Rare Birds of North America by Steve Howell, Ian Lewington, and Will Russell

I have spent the last several months poring over the subject work. In short, it is an incredible resource on bird vagrancy in North America. The amount of work the authors and illustrator put in is simply staggering (yet in keeping with Steve Howell’s super-human drive).

This book has been out for almost four years, so rather than turn this piece into a full-fledged book review, I want to offer my thoughts (in no particular order).

  • Ian Lewington is a remarkably talented bird artist, which is evident just by taking a look at the book’s cover.
  • Before reading, I had always imagined the species accounts (which begin on page 44 and continue until the end of the book) to be the most interesting part, and the material that comes before something I had to slog through in order to reach them. I quickly realized that is not the case. The forty plus opening pages covering the definition of a rare bird; vagrancy and migration in birds; source of vagrant birds in North America; and bird topography, molt, and aging were perhaps the most enjoyable and rich of the book, providing a solid grounding in the information that was to follow.
  • In keeping with this, the repetition in some of the species accounts served to ‘drive home’ the topics and methods of vagrancy covered in the opening sections (since many species, especially adjoining ones in the book’s layout had similar methods and patterns of vagrancy, molt, and plumages).
  • My favorite part of the species accounts was the ‘Comments’ section, when the authors went into depth about the records of a species, and the mechanisms of that species’ vagrancy. If anything, I wish these sections were longer for some species, and especially would’ve liked further speculation on if (and thus where/when) a species could show up again (hypothetical though that is).
  • One critique I have carries over from other books written by Steve Howell: he contradicts himself. It is perhaps impossible not to with a head as chock-full of bird knowledge as his is, but even so, it can be incredibly frustrating when an authoritative voice attempts to instruct you in the inverse of what it said the page before. I have in my notes that the first paragraph on page 174 (part of the Wood Sandpiper account) ‘completely contradicts’ what was said ‘regarding Common Greenshank and Wood Sandpiper vs Spotted Redshank in the Common Greenshank account.’
  • Another issue I have with Steve Howell is that he creates his own taxonomy and splits and lumps species at will. As well-supported by recent findings some of these actions may be, he has no authority to make them. Furthermore, when writing a book regarding rare birds to North America, the authors might want to follow North American bird names and taxonomy, in other words, those prescribed by the AOU. It is ignorant and perhaps patronizing to slip into ‘Greater Golden Plover’ (for Eurasian Golden-Plover) and to call Far Eastern Curlew ‘Eastern Curlew’ in the title of its species account (with Far Eastern in parentheses). Furthermore, hyphens are omitted for things like “European Golden-Plover” and “Lesser Sand-Plover.” Transgressions like these are regular and easily findable for anyone doing a close read of the text.
  • Although individually possessing far more knowledge on bird vagrancy than I, I do disagree with the authors on their theories on which route a couple specific birds took to reach their destinations. The most notable to me was the Rhode Island Wood Sandpiper of 2012, probably because I was able to see that bird myself. The authors argued for an East Asian origin for the bird, which is entirely possible. But they failed to mention the sizable invasion of Northern Lapwings that occurred that fall, as well as the weather conditions over Greenland and the North Atlantic that many thought led to that invasion. It is my feeling that the Wood Sandpiper found in Rhode Island is thus perhaps derived from Europe or Eastern Siberia (a possibility that the authors do acknowledge).
  • But the authors had only so much space to work in without turning this book into one of encyclopedic length, which they did masterfully. I am thrilled to have read this book, from which I have learned a tremendous amount. It was perhaps the bird book I most anticipated prior to its release, and it definitely lived up to its billing, masterfully covering a topic that is the passion of birders around the world.

-Alex

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