By Paul Scofield and Brent Stephenson
545 pages, soft cover
Auckland University Press
Island gigantism is a well-studied phenomenon in biology. In New Zealand, a place with more than a few celebrated examples of island gigantism among its fauna, the phenomenon seems to have spread to its field guides too. Fear not though; it’s definitely not the drastic problem that it might seem on the surface.
Birds of New Zealand: a photographic guide, as the title suggests, was never intended as a field guide per se. It was released simultaneously with a companion smartphone app back in 2013. (I know; that’s how long it takes me to get around to reviews these days.) Smart birders will get both versions of this superb guide and leave the book in the car or hotel room. The app is all you’ll need while you’re out on the paddock and, of course, comes with the full compliment of recordings for use in training your ear or ethical playback. The book then provides the heavy artillery for resolving any really difficult ID quandaries and is perfect for poring over during evenings of tidying up lists and notebooks.
For a guide which only treats 365 species, Birds of New Zealand weighs in at a hefty 1240g; only 200g lighter than the Australian Bird Guide which treats 927 species! But even a quick flick through the pages will reveal where the book carries this weight: in addition to superb photography, it is dense with information. It verges on a full-blown handbook. Sacrificing the requirement for being a strictly portable field guide has allowed for the inclusion of much more detailed text than we’re accustomed to in most field guides. This has also given the authors freedom from the more common format of a plate of images facing a page of text. Birds of New Zealand gives full accounts for each species, in some instances running to three or four pages. The species accounts are preceded by a family summary and each account provides identification notes; vocalisations; separation from similar species; distribution; breeding biology; biometrics; and some quite detailed taxonomic notes. This latter section I found to be a particularly enjoyable and informative inclusion. It gives the history of the English and scientific names but also Māori names where they have been recorded. Indigenous names are starting to appear in some Australian bird books but it would be good to see more of it. The distribution maps are satisfyingly detailed and contain enough information to map out migration and sub-specific populations.
The authors will be well-known to any readers who have dipped a toe in the trans-Tasman birding scene. Stephenson is justly famed for his photography of antipodean fauna. That photographic archive is crucial to the success of Birds of New Zealand and is on full display throughout. I’d hope most Australian birders already have New Zealand high on their list of places to visit but there is another good reason why this book should find a place on most Australian birders’ shelves. Its treatment of seabirds is exceptional. The entire book contains 545 pages and fully 162 pages of these are devoted to seabirds. This is perhaps unsurprising given that one of the authors is Paul Scofield; a recognised authority and a name familiar to anyone who has perused the literature dealing with seabirds. A large proportion of these species also occur (or have been recorded as vagrants) in Australian waters but a few haven’t. The longer species accounts make for a superlative reference and any keen pelagic birders would be well-advised to keep a copy handy.
I’ve used both the app and the book while in New Zealand and recommend them highly. The app functions as well as any which I’ve encountered and is in the same league as the Collins Bird Guide app. The book, as well as being an information-packed reference, is a thing of beauty and will be of as much interest to Australian birders as their Kiwi counterparts.