Reviews of Glassberg’s New Swift Guide to Butterflies of North America

If you’re like me, at the holidays my mind turns to books to give as presents during the Yule season.  With that in mind, I was very interested in these two recent reviews on local listservs of the book by well known naturalists in the mid-Atlantic area, Harry LeGrand and Billy Weber.  They’re both provocative, in a good way, and after reading them I was torn about whether the Swift Guide belonged on my bookshelf (or, more accurately, in the ActionPacker Cargo Box in my car’s trunk that is my traveling guidebook library).  My copy arrived today (a much shorter wait than Harry had), and I’ll post my own thoughts here after kicking the tires for a couple of days.  Meantime, both Harry and Billy offer some excellent observations about the strengths and weaknesses of this new guide that I thought LepLog readers might want to note before ordering this book as a holiday gift (for yourself or someone else!):

Harry wrote on CarolinaLeps Nov. 18:
Some folks already have the new “A Swift Guide to Butterflies of North
America”, by Jeffrey Glassberg. It can be ordered only thru Sunstreak Books:

Several folks on this listserve have made brief comments about the book,
saying that  it is good or excellent, but with no particular “review”. I
just got my copy yesterday — Hurricane Sandy obviously slowed the process
(3.5 weeks of waiting), as all things “butterfly” pass through 4 Delaware
Road, Morristown, NJ. (Some of you know what that is all about.)

The book is crammed (practially no white space, even the margins) with
color photos and brief text (notes). It is nothing like the format of other
books, where text and range maps for a given species are on the left, and
photos or paintings are on the right. Each page has 1-4 species, with
several color photos for each, some choppy phrases for field marks,
foodplants, habitat, etc, down the left margin, and a tiny range map near
the photos for all but those in southern TX.

1. Treats all species of the US and Canada.
2. Even has species just south of the border that lie close to the US but
haven’t yet been found in the states — “not yet LRGV” designation — “not
yet Lower Rio Grande Valley”.
3. Peterson-like red lines on the photos that point to distinctive marks,
with brief notes at these marks.
4. Price for all the color photos.

1. The largest photo for each species is typicall 2-5x, which means we see
a lot of 3-4″ long skippers, and that means the photos can be a tad fuzzy
— like when I take a photo, and reduce it down from 2 mb to 100 kb. I feel
like I need to hold the book at arm’s length to see some of these skippers
clearly. At least, there are smaller inset photos that are more 1-2x in

1. Glassberg is his same old self. He won’t budge from his 20th Century
taxonomic views, that any newly described species, or new splits, are
bogus, don’t meet his standards, or aren’t described to his satisfaction.
So, we are still stuck with Spring Azure (not a peep about Holly Azure,
Cherry Gall Azure, etc., though a small peep about “Summer Azure”),
Appalachian Tiger Swallowtail (a mention as a possible species, but no
photos), photos of the Florida “Dusted Skipper”, but the same old stuff
about it likely not being a good species, etc. He does have a lot of photos
of western blues, checkerspots, etc. But, as he is an Easterner, he isn’t
in the middle of the mix of what is going on with taxonomy of Western
2. Some folks may consider it too crowded/cluttered for their usage. The
species names are buried amid the photos, and the range maps are tiny.
(But, to get perhaps 800 or more species in 416 pages, you have to have
some cramming.)
3. Canada and Alaska get a bit short-changed — some range maps chop off
the northern part of the ranges of species. Some of those northern sulphurs
get small photos and limited text.

Is it worth getting? YES. It is only $25, for 3,500 color photos, and a
number of these are rarities of south TX and MX. The folks who really NEED
the book are those who travel to south TX, the US hotspot for butterflies.
His East and West books have omitted these south TX species, for the most
part. But, this new guide is full of photos and text for the crackers, lots
of swallowtails, hairstreaks, etc., that occur mainly north to the Rio
Grande. If you are just traveling in the East, or the West, you can get by
with his “Butterflies though Binoculars” — West and East, and these are
pleasing to look at and have a lot more text. And, you can also get by with
the Brock/Kaufman guide, which covers the entire US and Canada.

I’m still looking at the book, and I really enjoy the photos of south TX
and Mexican species. He spends a lot of time in these areas of the North
American continent now, and it shows in his interest in presenting these
species. In some ways, after looking at the book, one may think the title
is “The Swift Guide to the Butterflies of Texas and northern Mexico”!

Harry LeGrand

On the PaLepsOdes listserv, Billy Weber chimed in with his own very extensive review Nov. 19:

On the CarolinaLeps listserve, Harry LeGrand has just posted an
excellent review of Jeffrey Glassberg’s Swift Guide to Butterflies of
North America, published this year by Sunstreak Books and available
online for $24.95. I’ve been flipping through the volume since late
October and now feel qualified to contribute to the discussion. First
of all, I highly recommend the guide, not because it’s indispensable
or cutting-edge (it’s neither), but because it’s absolutely packed
with huge, color, mostly previously-unavailable photographs of live
butterflies. It’s a great book to peruse surreptitiously at work or at
family functions! I’m impressed that Glassberg himself took all but
200 of the 3500 photos (perhaps at the expense of including an ideal
image, in certain cases), and it’s going to take many more months for
me to grow tired of eyeballing the pages.

