Friday 30 March 2007

So Many Raptors - So Many Books

I enjoy watching raptors. Anyone who knows me would have easily guessed so as raptors are birds and I like or sometimes even really like birds.
But raptors are special: big, impressive, diverse, migrating around and showing up where you don't expect them to, some are easy to identify while others are a challenge, there's much we still need to find out about their identification, ...
In short: they offer everything one happy birder could ask for from a group of birds.

It is therefore not surprising that I am in good company regarding my relationship towards raptors and where there's a marked, there are products.

And frankly, I am surprised about the number of raptor-specific products, in this case books, that are out on the marked.
Having just shifted my roost site from Germany to the US, I didn't take many books with me and don't own too many books on North American birds just yet. However, I have a nice book store just across the street with a fine selection of bird books which I sometimes visit and use as a library, so I do feel a small obligation of mentioning it here: hurrah to Borders and their nice little cafe where you can drink some coffee and actually read in the books they have on stock.

With so many books on North American raptors around, it sure is difficult to decide upon which book to get and so I thought I might try and write some useful lines about the different books, what I think their respective qualities are and what I would think is the appropriate book for the different "interest groups" within the birding community. The following lines therefore are not really reviews, more a few thoughts.

A Field Guide To Hawks of North America by W. S. Clark and B. K. Wheeler

This is the classic identification guide for the Hawk enthusiasts and a standard reference written by two of the leading experts on the subject, so the content in itself, the knowledge which is conveyed, is very good.
It is a small volume that is easy to carry around out in the field and the binding seems to be robust enough to allow for frequent and rough use outside.
Even though it is a standard reference, I was not very happy with it in several respects. Most importantly, I am not very impressed with the colour plates. The birds seem rather chubby and somewhat compressed along their middle axis, and the plates appear as if they were drawn on a square sheet of paper and then squeezed into the rectangular shape of the book. Wheeler is an amazing photographer and surely a top ace in raptor expertise and his bird drawing abilities are also very good, but the plates just don't completely satisfy my expectations in what is supposed to be a leading book on Hawk identification. Furthermore, the whole layout of the book - like in the other books in the series - is not very attractive or pleasing to the eye. It is small and appears crowded, which is surely a big advantage when carrying it around in the field, but makes for difficult reading and is not nice when looking at the plates or photographs.
In my opinion, this book therefore is for someone who already is really into raptor watching and doesn't need to have his enthusiasm increased by a nice-to-look-at book, who is simply interested in facts that go beyond the standard Sibley guides but does not want to work their way through the extensive knowledge presented in the Raptor Guides by B. K. Wheeler (see below). But if you're just starting to develop an interest in raptors, this book might be a bit dry...

Hawks From Every Angle - How to identify raptors in flight by Jerry Liguori
I like this book quite a lot. Its layout is very nice and attractive, it is a pleasure to look at and browsing through the plates is a joy, especially the introduction is very neat.
The knowledge presented and the book's content in general is not as extensive as in the Clark & Wheeler guide described above, e.g. not all North American species are treated (only the 39 most commonly encountered species, which is fine in the East but may be a bit of a problem for birders in Arizona or southern Texas) and the information on subspecific identification and the variation of the species is more limited. A true and established raptor enthusiast might therefore see this book as a nice addition to their book collection but not as the one and only reference on raptor identification in North America. But this is a great book for someone who's just getting started on raptors and needs a little pleasure boost, a very nice book to read at home and gain an appreciation for raptors.
The format of the book however is not so convenient for use in the field as it is quite large and has a square shape, hence not easily fitting into a pocket. Also the binding appears to me as being a bit critical when using the book often.
All in all, this is a very attractive book for someone who is enthusiastic about raptors and likes reading a nice and very well layed-out book but doesn't need the complete set of what we know about raptors down to the variation of the smallest feathers. The really tricky species might still be tricky even when trying to identify them with this book as a guide, but if separating Zone-tailed Hawks from Turkey Vultures at long distances isn't your main concern (yet), this book is highly recommended.
Another short review of this book that basically reaches the same conclusions can be found here.

Hawks in Flight by Peter Dunne, David Sibley and Clay Sutton
This book has only one major problem: it was written in 1988. Its main focus is on the most commonly encountered migrating raptors (as with the book by Liguori described above, but only covering 23 species here) and not all the species found in North America are included. The black-and-white drawings by Sibley are very good and accurate but unfortunately - well - are in black and white which today is not what one expects in a field guide as humans tend to possess colour vision and want to see in a book what they can see in nature. Also included are many photographs but sadly, these too are in black and white and yet again not what today's raptor enthusiasts want.
The text however is very well written and focuses nicely on the identification challenges. It does not include descriptions of variation as long as it doesn't affect species identification and is therefore not as detailed as the guide by Clark & Wheeler.
I feel that with the publication of the Liguori guide, this book might not be an absolute necessity for raptor identification anymore as the Liguori guide appears in many respects like an updated version of this guide (and it might not be a coincidence that Sibley wrote the foreword). This book therefore is surely worth possessing as you can never own enough identification guides, but I would not rank it as a high priority book (anymore).

