The first of the two field guides is David Allen Sibley's Field Guide to Birds of Western North America.
This field guide is for the whole western half of North America, unlike my previous field guide, which was just for California. When you open it up, it looks like this:
Each of its pages is divided in half, so you can see four birds on every spread. Already, you can tell that this field guide is way more detailed than the first, California-specific guide. Each bird has multiple "plumages," or "looks." (Well, really, "plumage" means the bird's coat of feathers, but it can also mean how that coat looks.) Nearly every species has a different plumage for the male and female and juvenile birds. But, don't worry! The plumages are usually very similar. If you want to have some fun and feel nerdy, you can identify the bird's gender and age - but, you don't have to.
Those paragraphs on the left side of the pages have basic information about the birds. Each paragraph gives the height and weight of its bird, describes its call, and explains what habitat it likes. It also describes its plumage with words. Birders have their own lingo to describe birds, so if you read that paragraph it'll say words like "supercilium" (eyebrow, for normal people) and "undertail coverts" (the feathers on the underside of the bird's tail).
And, as you can see, the birds on this page are all related. They're all falcon-type birds. All of the birds in this book are listed near their relatives, which makes it really easy to compare them. If you see a hawk in the sky, you can flip to the hawk section of the field guide and look at all the drawings until you find one that matches. There's an index at the back of the book to help you find where all those sections begin and end.
The second field guide is the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. It covers all of North America, but, you can find one for just the western half. I received this one as a gift from someone who didn't know where I lived. If I had bought it myself, I probably would have gotten the western version.
Inside, it looks like this:
You can already see the biggest difference, right? This field guide has all the birds on the right side of the spread, and all of the information on the left. However, when you look at the pictures and you read the paragraphs, you can see that the books are very similar. They're both talking about the same species, so of course the facts are the same. The images look pretty much the same, except maybe the birds are posed differently.
Here's where choosing a field guide can be fun: For all intents and purposes, these field guides are The Same. Choosing between the two is a matter of opinion. Do you like to have all the pictures together, so you can compare them more easily (National Geo)? Or do you like having the birds directly next to their information paragraphs, so you don't have to match the words to the pictures (Sibley)? I could only find three other (extremely minor) differences between the books. Namely:
A point in favor of National Geo: The illustrations in the National Geo guide are more detailed than those of the Sibley guide. I imagine that this is because Sibley had to illustrate 703 birds by himself. The National Geo illustrations come from many different people, who probably were assigned a dozen birds each, and had more time to complete them. However! The Sibley guide's illustrations are still very good.
A point against National Geo: The National Geo guide includes some very rare birds, for which they don't even put a range map because it's super unlikely that you'll see one. For a beginning birder, this might be confusing. You might end up thinking that you've seen an Eskimo Curlew, which is probably extinct. (They probably included the Curlew in a desperate hope that someone will magically find the last surviving colony.)
A point in favor of Sibley: The Sibley guide also shows where you might find the birds during migration.
And that's it! Really, you can pick up either field guide and be just as happy with your choice. So, try one! Even if I'm not trying to identify a bird, I love looking through my field guides. There's always a new bird to learn about. If you're not sure that you want a field guide, try flipping through one at the bookstore and see if you like it. If you are sure that you want one, consider buying one of these. Although, there is one more field guide that I have which I'll be introducing to you later.
Unfortunately, this blog will go on another brief hiatus. I'm going to Hawaii for a week, starting tomorrow. I'll take my camera, and show you some common birds when I get back. I'm pretty excited!