Like the Sibley Guide to Birds, the Swift Guide presents its
information in captions and bullet points. It’s a minimalist approach
to text, but Glassberg manages to cram a lot of stuff around the edges
of his pictures. The hostplant for every species (if known) is
emphasized in a box at the upper left; abundance codes, flight times,
habitat, behavioral notes, and even some specific site recommendations
are included. Unfortunately, the actual species name–printed below
the photo(s) in a smaller, wimpier font–is the least conspicuous part
of each account. Also, the captions sometimes blend in with the
backgrounds (see Confused Cloudywing), and whereas in past Glassberg
publications, location and date were provided for every photo, here we
get no dates, and locations only when there are insets showing
geographical variation. Typos are widespread and sometimes
distracting. In my view, one of the book’s successes is in its
nonverbal presentation: a size bar above each name SHOWS you the
length of the butterfly’s forewing, and species headings (or rather,
footings) are color-coded to indicate overall range (Holarctic,
Neotropical, etc.).

Speaking of range, the maps, while small, seem pretty current/accurate
and highlight disjunct populations well. The Swamp Metalmark map, for
instance, includes the newly-discovered Alabama colony. Ranges are
colored to represent number of broods, and the text does a good job of
supplementing the maps with “just-in” tidbits, such as the New Jersey
Silvery Blue record from 2011, and the fact that Nickerbean Blue
hasn’t been seen on Big Pine Key since 2007. (Not to nitpick, but
Grizzled Skipper is mapped as extirpated in Pennsylvania [not true]
while Arogos Skipper is shown to occur in North Carolina [it’s
extirpated]. And either the King’s Hairstreak map has some extra
shading on it, or King’s Hairstreak is a partly pelagic species.) For
Mexican and West Indian butterflies that barely enter the U.S., a
descriptive label (“FL Keys,” “se AZ once,” “LRGV twice”) replaces a
map. Here Glassberg gets a little revisionist with his inclusion/
exclusion of historical and/or dubious records, but he entertainingly
includes a number of tropical taxa he expects to appear someday in our
region, with the designation “not yet” on the label. My only quibbles
with the handling of distribution are that the maps (a) often combine
geographically-separate forms without marking their divisions and (b)
often exclude parts of species’ ranges due to space constraints. Lower
48 species that extend into Canada and Alaska are not mapped as such;
Dingy Fritillary thus appears from its map to occur only in Colorado
and Wyoming, with its core northern range undepicted and not even
mentioned in the text. I was disappointed at the omission of disjunct
eastern Canadian populations of Macoun’s Arctic and Garita
Skipperling. But I understand the space issue. The book covers
virtually every North American butterfly and is still compact and cheap.

Again like the Sibley Guide, the Swift Guide features many previously-
unpublished field marks (see under, for example, the pine elfins).
Besides the visual appeal, this is the work’s most valuable
characteristic. It’s fun to relearn familiar species and to bolster
one’s arsenal of distinguishing points for tough IDs. Only here will
you find entries for recent regulars like Pink-spot Sulphur and Telea
Hairstreak, and I was pleased with the detailed treatment of Teleus
Longtail, a Brown-Longtail-lookalike the Kaufman guide erroneously
refers to as “common.” (As LeGrand notes, Glassberg’s focus has
recently been on south Texas and his book is consequently going to be
most useful there.) There’s a great spread of grass-skipper
variations, better than the ones in Glassberg’s Butterflies Through
Binoculars series. That said, there’s a fair amount of shortcutting,
some of it ill-advised. I’m assuming it’s a lack of specimen photos
that keeps the interesting and little-known Coppermine Sulphur and Bay
Skipper from having their own accounts–and Glassberg’s allegiance to
the NABA Checklist that dissuades him from including the well-
established European Common Blue–but why have two separate entries
for Mallow Scrub-Hairstreak if you’re not going to cover “Seminole”
Texan Crescent or “Viola’s” Wood-Satyr (or at least mention the
controversial brood timing of Little Wood-Satyr)? Despite the
abundance of obscure information, some opportunities have been missed.
As in BTB, Glassberg refuses to highlight one of the best field marks
for Confused Cloudywing (the displaced lowest spot in the forewing’s
subapical row). No attention is called to forewing shape as a means to
distinguish Sleepy and Dreamy duskywings. No Mulberry Wing variation
is shown, and when I contrast my Yehl Skipper photos with the main
picture in this guide, I find it hard to believe that Glassberg’s
selection is a representative image. (I DON’T think, however, that
Glassberg’s photos are to any extent mislabeled, as someone on a
different listserve has implied [“who knows how accurate some of the
photos are”].)

