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Peterson’s Quest is Fulfilled – by Dale W. Mitchell

Posted by on Jul 17, 2017

The publication of a new bird field guide is always a cause for celebration among birders. Even if the region it covers is rather distant, there are still many of us who would applaud its debut, want a peek at its glossy plates and gear up to gossip about its expertise and design. Well, there have been several interesting guides trotting onstage recently, but one is special in a way unprecedented and, dare I say it, even historic. For late last year out came Birds of the Indonesian Archipelago: Greater Sundas and Wallacea, by Eaton, van Balen, et al. As these books go, it seems to cover its bases. It has all the pretty pictures, the compressed text, the little range maps one would expect. The field expertise and science of the authors seems to be sound. But that is not its significance.

With the publication of this new book, Birds of the Indonesian Archipelago: Greater Sundas and Wallacea, by Eaton, van Balen, et al., there is now no place left on Earth that lacks a proper bird guide. An era has ended. The era of epic birders with notebooks and fedoras is over. There is a bird field guide to everywhere, now.

When I was eleven years old, I had my entire life changed by a chance discovery of A Field Guide to the Western Birds by one Roger Tory Peterson. This was actually the second edition of said guide; I had missed the first; but this first ‘serious’ and ‘adult’ book on birds floored me. At that time (1965), I make the total tally of field guide coverage as two books (Peterson’s famous genre-setting Eastern Guide) and the one I held. Over the years, there was a sally on the birds of Europe by Mr. Peterson, et al, and a limited foray into Mexico. Then the dam broke.

In terms of coverage of the world’s avifauna, there was a parallel strategy that also is relevant: world checklists. Exemplified by the incomparable checklist of James Clements. (Again, I only discovered its existence in its second edition.) Add to this, the much later world-scale coverage of; but there still remained a cachet to the few remote places on the planet without field guides.

Finally, it looked like Wallacea (the suite of Islands between Borneo and New Guinea) and Bolivia were going to vie for the honor of Last Place Guided. Bolivia did not last all that long. Bolivia fell to overall coverage of the birds of South America and then had its own field guide, so, only Wallacea remained. Until now.

I do not know how you feel about this. For one thing, this pivotal event was actually last year (Once again, I only get in on the action in its ‘second go around’!) But, depending on your age at the time you started birding, you may have been witness to all, or a significant portion, of this Golden Age in bird field guides. All is not lost, though, to the adventurous, this shining time is still going on for practically every lifeform that is not slathered in feathers (think mammals, butterflies, etc.) and we all get to see how that turns out. Whatever you feel as a member of the overall Community of Watchers, the closing of the last gap in world bird watching should be commemorated. The dream that Roger Tory Peterson believed in has been fulfilled.

This is a slightly modified version of an article written for The Chat Newsletter of the Corvallis Oregon Audubon. The author, Dale W. Mitchell, can be contacted at valchuckwalla@yahoo.com.