When it comes to bird families whose members are tricky to learn to identify, gulls and warblers would likely be near the top of most any bird watcher’s list. However while gulls do present the challenges of multi-year plumage cycles and frequent identity-confounding hybridizations, they are fairly large, often lethargic birds that can commonly be approached and observed for lengthy periods of time. Warblers, on the other hand, are very small feathered darts that even when they do perch to glean are rarely stationary for more than a second or two. Yet while a number of books have been published on learning to identify gulls, warblers have generally been treated as simply another family to puzzle out like the rest included in field guides.

Which is why bird watchers in the U.S. and Canada should be exceptionally glad to learn of the publication of The Warbler Guide from Princeton University Press. Written by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle – both accomplished birders as well as highly respected birding guides – and illustrated by Catherine Hamilton, this new 560 page tome is wholly dedicated to the identification of the 56 species of warblers that it is possible to see in mainland North America north of the U.S. – Mexico border.

As the old saying goes about teaching a man to fish versus simply giving him one, so Stephenson and Whittle have structured The Warbler Guide to teach their readers how to identify warblers rather than simply providing them with rote identifications. Indeed, this book is not so much a field guide as it is a course on warbler identification delivered in printed (or in the case of the eBook, electronic) form. Indeed, the first fifth of the book is entirely given over to fieldcraft-related matters such as how to look at a warbler and how to listen to their vocalizations. These two very important sections are then followed by impressionistically arranged, double page “Visual Finder Guides” depicting images of all 56 included species from key perspectives – including the all-important under side view – and concluding with multiple pages of vocalization “Finder” sonograms.

Once all the general information about identifying warblers has been communicated – and it is important that it not be skipped by readers eager to get to the species accounts for it includes vital information about how to get the most from the way the authors have best seen fit to structure those accounts – the detailed description and depictions of each included warbler species begins. The species accounts are arranged, for reasons the authors clearly explain, not according to taxonomy but alphabetically by common name in a main section followed by a smaller auxiliary section in which those few included species not regularly occurring north of the U.S. – Mexico border but which are noted with sufficient frequency (i.e., Crescent-chested Warbler, Fan-tailed Warbler, etc.) to justify their presence in the book.

Lavishly supplemented with a host of photographs depicting the variations in plumage associated with age, sex, and season, each species account is headed with a row of very clever icons that allow the reader quickly to reference the essentials of the species at hand. Most impressive of these are the (Charley) Harper-esque color impression diagrams that simplify each species down to an tailed oval divided into appropriately colored sections that instantly convey the visual gist of the bird at even the briefest glance.

As one of the key skills to learn in the identification of warblers is the ability to identify their various vocalizations, The Warbler Guide devotes considerable space to this topic. Employing a range of instructional tools from impressionistic verbal phrases explaining each song to a host of sonograms visually depicting all songs, chip, and flight calls (which for the benefit of those unfamiliar with interpreting such seemingly cryptic graphics, they clearly explain), the authors call upon every practical method of communicating to the reader an understanding of the often bewildering array of sounds these little birds can make. In fact, they go even further than a conventional printed book’s pages allow, in that they have also created through the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library the The Warbler Guide Song and Call Companion, a downloadable collection (sold for a small additional charge) of more than a thousand sound files that are matched sequentially to the page number of each sonogram depicted in the book.

And if that wasn’t sufficient to secure The Warbler Guide’s position as the preëminent source for learning to identify the warbler species to be found within its designated geographic area, Princeton University Press has let it slip that there are plans for a smartphone app based on the guide. Details about the app are still sketchy, however given the authors’ thorough treatment of their subject in the book and the audio companion, expectations and hopes are understandably high for what this future app may contain.

There is, of course, much more that could be written about The Warbler Guide; the inclusion, for example, of a number of brief non-warbler species profiles with images and commentary about why each one might be mistaken for a particular warbler when seen in the field, or the very helpful “Quiz and Review” exercises that present the reader with photos of birds in difficult-to-identify plumages or positions that the authors then explain, step by step, how the identity of each might be determined. Indeed, it might even be pointed out that while the book is not primarily intended as a field guide in either the arrangement of its content or in its physical size, the fact that Princeton University Press has seen fit to print it on hard finished, heavy stock paper and bind it in a durable “flexibound” cover makes it every bit up to the rigors of being toted into the field. However by this time the point should have been more than sufficiently made: if learning to identify warblers more effectively and accurately is something you wish to do, this is the book you need in order to accomplish your goal.

Warbler Guide 300hTitle: The Warbler Guide

Authors: Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle, drawings by Catherine Hamilton

Publisher: Princeton University Press

Imprint: Princeton University Press

Format: Paper Flexibound, eBook

ISBN: 9780691154824 (paper flexibound), 9781400846863 (eBook)

Pages: 560 pp.

Date of Publication: 2013

Supplementary Media:

In accordance with Federal Trade Commission 16 CFR Part 255, it is disclosed that the copy of the book read in order to produce this review was provided gratis to the reviewer by the publisher.

This review was originally published in the November / December 2013 edition of Bird Watcher’s Digest.