Wednesday, 5 March 2014

A rare treat

When the world renowned bird artist Ian Lewington told me at the British Birdwatching Fair last year that he was finishing illustrating a new tome to be called Rare Birds of North America I started salivating on the spot. He is one of my favourite bird artists - ever - and the rare birds of America intrigue me greatly. So when my postwoman dropped the package containing the book through my letterbox I was waiting to catch it before it hit the floor. I was reading it before I had even taken of all the packaging!

The authors definition of a rarity is very clear and that is, 'no such definition will ever be perfect - nature does not fit into boxes of human construct -'. The book deals with species that are truly rare within North America as a whole as opposed to just being rare in one region yet common elsewhere, for example. Thus, understandibly many of the species featured in the book emanate mostly from Asia and the Neotropics. The authors also make the destinction of featuring the rarities and their trends of appearance since the 1970's.

The opening pages discuss in some detail the essence behind vagrancy and rarity in North America. It talks about the likely provenance of certain species or groups of species as well as examining some of the stats involved in the rare bird records. It's all written with a very easy style that doesn't leave you feeling like sticking matchsticks between your eyelids to keep them open. But it is the species accounts that interested me most, not least because they were accompanied by Ian's superb artwork. As a British birder I wasn't too interested in reading about the field identification of many of the species featured although, I totally got the need for it as many of my North American colleagues would not have the intimate knowledge of Lapwings that perhaps I have. On my side of the pond I have access to a  myraid of fieldguides that do just that. However, I must state that the last comment was a purely personal one as there is absolutely nothing wrong with the book's treatment of the individual species. Indeed, it was very useful to read about the field characteristics of the Kelp Gull, for example, because I don't see them too often. I could liken reading the species accounts to having a delicious fruit cake in front of me but instead of eating it slice by slice I devour the individual raisins first. And the 'raisins' in this case were the 'Comments' section for each species which were written in a non-prescriptive and conversational way. Sentences like 'Jack Snipe are amazing' - the opening line within the Jack Snipe's comment section - made me feel very excited. If I lived in North America and hadn't seen a Jack Snipe before I certainly would want to after reading that line!

North America is a massive place and although it is home to a multitude of birders not all of them are out there looking for rarities. The beauty of this book is that it could serve as motivation for the birders who may not have realised that the chances of finding a rare bird whilst out on the patch or just generally birding is very real and actually much more likely than initially supposed.

This work pays homage to the books that have covered the same ground for the rarities in Europe and has been long overdue in North America.

Rare Birds of North America is worth every cent of its $35 price tag and deserves to find its way on the bookshelves of every North American birder plus a few other bookshelves elsewhere in the world.

Rare Birds of North America  ISBN-13: 9780691117966

Available from Wildsounds quote code URB35

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