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
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Written by Corey
Corey is a New Yorker who lived most of his life in upstate New York but has lived in Queens since 2008. He's only been birding since 2005 but has garnered a respectable life list by birding whenever he wasn't working as a union representative or spending time with his family. He lives in Forest Hills with Daisy, their son, Desmond Shearwater, and their indoor cat, B.B. His bird photographs have appeared on the Today Show, in Birding, Living Bird Magazine, Bird Watcher's Digest, and many other fine publications. He is also the author of the American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of New York.