Books  Zoology  Ornithology  Americas  Americas: North America 

Rare Birds of North America

Flora / Fauna
Covers 262 species of vagrant birds found in the United States and Canada
Features 275 stunning color plates that depict every species
Explains patterns of occurrence by region and season
Provides an invaluable overview of vagrancy patterns and migration
Includes detailed species accounts and cutting-edge identification tips

By: Steve NG Howell (Author), Ian Lewington (Illustrator), Will Russell (Author)

428 pages, 275 colour plates, 2 b/w illustrations, 17 colour maps, 9 tables

Princeton University Press

1 customer review
Hardback | Jan 2014 | #202274 | ISBN-13: 9780691117966
Availability: In stock
NHBS Price: £24.95 $31/€28 approx

About this book

Rare Birds of North America is the first comprehensive illustrated guide to the vagrant birds that occur throughout the United States and Canada. Featuring 275 stunning color plates, Rare Birds of North America covers 262 species originating from three very different regions – the Old World, the New World tropics, and the world's oceans. It explains the causes of avian vagrancy and breaks down patterns of occurrence by region and season, enabling readers to see where, when, and why each species occurs in North America. Detailed species accounts describe key identification features, taxonomy, age, sex, distribution, and status.

Rare Birds of North America provides unparalleled insights into vagrancy and avian migration, and will enrich the birding experience of anyone interested in finding and observing rare birds.

Please note that the publisher has cancelled plans for a paperback version.

"[...] Rare Birds of North America makes an excellent companion to contemporary field guides to the US and Canada and is highly recommended for anyone interested in North American vagrants and patterns of vagrancy."
– Christopher J. Butler, Ibis 157, 2015

"[...] Rare Birds of North America is a really brilliant reference. A modern, fresh format with illustrations of the highest calibre equates to great looks, backed up by the content which, again, is of the highest order. This is a modern classic, and no doubt many European birders are now holding out for a Palearctic equivalent...let's hope it isn't too long coming!"
– Josh Jones, 10-06-2014,

"[...] Anyone who regularly birds one of the states where vagrants routinely show up – Florida, Texas, Arizona, California, or Alaska – absolutely should have Rare Birds of North America handy at all times. But I’d urge any birder in North America who chases rarities or, especially, wants to find one themselves to have this book and study it. It will make you a better, more attuned birder."
– Grant McCreary (25-05-2014), read the full review at The Birder's Library

"[...] There is very little in this book that warrants critique. [...] Should you get this book?  If you are an avid birder excited by searching for a rarity; or, if you embrace the challenge of learning those necessary identification features; or, if you are intrigued by the historical presence of a particular rarity, then you must get this book.  There is no better compilation of rarities with such quality illustrations, completeness of researched records, and experienced identification."
– Avian Review, 11-03-2014

"Birders thrill to see rarities. This superb book covers 262 rare species, featuring Ian Lewington's unsurpassed artistry in 275 color plates. Species accounts discuss patterns of vagrancy, identification, seasons, regions, and migration."
Library Journal, starred review

"If you're a serious birder, there should already be a slot for this book on your shelf, since no other guide has ever filled this niche [...] With the help of this book, I might grab 15 minutes of fame for finding the next great rarity."
– Kirby Adams, National Parks Traveler

"[A] pleasure to read."
– Matt Merritt, Birdwatching Magazine

"This book is [...] a guaranteed winner and not just for a North American readership. Put together by a superbly qualified team, it is both authoritative and attractive. For the lister, identification enthusiast, migration student and general birdwatcher, it brings to life a whole continent of avian excitement. Birds are always amazing and surprising us, pushing the boundaries of what we thought possible and exploding the myths and stories we so carefully create about them. This book is a fitting tribute to their continuing capacity to inspire and confound."
– Andy Stoddart, Rare Bird Alert

"All bird identification books should be this good."
– Jim Williams, Minneapolis Star Tribune

"The authors' sifting of bird-sighting records for a period covering some six decades is impressive. Detailed accounts of 262 species comprise the bulk of the book. Lewington's lovely color illustrations are supported by the sort of information one expects to find in bird guides (e.g., key identification features, taxonomy, distribution, similar species, behaviors, etc.) [...] That we are enjoying a 'golden age of bird [book] publishing,' as another reviewer in these pages has said, is clearly exemplified by this work. The birding hobby's growing popularity means that its fervent fringe of 'life-listers' is growing, too, and for them, or anyone with an eye for the unusual, this book will surely tantalize."
– Robert Eagan, Library Journal

"This was the book my birding friends, in fact all North American birders who are fascinated by vagrants, have been waiting for. It is a book that embraces identification and analysis of avian rarities and vagrancy patterns throughout the United States and Canada with an enthusiasm and devotion to statistical, geographic, and ornithological detail that will both delight and challenge birders [...] Rare Birds of North America is a significant addition to our birding literature."
– Donna Schulman, 10,000 Birds

"I don't use this language often but this really is a 'must-have' book if you're one of those birders that chases, wants to chase, or just wait on the edge of your seat for the next rarity to show up on the Aleutians or St. Paul."
– Cory Gregory, See You At Sunrise

"If you have a hankering for understanding, or finding out more about some of the rarities that we profile on a monthly basis, Rare Birds of North America is the book for you. This is a unique and beautifully illustrated guide [...] As a primer for understanding vagrancy and migration, the introduction is remarkable [...] Rare Birds of North America should enrich the field experience of those interested in finding and observing rare birds, and it should serve as an encouragement to all."
– Birding Community E-Bulletin

"This work pays homage to the books that have covered the same ground for the rarities in Europe and has been long overdue in North America. Rare Birds of North America is worth every cent of its price tag and deserves to find its way on the bookshelves of every North American birder plus a few other bookshelves elsewhere in the world."
Urban Birder

"Rare Birds of North America provides unparalleled insights into vagrancy and avian migration, and will enrich the birding experience of anyone interested in finding and observing rare birds."
– Carrie Laben, Nature Travel Network

"This book fills a much needed niche. A lot of filed guides have 'Accidental' species and that is what we have relied on in the past for identification of these birds. But now there is a comprehensive treatise on vagrants in North America and I recommend it for your library."
– William Saur, Passionate Birder

"A technical tour de force."
– Gabriel Thoumi,

"Beautifully printed and illustrated. Rare Birds of North America is a useful, if highly selective, book that will certainly appeal to serious North American birders that enjoy chasing rarities or to the armchair ornithologist that dreams about chasing rarities."
– Colin Talcroft, Sonoma County Bird Watching Spots

"The first of its kind: a comprehensive and illustrated guide to the vagrant birds who make an appearance in the United States and Canada."
– Lee and J.J. MacFadden, Bristol Herald Courier

"These experienced and widely traveled birders illustrate and provide information about 262 avian species that should be on all our search lists."
– Gerry Rising, Buffalo News

"[E]ssential reading [...] significant [...] [T]he detailed treatment here is not only valuable, but in some cases the best available anywhere [...] [N]othing short of exceptional [...] this book has everything to recommend it."
– Dominic Mitchell, Birdwatch Magazine

"Fascinating [...] browsing this book presents a perfect opportunity for armchair birders to daydream about rare birds and about traveling to where the birds might be found."
– Dan Tallman's Bird Blog

"No North American lister should be without this book. The beautiful illustrations alone would make it a joy to own. But it would be the first port of call if you turned up something not in the North American guides. Here you will find solid information to help you identify the bird and judge the likelihood that it is what you think it is. The frequency and geographical pattern of rarity occurrences is invaluable in this respect. Nicely written and beautifully produced to Princeton's normal high standard."
– Fatbirder

"The book provides an excellent overview of birds rare to North America and serves as a worthy partner to your favorite North American field guide."
– Steve Shultz, CBC Newsletter

"[T]his is a very interesting book especially for those who want to take their birding to a whole new level of challenge by seeking out rare and vagrant birds."
– GrrlScientist

"If you take your birds rare, don't miss out on this impressive testament to the study of vagrancy in North American birds."
– Matthew Bettelheim, (bio)accumulation

"A masterclass in identification from two of America's finest field birders [...] [Ian Lewington's] brushstrokes breathe life into birds like no other illustrator, distilling the very essence of what makes one species different from another no matter how similar they look to even the most discerning of observers."
– Stuart Winter, Sunday Express

"This is a very nice book, which serious birders will own."

"Arizona birders will not want to be without Rare Birds. Not only does the book prepare us to identify the next vagrant that wafts our way, but it provides the reader with new ways to think about where our birds come from and why. And the only thing more fun than birding is thinking about it all."
– Rick Wright, Vermilion Flycatcher

"This volume is sure to be a revered resource in any birder's library for the wealth of information it contains as well as the beauty of Lewington's paintings."
USA Today

"[An] impressive work [...] The 275 plates by Ian Lewington are outstandingly clear [...] A combination of thorough research and beauty."
– Keith Betton, Bird Watching Magazine

"The identification texts here are probably the most advanced ever produced in a North American guide. This is an invaluable reference [...] The book's value is not limited to American birders. There's a lot of great information here for the European audience, too. The informative comparisons between the Common Moorhen and Common Gallinule, Gray and Great Blue Herons, and Common and Wilson's Snipe are probably better than in any European guide [...] Howell, Lewington, and Russell have done a fantastic job with this book. The illustrations, the detailed identification texts, and the original thought presented here make Rare Birds of North America a 'must-have' for the discerning birder."
– Graham Etherington, Birding, ABA

"The book provides unparalleled insights into vagrancy and avian migration [...] Serious birders will want a copy of Rare Birds of North America."
– Frederic H. Brock, Wildlife Activist

"Rare Birds of North America is splendid. There is warmth and humor in the prose, and the color plates are stunning and will ensure a strong audience for many years to come. Such a book is long overdue for North American readers."
– Edward S. Brinkley, editor of North American Birds

"An excellent treatment of a fascinating topic."
– Paul Lehman, field guide consultant and bird tour leader


"There has been a guide to the rare birds of Europe for over 20 years, so it’s been a long wait for North America’s rare birds to receive similar treatment. However, it’s been well worth the wait, as the authors have delivered a work of considerable scholarship.

It’s also not a book just for North Americans! While the USA and Canada are naturally the primary focus, the opening chapters on the patterns and mechanisms of vagrancy and of moult and ageing should be of interest to any birder, while many of the tricky vagrant ID challenges encountered by European birders are experienced in reverse in North America.

The 262 species accounts which make up the majority of the book are beautifully crafted and Ian Lewington’s excellent paintings provide the icing on the cake. Each account details the past North American records, global distribution and status, taxonomy, habitat and behaviour as well as an insightful section on the likely causes of vagrancy. The accounts conclude with an informative section on the identification including comparisons with more common North American species. This book is a must-buy for anyone visiting the vagrant traps of North America and should appeal to any birder with an interest in vagrancy or simply with a desire to increase their knowledge or identification skills."

– David Hodkinson, BTO book reviews, September 2014


Preface vii
Acknowledgments ix
How to Use This Book xi
Abbreviations and Terminology xv
Geographic Terms xvii
Drift 7
Misorientation 10
Overshooting 14
Dispersal 14
Association 16
Disorientation 16
False Vagrancy 16
East Asia 19
Western Eurasia-Africa 22
Mainland 24
Island 29
Temperate Southern Hemisphere 30
Subtropical and Equatorial 30
Waterfowl 36
Pelagic Seabirds 38
Gulls and Terns 39
Shorebirds 39
Wading Birds 39
Raptors and Owls 40
Larger Landbirds 40
Aerial Landbirds 40
Songbirds 41
Plovers 142
Oystercatchers 151
Stilts 152
Sandpipers 154
Pratincoles 189
Thick-knees 190
Plovers 191
Herons 194
Cranes 203
Rails 206
Herons 210
Storks 211
Rails 213
Jacanas 215
Nightjars 237
Pigeons 238
Cuckoos 240
Hoopoes 243
Woodpeckers 244
Corvids 246
Pigeons 248
Cuckoos 251
Trogons 252
Kingfishers 254
Swifts 255
Swallows 259
Hummingbirds 261
Swifts 272
Swallows 274
Old World Flycatchers 279
Shrikes 286
Accentors 288
Chats and Thrushes 289
Old World Warblers 303
Wagtails and Pipits 315
Larks 322
Old World Buntings 323
Finches 334
Tyrant-flycatchers and allies 343
Mimids 362
Thrushes 365
Silkies (Silky-flycatchers) 373
Wrens 374
Vireos 375
Wood-warblers 377
Grassquits 385
Tanagers 388
New World Grosbeaks and Allies 393
New World Orioles 398
Appendix A. Species New to North America, Fall 2011-Summer 2012 403
Appendix B: Species of Hypothetical Occurrence 404
Appendix C: Birds New to North America, 1950-2011 408
Literature Cited 411
Index 425

