Rare Birds of North America

Steve Howell, Ian Lewington and Will Russell

Rare birds have an irresistible pull on the imagination. They are perceived to possess a beauty and desirability never attained by their commoner relatives, whilst their occurrence in often remote and exciting regions only adds to their allure. No further excuse is therefore needed for this new book from the well-known team of Steve Howell, Ian Lewington and Will Russell. Ambitious in its scope, it sets out to review the status and identification of 262 vagrant species to the North American continent.

After the obligatory introductory section on ‘How to Use This Book’, we are treated to an excellent in-depth essay on migration and vagrancy, its causes, its mechanisms and its meanings. Starting with the basics (‘What is a Rare Bird?’), it provides a thorough analysis of the many and various ways in which ‘exceptional’ bird movements occur. The cited mechanisms (drift, misorientation, overshooting, dispersal, association and disorientation) are familiar ones and have been well rehearsed in the existing literature but their application to vagrants to the New World rather than the Old is refreshing and thought-provoking for a British readership. Here lie the stories of familiar vagrants such as Pallas’s Warbler but in new and surprising contexts as well as tales of species such as Moorhen whose treatment as a vagrant at all will surprise many. Whilst the role of weather in inducing and directing vagrancy is implicit throughout the text, it would have been particularly revealing to have included weather maps to illustrate how some of the main vagrancy vectors operate (e.g. spring ‘overshoots’ to Alaska, autumn crossings of the Atlantic from Africa to the Caribbean or winter hard weather movements from Western Europe to eastern Canada). This would have provided a valuable context for some of the records referred to in the text. What was the synoptic chart, for example, on the day which brought 225 Olive-backed Pipits to Attu?

There are plenty of opportunities here to consider the old debates over ‘reverse migration’ versus random dispersal but the authors do a good job of keeping an open mind and not being too dismissive of any explanation. They also put considerable effort into discerning patterns to vagrancy, allowing us not only to predict a species’ future occurrences but also to detect shifts in its breeding or wintering ranges, migration routes or overall numbers. Recording vagrants is therefore not only interesting for recreational birders – it can have important conservation implications too.

Dusky Thrush plate by Ian Lewington

After the other obligatory section on topography, moult and ageing (here spelt ‘aging’ of course), we dive finally into the detail of the species accounts. Each species is dealt with in a standard format comprising a summary and subsequent sections on taxonomy, distribution and status (both World and North America), comments, field identification and habitat and behaviour. Taxonomy is of course a potentially contentious area but the treatments here are right up to date, as amply illustrated by the dense text on ‘Arctic Warbler’, records of which are now –contrary to earlier literature – assigned provisionally to Kamchatka Leaf Warbler.

Many of the species covered will be very relevant to British birders

Most useful by far (and forming the key focus of each species text) is the ‘comments’ section. This contains sometimes lengthy discussions of record validity and vagrancy mechanisms and patterns. In discussing the former, the authors have happily exercised their own judgment over the reliability and provenance of some records. Sometimes, as in the case of the 2010 Alaskan Blyth’s Reed Warbler, this results in conflicts with the decisions of state records committees but the authors are in the privileged position of having a truly international overview of vagrancy patterns and identification criteria and are as qualified as anyone to make rational judgments.

Some of Ian Lewington's plates are reason enough to purchase this book

As for the comments on vagrancy mechanisms and patterns, these are perhaps the most rewarding parts of the book. Some fascinating conclusions emerge, for example the distribution across the continent of species such as Brambling. This demonstrates, argue the authors, that this species does not arrive from the Atlantic but that it penetrates eastward into the continent after an initial arrival in the west or northwest. A similar mechanism is invoked to explain the east coast records of e.g. Siberian Stonechat and Brown Shrike. Also highlighted is the initially surprising but increasingly well established occurrence of Palearctic passerines whose breeding range lies well to the west. Neither Wood Warbler nor Spotted Flycatcher breeds in Northeast Asia yet both have now occurred in Alaska – a situation perhaps analogous to the extreme eastern vagrants – Rufous-tailed Robin, Chestnut-eared Bunting – now known to be reaching Western Europe. Despite all the attempts at rationalisation, however (and the authors expend considerable effort in this task), some events seemingly lack explanation. The Red-footed Falcon at Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts in August 2004 must count as one of the most surprising vagrancy events ever, and the authors seem for once bereft of an explanation other than possible ship assistance.

Buy now at WildSounds

Published: Jan 2014
Princeton University Press

Pages: 448

ISBN: 978-0691117966


RRP: £24.95

SPECIAL OFFER Pay just £19.95 when you quote discount code RBA34

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Perhaps the most immediately eye-catching aspect of this book, however, is the artwork. All the 275 colour plates are by our own Ian Lewington and his unique, polished and detailed yet still ‘alive’ portraits decorate almost every double-page spread. These are highly instructive from an identification perspective. Nor are they only useful to New World birders – the treatment of, for example, Greater and Lesser Sand Plover is as good as will be found anywhere whilst the ‘back to front’ treatment of some species (the separation of Hen Harrier from Northern Harrier and Common Snipe from Wilson’s Snipe, for example) are a surprisingly good way of testing our mental checklists of identification criteria here in Britain.

However, you don’t have to be an identification addict to appreciate the paintings – these are all fine images, beautifully executed and worthy of hanging on any wall. Here are portraits of birds which we and the artist know well – Chaffinch, Lapwing and Kestrel – but also images of much less-known species (at least in Britain) – Masked Tityra, Greenish Elaenia and Red-legged Thrush. All have the ‘ring of truth’ about them, almost jumping off the page. If Aztec Thrush looks as good as portrayed here (and we can be sure that it does) then I really want to see one!

Artwork aside, this book is also an attractive product. Well-designed and laid out, it has a crisp, uncluttered and ‘high quality’ feel which befits its content. I only spotted a few proofing errors, mainly involving missing words and inconsistent capitalisations (the text on Eurasian Skylark is particularly bad in this respect) but these do not detract from the book’s appeal.

This book is therefore a guaranteed winner and not just for a North American readership. Put together by a superbly qualified team, it is both authoritative and attractive. For the lister, identification enthusiast, migration student and general birdwatcher, it brings to life a whole continent of avian excitement. Birds are always amazing and surprising us, pushing the boundaries of what we thought possible and exploding the myths and stories we so carefully create about them. This book is a fitting tribute to their continuing capacity to inspire and confound.


Andy Stoddart
January 2014


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