Although many birders are transitioning to bird apps, there are still many who enjoy holding a good paper field guide in their hands. We are spoiled for choice with field guides in South Africa, so when the question is asked about which field guide is the best, it often sparks some strong debate.
I have always felt that it's not simply about finding the best field guide but finding the best field guide for you.
What someone else enjoys might not suit your specific preferences. Many times people will advise you to get the guide that they enjoy the most and that suits what they are looking for.
These five quick questions will help you choose the bird field guide that is the perfect fit for you.
How experienced are you as a birder?
When I first started birding, I was given a 'Roberts Bird Guide' as a gift. Although I appreciated the kind gesture, I found Roberts difficult to use as a newer birder. I eventually invested in 'Newman's Birds of Southern Africa'. The way this guide was laid out was a lot easier to navigate as a newer birder. The drawings were labeled in such a way that I could find the most important features to look for when identifying a species.
Later on, Faansie Peacock released his children's field guide, 'Faansie's Bird Book 2' Although marketed as a children's book, it has become a fantastic resource for new birders. It is lighter in text, but Faansie's style makes it a lot easier to identify birds when you are starting.
As you grow as a birder, you may find yourself 'outgrowing' these field guides that are more suited to newer birders. This is when you can look at investing in another guide that meets your level of experience.
Do you want to use it in the field or at home?
Some birders buy a bird app that they use in the field but prefer to use their field guide when they get back home. If you are looking to use the field guide at home more than in the field, then size and weight are not that important. But if you are looking to use it more in the field, then one needs to take note of these factors. In terms of size dimensions, all the field guides are more or less the same, but Newman's field guide is a bit smaller. What is interesting is that although Newman's is much smaller, it feels heavier than the other guides on the market.
Another factor to note if you want to use the field guide when you are out birding is the durability of the book you get. Some of the field guides have plastic covers to ensure that they last longer.
How much text and information are you looking for?
There are varying degrees of text in the different field guides. Faansie's Bird book is aimed at children, therefore it has the least text. Newman's has less text than some of the other guides, again providing the newer birder only the necessary text needed to identify what they see.
'Roberts Bird Guide' and 'Sasol Birds of Southern Africa' have the most text, but Roberts is the most detailed in terms of what is covered. If you are looking for lots of information on the species you may see, then Roberts is the best buy. In terms of a good amount of text that is presented in a way that is easily understood, I find that Sasol has the best balance.
Do you want drawings or photos?
All the guides I have mentioned so far use illustrations. Some people may prefer photos instead of drawings.
If you prefer photos, you can either get 'Veld - Birds of Southern Africa - The Complete Photographic Guide' or 'Birds of Southern Africa: Complete Photographic Field Guide - Ian Sinclair and Peter Ryan'. Both of these are fantastic guides - the photography in the Veld guide is much better photographically (this book is a fantastic coffee table book), while Sinclair's photographic guide has a wider variety of photos showing plumage variations.
Sinclair's guide is also a lot more 'text-heavy' than the Veld guide, so again you need to decide how much information you are looking for with the guide.
If you want drawings, what style are you looking for?
The field guides with drawings use different artists; therefore, there are different styles of drawings. The style of art that one guide uses may appeal to you more than one of the other ones. Look for a field guide where the style of drawing suits your unique needs.
Sasol, Newman's, and Faansie's Bird Book have a bolder style of art, which may be easier for newer birders. Roberts has a much finer style of art, which at times shows a lot more detail in the species that are illustrated.
Ask yourself these five simple questions before choosing a field guide, and you are more likely to get one that will be a perfect fit for you.
We have a wide range of Bird Field Guides for sale in our online shop. If you would like any assistance in choosing the right bird field guide, feel free to drop us an email, and we will help you as best we can at firstname.lastname@example.org