My favorite beginner’s field guide

Few people are familiar with this little guide, but it is a gem! (James Coe’s Eastern Birds, a Golden Guide.)

I’ve been birding more than 35 years, so I’ve had lots of experience with field guides. I’ve also spent a lot of time introducing beginners to birding, so I think I have a pretty good sense of what helps to get them started. To that end, this guide has several things going for it.

First, it’s small: 4.5 X 7.5 X 0.3″. This is a thin, lightweight, easy-to-take anywhere guide. I love my massive Sibley guide, but a lot of beginners are turned off by its heft. No such problem with Coe‘s guide.

The guide owes its lean and mean profile to restricted coverage. This is an eastern birds guide that will serve people well from the Atlantic Coast to the High Plains. For beginners, this means they won’t be distracted by things like Cordilleran Flycatcher. But the guide is also restricted in that it doesn’t illustrate _every_ species from the East, either. For example, Acadian Flycatcher is described, but not illustrated. For the hard core birder, this can be maddening, but if you think like a beginner, you appreciate that no illustration of an Acadian would actually help separate it from the illustrated Willow. Alder Flycatcher isn’t even mentioned. That’s an outrage, but again, only if thinking like an experienced birder. To my mind, and apparently Coe’s, anybody ready to distinguish Alder from Willow by voice should have already moved up to a more advanced guide.

Those species that are included are mostly beautifully rendered with realistic postures and expressions. I’m sure there are exceptions, but I find Coe’s plates to be lovely examples of high art that express true realism. Most species that are illustrated include (as appropriate) males, females, immatures, and seasonal changes.

The range maps are very coarse – basically an outline of the central and eastern U.S. (+ a bit of Canada) with no state outlines included. Again, however, they’re detailed enough for a beginner in Vermont to think twice before ticking Summer Tanager off his backyard list.

For me, the two great advantages of this guide lie in its text and its rendering of plates in predictable habitat backgrounds. All species illustrations are accompanied by a descriptive paragraph that includes hints on habitat, voice, and visual identification. The habitat backgrounds, however, are really underrated in terms of their ability to convey to beginners what they’re _most likely_ looking at. For example, Coe provides a wide angle illustration of an agricultural landscape with a Red-tailed Hawk perched on a utility pole in the distance. His thrushes are painted against a backdrop of moist forest leaf litter (Veery), dark green coniferous branches (Swainson’s), and citron-green lower canopy on a bright morning in early June (Wood Thrush). I was first taken by this guide when I noticed in the plates in the introductory material that include multiple species together in likely settings. For example, the “summer” page of “Backyard Birds” shows a Chimney Swift in the air, a Northern Mockingbird on a telephone wire, American Robin and Chipping Sparrow on the lawn, and Common Yellowthroat and Song Sparrow in the bushes beyond. The first few pages of this guide alone could do wonders to instill confidence in a beginning birder that it is possible to “learn all those birds.”

So, no, this guide doesn’t offer tremendous insights into separating the dowitchers from each other, but it’s a tremendous resource for the vast majority of people out there who have no idea that there such a thing as a “dowitcher” in the first place. What’s more, this book can get people interested in taking their fledgling interest in birds to new heights.

This entry was posted in birding, birds/nature, editorial, environment, nature deficit disorder, No Child Left Inside and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to My favorite beginner’s field guide

  1. Reblogged this on Eat more cookies and commented:

    Still my favorite field guide for beginning birders!


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