The Shorebird Guide


What will be appealing about this new photographic guide is that it is initially pleasing – in both a visual and a tactile sense. Before you even glance inside you note a flexible, apparently water-resistant cover, glossy paper and an overall size that will not prohibit field usage. As a designer myself I found that, from an aesthetic point of view, this book has already accomplished things that separate it from the ‘also rans’ and make it an appealing tome. The absence of a dust jacket is also a plus – one less thing to wrestle with when thumbing through the pages.

The guide comprises 477 pages and covers some 50 of the world’s 217 species of shorebirds that breed, or occur as vagrants, in North America. So, how does this new book compare to similar offerings already on the market?

Firstly, the main aim of this guide, as

noted by the authors, is to teach shorebird identification from a holistic perspective. It relies on an appreciation of a bird’s ‘giss’ (general impression, size and shape – aka jizz) to form the basis of an identification.

The authors’ view is that recognising the comparative differences between species, rather than concentrating only on plumage minutiae, is an easier way to hone your shorebirding skills. It is this theory to which this guide is tailored, and so it fills an unexploited niche in the world of similar guides currently available.

Although this ‘birding by impression’ is touted as a new method, assessing size, structure and behavioural differences of similar species has always been a subconscious way of birding for many veteran field birders. However, for beginners daunted by the vast array of ‘little brown jobs’, a modern appreciation of jizz birding will prove invaluable from the outset.

One of the main selling points is the photos. With the advent of digital technology and better lenses, the quality of the images,

by some of the world’s prominent photographers, is simply exceptional. There are more than 850 colour photos taking up some 300 pages.

The layout of photos per page was chosen carefully to allow breathing room for descriptive captions. The layout doesn’t overwhelm the eyes, which is a good thing to consider with any book – I find nothing more irritating than a grid of photos to which I have to search the page for the related information. Each species account has a header with basic information on identification, status and distribution, the last clearly depicted on a range map.

In keeping with the aim of the guide, many photos depict species side by side with other birds to allow for identification comparisons. There are, of course, many close-up portraits to illustrate the plumage differences between the age groups. The captions are instructive and often challenge readers to make their

own interpretation of an identification (an answer section is in the back), and this makes the book more ‘interactive’ than typical guides.

The text portion forms the second half of the book. The species accounts are lucid and cover basic breeding biology, a summary of age and plumage, and information on moult and distribution. There is also a glossary of terminology.

There are always criticisms with any guides. There are a few editorial glitches (eg silhouettes on the back cover which link to incorrect page numbers and minor caption errors where ‘left’ and ‘right’ are reversed) and, in my opinion, there are some full page photos of species (eg Sanderling on page 140 and Semipalmated Sandpiper on page 149) that look somewhat out of place with the rest of the layout.

Minor points aside, as a keen shorebirder myself with an interest in identification, I have only glowing things to say about the product and the way it has been packaged as a true identification reference tool. I know the authors well and have discussed shorebird identification with them ad nauseam, so I can attest that this is a well-designed guide by knowledgeable and talented field birders and photographers that will benefit both beginner and advanced birders alike.

The Shorebird Guide by Michael O’Brien, Richard Crossley and Kevin Karlson (Christopher Helm, London, 2007).

477 pages, more than 870 colour photos, numerous distribution maps.

ISBN 9780713686968. Sbk, £29.99.

Available from Birdwatch bookshop

First published in Birdwatch 185:50 (November 2007)