Review of the Peterson Reference Guide to Seawatching

Waterbirds are one of my favorite groups of birds. Whether it’s the subtle beauty of an iceland gull, the bright contrast of a bufflehead, or the beautiful plumage of a male king eider, waterbirds never cease to be awesome. Seawatching (or lakewatching, riverwatching, etc.) is a fantastic way to observe waterbirds. However, until the Peterson Reference Guide to Seawatching: Eastern Waterbirds in Flight there has never been a singular guide to this sector of birding (compare this to say, hawkwatching which has had many books written about it). Since I live in a part of North America without easy access to a large number of waterbirds, my seawatching skills are a bit shabby. Because of this, I was very excited about this guide and rushed to find a way to buy it as soon as it was published. My expectations were high but I was not disappointed as this is truly a wonderful book. 

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This guide is split into three sections, an introduction, species accounts, and a where to watch section. I will talk about each section separately in the order in which they occur. 

The first section is (obviously) the introduction. When I first got the guide, I expected to find a lengthy introduction about seawatching and describing the basics of seawatching. It was quite a surprise however, when I found that in fact, the introduction was rather short. I was a little bit worried by this at first as I wasn’t sure if there was going to be any information which was left out. However, upon reading the book more thoroughly, I was pleased to find that the introduction does its job quite well. The introduction gives a basic definition of seawatching, before describing which species are in the guide (somewhat surprising omissions include the shorebirds and wading birds which are nocturnal migrants, and most of the grebes since they are not often seen in flight). There are a few pages granted to information on waterbird migration and conservation, before the guide dives into what it is really about: waterbird identification.

Seawatching can be quite a different experience than other forms of birding. For example, the conditions of observation are often less than optimal (there could be fog, rain, heat haze, or cold), the birds are often fairly far off and as such rarely allow close observation, and there is a large number of species likely at most locations (many of which can be easily confused).

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The way waterbirds are often observed (these are red-breasted merganser at Presque Isle State Park, PA)

Because of this, the methods used to identify waterbirds are often quite different than those used to identify land birds. The reference guide does quite a good job at describing these methods and talking about what things are important to notice when seawatching and which are less important. After this, the book touches briefly on plumage variation, molt, and a section on how to use the guide before continuing to the species accounts.

The species accounts compose the bulk of the book and is where most of the valuable information is to be found. At the beginning of each family’s section, the guide gives a brief overview of the birds in the family and what the guide will focus on. Then comes the individual species accounts.

These accounts are set up very much like the species accounts in Hawks in Flight (by Pete Dunne, David Sibley, and Clay Sutton). They have a description of the bird being discussed, followed by a series of photos with captions outlining the points made in the description. As also with Hawks in Flight, the description is divided into sections which describe various parts of the bird’s identification (in this case, size, structure, flight and flocking, appearance, and similar species). All of this information is really fantastic and extremely valuable to anyone who wants to learn how to identify waterbirds. However, one of my personal favorite parts of the species accounts is the range map and the information which accompanies it. 

The range maps for this book are exceedingly detailed and descriptive. Not only do they show the basic range of the species, but they also show major migration patterns and stopover locations. In addition to this, there is writing on the side of the range maps to give even more description of their migration habits. I really love this aspect of the book. Since seawatching is usually done during migration, having a firm grasp of the range and migration patterns of waterfowl is very useful. These maps do a good job of giving this information in a concise and easy to use manner.

Following all of this, is the photographic section of the species accounts. This is a series of photos which are designed to show key characteristics and to highlight the points made earlier in the account. However, not all of the photographs are stunning field guide worthy portraits. Instead, the photos have been taken to illustrate the birds as you would see them, and as such, some are distant and backlit. This is something I thought was really cool and adds a lot to the overall value of the book as an identification tool.

After the species accounts comes the where to watch section. I was really excited about this section of the book when I first saw it. In brief, it describes some of the best places in eastern North America to seawatch from, what times to visit these places at, and what birds you are likely to see there. This is invaluable information which I am very glad that the authors chose to include. Many great seawatches are not all that well known, and it can be a challenge to try to dig up information about them on the internet. However, with this book there is no need; all the information you could want is already in there for you.

In conclusion, this is a fantastic book on a topic which before now lacked a definitive guide. The book is well organized, concise, and packed with valuable information. While it only covers eastern waterbirds, there is a lot of overlap between the two sides of North America and as such, I would recommend it to anyone, whether they live in Oregon or Massachusetts. This book is a must have for any birder who seawatches, plans on seawatching in the future, or would simply like to know more about the waterbirds of their area. 

Having read this book, it is definitely one of my favorite bird books and ranks up there with The Warbler Guide, Hawks in Flight, and The Shorebird Guide as one of my favorite bird identification books which is specific to a single group of birds. 

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