I can't help it; I just prefer Peterson's "A Field Guide to the Birds." And I have my reasons. But everybody on the Central Park birdwalks, including the leader, uses David Sibley's "The Sibley Guide to Birds," which burst on the scene in 2000 with great fanfare. What's wrong with me?! But since I have remained, over two decades, still the most rank of amateurs at spotting birds, maybe this is understandable. Let me explain.
Roger Tory Peterson, whose books were the gold standard in amateur birding for longer than half a century, is responsible for revolutionizing the identification of birds in the field, making it possible for non-ornithologists to spot field marks to distinguish one bird from similar ones. My greatest help, invented by Peterson, are the arrows on each picture that point to specific characteristics in appearance of each bird that help the observer in his task of answering that commonest of questions, "What was that bird that just flew away?" Each bird painting has several such essential clues to help dolts like me find their way around a passerine. Plus, Peterson was an accomplished wildlife painter, and his bird paintings are vivid, simple, and easy to pore over for identification clues. They're beautiful just to browse over the night before a birdwalk, to catch up on what warbler is which, something that mostly stumps me in the wilds of Central Park.
My old copy of Peterson's has all my notations on sightings from 1987 on, so it is like a memory book as well as a reference guide. Here's my marginilia for Prothonotary Warbler: "Seen by others, NOT ME, CP, '00". With this notation I can remember, and still feel, that awful frustration as a dozen other observers on the Central Park birdwalk ooooohed and aaaaahed upon spotting the bird, and me, the idiot, not finding and not finding it. Happily, immediately next to this notation, is the triumphal scribble, "2005! CP! 4-18-05! YEAH!" and I can enjoy that specific thrill of seeing my first Prothonotary anew.
And then there's the nostalgia for birds long gone. There is a painting of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker in my old Peterson's, with the melancholy message, "very close to extinction, if indeed, it still exists." Below the copy, I have written "in Cuba, NY Times," and I remember an article ["in early 80's" my note says] that so excited me, that the Ivory-Billed had been seen. And now, very recently, of course, there's been a big hoopla and celebration that the Ivory-Billed has been spotted in Arkansas, by members of an expedition from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. This ecstatic news was widely reported, and made me feel so very very happy at the time. A bird called back from extinction is that most rare of events that can inspire so much hope in the soul! And, my next notation next to the Ivory-Billed listing here in my Peterson's is "Announced found in AK, 2005!!" to mark that wondrous news. I remember talking to anyone who would listen, marvelling, marvelling.
Now, here comes the new guy on the block, David Sibley. Roger Tory Peterson, the King, is dead, and Sibley now reigns over bird-spottingdom. My next notation by Ivory-Billed, in my battered Peterson's, is "Sibley says 'no' 2006." Clunk. And it did get lots of notice, the announcement that the premier bird expert of the present day, Mr. Sibley, very much doubts that there have been legitimate sightings of Ivory-Billeds. That in his opinion the observers' passion and excitement and adrenoline caused them to mistake Pileated Woodpeckers for the long-gone "Lord God Bird." No Virginia, there is no Santa Claus.
Shall I quibble some more? Sibley's renderings of the birds aren't beautiful. Sure, they are completely useful; they show the birds to enable identification, but they are less dimensional, less colorful, and there are no arrows for dunderheaded birders like me. The Sibley guide includes lots of very useful information that I need to learn, I know. And Sibley is more of a scientist than an agog bird observer, which is a quality certainly to be admired. And I have his book and I do try to use it to study my warblers. But there's no poetry. And no hope for spotting a beautiful phantom--the Ivory-Billed isn't even listed.