Arriving home from the film, I instantly began paying attention to the birds in my landscape. There were big ones and little ones. Plain ones and colorful ones. I knew the robins and doves and jays, but it wasn't long before I realized I had no clue what I was doing when it came to unfamiliar birds. Without formal training or reference material, I couldn't identify most of what I was seeing.
I researched birder books. My friend Deb recommended a few field guides of birds in my area and I followed her advice. A Field Guide is a very handy book filled with pictures and descriptions to help in identifying birds. Most are pocket-sized guides that can be taken into the field, literally.
I chose three books and decided to compare the attributes of each as I learned about birding. They are: "Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America"; "National Geographic Field Guide to Birds"; and "Birds of Colorado Field Guide" by Stan Tekiela. I discuss each book below. All of the books are written with the assumption that the reader doesn't know what kind of bird they're seeing and the field guide will help identify it.
It has a nice section in the front of the book that tells "where, when, and how to find birds." Designed for a beginning birdwatcher, this part explains just about everything you need to know about looking at birds, choosing binoculars, documenting finds, and bird conservation. It's a marvelous section for beginners, while experienced birders can skip this part and use just the reference material.
When you flip to the corresponding section for any given bird, you see many more photos. The book has more than 2,000 images. Each section begins with basic identification factors of the major bird groups in that section. In successive pages you look for the photo that matches the bird you're seeing and then read about it. Generally, the book has water birds first, then large birds, and then progressively smaller birds.
Similar birds are listed together. On one page you'll have descriptions, to include the taxonomic name, of Barn Swallow, Cliff Swallow, Cave Swallow, Bank Swallow, and Northern Rough Winged Swallow. There are photos of each for comparison. One of the best attributes of this field guide is that it often displays photos of juveniles and adults, in resting, flying or nesting postures. That can make identification much easier.
For each bird, a small map of the United States depicts its range. The range map shows migration areas and where the bird is in summer and winter. This can be very helpful because identifying birds is harder than it seems. Many look quite similar. If you have a preliminary identification and the range map matches where you are viewing the bird, it helps confirm your guess. However, if you identify a bird and it doesn't normally reside in your location, that means you should continue looking for a bird that does match.
At the end of the book, all of the hundreds of birds represented are listed in alphabetical order with a little box preceding each. When you see the bird you can check the box. This is a very effective way to keep track of your birding.
"The National Geographic Field Guide to Birds" is compact and easily fits into a jacket or your back pocket. National Geographic has many field guides available for different regions of North America. My book is the Colorado edition; field guides are available for Michigan, New York, the Carolinas, Arizona & New Mexico, and other locations.
This field guide has a brief section at the front that describes how to use the book. It explains "field marks" and shows where to look on the bird for physical identification features; places like the head, wings, and tail. It does not include any information for a beginner birder on how to bird watch.
National Geographic uses the table of contents and two indexes at the back of the book to help in bird identification. The contents page is just a list of primary bird families with no pictures; sections like "Swifts", Shrikes", and "Swallows". If you are a beginner and have no idea what kind of bird you're looking at, this is useless. For an expert this can be a quick way to turn to the appropriate section.
The "Birds of Colorado Field Guide" by Stan Tekiela is slightly larger that the National Geographic book, but still pocket-sized. It has a thorough section in the beginning for beginner birdwatchers. Like National Geographic, Tekiela offers field guides for many locations throughout North America.
The first section is "Why Watch Birds in Colorado?", with very specific details about the state and how birds fit in with terrain, habitats, and weather; I assume he includes similar detail for other regional books. The guide includes sections on observation strategies, bird coloring, nest building, and migration.
That being said, the primary index was color coded and had a small image of birds so I could thumb to the suggested page with a good feeling I was headed in the right direction. For a birdwatcher who wants to know what that brown bird is, this was the easiest way to find the bird in a guide. I could find the suspect bird quickly, but couldn't always be sure I was reading about the same bird.
"The Birds of Colorado Field Guide" was similarly easy to use but required looking at multiple pages once you found the appropriate color section. The information in the beginning of the book is very good and the layout of each bird's description was easy to read.
This book and the National Geographic book were very similar in their descriptions and include specific location information about where specific birds could be found in Colorado. Surprisingly they each include birds not found in the other, and don't list many birds that probably call Colorado home. For example, Tekiela has a two-page spread on the Olive-Sided Flycatcher while National Geographic has nothing; National Geographic has a brief mention of the Cordilleran Flycatcher in the Field Notes of the Western Wood-Pewee, while Tekiela has nothing. These are the only two Flycatchers mentioned in either book.
"Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America" is easy to use and has both Flycatchers described, along with many more. However, the small national range maps are difficult to read, so I can't quite tell if Hammond's Flycatcher, Dusky Flycatcher, and Gray Flycatcher reside in my part Colorado, but they are definitely birds in this state, something the other two books overlook.
Overall, I give "Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America" the best score for a beginning birder's field guide. The thousands of photos make identification relatively easy and while the birds aren't categorized by their color, the index of basic size, shape, and family is easy to use after a few tries. While it includes many birds that I will never see, it does offer the opportunity to take it on a vacation and identify birds throughout the country. Most important, while I have to wade through birds that are irrelevant it is very inclusive of birds in my region.
The specific descriptions aren't as thorough as the other books, but do include good information for identification. The front sections that talk about binoculars and bird physiology are very important for a beginner. Kaufman's was the best for me to positively identify a bird.
What I found in practical birdwatching was that no single field guide was completely adequate. While Kaufman made final identification surest, it was best to use the books in conjunction with each other for the entire process. National Geographic made initial guesswork easy, then a referral to Kaufman made it definite.
This morning I encountered a woodpecker on our big Ponderosa Pine tree as I fetched the morning paper with Lily. I looked at it closely and took a photo.
Turning to Kaufman's guide involved thumbing through quite a few pages before finding the woodpeckers, definitely more time than the other two, but only by a few seconds. It has side-by-side male and female photos of both birds. The text for Hairy Woodpecker begins: "Like a bigger version of the Downy, usually less common, requiring bigger trees." It goes on to say, "...can be told from Downy by much longer bill, larger size." The tree it was on is the biggest in the neighborhood and it had a long bill. Kaufman got straight to the most important factors and confirmed my identification. Home Run by Kaufman.
Because "National Geographic Field Guide to Birds", Colorado Edition, and "Birds of Colorado Field Guide" by Stan Tekiela are so similar, there are virtually interchangeable. For a beginning birdwatcher who needs to learn about the activity, Tekiela's guide is clearly the best between these two. It has more photos, better explanations, and allows for better comparisons.
There are many other birder books on the market and many field guides. These were recommended to me and I'm comfortable in recommending them to others. When seeking a good field guide, my experience suggests that an easy, color-coded index is best.
Quick, easy-to-read descriptions are ideal. There were many times that I spotted a bird and pulled out my field guides. Often, by the time I finished reading the description, the bird was gone and I couldn't confirm identification. Becoming familiar with a favorite guide and learning to use it quickly would help in those situations.
Regardless of the guide, I suggest you get one and begin birding. It's fun, gets you outside, and keeps you active. Before you know it those little boxes in the back of the book will be checked off in great numbers.