“I’d like to think it’s a game-changer in the shorebird and seabird space especially”, says author Dr Rohan Clarke when pressed to single out the features that set The ABG apart from other field guides we’ve seen. Rohan was kind enough to give The Grip a few minutes of his time to speak about The ABG earlier in the week.
“Just because they’re tough groups that have not necessarily been done well before. Beyond that, it’s kind of hard. We didn’t line up the existing field guides and say, ‘how can we do better?’ We pulled out the best field guides in the world and said, ‘how can we replicate this in Australia?’”
This is an approach that has clearly paid dividends. Comparisons with the widely-lauded Collins Bird Guide (to the Birds of Europe) have already been drawn and, while comparisons can be odious, in this case it may be instructive. The Collins is frequently held up as a paragon of the field guide form and The Australian Bird Guide—in the quality of the artwork, in the fullness of the text, in the accuracy of the maps and information—in my assessment, stands shoulder-to-shoulder with it. In its comprehensiveness, it may even give it a nudge. According to Rohan Clarke, certainly, this was one of the team’s aims.
“We were shooting for it to be the most comprehensive guide ever in Australia.”
By most counts 936 species have been recorded within the guide’s region and The ABG treats 927. This leaves a tiny few missing the cut and the criteria for exclusion are clearly set out in the front of the book: no vagrant records from before 1940 and no extinct species. So there is no Paradise Parrot and no Eurasian Wigeon, no Corncrake, and no Nicobar Pigeon. The team had to draw the line somewhere in order to get the book through to publication so despite exciting recent occurrences, those latter three species will have to await a future edition.
But, other than those species which fall foul of these criteria, all other vagrants and birds of Australian external territories are covered. This increased the task of The ABG team considerably.
The Grip: It expands the scope of the book quite a lot when you start including all of those doesn’t it?
Rohan Clarke: Interestingly, I was not one of the people who was arguing hard for full inclusion of all the offshore island species; you know the one-off vagrants on all the offshore islands. I was a strong advocate for including all of the native species, the residents and the regular occurrences on the offshore islands because I reckon, politically, they’re ours, so if we’re not aware of them no-one else is going to be so we’ve got to drive that awareness and that ownership to get some buy-in and ensure they’re conserved. But some of the individuals I guess, we could’ve played them down more… When I started, I thought we could’ve played them down more than we have but at the end I think, certainly for some of the things that are tough pairs and combinations, hopefully we’re doing them as well as some of the overseas books as well. So hopefully we’ve got the best coverage of things like Phylloscopus warblers and the Locustella warblers for the ones that occur in Australia.
TG: And, something that I guess you and the team must have discussed at some point: a companion smartphone app. Do you think one is likely?
RC: It’s likely. The question is more a matter of time I think. I think it’s open-ended at the moment in that, other than being involved in discussions, I probably don’t know much more than the broader birding community other than that it is sitting with CSIRO Publishing and at some point they’re going to make a call on when and how.
TG: So what’s going to be the bird that grips you off the most when it turns up and it’s not in the book?
RC: Well Nicobar Pigeon didn’t waste any time! That’s interesting in the sense that, it had been recorded back in the 1980s but wasn’t submitted until quite late; as in, we were well into the writing process so it was one of the first to miss the cut effectively. But none of us were too concerned because we just weren’t going to get another one. So to have one on the mainland is probably gripping in the sense that it’s probably more deserving of a spot than some of the things on the offshore islands.
TG: The ABG team acknowledges the role of online technology like social media in enabling faster communication between birders and the sharing of information. Do you reckon social media has had a role to play in improving the standard of birding as well?
RC: I think so. I’m in the echo chamber there! There are a lot of people I see have a genuine interest in social media and there are things that I’ve said or Jeff (Davies) has said or something else online and then it only takes a couple of months if it’s a recurring identification problem, and other people are now using it routinely as a feature. So someone else will come in and say, “It is this ID because of this this and this”. So I think we are definitely seeing it. How wide the reach is, is hard to know in that space. But I guess the Australian Bird ID group has got some ridiculous number of people (14,673 members at time of writing) on Facebook so that’s kind of indicative that at least people want to be able to put a name to a bird.
TG: To play the devil’s advocate for a second, why did we need a new field guide? Didn’t we have enough already?
RC: I think we’ve got enough field guides in the sense that there’s a bit of diversity out there and all the Australian birds are covered but I reckon Australian birding has changed so much in the last decade or so and a lot of that’s driven by the digital age.
So it’s twofold in that, with digital images we can now look at birds at a level of detail that we just couldn’t have with slide film or anything in the past so we can capture everything that a bird reveals these days more so perhaps even than skins. Then, combined with that, the digital age has also seen a growth in birdwatching I’d say—a greater awareness—and so there are more birders who want to know more about the birds than just being able to identify them. So most of the existing field guides do a pretty good job of helping you identify a bird but most of them don’t go much further than that. Unless it’s really obvious, they don’t break down how you separate the sexes and most of them don’t touch on ageing unless, again, it’s really obvious or it’s a standard problem for a particular species. So that’s what we are trying to hit; both excellence in terms of straight ID and picking up all of the existing and new information that has come out of those digital images but then also going to another level in terms of providing more information about identification at a finer scale.
And finer scale knowledge of the birds we are watching is something we should all aspire to. The Australian Bird Guide delivers on this account too. For pure identification purposes, birds have been illustrated in poses that best highlight diagnostic features. To this end, seabirds are depicted almost exclusively in flight; precisely as most birders will encounter them on pelagic trips. The finer scale of knowledge is delivered through lavish text including family level summaries and species accounts which appear on the facing page to each plate of illustrations. The text is detailed without being too over-the-top, featuring all of the expected information and including helpful notes on recent taxonomic changes and potential ‘armchair ticks’, distributional info that might be too granular to identify on the maps, and behavioural notes where they might assist finding the bird in its habitat and separating it from confusion species. The quantity of information presented in The Australian Bird Guide is such that it actually hovers somewhere between a field guide and a handbook; a fact reflected in the choice of the title. The next logical point of reference after The Australian Bird Guide, if the reader still needs more on a bird, will be a serious reference handbook, the likes of HANZAB. That alone could be the measure of a book which has been kept to a size not much larger than the 9th edition of Pizzey & Knight (the latter at 1227g vs The ABG at 1450g). It’s not so much a field guide as it is The TARDIS of Australian bird information. (Australian Bird TARDIS? Actually has a bit of a ring to it, no?)