The Sibley Guide to Birds: Second Edition

Bird book gets better

The Sibley Guide to Birds By David Allen Sibley Knopf, 2015 (2nd edition) Softcover, 624 pages, $40
The Sibley Guide to Birds
By David Allen Sibley
Knopf, 2015 (2nd edition)
Softcover, 624 pages, $40

On one of our semi-annual trips to Cape May, New Jersey, in May of 1998, we saw a report on the Internet of a red phalarope at the municipal gravel dump, which featured a two-acre puddle after three days of hard rain. So on the way to the storied Cape May Hawk Watch Platform we stopped by the gravel dump at 7:30 a.m. and saw David Sibley, all by himself, his spotting scope on a tripod next to his easel, his binoculars around his neck, a camera handy.

I literally had to touch him to distract him from his study of the phalarope, and he smiled and apologized for his absorption in the task at hand. We spoke awhile, and he bashfully admitted that he was working on a field guide to North American birds (published two years later in 2000), noting that he had been brooding about it for years and that when his wife finally confronted him and asked whether or not he was contemplating doing a field guide, he blurted out, “Yes,” and promptly fainted.

Later that day, as we headed back to our motel after dinner, circa 7:30 p.m., we decided to stop by the gravel pit to see if the phalarope was still there; it was, and so was Sibley, still sketching, still observing. We elected not to bother him and slinked quietly away.

David Sibley watches, studies, and paints birds with a devotion that borders on the lunatic, and The Sibley Guide to the Birds: Second Edition shows as much big time. When I heard rumors of a second edition in the works I wondered what he hoped to achieve other than, perhaps, a more accurate printing job. For all the praise birders heaped on The Sibley Guide, nearly all of them complained about the hyper-saturated colors in some of the plates.

The illustrations of the fox sparrow, for example, depict the rufous wings and chest striping as verging on Crayola crayon red; ditto the reddish markings on the ferruginous pygmy owl and the chestnut-sided warbler, to name just two. In the second edition, these species and most others look much truer to life than they did in the first book.

Sibley’s second edition has more than six hundred new paintings and an additional 111 rare species not included in the first, as well as new tips on identification, behavior, and finding birds in the field.

The book is nothing if not comprehensive. Last summer Tom Both, the former supervisor of Keene, called to say he had a chicken-size bird in his yard that was outrageously red and blue and yellow. We went right over, but the bird had left before we arrived. Tom’s wife, however, got a few good photos, and our Field Guide to European Birds enabled us to identify a golden pheasant, an Asian species with populations in Scotland and England. The bird, which looked like something right out of Walt Disney, had clipped wings and couldn’t fly; it had obviously escaped from a private collection. Turns out we could have identified the bird with The Sibley Guide to Birds: Second Edition because Sibley added a painting of a golden pheasant to the new book.

The book’s design also has changed, and it strikes me as cleaner and airier even though it maintains all the features of the original edition. In one of the fox sparrow plates, for example, roughly the same amount of text and the same size range maps share the page with the same number of illustrations, each of which, however, is somewhat larger. That said, the text looks smaller and lighter and less of a visual distraction when I look at the illustrations. Some people will, I imagine, take issue with the small, non-boldface type, and most, as with the first edition, will complain about the size and bulk of the book, which at six hundred pages and a trim size of roughly six-by-nine inches doesn’t fit in most pockets.

I first met David Sibley on a three-day trip he led to the Dry Tortugas. While hiking on a trail on an uninhabited island, our group flushed a bird from a grove of Australian pines with a thick understory of brush. The bird squawked loudly and flew back into the brush so quickly none of us got a look at it. Without a nanosecond of hesitation, Sibley remarked, “Chuck-will’s-widow!”

An experienced birder from Long Island, his voice dripping with sarcasm, asked Sibley, “So tell me, David, how often do you hear Chuck-will’s-widow call?”

“I never heard it,” Sibley replied.

In utter silence, the birders looked at one another and then smiled, wondering at one who studied bird-call recordings so thoroughly he could instantaneously recognize a bird he had never heard.

Sibley amazing …

Some copies of the first printing of The Sibley Guide to Birds: Second Edition have flawed color plates (overly red) and faint text. To determine if you have a first or second printing, look on the copyright page: the last line will say either Second Edition, March 2014 or Second Edition, November 2014.

If you suspect you have a flawed copy from the earlier printing, Alfred A. Knopf will replace it.Cut the bar code off the back of the book and mail it to:

Penquin/Random House
Att: Consumer Services/DMS
400 Hahn Road
Westminster, MD 21157.