My most recent birding excursion to Guatemala was immensely improved by the addition of two invaluable items. With my new Swarovski SLC 10x42s, I saw so much more than I ever had before. And with Birds of Mexico and Central America by Ber van Perlo, I was able to identify a lot more of what I saw!
My first window into the wonders of the American Neotropics was A Field Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Adjacent Areas: Belize, Guatemala, and El Salvador, Third Edition by Ernest Preston Edwards and Edward Murrell Butler. This book isn’t bad at all as either a resource before the trip or a guide in the field. However, it does not excel in either capacity. As light as this volume may be, it simply isn’t built for the bush, lacking the form factor or durability of a true field guide. The well-thumbed pages and plates in my own book are literally falling out.
Speaking of books better left back at the ecolodge, how does Ber van Perlo’s book compare to the Mesoamerican birding bible, A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America by Steve N.G. Howell and Sophie Webb? Quite well, actually! I’ll lend my voice to the choir (including Corey) that preaches the utter primacy of Howell and Webb’s labor of love when it comes to studying avifuana from Mexico to Nicaragua. But it’s so big. Actually, a more appropriate adjective might be “back-breaking” which is the word that might flash through your mind after you’ve hauled this massive tome up a mountain or two!
As a field guide, which is to say a guide meant to be referenced in the field, Birds of Mexico and Central America excels. In a miracle of efficiency, van Perlo has shoehorned over 1,500 species into just 7.4 x 5 x 0.8 inches. Birds of Mexico and Central America is only a third of the weight of the Howell and Webb yet covers a wider area, including bird-dense Costa Rica and Panama in its purview. Its 98 color plates include Neotropical residents and migrants with every species earning an individual range map towards the back of the book. The illustrations themselves may not earn kudos from art critics but they invariably convey the essential, although unembellished, field marks of their subjects.
Of course the eminent portability of a guide encompassing all of Mesoamerica demands some concessions. However, I don’t see van Perlo’s limited text as a major trade-off. For example, as I was strolling the pocket gardens of Hotel Toliman on the shore of Guatemala’s Lake Atitlan, I encountered an unfamiliar oriole. Picking through various field marks, I needed simple visual verification of my tentative identification. Fortunately, Birds of Mexico and Central America was stashed comfortably in my camera bag. In mere moments, my life Streak-backed Oriole was confirmed. As this heart-warming anecdote indicates, lengthy ornithological dissertations are superfluous in the field. Give me a decent picture and range map in a well-organized, portable package and I’m all set.
To truly anticipate and understand the birds of an unfamiliar region demands a holistic immersion into reference texts, field guides, bird calls, and trip lists. Such painstaking research pays off in spades once you’ve actually encountered the objects of your obsession. Yet, when that auspicious moment arrives, you won’t have a library of books to thumb through; you probably won’t even have internet access. If you’re anywhere in Central America, however, and have the foresight to carry Birds of Mexico and Central America by Ber van Perlo, you’ll be in excellent shape!
(And if Birds of Mexico and Central America is indicative of the quality and utility of the Princeton Illustrated Checklist series, I look forward to picking up the rest of the line…)
I am extremely fond of Ber van Perlo’s artwork. It does look very basic and rough at first e.g. when compared to other field guides, but his paintings are indeed very accurate and he captures the birds’ general / facial impressions (their “jizz”) surprisingly well.
While travelling through southern Africa, I used the SASOL guide (as everyone does) and only bought van Perlo’s book while I was there because of the principle that one cannot own enough field guides.
I thought at first that it was nothing but a “collector’s item” for the shelf. To my surprise however I inevitably found van Perlo’s illustrations captured the bird best when I had a tricky one – which in southern Africa means a lark or cisticola – in front of me!!
Unfortunately, van Perlo – as far as I know – only publishes what one might best describe as illustrated check-lists of huge areas. He therefore has an enormous number of birds on every page, the text is quite short and to my worst dismay the distribution maps are in the back of the book. Due to this, I find it a field guide that’s sadly very difficult to use out in the field. I personally really, really need/want maps facing the illustrations.
Hopefully, van Perlo will eventually start to publish more detailled “propper” field guides. But until then, his guides are at the very least a more than valuable addition to a region’s regular field guides and due to their small format and little weight, it is no problem at all to take them along as a second reference.
So I can full-heartedly echo your opinion: good stuff!
I think it is “whole-heartedly” in English? Geez…
I have used Van Perlo’s book in Panama, Honduras and Nicaragua. The last two countries do not have guides proper dealing with their birds. I ordered Ber Van Perlo’s book as soon as it was published (hard and soft covers, one for field and other for library) and fell in love with the book. Just what I needed. As a kid I used L. Irby Davis’ Field Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Central America (illustrates all birds not occuring in USA but found from Mexico through Panama). Also love this book for personal reasons but BVP’s book has all, migrants included. Easy to carry and recommendable. His illustrated checklist of Birds of Brazil is coming out in August. I also own all of his African books and the one he illustrated for South Asia. I hear he will also have one on Oceania coming out in 2011. If you are going out to bird in Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua especially (Belize, Costa Rica and Panama have excellent field guides) take this book.
Don’t forget Gary Stiles’ Birds of Costa Rica