American Birding Podcast



Charismatic, Colorful, Diverse

A review by Edward H. Burtt, Jr.

The Warbler Guide, by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle

Princeton University Press, 2013

560 pages, $29.95—softcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 13877

This is a book that every serious birder should own.

There. Now that I’ve stated my conclusion, let me tell you why.

Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle’s Warbler Guide is an innovative synthesis of techniques deploying every aspect of appearance, sound, and life history to help identify the American wood-warblers, those colorful, charismatic, and diverse songbirds.

Many of the wood-warblers breed in the boreal forests of North America and migrate to winter quarters in the southern U.S. and the American tropics. Each spring, during the northward migration, millions of birds and tens of thousands of birders gather at such stopover sites as High Island, Texas; Cape May, New Jersey; Crane Creek, Ohio; and Fort Morgan, Mississippi.

As the birders gaze intently and the warblers flit quickly, the most commonly heard human vocalization is “What is that?”—usually accompanied by an extended finger indicating a small bunch of offending feathers. Now, the answer to that question will come more quickly and more easily, thanks to this single book that gathers our collective knowledge, organizes it for ready access by beginners and experts alike, and synthesizes the information for more effective learning and retention.

K9968The guide begins with an excellent introduction to how to use the book, a key to the symbols, and a particularly well-done discussion of warbler topography, illustrated with superbly detailed, sharply focused photographs. The book’s introduction is one of the rare cases where I cannot imagine how even the best drawings could better show the characteristics under discussion.

The authors go on to explain and illustrate the difference between contrast and color, comparing, for example, the low contrast of a Yellow Warbler with the high contrast of a Black-and-white Warbler. Carefully selected photographs emphasize that contrast can also be helpful in assessing eye rings and cheek patches and in comparing spring and fall plumages. As to color, the guide’s concise text and superb photographs show convincingly that the blue of a Cerulean Warbler, for example, is recognizably different from that of a Northern Parula—and demonstrate, too, how important lighting is to the correct interpretation of color.

Even the best photographs can suffer from poor reproduction. Here, though, I doff my hat to Princeton University Press and the Chinese printers. The color reproduction in this book is wonderfully accurate. If the authors state that the gray of one species is cooler than that of another, the photographs actually show that subtle difference. When the authors caution the reader about the yellow-orange cast of the light at sunrise and sunset, the photograph shows how a Black-and-white Warbler at dawn shows only muted contrast and the bird’s white feathers seem dull orange.

Similar care is devoted to the presentation of bird topography. Of all the features explained and illustrated, tail spots are given the greatest  detail, and appropriately so. Often species-specific and very useful to identification from beneath, tail spots can vary in appearance depending on how the trail is spread, and they are strongly susceptible to shadow.

Aging and sexing, too, are thoroughly discussed and illustrated, with all the relevant terms clearly defined. All together there are some 50 pages devoted to how to look at warblers, pages any birder will find it well worth the time to study.

The extensive introduction is followed by 40 pages describing how to listen to and learn warbler songs, chip notes, and flight calls, generously illustrated with sound spectrograms showing, for example, the difference between harmonics and shadow songs. I have never seen such a clear explanation of sound spectrograms; I will probably have my ornithology students read this section before their field labs.

Next comes a series of “Quick Finders” that sort the warblers by face patterns, under-tail patterns, regional and seasonal distribution, side views, 45°views, and views from beneath. Each finder occupies an entire two pages, an innovative and wonderfully helpful approach to identification.

These visual guides are followed by “Song Finder Charts,” in the face of which I can only take off my hat and give a low, descending whistle of awe. Wow! Like their visual counterparts, the vocal finders are divided into categories, in this case songs, chip notes, and flight calls. Species are grouped by their vocal similarities, which are thoroughly explored in written descriptions and depicted in spectrograms. I know of nothing like these finders anywhere else in the birding or ornithological literature; I have used them for late summer chip notes and found them very helpful.

BINbuttonThe full species accounts are organized alphabetically. Each species account is based on an adult male in spring, followed by a brief but carefully written and well-illustrated account of the species’ drabber plumages. Each account opens with a row of icons providing an easily scannable summary of the critical information needed for identification. The first icon is a silhouette of the bird’s perching posture, an important bit of “jizz.” The second is a fish-shaped diagram showing the bird’s major blocks of color, for example, the green, black, and yellow of a Kentucky Warbler. This is followed by an icon representing the folded tail from below, showing the extent of the undertail coverts, the size and shape of the tail, and the shape, position, and size of the tail spots, if relevant.

There is also an icon that shows the species’ foraging preference: a tree with a green top for canopy feeders, a green bush for understory species, and so on. Finally, there are icons indicating such characteristic behaviors as tail-cocking. Beneath the icon row is a series of large photographs showing the bird from the side, from a 45° angle, and from below, each annotated with a bulleted list of important characteristics. A large checkmark indicates diagnostic features. The facing page begins with close-up photographs of those parts of the bird with distinctive features. Four images of the American Redstart, for example, show the adult male’s orange breast patch, the extravagant rictal bristles, the club-shaped tail tip, and the large tail spots. A gallery of eight to fifteen smaller photographs, all with informative captions, depict the species in a variety of postures and lighting conditions.

There follows a very useful set of photographs of similar species for comparison. Even if your preliminary identification was incorrect, the images here may steer you onto the right path. The last page of photographs for each account depicts any regional variation and introduces the characters for aging and sexing birds of the species. Range maps, showing both fall and spring migration routes when they differ, follow.

Finally comes what is perhaps the most innovative element of the accounts, the section on songs. The authors open with a quirky, amusing mnemonic phrase: In the case of the Orange-crowned Warbler, for example, we’re reminded that “an orange, quickly bouncing on your crown, will eventually slow down and fall.”

These sections rely primarily on well-written descriptions of each of a species’ song types, illustrated by sound spectrograms and transcribed into a notation system that makes intuitive sense. Similar songs of other species are also described and illustrated, so that the reader is directed to other possibilities, a process hitherto left to the observer’s imagination. Students and beginning birders will find the mnemonics and verbal descriptions memorable, and those of us trying to teach song recognition will find them very helpful.

This is a wonderful book. The many, many photographs are superb, and they illustrate the text clearly and abundantly. The text is concise and broken down into bites that precisely explain each illustration. The authors are to be congratulated for their many insights into the identification of North American wood-warblers, and Princeton University Press for reproducing so many excellent photographs so very crisply.

My only hesitation is that this is a heavy book. It barely fits in the pocket of my field jacket, and then drags my jacket down uncomfortably on that side. My solution is not to carry the book  but to keep it where I can reach it the moment I return to the car or home. In addition, I take careful notes and sketch problematic birds for comparison with Stephenson and Whittle’s information. This process increases not just the value of my field notes, but also my learning.

In sum, The Warbler Guide is a wonderful reference. I enthusiastically recommend it for the traveling library of every birder—and for the large pockets of the largest birders.


– Edward H. (Jed) Burtt, Jr., has been watching birds since the age of two. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin and is now Cincinnati Conference Professor of Zoology at Ohio Wesleyan University. The Carnegie Endowment’s Ohio Professor of 2011, Burtt received the Wilson Ornithological Society’s Margaret Morse Nice Medal in 2013.

Recommended citation:

Burtt, E. 2013. Charismatic, Colorful, Diverse [a review of The Warbler Guide, by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle]. Birding 45(5):67.