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The Naturalist's Journal: The Warbler Guide is grad school for warbler fans

July 22, 2013

A yellow warbler in perfect spring breeding plumage. (Photo: Bruce Fellman)

Bird watchers are a passionate enough lot, but among fanciers of all things avian, a group of birds collectively known as the warblers inspires a devotion that often borders on the fanatical. No one should be surprised.

In the groundbreaking book, “A Field Guide to the Birds,” über-birder Roger Tory Peterson referred to warblers as “the butterflies of the bird world” and characterized them as “brightly-colored mites.” Other writers have called them “avian jewels,” and every spring, warblers are the birds that drive many people to drop everything in favor of getting out at dawn and spending the rest of the day in pursuit of these splendid creatures.
I’ve been there and done that, but, I and my colleagues will readily admit, it can be a frustrating endeavor. Not only are warblers, even in their spring finery, so energetic that they’re often hard to pinpoint, but some species are actually quite drab and, of course, doubly hard to pinpoint. And as far as catching them as they migrate back through our area, in late summer and early autumn, from the northern boreal forest nurseries, well, it’s in the nature of things for the jewels to lose their lustre—and for the “confusing fall warblers,” as they’re known, to cause birders to become philosophical. “You should not attempt to do much with them until you have mastered the spring warblers,” counseled Peterson. “If at the end of ten years of field work you can say you know the fall warblers you are doing very well.”
Ten years, at the very least, is a long time, but before you shrug your shoulders in resignation, I have a bit of information I’d like to share: information that can help you take years off your journey towards achieving mastery.
Navigate to your favorite bookstore, be it brick and mortar or online, and pick up a copy of The Warbler Guide, by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle (Princeton University Press, $29.95). You’ll also want to order The Warbler Guide Song and Call Companion, which features audio files, in MP3 format, of all the vocalizations—there are more than 1,000 examples—in the book.
If you’re a warbler aficionado, this is, quite simply, the best 36 bucks you’ll ever invest. Stephenson and Whittle have produced a visually and aurally spectacular book—the first, and, just maybe, the last word on these intoxicating birds, at least for the foreseeable future. If previous guides get you into college, this one will take you all the way through graduate school. The Warbler Guide is your passport to a birding PhD.
“I’ve spent lots of time birding outside the U.S. and I quickly discovered that no guide gave me the sense of completeness that I needed,” said co-author Tom Stephenson, a birding-trip guide who is also a fine photographer, a wizard with sound equipment—he recently retired as director of technology at the Roland Corporation—and a percussionist and classical cellist who once toured with the Grateful Dead. (“I’m lucky I’m not deaf,” he told me in a phone interview.)
“I wanted to create a guide that worked like the way good birders bird—a real world guide,” added Scott Whittle, a professional photographer who, in contrast to Stephenson’s nearly lifelong avian love-affair, has only been at it for less than ten years. “I have a kind of advantage, since I’m closer to the learning process of beginners.”
The goal, when the two colleagues got together a couple of years ago to craft the book, was to provide a guide that would be universally accessible—”something everyone can use,” said Whittle.
And while this might not have been a deliberate intention, the birders also wound up putting together something revolutionary. A couple of years ago, I wrote about a new guide by British writer and photographer Richard Crossley—a book that featured lots of different photographic views of birds instead of the traditional, and revolutionary in its day, illustrations and arrows pointing to one or two key identification characteristics: the hallmark of the Peterson system. The Warbler Guide represents the next step in the Crossleyfication of bird books—and of learning to identify birds.
“Those arrows could also be blinders,” said Stephenson. “They could steer you in the direction of not paying attention to other things that could be equally useful for identification purposes.”
Once you’ve worked your way—and this book does require study—through the Guide’s 560 pages and the Audio Companion, you will have every conceivable one of those “other things” at your disposal. And you will also have learned how to be a more complete birder, whatever group interests you.
After a brief introduction and orientation, the Guide starts with a topographic tour of relevant warbler feathering, from the tail to the lores (the plumage between the eyes and the bill). The authors then go into more detail, in a section called “What to Look for in a Warbler”: contrast and color; size, shape, habitat, and behavior; the face; the body; and the undertail. This last part alone may be worth the price of admission, and a great example of the book’s nod to real-world birding. All too often, as any warbler aficionado will tell you, a fleeting glimpse of the underside of the tail is all you get.
There follows a section that explores a particularly challenging aspect of identification: aging and sexing warblers. And then, there’s what I consider the pièce de résistance — and a part of the book that distinguishes it from anything else out there: a beautiful explanation of how to listen to bird song and use it as an identification tool. Instead of offering the tried-and-alas-only-semi-true transliterations of songs, Stephenson and Whittle use sonograms, unambiguous audio spectrograms or voiceprints. I use these all the time, and, in fact, I create them from recordings I make. But despite my experience, I still find them hard to use by themselves.
After working through the “How to Listen” section, I’m not having that problem anymore, and since the collection of sounds to listen for includes chip and flight calls—vocalizations that are rarely covered in most books—you’ll have all the aural information you can possibly need to make IDs when you can only hear warblers but not see them, which is to say, most of the time.
There follows a section of quick finders, organized by sight then sound. After using these, you’ll then be ready to jump into the individual species profiles, which include myriad distinctive views, comparisons with species that are similar in some way, aging and sexing tips, and sonograms keyed to the Audio Companion.
There’s even, in the back, a series of quizzes to help you review all you’ve learned.
“Birders often don’t have all the pieces they need to link together into an identification,” said Stephenson. With The Warbler Guide, now they do.
A Note to Readers: I’ll be doing another column or two on this book and its authors—both fascinating gentlemen—in the not-too-distant future: probably around migration time as the “confusing fall warblers” pass by during the day and night. But I need to note, in the interest of full disclosure, that the Princeton University Press provided me with a free review copy of the book and the audio guide. They did not, however, pay me to write anything, require an advance look at the column, or set me up with my own bookstore. In other words, my views are my own—and my view is that this is definitely a Guide to get, use, and savor.


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