When it comes to states, few are more difficult to approach from a natural history perspective than California. Its long, narrow shape combined with a Pacific Ocean-facing coastline running the entire length of one side join with a variety of eco-regions that range from desert to sub-alpine to create a level of diversity that’s seen in almost no other U.S. or Mexican state, or Canadian province. Indeed, it’s no wonder that California is the only U.S. state to have an entire series of books running to over one hundred volumes solely dedicated to the various facets of its own natural history. The official California bird list alone totals 662 species – the highest number of any U.S. state.

Which is why when Alvaro Jaramillo and Brian E. Small set out to write the new American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of California, they had quite a job ahead of them. As the series of field guides in which it is now included is intended not to be comprehensive but rather to be oriented toward the more commonly seen species, which of the 662 were to be left out to bring the final included total down to a much more manageable 308?

The rarities, of course, were left out, as were those that, for one reason or another, could be assumed to be unusual for the average bird watcher or amateur naturalist to encounter in the field. However in deference to the state’s extensive Pacific coastline and the number of tour companies offering off-shore excursions, a number of pelagic species that might not be expected in a more conventionally abbreviated guide – such as Scripps’s Murrelet and Cassin’s Auklet – were included. The fact that such nuanced and contextually appropriate decisions were made is the direct result of having such a highly experienced, professional California-based guide as Alvaro Jaramillo write such a book; his deep and extensive understanding of the state’s birdlife as well as how bird watchers and naturalists approach their field observations allows for such editorial decisions to me made with uncanny accuracy.

But then recruiting locally-based, highly experienced guides as writers for their books is one of the central elements to the entire series of the Scott & Nix published A.B.A. field guides, and it’s an element that is proving to be quite successful indeed. A quick look at Jaramillo’s background – senior biologist at the San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory, owner of the international birding and nature tour company Alvaro’s Adventures, recipient of the Eisenmann Medal of the Linnean Society of New York – paints the picture of exactly the person who, given the opportunity, you would chose to lead you on a guided tour of California’s bird life. And as for Brian Small – well, when it comes to photographing birds in a manner that makes them highly useful as species-identifying reference images, the high quality of his images clearly speak for themselves.

Taking the American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of California along with me on a recent business trip to southern California and using it vigorously (even to look up citations of birds I already well knew but simply in order to “put it through its paces”) I only experienced one instance in which it lacked sufficient species citations or imagery to allow me to make a satisfactory decision on a tricky identification of a female oriole; something that would in any case have been beyond the scope for any but an exhaustive reference guide.

Therefore, as I have previously done with its Florida predecessor in the series, I recommend the American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of California to all bird watching travelers or vacationers visiting the state, as well as Californians looking for a general reference guide to their state’s birds. It is a very handy, easy-to-use, convenient to carry reference that will well serve the travel and field reference needs of all but the most hard-core birders.

ABA Birds California coverTitle: American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of California

Author: Alvaro Jaramillo, photographs by Brian E. Small

Publisher: Scott & Nix, Inc.

Pages: 352 pp., 551 photographs

ISBN-13: 978-1935622505

Published: September 2015

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.