Modern Field Guides Have Almost Got It Right

While preparing for my Costa Rica trip I used Stiles and Skutch’s Birds of Costa Rica published in 1989.  And do you know what I found out? I like the “old” style field guides for certain situations.

Birds of CRLet me explain.

Going to Costa Rica made me, in certain respects, once again a beginning birder.  Sure I was going to know several birds from NA that wintered there, but the majority of birds I needed to learn. And in some cases completely new genera.

I have already explained how I learned the 200 or so species in a previous post. But what I didn’t discuss was why I like the “older” field guide.

The reason I liked the “older” guides are – The Picture Plates.

Birds of CR Plates
A scanned image of the vireo plates from Birds of Costa Rica.

For someone learning new birds, and maybe for beginners in general, having all the similar species on one page was great.  After learning the birds on the 3×5 note cards, I would then spend time reviewing and contrasting the birds on the plates.  I especially liked that the authors only gave the basic field marks in the descriptions on the facing page.  At this stage did I really need to know all the details giving in the description pages?

Birds of CR Desc
A scanned image of the description pages of vireos from Birds of Costa Rica.

I walked away from the trip thinking about someone going to a new area, or maybe any beginning birder, if they really needed all the detail, pictures, or different angled photos presented in the modern Sibley’s or National Geographic field guides?  I did quite well with just the plates in the Birds of Costa Rica.

I also own Howell and Webb’s  A Guide to the Birds of Mexico published just a few years later than Birds of Costa Rica. It has the same format but also includes something missing in Birds of Costa Rica, the size of the bird in the brief description on the facing page. Which to me is a great benefit.  And I know it would defeat the purpose of brevity but in my eyes a very small distribution map would have made it complete.

I know the older Peterson guides show birds grouped together. So before my trip to Southern California last November I purchased Peterson’s Western Birds from the 1980’s.  It follows the same format as Birds of Costa Rica – the birds are presented on plates in the middle of the book.  So I then proceeded to cut out the plates and took  them with me on the trip. It was a great asset.

Peterson Western Birds
A scanned image of the vireo and kinglet plates from Peterson’s Western Birds. You can tell they have been cut out since there are no shadows on the image.

Sibley does have the birds grouped together at the start of each section but they are too small and far apart. Less flight shots of passerines (which I really never use) and more group pictures would be a greater benefit to me.

National Geographic puts together waterfowl and raptors in flight which is very useful. But they could use the other genera together, like the older field guides.

I don’t own many other “modern” guides so I’m not aware if they have group pictures.  Let me know in the comment section if they do.

Otherwise I think the “modern” guides are all in all, quite good.


One Reply to “Modern Field Guides Have Almost Got It Right”

  1. Interesting. As I mentioned, I’ve been studying for a two week trip to Costa Rica in March. I have the Stiles and Skutch book, but personally didn’t care for it for a few reasons. I felt the plates were really not that detailed and having a lot crammed on one page made them relatively small. One of my biggest complaints was the lack of size information for each species – maybe it’s just me, but I always like to know what size bird I’m looking for. With the Stiles & Skutch, I had to turn to the text for size. Also, the lack of range maps was disappointing.

    I have the 2nd edition of The Birds of Costa Rica by Garrigues and Dean which just came out this past December. Size and maps are directly across from the species plate, the plates are bigger and much better (IMO), and the diagnostic features of each bird is in bold and easy to pick out. Having this bold text right across from the bird is great – I can do a quick glance and see the key marks and then see the plate. Finally, it’s small enough that it can be taken into the field.

    I understand different people have different preferences when it comes to field guides – these are just my .02 cents and how I prefer to learn. The tools we use may be different, but the goal is the same! On a side note – our guide for the two weeks in Costa Rica is one of the authors of the new edition, Garrigues.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *