Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Sibley 2nd Edition Review: Unreadable

Sibley Guide to Birds Second Edition review
Sibley's Second Edition is here! If you can read it.
Imagine a sci-fi movie where an asteroid as big as North America is hurtling toward earth. Our protagonists do everything to deflect the coming cataclysm but, really, there is no stopping it. As the asteroid enters the atmosphere, miracle of miracles, it pops like a soap bubble! Our protagonists party it up because the end of the world has just been avoided.

In a figurative way, this must have happened with the birding field guide printing department at National Geographic earlier this month with the much-anticipated release of the Second Edition of the Sibley Guide to Birds by David Allen Sibley. Why? Isn't this new release printed by Alfred A Knopf just wonderful and indespensible and revolutionary and chocked full of tons of useful information no birder can live without? Won't this new edition just obliterate all competition like the original did when it arrived to forever change birding field guides in 2000?

Maybe. But I can't tell. You see, this book is unreadable. When I say it is "unreadable," I literally mean that the font is too small and too pale for me to make out words on the page. I can only read the bird's name. All the other text is in super-miniature gray font. I'm not only disappointed; I'm angry--I really anticipated reading this book! And I'm not the only one--reviews on Amazon have a high percentage clamoring for a refund of their $40. What irony! A 3 pound book with 600 pages that no one can read because the text is too tiny! Let me repeat that: When I say it is "unreadable," I literally mean that the font is too small and too pale for me to make out words on the page. I can only read the bird's name. All the other text is in super-miniature gray font.
Most books use a font size of 10 or 11. Sibley's original used an 8 point Times font, about the smallest font one would use in a book, but still readable. Even some 6 point fonts pointing out plumage characters on the illustrations were dark and thick and not too difficult to read.

Sibley's new guide uses 8 and 6 point sans serif font in gray, rather than black. Not only that, the ink width of the font is thinner than normal Arial or other sans serif fonts. I printed out a sample font for comparison.

So, since no one over the age of 30 can read the new text without a magnifying glass, how is the artwork? I noticed most of the illustrations are larger than in the first edition. Sibley has moved the text and artwork right to the edge of the page, gaining some valuable page real estate for larger illustrations. Even so, not all illustrations are larger. Shearwater illustrations are actually smaller than the original edition.

If the first edition Sibley was too red and washed out, this second edition is too dark and saturated. What should be orange (Red-shouldered Hawk) is a muddy brown. The lime-colored Orange-crowned Warblers are ghastly. The dried-blood colored Scarlet Tanager needs to come out from the dark cave it must be in. The storm-petrels are nearly silhouettes. Sure, sometimes in real life we see shadowed birds against harsh light or under the forest canopy, but that's not really how we want it depicted in our favorite field guides. But you know what? I can get used to it. Well, except for the lime jello warblers.

At least everyone agrees that the maps are accurate and improved with the replacement of the green dots with a colored wash as in the Eastern and Western local versions of the original edition.

What are others saying?

Anything Larus just looked at gulls. The conclusion? "for identification purposes, and from a gull enthusiast's perspective, I don't feel the plates in the 2nd edition make gull identification any easier. In fact, in some ways, the average birder may feel the 2nd edition makes gulls appear even more intimidating."

The Drinking Bird seems to like this Second Edition just fine. "In short, the things that Sibley has always done well are emphasized here. There is no field guide illustrator in North America better able to capture the subtleties of bird identification, the shape and feel of a bird, than David Sibley."

A DC Birding Blog had mostly positive things to say, especially about some of the new sidebars, like the sidebar "Owling" that explains how to find (and not disturb) owls. "Features that I liked best about the original Sibley Guide are maintained in the second edition."

The review in Nature Travel Network complained about some typos and misspellings that got by the editors. It also shows the lime-colored warblers and unintentional storm-petrel silhouettes. "I think you should wait for a second printing. Although the second edition improves on the first edition in some ways, production problems undermine its utility in important areas."

Birdchick likes the new book, but is waiting for the digital app. She notes the small text size and dark illustrations and has this recommendation: "I think this is a guide best purchased in person so you can see if this printing bothers you."

10,000 Birds didn't do a full review, but had a fairly glowing review: "Overall, the second edition is superior to the first edition. The layout is better, the images are bigger, more birds are included, space is used more wisely, there is lots more information, and the book is only four ounces heavier and about the same size. The only real negative is the overly dark printing."

Laura's Birding Blog has this to say: "The deal breaker for me about the new Sibley—the thing that would prevent me from buying it as my primary field guide—has nothing to do with the bird portrayals at all, but with the font size, color, and typeface. For some reason, the book’s designers went with a sans serif font for the main text blocks, even though studies show paragraphs are much easier to read in serif fonts. Even worse, the font is gray rather than black, and too narrow or small for me to read without a magnifying glass." [Hmm... where have I heard that before? -gg]

OK, now to the nitty-gritty. Seabirds. This group of birds is the least well-done in field guides. How has Sibley done in this new edition compared to the first? And how does he compare to the National Geographic 6th Edition--the first (and up to now only) general field guide to North American birds that portrays seabirds correctly?

First, what species of seabirds have been added to the Second Edition? Yellow-nosed, Black-browed, and Shy albatrosses were added.

Hawaiian and Bermuda petrels are new, as are Great-winged, White-chinned, and Bulwer's petrels. There is a new sidebar "Molt in Seabirds" that explains this important aspect of bird identification. Barolo, Streaked, and Wedge-tailed shearwaters are also new. As for Storm-Petrels, European, Swinhoe's, Wedge-rumped, and Black-bellied are new.

There are no new alcids, but the name is changed for the split of Guadalupe Murrelet ("Southern" Xantus's in the original edition). Sadly, the sidebar on "Identification of Murres" in the original no longer appears in the Second Edition.

By my count that's a very welcomed 15 added seabird species! Of course, the National Geographic 6th Edition (2011) already has these 15, plus 9 additional.

More's not better unless the descriptions are accurate. Let's take a look at changes between the two editions.

Short-tailed Albatross has expanded coverage and, although accurate, nowhere does it say that virtually all West Coast records are of all-dark immatures. That's a pretty significant omission, in my opinion.

The new Shy Albatross account is rather brief, with two small ventral illustrations that don't adequately show/explain the differences of the provocative statement: "North American records are of three different subspecies, sometimes considered three species." At least there should be some definite explanation of the White-capped versus dark-headed Salvin's forms. And the dorsal view should be shown to compare with Laysan.

The Second Edition is unchanged for Northern Fulmar illustrations. Missing is the fading of feathers, dark slate to brown, pale gray to yellowish, that gives molting fulmars a kaleidoscope of color patterns that birders see on West Coast fall pelagic trips.

The Flesh-footed Shearwater has been touched up and appears more accurately browner in the Second Edition. Sibley didn't fix the well-publicized flat head in the dorsal view, however.

The Second Edition improves the underwing illustrations of Sooty and Short-tailed shearwaters. The new notation on Sooty Shearwater "palest on primary coverts" shows that the field guide authors finally have these right! Can I take credit?

Despite the overly-dark views, the addition of Chapman's and Townsend's forms of Leach's Storm-Petrel in the Second Edition finally allows me to positively identify a Leach's I photographed in November 2008 with white rump wrapping around to sides of undertail coverts as Townsend's! East Coast pelagic birders will appreciate new plates showing the differences between the Grant's and Madeiran forms of Band-rumped Storm-Petrel.

Here's another thing I'll take credit for in the Second Edition--tails of fleeing alcids! Sibley includes thumbnails of all the alcids flying away now! His was the first field guide to show all birds in flight--even perching birds. But until now, there were no field guides showing murrelets and auklets as they are usually seen on a pelagic trip--flying directly away from the boat!

How does the seabird section now compare with the National Geographic 6th Edition? Even with the addition of 15 species to Sibley's Second Edition, NatGeo still has 9 more seabird species depicted. When comparing artwork between NatGeo and Sibley it is important to realize that Sibley is a disciple of Roger Tory Peterson in that he uses a patternistic approach. The NatGeo uses several artists, but most seabirds are painted by Jonathan Alderfer and are more detailed, down to the feathers. I, personally, like the more detailed artwork of Alderfer but, as many have noted, Sibley has a great eye for getting the shape right. Where the NatGeo and Sibley show the same species, Sibley often has 5-8 illustrations of each species and NatGeo typically 2-4.

Specifically? National Geographic 6th Edition is better for illustrations of Shy Albatross and Storm-Petrels in general. Sibley's Second Edition is better for Short-tailed Albatross, Black-capped Petrel, Herald Petrel, Great Shearwater, Buller's Shearwater, Short-tailed and Sooty Shearwaters. NatGeo has more detailed illustrations, but Sibley has more illustrations period--especially of seabirds sitting on the water and the new alcids flying away depictions. NatGeo still depicts 9 species of seabirds not shown in Sibley.

National Geographic 6th Edition versus Sibley's original for seabirds? NatGeo, hands down, not any question. Versus Sibley's Second Edition for seabirds? Hmm... probably Sibley's.

OK, here's my final analysis. The saturated illustrations are a bit dark for some species, but very striking for others. The typeface is too small and pale--it is unreadable. If you use a magnifying glass, the text is there, so if you really work at it you can read individual accounts. The layout is improved; new artwork is added; some older artwork is reworked. The amount of text has probably doubled, including new material on population, habits, and habitats. I'd like to see a reprint with heavier text, perhaps in larger font, and I'd like to see just a bit lighter coloration on the artwork (more yellow?)--though I can get used to it--in all but a few cases.

Realistically, though, until a new printing is released (if ever) this Sibley is going to sit on my shelf mostly unread. It's a shame, really. It's a great book (what I can read of it) but the printing choices and issues ultimately make it unreadable--unusable--and a wasted purchase for me.