Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Book Review: "The Birds of New Jersey: Status and Distribution"

[Disclosure: A free copy of this book was provided by Princeton University Press for unbiased review.]
Status and distribution. Those two words probably excite me more than I should admit. If you don’t feel the same way, you might wonder why I would be eager to review this book. I don’t live in New Jersey. I rarely bird in New Jersey. And let’s face it, New Jersey simply leaves a lot to be desired. Just ask former NY Governor Paterson.

But if you are like me (you poor, poor bastard), you live for this stuff.

“The Birds of New Jersey: Status and Distribution” (paperback, 308 pages) by William J. Boyle, Jr. is a comprehensive look at the documented S&D of New Jersey’s avifauna. This type of book has been done before for many states – every state really should have a work like this at its disposal.

The book starts with an introduction, proceeds to the annotated species list, and concludes with a few appendices.

The intro is straightforward and to-the-point. We are given a summary of NJ’s geography with accompanying map, a brief history on previous bird S&D works dedicated to NJ, and a description of the purpose and responsibilities of the New Jersey Bird Records Committee (NJBRC). Then we have a few pages of what amounts to “how to use this book,” which is rather self-explanatory. The section ends with a brief discussion on New Jersey’s pelagic boundaries and explanation that these lines are far from “official.”

The meat and potatoes of the book is the Annotated List of Species, which is in taxonomic order and devotes a paragraph to each species. The text provides detail about that particular species’ - you guessed it – status and distribution in New Jersey. EVERY SINGLE species ever documented in New Jersey’s rich ornithological history is treated here. For regularly occurring species Boyle touches on preferred habitat, arrival and departure times, as well as peak migration periods and unseasonal sightings. If there is a particular population trend, it is noted. Identifiable subspecies are also treated. For rarities, exact dates and locations are given, and a significant number of color photographs are provided. For instance, the first species treated, Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, includes a great shot of 4 birds from Cape May in May of 2009.

Of note, pages 139-152 (smack in the middle of the book, among the species accounts) are entirely devoted to glossy color photos with informative captions.

I particularly enjoy the rarity photos. I just think it’s cool to open the book and see a photo of the only Buller’s Shearwater ever documented in the North Atlantic. That's just one example of many.

Appendix A lists and provides information on seven species of “Exotics and Species of Uncertain Provenance or Status.”
Appendix B, entitled “Not Accepted Species,” are birds cited in other sources as being reported in the state but have not been accepted by the NJBRC.
Appendix C is the NJBRC’s Review List.
Appendix D, written by Kevin Karlson, provides identification information for five photos. Treated here are Ross’s vs. Snow Goose, Common and King Eiders, Pacific Golden-Plover, Lesser Nighthawk, and Archilochus hummingbirds. In these paragraphs, Karlson uses photos from the species accounts to illustrate the differences between similar species. Not only is it a nice little bonus to learn some ID tips here, but it also goes to show how important photo documentation has become when trying to positively identify a rarity.

Overall this is a very well-done status and distribution guide. Not just for NJ residents, this would make a worthwhile purchase for any serious eastern US birder, particularly those who reside on records committees.

- Nick

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