes it easier to focus on what is likely to be seen in our area. Kimball Garrett’s BIRDS OF THE LOS ANGELES REGION is a compact (4×6”) photo guide that will get you started. Kimball is the local authority on bird sightings in the L.A. region and he often opines on the Yahoo group “LACounty birds”. He certainly can’t answer every query, but he is quite generous in his online opinions.
Another good photo guide is Kenn Kauffman’s FIELD GUIDE TO THE BIRDS OF NORTH AMERICA although it includes a lot more species. I have not seen much change in this guide since its inception in 2000, however, it has merit for “starting serious” birders. It is also one of the lightest books to carry at app. 17oz in the ppb edition.
After a year of birding you will probably want to start using one of the more complete guides that present multiple illustrations (usually paintings) of birds. That is because artists can highlight specific field marks or characteristics that are used to identify birds. The most widely used guides are the series painted by David Allen Sibley. He has published guides to all the North American birds, to Eastern and to Western species in more portable format, and iPhone/iPad “apps” that can be used in the field. The iPad app even allows two species to be compared on the same screen, side by side. (works on the iPad Mini also)
The big news in the guide world today is the March 2014 publishing of Sibley’s second edition—the first since its original 2000 printing. In short, it is a knockout, especially for advanced birders who will relish its new verbal detail.    It is 45 pages thicker and therefore heavier. Only the truly dedicated will want to carry a three pound 6 x 10” $40 tome into the field.

The National Geographic GUIDE TO THE BIRDS OF NORTH AMERICA, currently in its sixth edition, covers all of the US and is also widely used by many advanced birders who want to have a reference to migrating strays. Like the large Sibley above, it is packed with notes & maps about sub-species , and the more detail in the book, the heavier it is to carry in the field. (5.5×8”, 2 lbs.)
Many good birders still use the Peterson Guides, which were the first to use field marks, because of their careful illustrations and handy format. Granted there is less information here than we’ve seen in the recent bigger volumes , but the 4.5 x 7.25” fits easily in a jacket pocket. (18oz. for my 10-year-old printing)

You will eventually find that your choice of guides will be made on the basis of illustration clarity, weight of the field guide, and indices that make reference faster in the field. (i.e. before the bird flies away.)

Learning about the behavior of species often helps in learning to identify birds and field guides get boring as evening reading. That’s why so many teachers have written learning tomes on birds over the years. These are not textbooks! Consider them naturalists’ field lectures put into written form. My favorites are the UC Press Natural History Guides No. 83 and 84 INTRODUCTION TO CALIFORNIA BIRDLIFE, and INTRODUCTION TO THE BIRDS OF THE SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA COAST. Both are written in a pleasant informal manner and are well illustrated. I often use them as a brush-up before going to an area with birds I haven’t seen in a while.
If you want just one (substantial) reference book about bird behavior, I vote for the SIBLEY GUIDE TO BIRD LIFE AND BEHAVIOR.
I hope many of you feel free to respond to this posting with your favorites. A stream of comments about the new Sibley guide would be especially à propos.
I will follow this posting in a week with some “discovery” comments following my visit to the Santa Monica Public Library. I was shocked by the discoveries!


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