Jim Williams has been watching birds and writing about their antics since before "Gilligan's Island" went into reruns. Join him for his unique insights, his everyday adventures and an open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond.

An excellent book on North America's rare birds

Posted by: Jim Williams under Bird identification, Bird migration, Bird sightings Updated: February 28, 2014 - 4:54 PM

Rare Birds of North America, Steve N. G. Howell, Ian Lewington, Will Russell, Princeton University Press, 2014, hardcover, 428 pages, heavily illustrated, with index, $35.

All bird identification books should be this good. 

The two authors and the artist, Lewington, have created a guide to 262 species of birds rarely seen in North America. Their criteria for species is five or fewer North American sightings per year, using records dating to 1950.

The book is lavishy illustrated; Lewington is a fine artist. The text is lavish, too, far more information offered than is found in the usual field guide.

This, of course, is not a usual field guide. Working with 262 species, about one-third the number found in your Peterson or Sibley guides, is a real advantage for the authors, thus a real plus for readers.

Each species is discussed first in a brief summary of where it has been seen. Comment on taxonomy follows, then extensive discussion of status and distribution, comments on sightings, very complete field identification comments, including differing plumages by age, sex, and season, and comments on similar species. Similar species often are illustrated; side-by-side comparisons can be  made. 

If you seek rare birds or just hope to encounter one on your travels, the authors give you a thorough review and explanation of vagrancy and migration patterns. With many maps and clear text, you can actually plot — well, make a reasonable guess — as to where and when you want to be to see whatever. 

There are no other books I know of that offer such extensive analysis.

The book is an enjoyable and educational read for anyone interested in how and why rare birds sometimes show up in odd places, including Minnesota and Wisconsin. 

There was a Fieldfare, a northern European thrush, in Grand Marais in 1991, for example, way off its usual paths. A tropical hummingbird called Green Violet-ear spent a few days in LaCrosse in 1998. Another tropical hummer, a Green-breasted Mango, was in eastern Wisconsin in 2007. 

Minnesota had a Garganey, a European duck, in 1993. It breeds across northern Eurasia. A Smew was seen in Superior, Wisconsin, in 2000. It’s a boreal breeder from Scandinavia east across Russia. Minnesota has seen more than one Fork-tailed Flycatcher, a resident of South America.

The book helps you understand why this happens and, perhaps, when. The latter makes this a beautifully done wish-list.

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