Review: The Birds of New Jersey (Status and Distribution)

A book devoted solely to the status and distribution of the birds of New Jersey? I can imagine the differing reactions of birders in North America and (some) birders in the UK/Europe to learning about this book. North Americans (particularly those on the East Coast), won’t, I imagine, need any persuading that a well-written and illustrated complete reference (rather than an ID Guide, please note) to the birds of the ‘Garden State’ is going to fill a gap in their libraries that they’ll be only too pleased to see plugged. However, birders over on this side of the Pond, might need more of an explanation to why this attractive, softcover tome might be of interest to them…?

Let’s start by putting New Jersey into context. It sits below New York State, like Norfolk or Cornwall has an extensive coastline, and is the 47th smallest state in the union – but at 8,722 sq mi is still larger than Wales and not much smaller than Belgium. Size though is not everything: as any birder knows it’s the habitat within the area that counts, and as every migrant enthusiast will know it’s not ‘how big’ a site is but ‘where’ it is that makes all the difference. And New Jersey scores big when it comes to both habitat and position.

There are – as the excellent introduction in The Birds of New Jersey (TBNJ) explains – four distinct landforms (or physiographic provinces) in New Jersey. Roughly translated that means that NJ has it all – mountains, vallies, mixed woodlands, and the coast. And all of them lying along the Atlantic Flyway, a major migration route stretching from the Gulf of Mexico all the way up to the Canadian Maritimes. Virtually every bird using the Flyway will fly over or land in New Jersey, and many of them will navigate using the coastline. Hawks drift over in the tens of thousands, shorebirds stream along the coast in huge numbers, passerines hop from point to point, and eastbound rarities from the West Coast run out of land if they try to go any further. Which is why some of New Jersey’s birding sites are amongst the most famous in North America: Cape May, Brigantine, Sandy Hook…. Mouthwatering sites!

Such ornithological treasure troves have attracted some of the best and most interesting birders in the US too. As well as excellent everyday birding the World Series of Birding (a serious but fun 24 hour Big Day) is based out of the Cape May Observatory, there are regular pelagics discovering all sorts of seabird movements, banding takes place at many hot spots, and with good transport links from all over North America and its proximity to major cities like New York there is always someone expertly birding in New Jersey. As a result the State has amassed a remarkable list of more than 450 species, a total which includes every regular eastern breeding migrant and a host of vagrants from points distant including Yellow-nosed Albatross, Red-necked Stint, Large-billed Tern, Eurasian Kestrel, Brown-chested Martin, Green Violet-ear, and Fork-tailed Flycatcher.

And this beautifully-produced book lists the lot, tells the reader (and potential visitor to NJ) when the birds were (and are) seen, and shows them where to find them – or where America’s twitchers missed them – on a simple map of the State (coloured depending on the species’ status). What’s more there are photographs of every single one of the rarities I just listed above, plus numerous colour shots of migrants and residents – over 200 in all! In one sense that’s not surprising considering that birder-photographers like Kevin Karlson (who is the photographic editor for TBNJ) and Richard Crossley (author of the Crossley ID Guide of course) are loose in New Jersey with the best photographic equipment money can get you – but it’s also testament to how many of New Jersey’s birders have cooperated with the author to create the most complete and well-documented book possible.

And complete and well-documented it seems to be (and accurate too, though I’m willing to bet Mr Boyle has rather ruefully seen the recent 52nd AOU Supplement that split the NA/European Moorhens and recommends changing the scientific names of so many of the nation’s warblers). I can’t speak with any great authority about its completeness of course, but the list of contributors (and other reviews on the net) suggests that this is the case. Besides which, William J. Boyle Jr first edited a booklet about the birds of his home state decades ago, and as long ago as 1986 published ‘A Guide to Bird Finding in New Jersey‘. Princeton, the publishers of TNBJ, approached the author to collate and write this book – and they made a good choice. He quite evidently knows the State inside and out, and it’s no doubt in response to him personally that so many people have helped him produce such an authoritative book.

So, why should all of this matter to birders over here? Well, if you’re never going to visit North America perhaps it doesn’t – though if you’re anything like me then just having a book like this to thumb through is a joy anyway. The chances are though that one day you’re going to feel the pull of eastern North America, going to want to see places like Cape May and its famous ‘falls’ for yourself, and then this book is going to be as valuable to you as the said Crossley ID Guide (other guides are available of course, Richard’s just happens to be my current favourite). It will help you compile a list of species in advance, decide when to go, help answer the question of where Carolina and/or Black-capped Chickadees occur, and even packs in a couple of Appendices that list exotics and birds of uncertain provenance and gives some useful identification information. And typical of a Princeton published softcover, it’s packaged beautifully, with excellent design throughout, and with a very legible font set clearly against snowy white paper.

I suppose in the end TBNJ probably won’t be considered anywhere near as essential for birders here in Europe as it will be in North America, but so much of what us birders buy isn’t ‘essential’ but bought in hope, for the love of birds, and for the joy of handling a good book. If you’ve got twenty pounds (or even less if you check Amazon UK) to spare on a book you may not ever need – or you just like good bird books to leaf through – then I’d definitely say ‘go for it’!

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (15 May 2011)
  • Language English
  • ISBN-10: 0691144109
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691144108
  • Product Dimensions: 23.4 x 15.7 x 2.2 cm


Disclaimer: Princeton supplied a review copy of this book. No payments were offered or exchanged.


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About the author

Passionate about animal welfare and conservation, veggie and dairy-free, I live in the Wiltshire (UK) countryside. I co-founded Birders Against Wildlife Crime and Birds Korea. Trustee of the League against Cruel Sports On Twitter @charliemoores

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