Raptors of Eastern North America by B. K. Wheeler
I have already written an extensive review on this book, which can be found here. I'll make it shorter this time.
This and its western counterpart must be the ultimate raptor guides to North America. Wheelers photos are stunning and the text provides an exhaustive or sometimes even exhausting amount of information.
This book however is aimed at the real passionate raptor watcher and is not an easy read for a couch evening at home or a companion for a nice birdwatching day on the weekend. This is heavy stuff that you need to dig into to understand, and I am not pretending I do, even after a few months of handling it frequently.
If you are a raptor hardliner, then this book is probably as essential as gills are to a fish. However, if you are relatively new to raptor watching and are about to develop your knowledge and enthusiasm, this might really scare you off a bit with all the discussions about colour morphs, sexual dimorphism, ageing criteria and subspecies. This is also not really a book you would consult out in the field while you are watching an as yet unidentified raptor. The detail requires a certain amount of time reading through, so it is more a volume to consult at home when checking your notes or going through the photographs you took of a mystery raptor.
So unless your next goal in raptor watching is finding the Krider's morph of Red-tailed Hawk or investigating the exact borders between the distribution of the different subspecies of Red-shouldered Hawks in the south-eastern US, this book might not make you entirely happy.
If this is where you want to be with your raptor watching, then this guide is essential.

There is yet another guide by B. K. Wheeler and W. S. Clark, A Photographic Guide to North American Raptors.

This is a book I have unfortunately never held in my hands so there's nothing profound I can say about it.
I only found these reviews on, and from these as well as the "look inside" function I gather that this is something like the condensed version of the two Wheeler guides, focused entirely on identification criteria and containing all the species of North America.
It is a bit unfortunate that the excerpts made available through amazon are the chapters on Turkey and Black Vultures as they are easily identified. I find them a bit short and the lack of distribution maps not nice, even though the range is described within the text. Maybe other species are treated in more detail.
As it is written by Wheeler and Clark, it must surely be a very good book, but I am not convinced by what I have seen. The concept of the book seems to hover between the exhaustive Wheeler Guide and a short practical field guide but its hybrid character may actually not satisfy in any of these two categories. But as I said, I have not really seen it and as it's been written by two fabulous authors, it is probably much, much better than my short and basic impression based on an Internet search might suggest. It might indeed be a very good photographic supplement to other field guides on raptors and best be used in combination with these.

These are the North American field guides I know myself or have heard of / read about.
There's another nice book on raptors for the enthusiast which covers all the species of the world:

Raptors of the World by James Ferguson-Lees and David A. Christie.
This is a book from the "What if" category:
You sit on your sofa one cosy evening, garb a book and go on a journey. "What if - I went to ... hmmmm, let's see, yeah, Costa Rica now, wait, make that Uruguay. What kinds of raptors would I see there and where else do they occur where I might one day want to travel to..." And so you start browsing through the pages and imagine you'd be at some remote jungle lodge in the Kongo (way past Uruguay) and would try and figure out what next to set out for to see. About 4 species of raptors are presented per double page, with the plates to the right and a few lines of text and a distribution map to the left. All species are shown perched and in flight and - mostly - immature and adult plumage is depicted. The quality of the plates varies a bit as different painters contributed to the book, but is pretty good in general. You will not want to rely on this book to identify a raptor in North America or anywhere on this planet because it is much too short and basic for this. This is more a book that demonstrates or rather celebrates the global wealth and diversity of raptors and offers a basic understanding of their biogeography by placing the maps besides the plates. If that's what you want, you'll be quite happy with this. If you really need an identification guide for North America, don't buy it for that purpose, you'll be disappointed.

OK, there you have it and to sum things up, my final recommendation:

Own them all, raptors are worth it!

Incidentally, as I am finishing this post, I have just gotten back from a short stroll through the Arb in Ann Arbor, with 5 Red-tailed Hawks, a Red-shouldered Hawk, a bunch of Turkey Vultures and a Peregrine.
Nice stuff...


Rurality said...

We've only got the older versions of the Peterson book and the Photographic Guide to NAR book. That last one did help us when we made a trip to Texas several years ago. I am not good at IDing hawks at all! But we just happened to wander up on the Hawk watch during fall migration at Hazel Bazemore park in Corpus Christi when we were in TX. That was really something!

Anonymous said...

I own all of them except for the last one.. one can NEVER have too many guides.. that's my story and I'm sticking to it ;)
I hope to meet with you in Ann Arbor during my treatments someday.. thing is I can't walk far nor well and I don't think the hospital would let me borrow a wheelchair :) I always enjoy your posts!

(and speaking of hawk watches, have you made it up to Whitefish Point yet? a MUST for migrating raptors)

Jochen said...

Hi Cindy, hi Rurality,
if you can comment (some more) on the photographic guide, this would be really great!
The moe the merrier.

Rurality said...

In the front they've got a nice page devoted to bird "parts" with arrows indicating what they mean (wing panel, gape, scapulars, etc.). I appreciate that because I don't bird enough nowdays to use that in everyday conversation.

For each species they list descriptions of the bird, tell how juveniles are different, and mention the "best field marks". Then they list similar species and descibe the differences. Then the best part... photos from several different angles, both in flight and perched.

For species that have a lot of different "looks" they try to show pics for all... There are 16 pages of photos for red-tailed hawk, for example. 5 1/2 pages of pics for Bald Eagle.

There is no description of behavior at all though. For longtime birders I suppose it's old hat but we definitely had this book as rank amateurs and I think it would have helped.

In the back there is a section on "Raptor Identification Problems". Sharp-shinned vs Cooper's Hawks, Perched pale-headed buteos, Perched juvenile large falcons, etc.

Hope that helps!

Jochen said...

Thanks very much Rurality, it does help very much!
Gosh, I love blogging!!