Chris Watson

FIELD GUIDE REVIEW - Birds of Australia: a photographic guide

Chris Watson

Authors: Iain Campbell, Sam Woods, Nick Leseberg

With photographs by Geoff Jones

Summary: A big step-up in quality for photographic field guides. 

Price: Varies massively. Ive seen this advertised for as little as $25 and as much as $50.

Species Count: 714

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A new photographic field guide? I can hear the groans from here. Just relax a minute and think about why so many of us have no time for photographic field guides.

Who among us isnt excited by the release of a new field guide? Our island continent is particularly blessed in this regard. Australia might just as well be termed the Land of Field Guides as the Land of Parrots; were that spoilt for books describing our birds. This one, however, generated quite a bit of chatter in the lead up to its launch. There have been a few photographic field guides produced for Australian birds over the years but we had yet to see one that did as good a job as any of our non-photographic guides. With rumours continuing to circulate about the imminent release of a new field guide by Menkhorst & Davies, two of our top natural history authors/illustrators, Iain Campbells book comes along at an interesting time.

Iain Campbell is an ex-pat Aussie living in Ecuador (he set up the famous Tandayapa Bird Lodge in the cloud-forest below Quito) and the proprietor of global wildlife touring outfit Tropical Birding. He has teamed up with a couple of his guiding colleagues for this effort: veteran Australian birding guide Nick Leseberg, probably known to many east coast birders; and Sam Woods, a gun English guide, also living as an ex-pat in Ecuador (what is it with that place?) who also co-authored a guide to Australian wildlife with Iain. Nick is also the co-author of a forthcoming guide: Birds & Animals of Australia's Top End: Darwin, Kakadu, Katherine and Kununurra.

From the outset its important to note that photographic field guides have had a chequered history at least here in Australia they have. My most recent encounter with the format has been Jim Fleggs 2004 effort, which made a good enough fist of it, but still had too many dark, non-representative, or otherwise substandard pictures, and tended to show only the male of many species standard grumbles with most photographic field guides. Donald and Molly Trounsons 2005 book is the most recent photographic guide Im familiar with and the less said about that books shambolic re-ordering of the species the better. Innovations one thing, but that guide was borderline unusable.

In photographic field guides, all else being equal, the plates have usually left something to be desired when compared to the hand-illustrated guides. Thats fair enough considering the immense task of photographing every single bird on the continent. Its worth keeping in mind the challenges of low light, difficult (for humans) habitats, and cryptic habits meant that good quality pictures were extremely hard to achieve for many species in the days of film photography. The DSLR age has rapidly been making up ground but even so we still only saw pictures of a live Night Parrot for the first time in 2013 courtesy of John Young, and we are yet to see photographs of anything other than a museum skin of a Buff-breasted Button-quail. So the question remains: if a perfect and complete set of photographs is so difficult, costly, and unlikely to come by, why persist in attempts to produce field guides this way? The question is even more pertinent if you consider that we have some of the best avian illustrators in the world on our doorstep and some of the best non-photographic field guides as a result.

Clearly things have changed. The images in this book have raised the bar for photographic field guides.

Its not controversial to suggest that digital photography has brought about something of a revolution in birding in recent years. It's not just the quality of digital cameras, but the increasingly affordable price and resulting ubiquity. One aspect of this is the standard of evidence we have come to expect from reports. The bar has unquestionably been raised from the honour system that has served us so well. These days, any report of a range expansion or a vagrant or rare bird not accompanied by photographs, will be subject to much greater scrutiny (even scepticism) than it might have done only ten years ago. A decent digital camera capable of capturing acceptable record shots is now considerably cheaper than the optics carried by most birders. Indeed, most smart phones have cameras comparable with even quite high-end point-and-shoots. So with these tools now carried by most birders in the field we might be excused for increased scepticism in the face of extraordinary reports with no photographic evidence. Even the most ham-fisted of us have probably managed to hastily digi-bin or digi-scope the occasional surprising find with a phone clumsily smooshed up against an eye-cup. The results of these urgent captures are never going to win ANZANG but theyre usually good enough to get the nod of approval from the online Brains Trust.

