BIRDING BY HINDSIGHT: A Second Look at the National Geographic Guide

[Author's Note, July 2016 – This is a review of the third edition of the Geographic field guide, which is now in its sixth edition.]

Actually, this article might be better subtitled as a third look at the National Geographic Society’s Field Guide to the Birds of North America (hereafter, Geographic), since the issue here is what’s new in the third editon which came out this spring. Edition One of Geographic appeared back in 1983, and it was immediately acknowledged as the most (many would say the only) comprehensive and accurate field guide of North American birds. A second edition came out four years later, although there were few obvious differences from the first.

But that is not the case with the newest version: although most of it looks the same, it won’t take you long to spot several revisions. So, what are these changes? Are they all for the better, are there things unchanged from the second edition which should have been improved, and, most importantly, to what extent can Geographic be confidently used in the field to unravel ID difficulties?

Some of the more evident and most advertized changes involve the American Ornithologists’ Union’s recent decisions on taxonomy, nomenclature, and sequence. Although such changes are welcome and necessary, most of them have relatively little to do with assisting birders to identify birds in the field. The 80 new species in this edition are mentioned prominently on the cover, but these mostly involve accidental strays to places like the Aleutians, plus established parrots and other exotics, things most birders have little contact with.

You have to look more closely at the third edition to see the revisions in the text and range maps, although these improvements are certainly extensive and important. Unfortunately, the reality is that most birders looking at a field guide make the mistake of spending most of (if not all) their time examining the illustrations, simply trying to match what they see in the field to the picture in the book. They might pay no attention to the range maps and end up erroneously reporting something hundreds of miles out of range. Or they may attempt a difficult ID without referring to the text for essential information on field marks not shown by the illustrations.

This Hindsight installment is not really intended to be a book review. Rather, what follows are some comments on which illustrations in the third edition have been improved and will be helpful in making accurate field identifications, and which ones still need improvement and may still result in misidentifications. The illustrations not discussed either involve species normally not found in Minnesota, those unchanged from the second edition which are still adequate, or those which present relatively few ID difficulties.

• Pages 21, 23, 27 / Loons, Clark’s and Western Grebes

All the loons have been redone and improved with several additional illustrations spread over two full pages. These will prove far more useful than those in the previous edition and should improve the chances of Minnesota birders finding and accurately identifying the rarer species of loons, especially those in basic and juvenile plumages.

Meanwhile, the paintings of the breeding Clark’s and Western grebes are unchanged and fail to adequately show the most important difference between these species, since the bill color on the Clark’s needs to be a brighter orange-yellow. Note, however, that bill colors are correctly shown on the new and welcome illustrations of “winter” birds, which also show how tricky the facial patterns of these two grebes can be.

• Pages 57–61 / Bitterns, Herons, Egrets

While these three plates may not lead to many misidentifications, they needed to be revised and weren’t. Many of the shapes and poses are unnatural, especially those of the American Bittern, Little Blue Heron, Cattle and Snowy egrets, and there is no portrayal or mention of the yellowish lores which can appear on some immature Little Blues.

• Pages 71, 83–87, 93, 98–101 / Waterfowl

The illustrations for a few species unfortunately were not revised as needed. The stubby shape and bluish-gray basal color of the Ross’s Goose bill are not clearly shown, and it is still unclear if the rare blue-morph really has less white on the head and neck than the “Blue” Goose.

One key difference between female Cinnamon and Blue-winged teals is the bill size: so why is the Cinnamon’s bill still underwater and out of sight? Many birders have a hard time separating female Redheads and Ring-neckeds, but Geographic fails to clarify the differences. And it’s even harder most of the time to tell the two scaup and the two female goldeneyes apart, so it was disappointing to see these plates unchanged.

Also curiously the same from edition two is the set of four pages showing ducks in flight. It should be obvious that the upper wing surface of a flying duck is important, but these illustrations still make this hard to see.

• Pages 103–129 / Raptors

These pages are probably the most disappointing of all, with appreciable revisions in the illustrations of only two Minnesota species. With so many birders having difficulties with so many hawks, it is almost inexcusable to find almost no expansion in the coverage of this challenging group.

