Summer, by which I mean true summer and not just that fallow period after spring migration subsides, is finally upon us. In many parts of the world, summer means shorebirds, a prospect that inspires equal parts excitement and trepidation. This loose organization of sandpipers, phalaropes, lapwings, plovers, oystercatchers, stilts, and avocets represents a little more than 2% of the world’s known bird species, with a mere quarter of these, some 50 species, found breeding regularly in North America. Yet, the identification challenges that some of these cryptic, variable, inscrutable avians pose probably drive more people screaming from bird watching than any other aspect of our fine avocation. Shorebirds, in a nutshell, can be maddening. However, thanks to The Shorebird Guide, they don’t have to remain so.
The Shorebird Guide by Michael O’Brien, Richard Crossley, and Kevin Karlson, is a mighty work, nearly 500 pages of concentrated wisdom regarding the 47 domestic and 44 rare, regional, or accidental North American shorebird species. This tome addresses the lunacy of identifying shorebirds primarily by plumage by eschewing the process entirely. For those unfamiliar with the aforementioned insanity, consider what renders shorebird classification so challenging. These birds are neither elusive nor unpredictable. Massive mixed flocks typically arrive with uncanny regularity at established feeding or breeding grounds on seashores, lakefronts, riverbanks, or wetlands. Fairly insensible to human activity, they conduct their slow and steady business out in the open, rarely obstructed by anything taller than a sand castle. Shorebirds will pose all day for your scope or camera, but their accommodation will avail you naught if you lack an ornithologist’s education in advanced plumage patterns. Most shorebirds assume a different demeanor twice a year through the molting process, starting with juvenal plumage and progressing through formative, first alternate, second basic, etc., etc. If you can distinguish between the fruits of a preformative and a prealternate molt when observing Calidris-species sandpipers in winter, you probably acquit yourself quite well while shorebirding. We mortals, however, could really stand a different approach.
The Shorebird Guide takes its cue from the Cape May School of Birding. Rather than getting hung up on plumage minutia, instructs this guide, observers should focus on giss: “ General Impression of Size and Shape. This is the same holistic style of birding promoted by Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, another impressive identification asset. While a shorebird’s coloration and patterning may be highly variable, its structure, shape, size, and manner will fluctuate little over its lifetime. Focus on these immutable traits, the authors suggest, and you’ll find more pleasure than pain in future shorebird encounters.
This book delivers a powerful visual impact. Though I’m usually partial to illustrations rather than photographs in my field guides, The Shorebird Guide presents the exception that proves the rule. No single photo can effectively impart the essence of a bird, meaning the intangibles of its aspect, while at the same time convey all of the distinguishing field marks and color schemes. The authors ably circumvent this drawback by compiling magnificent collections of breathtaking photos, sometimes ten or more, for each species and subspecies. This 300-page, full-color feast is supplemented by detailed observations on each bird’s status, taxonomy, behavior migration, molt, and vocalizations, but it’s the barrage of images of adults and juveniles in different settings, seasons, and light, birds in action and birds in repose, that really underscores the emphasis on overall impression. Speaking of impressions, this guide makes a great first one with thoughtful touches like a presumably water-resistant cover and an easy access survey of shorebird silhouettes.
To say that The Shorebird Guide meets expectations would be an understatement. What I derived from this book was a sincere desire on the parts of the authors, expert field birders all, to administer so potent and thorough an education through this guide that each reader might, in time, equal their collective ability. For example, peppered throughout the guide are targeted identification quizzes tailored to photos of single or mixed species. The questions are gratifyingly tough, meant to reinforce the importance of holistic observation while encouraging active learning rather than passive perusal of the details. I cannot say that owning this book will allow me to start unerringly differentiating dowitchers or separating sandpipers tomorrow; I’m one of those birders who caught the bug despite, not because of, shorebirds. Still, I’ve never been more confident of the possibility that I might identify these birds correctly, and this optimistic conviction is absolutely attributable to this excellent guide. I recommend The Shorebird Guide to anyone who wants to feel good about encountering shorebirds and, one day, identifying them.