American Birding Podcast



Understanding Rarity

A review by Graham Etherington

Rare Birds of North America, by Steve N.G. Howell, Ian Lewington, and Will Russell

Princeton University Press, 2014

428 pages, $35.00hardcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 14102

Rare birds: everybody loves ’em. Whether it’s the wonder that you feel on seeing a bird that’s managed to survive a cross-ocean journey it wasn’t supposed to make, or that feeling of immense achievement in actually finding and identifying your own rare bird, there can’t be many people in the birding world who can say they’re not interested in rarities.

While Europeans are used to having field guides dedicated specifically to rare birds, Rare Birds of North America is the first such book to cover the whole of this continent. After the (now seemingly obligatory) section “How to use this book,” Rare Birds begins with a 41-page Introduction. Normally, I’d flick through these pages, find nothing of real interest, and then move on to the main body of the book.

But this introduction is different.

It starts by explaining what makes a bird “rare” and why certain species are included or excluded here. The authors then proceed to talk about migration and vagrancy, discussing different avian navigation systems and the distances a migrant bird can cover, before setting forth seven different types of vagrancy. They discuss the likely origins of vagrants, including probable arrival routes, before finishing with a thorough discussion of molt and aging in the various families of birds involved in vagrancy to North America.

That last discussion is a taste of things to come: it is here that we see the first of Ian Lewington’s paintings, illustrating the topography of birds from different families and demonstrating contrasting molt patterns and strategies. The attention to detail in these initial plates is breathtaking, and their quality sets the tone for the rest of the book. These illustrations are second to none, better than those found in any American field guide, and Lewington’s feather-perfect drawings come alive in the book’s main section, the species accounts.

Those accounts cover 262 species defined by the authors as rare in North America. While such relatively frequently encountered birds as the Brambling and the Ruddy Ground-Dove are excluded by the book’s understanding of “rarity,” certain other borderline species are included because they represent identification challenges in North America.

BINbuttonThe text of each account is broken down into sections, the first of which summarizes the status of the bird. The amount of detail given here varies for practical reasons. For example, while both of the US records of the Stygian Owl are listed, there are too many Little Stint records to tally individually; instead, the book notes the status of that species in Alaska, where it is found most frequently, and then, in greater detail, in the regions where it is much rarer.

For obvious reasons, Rare Birds deals in considerable detail with the taxonomy of the birds included. Some of the birds treated here comprise quite a large number of forms of uncertain taxonomic status, among them the “wandering” albatrosses and the sand plovers.

Equally interesting is the section in each species account headed simply “Comments,” where the authors provide their own analysis of patterns of vagrancy. Where a European species has also been recorded as a vagrant in Iceland, Greenland, or the Azores, those records are used to advance speculation about the bird’s occurrence in North America. One recurring suggestion is that many spring vagrants are in fact fall vagrants returning north, which raises the question of where those birds have wintered. In fact, after recent events we should perhaps be asking how many more Little Buntings are hiding away in coastal meadows or sheltered valleys!

Many readers will devote most of their attention to the identification discussions. For many vagrants, such as the Common Moorhen, European Golden-Plover, and Kamchatka Leaf-Warbler, the focus here is on distinguishing a true rarity from similar, more abundant North American species. These discussions also provide plumage descriptions across different ages, sexes, and seasons; those descriptions are naturally terse for species showing little variation, such as the Hornby’s Storm-Petrel, Fieldfare, Eurasian Wryneck, and pipits, but other, more variable species are accorded much more attention. These identification sections incorporate vast amounts of information from the most up-to-date articles on the topic. The write-ups for species such as the Hen Harrier, Pterodroma petrels, sand plovers, and large gulls are probably the best to be found in any guide available anywhere.

Each species account ends with a section entitled Habitat and Behavior, including a description of the bird’s vocalizations. Calls are among the most important identification characters for such difficult species as some of the Old World pipits and warblers, and I was surprised to find vocalizations relegated to this inconspicuous place rather than being included more prominently in the Field Identification section.

I should point out that while authors Russell and (British-born) Howell would probably consider the USA as their home, Ian Lewington is a native and resident of Oxfordshire, England. You might wonder why the authors teamed up with a British artist and not an American one. First, this is, by definition, a book about birds that do not usually occur in North America. Over 100 of the 262 species covered in the book originate or are found regularly in northwest Europe, with most of the other species occurring in regions where Lewington is well traveled and experienced.

Second, one glance at the illustrations will show why the authors picked Lewington as their artistic collaborator. I touched on the quality of the plates earlier, but I’ve purposely left a more thorough assessment of them for now. I really could run out of superlatives to describe these plates: “breath-taking,” “mouth-watering,” “stunning,” and “awe-inspiring” are just a few that come to mind. Lewington’s paintings excel in two aspects.

The first is the feather-perfect attention to detail, apparent early on in the book in Lewington’s Garganey and Baikal Teal. It’s common for field guides to include nice illustrations of male waterfowl but to treat the females almost as an afterthought. If anything, it’s the other way around in this book, with an admirable amount of detail put into the mottled body feathers and the subtleties of the head patterns of female and juvenile ducks. Then there’s the  plate illustrating in great detail the differences in the scapulars, coverts, and tertials of the American and Asian peeps and stints. The intricate detail of Lewington’s Old World flycatchers, warblers, pipits, and buntings introduces subtlety and verve into what in so many other books look like nothing but “little brown jobs.”

The second admirable aspect of Lewington’s illustrations is how life-like many of them are. The storm-petrels, eagles, falcons, sand plovers, cuckoos, chats, and thrushes really are a sight to behold. Some of the birds look like they’re about to hop off the page! And the good news doesn’t stop there. Ian Lewington is also working on a field guide to all the birds of North America, so fans of his art might think of this book as an appetite-whetter.

Who is Rare Birds for? It’s not a field guide in the traditional sense. Ten inches high and weighing more than two and a half pounds, this is a book you’d think twice about carrying around all day, even if you are birding on Attu. There’s no denying, though, that the identification texts here are probably the most advanced ever produced in a North American guide. This is an invaluable reference, more at home on your bookshelf or on the dinner table during a birding trip than in your day-pack.

The book’s value is not limited to American birders. There’s a lot of great information here for the European audience, too. The informative comparisons between the Common Moorhen and Common Gallinule, Gray and Great Blue Herons, and Common and Wilson’s Snipe are probably better than in any European guide. I’ll certainly be checking the extent of the red on the frontal shield of any Gallinula that I see on The Isles of Scilly from now on!

Howell, Lewington. and Russell have done a fantastic job with this book. The illustrations, the detailed identification texts, and the original thought presented here make Rare Birds of North America a “must-have” for the discerning birder.

Graham Etherington

 – Graham Etherington is a computational biologist in the area of comparative genomics. He lives in Norwich, England, where he can usually be found looking for rare birds on the Norfolk coast or driving the short seven-hour round trip to watch his beloved football (soccer) team, Stoke City.

Recommended citation:

Etherington, G. 2014. Understanding Rarity [a review of Rare Birds of North America, by Steve N.G. Howell, Ian Lewington, and Will Russell]. Birding 46 (4): 58.