For the Birds Radio Program: Book Review: Stokes Field Guide to Warblers

Original Air Date: April 19, 2004

Laura gives this one a thumbs up. (5:14) Date confirmed.

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Stokes Field Guide to Warblers

Now that May is fast approaching, the most wonderful weeks of the year for many birdwatchers are about to begin. Already the first warblers have arrived in big numbers on the Texas coast and are heading north. Many people in Wisconsin and Minnesota have already spotted their first Yellow-rumped Warblers of the year, and an early and out-of-place Yellow-throated Warbler spent several days at a park in Madison, Wisconsin. Suddenly birders are filled with the joyful anticipation of seeing waves of these beautiful and diminutive songbirds filling our trees on their way north.

As the first warblers are just arriving, birdwatchers are brushing up on warbler identification skills. Pulling out warbler recordings to listen to in the car or while doing housework is one useful preparation. The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology put together an excellent set of warbler recordings, simply titled Warblers, currently available only on cassette. Another choice, available on cassette or compact disc, is the eastern edition of the Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs. This set includes the songs or calls of most bird species of eastern North America, with at least two or three song samples for every warbler found in the east; listening to the warbler section serves as an excellent refresher.

Most field guides include all the warblers. Unfortunately, one series of guides for single states include only a handful of the many warblers possible. When we encounter warblers during migration, they may be in any habitat, and very often associate with different species. A single warbler flock may include five, ten, or even more species of warblers, so the field guides we use to identify them need to be inclusive.

Warblers are so colorful and varied, and yet challenging, that many people concentrate their birding on them in May. To this end, there is a Peterson field guide devoted entirely to them, which is an excellent reference, but is actually thicker than the Peterson guide to ALL the birds! For those who are just beginning to learn warblers, or want a quick and simple refresher or a small, easily used field guide that includes all the warblers, the brand new Stokes Field Guide to Warblers has just arrived on the scene.

This is a photographic guide, but manages to fit four photos of a single species on most pages, facing a description, wonderfully detailed range maps that include the migration patterns and dates, and often a detailed drawing of the undertail pattern—extremely useful not only because sometimes this can be diagnostic for identifying a particular species, but because many of our glimpses at these dynamic birds are from below. Each species account also includes some behavior and habitat notes, helpful not only in identifying the birds, but also in enriching our understanding of them. The book is organized by color, but because some warblers have more than one obvious color, several species appear in more than one color section.

There’s a helpful though brief section at the beginning that shows the groups of birds most easily confused with warblers—kinglets, gnatcatchers, and vireos. If I were writing this book, I would have used smaller photos here so I could include both kinglets, and add the Blue-headed and White-eyed Vireos, since I’ve been with plenty of beginning and intermediate birders who have mistaken all of these for warblers, but it’s a small omission in a slender book packed with so much helpful information.

Don and Lillian Stokes have long specialized in providing user-friendly books and recordings for beginners, with enough depth and information for more advanced birders as well. And they encourage birders to go beyond mere identification to learning more about the habits of each species. They are also staunch conservationists, and so they include a section at the end with a summary of each species’ conservation status.

All in all, the Stokes Field Guide to Warblers is a treasure, filled with beautiful photos that will motivate its readers to get out there to find these avian jewels, provide the skills we need to figure out which is which, and help us savor each one. It would make a lovely gift in a May basket.