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New Field Guides for Birding Central America

A review by Knut Eisermann

Birds of Central America: Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama, by Andrew C. Vallely and Dale Dyer

Princeton University Press, 2018

584 pages, softcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 14874P

Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Northern Central America, by Jesse Fagan and Oliver Komar 

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016

438 pages, softcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 14668

When I moved from Europe to Guatemala some 20 years ago, it was Steve N. G. Howell and Sophie Webb’s great guide to the birds of Mexico and northern Central America that opened the door to an entirely new avifauna. That book has remained essential for my studies of Guatemalan birds, for teaching local guides and research assistants, and for explaining field marks to tour participants. Now we have two new resources for the birder in Central America; my review compares them with each other and with the venerable Howell and Webb. 

Published in hardcover and softcover and as a Kindle ebook, Vallely and Dyer’s Birds of Central America covers almost 1200 species, along with taxonomic notes and a bibliography listing some 700 references. Except for some shorebirds, gulls, and terns, Dale Dyer’s paintings here are published for the first time. 

 

Fagan and Komar’s Birds of Northern Central America covers more than 800 species, plus notes on vagrants and taxonomy and a list of 11 references. The introductory table reviewing the distribution of 41 species contains some significant inaccuracies: the Pacific Parakeet in fact occurs on both the Pacific and Caribbean slopes, Bearded Screech-Owl only on the Caribbean, Rufous Sabrewing and Azure-rumped Tanager only on the Pacific slope. 

Given that birders are unlikely to cover all of Central America on a single trip, Fagan and Komar’s narrower geographic focus is perhaps more user-friendly, making it easier to deal with larger families that are more species-rich to the south. There are 10 hummingbird plates, for example, compared to 16 in Vallely and Dyer. The wider scope of Vallely and Dyer, however, offers a better biogeographic understanding of the avifauna of each of the Central American countries. That book devotes full accounts to all species with at least three documented records in Central America, listing others at the end of the book. Fagan and Komar invoke the same standard, but do not apply it consistently: the Thick-billed Kingbird, Loggerhead Shrike, and American Robin—each with only a single record—are given full accounts, while the Flammulated Owl, with several historical records, is not. 

In general, either book will help birders identify well-seen birds. The illustrations in Fagan and Komar are not unfailingly lifelike, and in some cases understate variation: only a nice fork-tailed male Black Swift is shown, for example, possibly leading to confusion when a female is seen with the typically slightly rounded tail and scaly underparts. There are also some outright errors. Fagan and Komar’s female Goldman’s Warbler has upper and lower eye crescents, like an Audubon’s Warbler: the Goldman’s in fact has only a lower eye crescent in all sex and age classes. The Black-capped and Black-headed Siskins labeled females in Fagan and Komar look more like juveniles; females of both species resemble dull males. The Rufous-capped Warbler labeled “salvini group” has a whitish belly; B. r. salvini is actually yellow-bellied. Rufous-collared Robins have grayish or grayish-brown irides, not dark as illustrated. Some of the Fagan and Komar illustrations of widespread species, originally produced for the Costa Rica guide, depict the wrong subspecies for northern Central America: the Band-tailed Pigeon should have a dark bill tip, for example, and the Lineated Woodpecker a yellowish bill. The vignettes in Fagan and Komar of scenes such as “dancing” manakins, the display of Blue-black Grassquits, and a flying flock of White-collared Swift are nice extras.

Overall, I prefer Dale Dyer’s plates, especially those depicting such difficult-to-illustrate groups as swifts and hawks. The illustrations here also show greater plumage variability. Three color morphs, for example, are depicted for the female Great Curassow, only one in Fagan and Komar. Where that book falls short in showing accurate flight shapes and plumage variation in hawks, Vallely and Dyer devote several illustrations to each highly variable species, usually including adults and juveniles, perched and in flight, and various color morphs. A bright-morph juvenile Hook-billed Kite in flight and a flying Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle from above might have been useful additions. 

There are a few minor shortcomings here, too. The Crested Guan is shown only in its rufous southern form; the darker birds of northern Central America pose a risk of confusion with the male Highland Guan if not well seen. Additional illustrations of the undertails of immature trogons would have been helpful. It would have been nice to have paintings of Belted and Ringed Kingfishers or of the Great-tailed Grackle and Giant Cowbird in flight. Real errors are very few, but the streamers of the male Resplendent Quetzal look too narrow, and the upper surface of the toes of the Unspotted Saw-whet Owl should be pinkish, not yellow.

Both books show birds with multi-cycle plumages in only two ages, adult and first-cycle; thus, it may be necessary to consult more in-depth guides for these groups. In most cases, both books group species in a logical way, but there are some severe exceptions, putting unnecessary bumps in the process of identification. For instance, Fagan and Komar place the Blue-tailed Hummingbird on a page with the Garnet-throated, Emerald-chinned, Magnificent, and Stripe-tailed Hummingbirds instead of with the closely related, visually similar, and syntopic Berylline
Hummingbird. The Goldman’s Warbler is presented several pages away from the other members of the Yellow-rumped Warbler complex, and ten pages separate the Tropical from the Northern Parula. The Yellow-breasted Chat, sole member of the family Icteriidae, is placed with the Chestnut-sided, Black-throated Gray, and Red-faced Warblers, instead of with the similar-looking Gray-crowned Yellowthroat.