Reviews (1)

Rare birds in America, common in the UK!
By Keith 4 Feb 2016 Unconfirmed Purchase Written for Hardback

This is an impressive work that analyses the occurrence of the rarest 262 species that arrive as vagrants in the USA and Canada. It therefore includes birds that are common here in the UK, but also others that make it up from South America or across from Asia. Because the book features common UK birds like Grey Heron you might assume that it is of little value to you, but what it will tell you is how to tell a Great Blue Heron from the Grey Heron – and so immediately it’s extremely valuable.

The book starts with a 32-page introduction which explains why some birds end up in the wrong place. In fact it considers six possible causes of displacement and then offers a detailed tabular analysis of the seasonality and geographic origins of these vagrants. So this is not a field guide – it is really designed as a reference book.

Not all vagrants in North American are included, but all species to have occurred in the period 1950 to July 2011 are covered. In fact 209 of those included were first recorded during that time period under review, and 50 of them were added between 2000 and 2011.

There are many tables in which such occurrences are analysed from different angles and these are for 1950-2009, allowing the six decades to be compared equally. Just as in Europe, the number of new vagrants being reported has grown hugely, along with the interest in birding and our ability to recognise what we see.

The order of species is somewhat different to that in most North American field guides, but it does start with waterbirds and ends with landbirds. Basically you’ll probably have to use the index a bit more than usual, but that is not a problem.

Amongst the species are some that we see in the UK but which always challenge your ID skills. Take for example Tundra and Taiga Bean Geese and other rare visitors such as Lesser White-fronted Goose. There are plenty of birds included that are relatively familiar to us – such as Garganey, Pochard, Shelduck and Smew among the waterfowl. There are a number of familiar waders included, and among those that we all know extremely well there are a few that set us a challenge every time – such as Little and Temminck’s Stints, and Marsh Sandpiper and Greenshank – plus real testers such as Greater and Lesser Sand Plovers. The gulls include Yellow-legged Gull, while among the terns are White-winged Black and Whiskered.

Each species is analysed in detail. Occurrences in the USA and Canada are summarised and there is a brief explanation of taxonomy and world distribution. Some general comments put these records into context and sometimes throw up interesting challenges. For example, is it possible that sightings of Eurasian Hobbies in Alaska were perhaps Amur Falcons instead? It would certainly seem likely. The authors also make a few predictions about future sightings which are useful.

There is an extensive description of the plumage of each species – in every possible combination of age and sex. Finally there are brief comments on habitats and behaviour. But for me a particularly interesting group of species on offer are the various albatrosses, petrels and shearwaters – which are a speciality of Steve Howell.

The 275 plates by Ian Lewington are outstandingly clear, and in a book like this that is exactly what you need. Each bird is shown perched and often in flight, and once again, many combinations of plumages are shown.

Just over 70% of the birds featured in this book are never likely to reach the UK, so you could argue that the use of it for birders here may be limited, but it is a combination of thorough research and beauty – two qualities you often don’t see combined together. Personally I recommend getting it just for the analysis of why birds become vagrants in the first place. A complex set of issues are explained very clearly.

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Steve N. G. Howell is a research associate at PRBO Conservation Science and a staff leader with WINGS, an international bird tour company. His books include Petrels, Albatrosses, and Storm-Petrels of North America.

Ian Lewington is one of the world's finest bird illustrators. His books include Rare Birds of Britain and Europe.

Will Russell is cofounder and managing director of WINGS.

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