Sunday, August 31, 2008

Better late than never?

A couple of (wince) months ago I was surprised, flattered, and delighted to receive a note asking if I would be willing to review the new "Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America," by Ted Floyd.

"Of course!" I responded, as quickly as possible lest the publishers change their minds.

It is with profound embarrassment that I admit I am just now getting around to writing aforementioned review. My only excuse is that I have barely even GLANCED at birds in the last few months... no time!... so an actual field test of an actual field guide was out of the question.

But this morning the DM and I went for a long walk along the "old" morning route (now sadly less traveled, as it's a mile longer round trip from the new digs and therefore at least 30 minutes more time if one is actually paying attention to surroundings). Whist we were strolling I saw a bird, the identification of which was uncertain... and voila! An excuse to test drive the book.

By now you've probably read a zillion reviews, so you know that this is a stout little book. Six inches by eight, and just over an inch thick... soft bound (I think they call this binding "turtle") and nice in the hand. Yes, I often judge books by their covers... the quality of printing and paper, how they feel in the hand... and this one is lovely.

But it ain't light. I'm guessing twice the weight of the regional Sibley volumes, but not so much as the original complete Sibley guide. Not something I will be inclined to cart around in my usual kit... the one already stuffed with sketchbook, paintbox and journal.

The Smithsonian guide is dense with information, as well as paper. It includes material for more than 750 bird species occurring in the "American Birding Association (ABA) Area." (Canada, Alaska, lower 48 US states, and some French islands off the eastern coast of Canada. No Hawai'i.) It is arranged roughly in the taxonomic order of the American Ornithologists' Union. Groups of similar species are clustered together, and each section is distinctly color-coded along the top of the page; a nice feature if, for example, one wants to find quickly the "gulls, terns, and skimmers" section (yellow ochre).

There are notes on molt strategies, vocalizations, abundance, habits and ecology... range maps... plumage variations for individual species. Each grouping of related species begins with an overview of habitat, diet, population and conservation status, as well as short essays on supplementary topics. The extensive introduction (almost 30 pages) includes vocabulary, general natural history of birds, and a description of the information that is included in the individual species accounts.

There are birding tips.

There is a glossary.

There is a checklist.

There is a disk with "587 downloadable bird songs." (Okay. Yes. But please be aware that it is 587 recordings for 138 species, and that the recordings are MP3 files and not your standard CD player fare.)

It's all very interesting stuff, and useful for sussing out some of the subtlties of the bird universe, but OOPH. Is it really material for a field guide? Is it helpful or overwhelming to the novice or casual birder? I'm willing to call myself a moderately adept birder. (I, ahem, suck at peeps and gulls, but I don't get much opportunity to practice around here.) If I'm trying to sort out a moving critter in bad light too far away, I want some simple, straightforward, easy-to-find help in the field. I'm happy to read all that other stuff... but later.

So I hate to be a grump when others have been so glowing in their reports, but although this is a book I am delighted to have for reference and study, there are several reasons I will not be using it as a field guide.

1) Photos, not illustrations. I'm sorry. I wanted to like photos, really I did. It turns out that several friends have contributed their fine images to this book, and I REALLY wanted to like photos. But I don't. Although overall I think that photography has improved tremendously in this application, I still have the usual gripe with poor light and busy backgrounds, and in this case ridiculously small size. I can look at a tiny (well-executed) illustration on a white background and find the bird's "jizz" right away. Not so easy if I'm looking at an inch-tall photo of a speckled brown bird against dry leaves.

2) No visual "hints" for field marks. You know what I mean: Those little lines or arrows that point you immediately towards important characteristics. Why is it that this useful convention is dropped when photography is used? I don't want to READ about what to look for. I want to SEE it. Especially with species that are similar. Point it out to me, please.

3) Inconsistent and too crowded page layout. I realize that the information to be presented is not the same for each species, but I want to be able to locate the information I want as quickly as possible. For me this means clear visual separation between images and text, judicious use of white space, and consistent layout. I want to be able to compare similar species easily, so I want to look to roughly the same place on each page for the same information. The entire book feels like an attempt to cram too much material into too little space.

That said, I have to reiterrate that I think it's a valuable and interesting reference, useful and informative. Had they left the word "field" out of the title, I would have been perfectly content. The "Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America" will undoubtly come off my shelf to be read and perused and to increase my wonder at the complexities of the lives of birds. But it ain't goin' in my backpack.


  1. I have to say I agree with you on the ‘crowded layout’ part, and while I didn’t know why, I also agree with you regarding the photographs. While many are very, very good and one can’t help but consider many of them beautiful, this is meant to be a field guide! Your comments regarding the photos now made sense; I could not find my ‘markers’! That is why I found the book awkward for field use…well, other than size/weight. But like you, much of it was very interesting and I’m glad to have it on my shelf…in easy reach when I’m researching something.

    However, I do not have an Ipod or other MP3 player and must tell ya, I was able to listen to the CD on my computer quite easily and with standard software.


  2. Thanks for the great and useful review. Looks like a book I'll want, but, as you imply, for reading at home in bed.

  3. Good morning, ladies!

    Beverly, you're right... the DVD works in the computer, but not in the car. Plenty of folks I know who use recordings in the field now tote MP3 players, so no big deal, really. I don't have a player, but then I don't use recordings in the field, so it doesn't really matter for me.

    And Deborah... perhaps I should always put the caveat that I'm one of those "one can never have too many books" types to begin with! ;-) Reading at home in bed? Right now there are (I kid you not) seven started volumes on my nightstand. (sigh)