The hummingbirds are also somewhat oddly organized in Vallely and Dyer. For instance, the White-eared Hummingbird, in the genus Hylocharis, is grouped on a page with the Canivet’s and Garden Emeralds and the Rufous and Wedge-tailed Sabrewings, while two other Hylocharis species, the Humboldt’s Sapphire and Blue-throated Goldentail, are found on two different pages.

Species accounts and maps face the plates in both books, making them easier to consult than Howell and Webb. The accounts are generally concise and accurate. Fagan and Komar incorrectly claim that the white outer tail feathers of resident wetmorei Savannah Sparrow distinguish them from migratory Savannahs; birds of northern populations may also show that character. Rather than emphasize the vocal differences, Fagan and Komar point out the wing bar shape in the Eastern and Western Wood Pewees, a feature that is highly variable with age and feather wear and thus not useful in the field.  

As expected in field guides, the tiny maps can depict only approximate distributions. Vallely and Dyer’s maps show both historical and modern bird records, and include neighboring regions for birds whose distribution extends into Mexico or Colombia. The style and quality of the maps in Fagan and Komar are inconsistent. Most are abruptly cut off at the edges of the area treated. Some ranges are delineated by smooth approximate lines, but others, such as those for the Little Tinamou, Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge, and Tody Motmot, feature tiny clusters of dots, thus claiming an accuracy and precision beyond anything a small-scale map can provide. According to the book’s introduction, the maps rely heavily on eBird. At the moment, however, eBird data for northern Central America suffer from large observer gaps, and it seems that records published in the ornithological literature, but not present in eBird, were generally ignored in producing the maps, leading to inaccurate gaps in the ranges shown, for example, for the Spotted Wood-Quail, Black Hawk-Eagle, Gray-headed Kite, Crested Owl, White-crowned Pigeon, Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher, Piratic Flycatcher, Lovely Cotinga, Cinnamon Becard, White-vented Euphonia, Gray-headed Tanager, Black-throated Shrike-Tanager, and Shining Honeycreeper of the lowlands and for highland species such as the Highland Guan and Black-capped Siskin. The Nutting’s Flycatcher, a resident of arid scrub in Guatemala, is mapped as a non-breeding visitor, while the Brown-crested Flycatcher, a resident or summer resident in lowland Guatemala, is mapped as partially resident, transient, or a winter resident, and the White-bellied Emerald, resident in Guatemalan Pacific slope foothills, is shown as a non-breeding visitor there.

In more than 20 years of teaching about birds and guiding international birdwatchers, I have heard countless complaints about the weight of Howell and Webb. The paperback Vallely and Dyer weighs just 10% less, but is also available as an eBook in Kindle format for use on your smart phone or small tablet; the digital version works well, with high-resolution pages displayed in the same layout as the printed book, with the added advantage of searchable text. The truly pocketable Fagan and Komar comes in at just 1.2 lb, a bit more than a third the weight of Vallely and Dyer.  

Much of Central America is very humid most of the year. The cover of Fagan and Komar is rather thin paper, which curls up quickly in damp conditions; keeping the book in a plastic bag will help. The softcover version of Vallely and Dyer is bound in a more robust material, similar to the Sibley guides. 

The print quality of both the softcover and hardcover Vallely and Dyer appears to be very good. In some copies, however, the page trim is very tight, leaving less than a millimeter from the illustration to the edge, and in a few cases affecting page numbers and labels or even clipping the bird (for instance, the Broad-billed Motmot, Black-throated Green Warbler, and Hepatic Tanager are missing  bill tips). I have seen several copies of Fagan and Komar that are too dark, with the colors too intense. For example, the male Blue Seedeater appears black; in life it is dark grayish blue.

The good old Howell and Webb is far from obsolete as an identification tool and natural history reference, but there are now two other good options. If you appreciate scientific accuracy, pick Vallely and Dyer. Besides being useful for identification, it also compiles current knowledge about distribution, with full references. Its format also makes it a fine choice for enjoying Dale Dyer’s art while planning future trips. Fagan and Komar falls short in scientific accuracy, omits most references, ignores some essential distribution information, incorrectly illustrates some field marks, and is inconsistent in its mapping—but if you are looking for a very compact book that enables you to identify most birds, choose this one. Utlimately, both books will promote birding in northern Central America. The best idea may be to take both, and at the end of your trip give them to a local birder who may have no bird book at all.

– Knut Eisermann has been living and researching birds in Guatemala since 1997. He has contributed numerous peer-reviewed papers and book chapters to the ornithology of Middle America and co-coordinated the identification of IBAs in Guatemala. Knut has been organizing and leading birding tours in Guatemala with Cayaya Birding since 2003.

Recommended citation:

Eisermann, K. 2019. New Field Guides for Birding Central America [a review of Birds of Central America, by Andrew C. Vallely and Dale Dyer, and of Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Northern Central America, by Jesse Fagan and Oliver Komar]. Birding 50.3: 65-66.

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Birding Book Reviews publishes Birding magazine's reviews on line. Book reviews are edited by Rick Wright.