A word about tone: the text, while limited, is as colorful as it can
be in its context, and lovers of Glassberg’s quirkiness in the BTB
series will find plenty to enjoy here (see the Bog Elfin habitat
description, the Red-disked Alpine anecdote, the Common Ringlet
pornography comparison in which Glassberg quotes himself). I like how
under Carousing Jewelmark, Glassberg justifies his fanciful English
name coinage with an ID point: “fringed leggings (for night-
clubbing).” But arrogance enters the mix, in pseudo-authoritative
range-expansion predictions (for Lime Swallowtail, for Common Ringlet)
and especially in the introduction, where in a section entitled
“Interacting with Butterflies,” Glassberg takes his anti-collecting
attitude to a vitriolic new level, claiming that “Unless one is a
scientist…sweeping [butterflies] into nets is inappropriate
behavior.” (He makes it clear that he’s talking about catch-and-
release as well as actual collecting.) After reading Mariposa Road, in
which Robert Michael Pyle recounts with childlike wonder his gentle
and appreciative handling of wild butterflies, I find it difficult not
to take offense when Glassberg insists that “those who are truly
interested in advancing knowledge of butterflies will put away nets
and embrace the future.”

If only the Swift Guide would embrace the future! Taxonomy is the
final issue I wish to address, and I have nothing positive to say
about Glassberg’s approach to it. I can only hope that this book’s
stubbornly outdated perspective is not an indication of what to expect
from the third edition of the NABA Checklist, due next year. (If it’s
not–if the NABA committee is indeed in the process of overhauling
their checklist–then this book’s publication was very poorly timed.)
I get that, as president of the North American Butterfly Association,
Glassberg is bound to endorse its checklist’s “official” positions.
But I was looking forward to some cutting-edge material here! Instead,
because the NABA committee is apparently slow, or at least reluctant,
on the uptake, I received a volume that is in some ways less current
than the Kaufman guide, updated over a half decade ago. It is time for
butterfliers to adopt Pelham’s seminal Catalogue of the Butterflies of
the United States and Canada (revised 2011) as their standard of
nomenclature and taxonomy. I doubt anyone cares about the
ramifications for “listers,” as they do in birding circles; I, for
one, am working on a photographic collection of identifiable forms, so
I don’t care what’s a full species and what’s not. But NOT affording
species status to numerous widely-recognized new taxa has compelled
the Swift Guide to omit butterflies entirely, like Appalachian Tiger
Swallowtail (brief vague mention), Leona’s Little Blue, and Western
Sooty Hairstreak (mentioned but neither described nor illustrated).
The treatments of the Mustard White, Sara Orangetip, Bramble
Hairstreak, Square-spotted and Dotted blue, Mormon Metalmark, and
branded skipper complexes are all frustratingly conservative and
underdeveloped. East Coast observers will wince at the assertion that
Eastern and Canadian tiger swallowtails “might best be treated as one
species” (when there are probably more than three involved)–at an
overly cautious Northern Crescent account that ignores fascinating
populations in North Carolina and eastern Pennsylvania–at the
simplistic breakdown of the Georgia/Helicta Satyr split (“data
supporting this treatment is weak”)–at the statement that Common and
White checkered-skippers “may actually be one species”–at the
continued denial of Loammi Skipper as a “good” species, due to there
being “little published data.” That last bit really irks me, since
Glassberg readily references unpublished data when it suits his
purpose: he slights five of the seven Celastrina ladon splits because
“unpublished DNA data groups [sic] all spring populations as one
species and summer and fall populations as another,” and he includes
the LRGV stray Vicroy’s Ministreak, “to be described in 2012.” The
problem is not that Glassberg is lump-happy, but that he’s pervasively
pro-status-quo. What others have lumped, he wants to keep separate,
like Arctic/Purplish Fritillary and Theona/Chinati Checkerspot. (He
says that the Florida Leafwing “may soon be the first full species of
U.S. butterfly to become extinct,” but Pelham treats floridalis as a
subspecies of the partly extralimital Anaea troglodyta.) He
perpetuates defunct scientific names for Little Yellow, Sleepy Orange,
and other pierids (all Eurema in the book), and for Mangrove and
Tropical buckeyes (evarete and genoveva, respectively, while the
BAMONA database and even Kaufman have it correctly the other way
around). His rationale for leaving the Atlantis Fritillary complex
untouched perhaps best encapsulates his overall “negative-capability”-
style hesitance: “the truth is that no one really knows.” Well, not if
no one really wants to learn.

Buy this book, but prepared to be irritated. The pictures are a riot
to look at. I’m about to head to work, and the Swift Guide is again
going with me. I’m enjoying it, even if it’s simultaneously the newest
work on the market and one of the more obsolete.

Billy Weber
Bethlehem, PA

This entry was posted in general butterfly news, Identification tips, Review. Bookmark the permalink.

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