The almost endless variation in Red-tailed Hawk plumages is again ignored, with this species still shown by only six illustrations limited to a mere half page. The illustrations for the highly variable Swainson’s and Rough-legged hawks are similarly far from being adequate. Birders will continue to be confused by eagles, accipiters and large falcons if they continue to use Geographic, and the Northern Harrier pictures need to be replaced.

While Geographic remains by far our best general field guide, you will do better to just leave it at home the next time you go hawk watching.

• Pages 153, 173, 179–185 / Shorebirds

After the disappointment of finding those raptor plates unchanged and inadequate, it was a relief to discover several positive improvements in six of the shorebird plates. The Black-bellied and various golden-plover illustrations are all new and improved, as are those for the Red Knot, Sanderling, Dunlin, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Ruff, both dowitchers, Stilt Sandpiper, the three phalaropes, and others. The improved appearance of the Sanderling, Dunlin, Ruff, dowitchers, and Stilt Sandpiper are especially welcome and should be of great assistance to shorebird watchers here. The Upland and adult Pectoral sandpipers were also redone, although they now appear grayer than they should be.

• Page 175 / Peeps

Unfortunately, the shorebird section definitely could have used some changes in one addtional plate. With shorebirds almost as difficult as hawks for most birders, and peep identification the most difficult of all, this page is still not very helpful. While the colors and contrast now look better, birders will still misidentify too many peeps if they solely refer to Geographic. Among other things, there is still not enough shown to safely separate Westerns from Semipalmateds, the adult White-rumped should show more rust on the head and a paler base to the bill, and the juvenile Baird’s needs to look buffier.

• Pages 195–213 / Gulls

The gull plates in the second edition are among the best in the book, and there are several new and helpful illustrations found in these pages. However, given the complexities presented by so many gulls, one is left wishing more had been done.

A couple new Ring-billed insets are added, and the Herring and California gulls are completely redone and improved, but the only other revisions involve gulls not normally found in Minnesota. It was disappointing not to find more emphasis on those Laughing Gull-like sub-adult Franklin’s, and there is still no illustration of a juvenile Bonaparte’s. Expanded coverage is needed of those exceptionally difficult “white-winged” and “black-backed” gulls, and the two-page section on gulls in flight is hardly adequate.

Geographic’s gull coverage is certainly far superior to that found in the other popular guides, but it’s still hardly complete enough to handle such a difficult subject.

• Page 237 / Doves

This plate has been completely redone and is a definite improvement, since – if for no other reason – it includes the now-regular Eurasian Collared-Dove. Note especially the nice side-by-side comparison with a Ringed Turtle-Dove at the top of the page.

• Pages 287–301 / Flycatchers

I’m having a difficult time deciding whether or not these plates will help or hinder Minnesota birders. I still don’t like the unchanged illustrations for: Olive-sided Flycatcher (though the added inset is good); Eastern Wood-Pewee (unnatural-looking); Eastern Phoebe (no wing bars shown, which are present on many phoebes); and Eastern Kingbird (why is its dignostic tail band so hard to see?).

And I’m not so sure the completely revised Empidonax and Myiarchus flycatchers look quite right. Minnesota birders normally only deal with one Myiarchus (Great Crested), but there are five Empids here and Geographic’s improved pictures of them still seem a bit off in regards to their eye rings and primary extensions. The Alder’s eye ring looks too bold, the Yellow-bellied’s not bold enough, while only the Acadian shows a different primary extension.

• Page 311 / Philadelphia and Warbling Vireos

These two vireos have been successfully redone, with their facial expressions and the amount of yellow on their underparts appearing more accurate.

• Pages 321, 363 / Horned Lark, Sprague’s Pipit

You have to give Geographic credit for being the only popular guide to illustrate the juvenile Horned Lark, a bird which is easily misidentified as a Sprague’s Pipit. This illustration, however, does not look quite true-to-life and remains unchanged in the third edition. It should have been redrawn, as was the Sprague’s Pipit which now actually looks almost like the real thing! Again, you have to give Geographic credit since, until now, none of the field guides’ illustrations has it right (and the one in Robbins’ Golden Guide is even downright comical).

• Page 349 / Catharus Thrushes

This plate has been completely revised and is a definite improvement, especially in the thrushes’ overall shape and posture. This group still presents ID difficulties, but birders should now have fewer problems with them.