So what excuse does the birder returning from the field with grand claims and no pictures have left? Sure, more diligent birders still keep notebooks, but why not snap off a shot or two before the bird shoots through? The better, more affordable, and more ubiquitous photographic technology becomes, the harder it gets to believe claims of outstanding birds without pictures. But on the other hand, weve all been in those situations when a bird flies through or only perches momentarily preventing the chance for a photograph of any kind, regardless of the skill or equipment of the photographer. I digress.

The all-but-complete collection of photographs assembled in Birds of Australia: a photographic guide is partly the result of this recent ascendancy of digital photography. More than this though, it is the result of the efforts of a few talented individuals, and one prolific individual in particular. As professional guides, the authors have each had ample time and opportunity in the field to seek their subjects and build an enviable archive of high quality images. The largest contribution to the photographic record in this book, is from Australian snapper Geoff Jones. Geoff gets a mention in the acknowledgements of the book, and was paid by Princeton Press for access to his archive, and it is hard to imagine a book like this being possible if it were otherwise. Geoffs images are routinely breathtaking in quality, arresting in composition, and he must have very few rivals in the completeness of his archive. If youre not aware of Geoffs work, he kindly makes many of his images viewable free-of-charge on his website here. BEWARE: you can easily lose hours of your day perusing his images of birds and other wildlife from around the world.

Geoffs images are crucial to the success of this guide, but the pictures are only part of the story and this book has much else to offer. Chief among these is the extensive introductory sections on climate and habitat. As even the most novice birder will understand, (other than knowing a birds calls) knowing a birds preferred habitat, and being able to identify a healthy example of that habitat when in the field, is the most effective way of finding the birds youre after. In this regard, this guide has few peers. There are detailed descriptions of the habitats accompanied by clear photographs of examples from around the country. Non-Australian birders are sure to appreciate the explanations of uniquely Australian terms like gibber, mulga, and spinifex.

In most regards this is a successful field guide to our birds. I like the optimism of including Paradise Parrot even though there would be very few, if any, birders left who consider its continued existence anything more than the most remote possibility. I think a bigger deal could have been made of Night Parrot, but Im always going to make that point. Its good that both Night Parrot and Buff-breasted Button-quail were included despite the unavoidable lack of photographs.  

Its been tricky to pin down any major shortfalls in this guide, but nothings perfect. The information included in the species accounts is not as detailed as some other guides, but still adequate. The very occasional typo and factual error have snuck though. Red-tailed Black Cockatoo certainly occur in Central Australia despite what the distribution map indicates. But these sorts of errors in field guides are part of their character. They become birding lore. Every guide has its famous mis-labelled bird or omission. It would be more notable if it had no such errors. As it happens, this book has very few.

No, I think the only major criticism I have of this book is the absence of vagrants. I understand that this is a concession to size and cost, but Im not sure it is the best place to find these savings. One of the secondary things all birders look for in a field guide (after the actual quality of the images and information) is completeness. We want a comprehensive guide to all birds recorded in the treated region. A feature on vagrants is likely to be of much greater use to locals than international readers, but I think the authors have missed an opportunity. At roughly the same size of Pizzey & Knight, this book is already a glovebox edition rather than a true stick-it-in-your-daypack field guide. So if bulk is not an issue, why not include the extra 20-25 pages, at marginally higher cost, and have the most comprehensive and up to date field guide ever produced? Most existing field guides already have a vagrant section, but these are out of date as soon as theyre printed and many are illogically selective. The records of vagrant birds, and the number of their occurrences, to Australia are available online and would be useful to have in a field guide. For experienced Australian birders it might even be the section they would consult more than any other. Perhaps this will be a feature best saved for the smart phone app edition, when it can be updated regularly and be less of a burden on paper supplies as it grows. (But will we see a smart phone app edition?)

The lack of vagrants wont, and shouldnt, discourage anyone from buying this book. In reviewing something that I have been provided a copy of, it wouldnt feel right if this assessment was too glowing, and as far as looking for shortcomings, Im scraping the bottom of the barrel. The truth is, this will be a fantastic addition to the library of any Australian birder, and I happily recommend it to international birders visiting the continent.

Who am I kidding?

Most Aussie birders own all of the available field guides to our beloved birds anyway. Theyll be adding this one to the pile too. The only question will be: how close to the top of the pile will it be? For me, Im predicting itll be right there beside Pizzey & Knight as one of my most-used.


Disclosure: I was provided with a complimentary copy of the book for reviewing purposes.