If you have any plans to bird Mesoamerica you need to purchase A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America posthaste. The two who put the guide together, Steve Howell, who did the text, and Sophie Webb, who did the plates, spent over seven years on the project and the expertise that they gained bursts from every page! One can often tell how much effort has been put into a book by looking at the acknowledgments page, or, in this case, acknowledgments pages, because it takes Webb and Howell over two pages to thank everyone! So this book took a ton of effort to create, is loaded with information, and some of the finest minds in birding helped in one way or another.
Though the field guide as a whole is over one thousand pages long there are only 71 plates, each of which feature quite a few birds (which they must as the guide covers Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras and western Nicaragua). While in Honduras I noticed that several of the birders on the trip had actually cut the plates from the field guide and rebound them so as to be able to have the illustrations in the field without the size and weight of the whole field guide (it is rather heavy). I just hope that they kept the remainder of the guide because the range maps are with the species accounts, and the species accounts themselves are well-written and often provide behavioral clues that might make the difference in an identification. The species accounts also include descriptions of quite a few birds that are not pictured on the plates, mostly species that only winter in Central America and are easily found in North American field guides.
As for the organization of the plates, well, the birds are arranged mostly taxonomically, with the woodpeckers all with other woodpeckers, and the hummingbirds with all the other hummingbirds, etc. There are, however, three plates at the end of the illustrations that are arranged geographically. That is, one is just for the species that are endemic to small islands in the area covered by the guide and two for “Central American Species.” It is unclear why the authors chose to just isolate just these two categories from the general taxonomic order they follow in the rest of the book (and why, once they chose to separate out some categories they didn’t include a separate plate for, say, the endemics of the Yucatan).
The plates themselves are gorgeous! My particular favorite is plate 45 which features the jays. The two magpie-jays’ long tails frame the left side of the page and the open-mouthed Brown Jay on the right side reminds me, as the text says, that they are “noisy, obnoxious.” I don’t know how she does it but Sophie Webb even makes the icterid plate interesting, and subtle shape and color cues that are difficult to catch even in a photograph come through on the plate.
Would I recommend this field guide? Absolutely (though I suppose I am just repeating the beginning of the review now)! I would have been much less prepared and much less able to identify what I saw on my trip to Honduras, my first trip to the Neotropics, if I did not own this guide and study it before I went.
Basic book information:
- Paperback: 1010 pages
- Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (April 27, 1995)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0198540124
- ISBN-13: 978-0198540120
- Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.2 x 2.1 inches
Strongly agreed, this is one of the finest and most thorough guides to any avifauna and highly recommended for any visit to any part of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, the western highlands of Honduras, and pacific slope of Nicaragua. Web’s plates are beautiful, and the text is remarkably thorough – altogether a masterpiece.
The only issue one might have in Honduras with this guide is that, intentionally, it does not include illustrations (only written descriptions in an appendix) for species of the Atlantic slope east of San Pedro (with the exception of Moskitia pine savannah habitat) since the avifauna changes and becomes more like that of southern Central America. So if one plans to bird humid Atlantic slope rainforests including such places as Lancetilla, Pico Bonito, the remoter areas of departamento Olancho, Gracias a Dios etc., it is best to carry also another guide such as the Stiles and Skutch Costa Rica guide or the Ridgely Panama guide.
@Austin: Thanks for the information about the geographic coverage…though the guide covered everything I encountered around Pico Bonito (maybe I just didn’t get lucky enough to run into the really, really, rare stuff for the area?). Either way, from what I understand both of the other guides you recommended are pretty good themselves so it can’t hurt to pick them up!
Can anyone tell me what bird is on the cover of Guide to the Birds of Mexico and North Central America? We saw a bunch of these birds in Acapulco but can’t find out the name? They have long blue wings and tail and a white breast with two feathers like bunny ears on their heads
@Carol: Black-throated Magpie Jay
I LIKE THAT BOOK I LEARNED A LOT ABOUT BIRDS FASCINATING