• Pages 367–391 / Warblers

Very few changes were made in these plates, with only one of them involving a species found in Minnesota. Unfortunately, it’s a change for the worse: the fall Tennessee now looks unnaturally brownish, rather than greenish as was correctly shown in the second edition. And some other changes would have been welcome: the adult male Magnolia and Black-and-white pictures need to be improved; the fall/immature Chestnut-sided is too dark below, not green enough above, and it needs a bolder eye ring; and the confusing immature Oporornis warblers remain unchanged and are still confusing.

• Page 393 / Tanagers

Here is another completely revised plate which has changed for the better. The plumages and shapes of the tanagers now appear more accurate, with the Western’s illustrations especially improved, and there is now a long-overdue picture of a first-spring male Summer Tanager.

• Pages 401–417 / Sparrows

Of all the plates in the earlier editions of Geographic, I’ve always disliked those of the sparrows the most. Neither their plumages nor shapes bear any close resemblance to reality, and, unfortunately, that is still mostly the case in the third edition since not much has changed.

We are left, therefore, with especially inaccurate depictions of Field, Clay-colored, Chipping, Grasshopper, Fox, Savannah, and immature White-throated and White-crowned sparrows. About the only Minnesota species which have been redrawn are the Vesper (which has gone from bad to worse) and the Le Conte’s and Nelson’s Sharp-tailed. While these last two now look better and more natural overall, the key field mark to separate them – the median crown stripe color – is not visible!

In a way, therefore, Geographic is no more useful for identifying sparrows than it is for hawks.

• Pages 421–423 / Longspurs

Since the artist who did (or should I say did in?) the sparrow pictures also illustrated the longspurs, and since these remain unchanged in the third edition, birders will still have a lot of difficulties with longspur ID unless they are looking at adult males in alternate plumage.

• Page 429 / Rose-breasted Grosbeak

The immature male in fall could use a better illustration, with more emphasis on its similarity to the female Black-headed Grosbeak. There are still too many of these Rose-breasteds being misidentified, and birders who rely on Geographic for assistance will not be helped.

• Pages 435, 443 / Bobolink, Meadowlarks, Orioles

The illustrations of these icterids have all been revised, and the birder should now have less difficulty with female/fall Bobolinks. To be sure, the treatment of the two meadowlarks has also been improved and expanded, although the identification of silent birds remains very tricky. The oriole page, which includes the Orchard and Baltimore, is also better, and it should be of more help than before when a stray Bullock’s shows up here.

• Pages 449–455 / Winter Finches

There are no changes to be found in these pages, which is unfortunate since so many of the species look unnatural. Though they might not lead to any misidentifications, I find the male House Finch and both crossbills to be especially odd in appearance. More illustrations of the highly variable Pine Siskin are also needed, but a more serious shortcoming is the lack of additonal redpoll illustrations. Once again, birders who trust in their trustworthy Geographic for help with this especially complex identification will remain confused.

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Some final thoughts...

If a beginning or casual birder heads out into the field armed only with binoculars and a field guide, even if it’s Geographic, there are going to be a lot of misidentifications. There are simply too many difficult IDs lurking out there for any portable field guide to adequately handle. When it comes to bird ID, as with everything else in life, there is no substitute for experience – whether it’s your own, that of a veteran expert who birds with you, or one who has written one of those specialized identification guides or articles you should take advantage of.

When using any field guide, Geographic included, there will also be too many misidentifications if you only look at the pictures. With anything less than a straightforward ID, it is essential that you read the text for those finer points not shown in the illustrations. Also, mistakes can be avoided if you simply consult the range maps. Often the easiest way to preclude species similar to the one you’re looking at is to see whether or not they occur where you are.

As this article has tried to demonstrate, the third edition of Geographic alone will not unravel all the ID difficulties you’ll face in the field. If there is ever a fourth edition, perhaps it will successfully address those remaining problems outlined above. Still, any birder not using Geographic will err far more often than one who does use it. All the other popular guides still in print – i.e., those by Peterson, Robbins, Stokes, and Griggs – might do a decent job of covering straightforward IDs, but none of them comes even close to adequately handling those more challenging problems. And if I were to set out writing something similar to this article about any of these other guides, discussing which birds they do not sufficiently cover, it would turn into a full-length book.