A Guide to the Birds of Mexico & Northern Central America
A Guide to the Birds of Mexico & Northern Central America by Steve N G Howell & Sophie Webb OUP 1995 – 2005 ISBN 0198540124
The fact that this book is in its fifth re-print is testimony to its popularity, and that popularity is testimony to the worth of the book. Last year I was lucky enough to be in Mexico with only Sibley and the Peterson guides with me – luckily one of our party had just acquired Howell & Webb and it proved invaluable in separating some of the more difficult species. In fact one of the lessons of that trip was not to rely solely on illustrations… I recall that we misidentified one bird throughout the trip until we read the text in this volume and realised that the ID feature which is so distinctive in the book is only seen in the field in adult males at one time of year! Furthermore, a cheque on distribution and a note informing us that the bird had only once been recorded out of range eventually put us right.
My own opinion is that the illustrations are not the best in the world… despite being as accurate as one needs I find some of them rather flat and lifeless although others, like the Antbirds are full of energy and these show a lightness of touch not always so apparent in others. I may be very wide of the mark but it occurred to me that I could tell which bird groups the artist most enjoyed painting and those which she was least fond of. Pure speculation of course but some have the look of live birds sketched from field-notes and memory whilst others seem to have only been seen as museum specimens.
This is a very weighty tome and hardly a book one can pop into one’s pocket to pull out in the field to clinch that half-remembered hummingbird ID feature, but so long as the vehicle is not too far away it is certainly worth carrying along. Because of the necessary size it seems to me that the publishers decided that they could throw caution to the wind and allow decent distribution maps rather than the thumbnails we mostly have to deal with. Again this is a welcome feature when dealing with unfamiliar families with subtle ID features yet very distinct geographic distribution. Still other field ID also need notes as habitat and elevation can also be crucial to proper identification.
Personally I think that this is an indispensable adjunct to a fully successful Mexico trip.
Created: 21st Nov 2005