A Survey of Australian Field Guides on Paper
Astonishing as it may seem, a birder living anywhere in Europe, Africa north of 30˚N and much of the Middle East, can get by perfectly well with a single book.
The second edition of the Collins Bird Guide by Svensson, Mullarney and Zetterström is subtitled The Most Complete Guide To The Birds Of Britain And Europe, and this is a well-supported claim. In fact this field guide is widely considered to be one of the, if not the, finest of the genre.
The artwork is accurate, beautiful and consistently so, across all species. Most species are depicted in a variety of poses and plumage stages and are shown against a typical background wherever it might be a useful aid to identification. Distribution maps are clear and thoughtfully colour-coded to depict seasonal movements. The text for each species is sufficiently detailed to identify species, even to the extent of describing the extensive moult variations in the many gull species, while avoiding counter-productive prolixity. Despite describing 713 species in the main body of text with additional concise entries for 209 vagrants, accidentals, ferals and escaped species, it comes in at a highly portable 448 pages. It weighs a paltry 785g, just 42g heavier than Simpson & Day but in a more daypack-friendly duodecimo (large) format as opposed to the common, larger field guide format, octavo.
In a book comprehensively treating this number of species, it has a TARDIS-like quality; it seems to contain a lot more than seems possible from its exterior dimensions.
For those who enjoy wallowing in the artwork of such books it is also available in quarto format weighing 2073g which, unless you’re training for SAS selection, is definitely one for the coffee table, not the rucksack. As with almost all good field guides now, there is also a companion smartphone app available which marries all the best aspects of the book with multimedia content including recordings of the calls of all species, photographs and video content. This app continues the tradition of excellence set by its paper predecessor – it’s the best bird app I’ve used by a long shot. (But field guide apps will be a topic for another post altogether.)
If it has any weak points I’ve not yet demanded enough of the book to expose them. Try as I might I have not yet found any errors – factual or typographical. Although, even as I type this I’m sure someone will be emailing me with a list of them.
In the challenging endeavour of wildlife field guide production, the book simply known as The Collins, is the four-minute mile. It’s the benchmark; the yardstick by which we can gauge all other attempts.
Which brings us to Australian field guides. Despite birdwatching having far fewer adherents here than in the UK and the US, antipodeans are well-served for bird books. There are numerous regional and local guides and more than a few How to Find… or Where to Look…. type books of greater and lesser renown. But, ignoring the historically significant but antiquated What Bird Is That? by Neville Cayley, there are presently five fairly current contenders in the class of pure field guides that treat all of Australia’s birds: Simpson & Day, Pizzey & Knight, Morcombe, Slater and Campbell (the only photographic guide in the bunch).
While it’s fair to say that none quite stack up against The Collins, everyone has their favourite and the field guides available to those seeking Australian birds are of a consistently high standard. Some have obvious, even infamous, shortcomings, but these are usually balanced by other innovations or points-of-difference.
Below, I take a look in as balanced a fashion as possible at the five main field guides to Australian birds. Inevitably, it will be coloured by my own preferences but I’ve tried to be as empirical as possible.
It’s worth mentioning at this point, that the impetus for this review has come from the imminent release of a sixth Australian field guide that we’ve been hearing about for at least a couple of years now. This is being worked on by a number of prominent authors who will be familiar names to most in Australian ornithology, and is slated for release by CSIRO Publishing later in 2016. Rumour has it that this new field guide has been inspired, if not modelled upon, The Collins discussed above. If this is the case, our expectations can hardly be anything but stratospheric but until its arrival it’s worthwhile to have a look at what’s been achieved in Australian field guides to this point.
Simpson & Day
Field Guide to the Birds of Australia: the most comprehensive one-volume book of identification
Editor – Ken Simpson
Illustrator – Nicolas Day
Art Director – Peter Trusler
Weight – 743g
Currency – 8th edition published in 2010
I said I’d try to be as empirical as possible but I should also disclose that this is my favourite field guide to Australian birds. This is by no means an uncommon preference either.
This book has a lot going for it. Probably the most distinctive identifying feature is its spray-proof plastic cover. It is sold with a conventional paper dust jacket but few well-travelled copies retain this beyond their first few outings. Another distinctive feature which immediately sets Simpson & Day apart are the seabird bill charts printed, to scale, on the end papers. These are only likely to be of regular use to those who get hands-on time with seabirds, but they might also be handy for keen beachcombers and those identifying pelagic species from photographs. In any case they’re a good reference.
By far the most popular aspect of this book is the artwork. Nicolas Day seems to have a true talent for capturing the jizz of each species. Other books have serviceable artwork, but none quite display the jizz of each bird as arrestingly as Day. Birds are posed characteristically and many are set in front of a typical habitat scene which is always a useful detail, especially for newer birders. Where relevant, there are pointers for field marks and where there are confusion species they are often depicted on the same page for comparison.
The text for most species is brief. Some may see this a shortcoming but I see it as a strength. The text is concise, conveys enough information to clinch all but the most difficult identification and doesn’t get bogged down in pointlessly subjective waffle and elaborate phonetic descriptions of vocalisations. The space it saves on these it uses wisely with breeding information for species at the back of the book, a reasonably comprehensive section of vagrant records, and a guide to Australian habitats – very useful for international visitors.
The upside is… Spray-proof cover. Durable binding. Excellent artwork. Habitat guide. Breeding information. Seabird bills inside covers. Lightest of the full size guides.
However… The maps are OK but reference points/towns aren’t labelled which may be tricky for international visitors. Species text is fairly basic. Subspecies information is sometimes imprecise.
Pizzey & Knight
The Field Guide to the Birds of Australia: The definitive work on bird identification
Author – Graham Pizzey
Illustrator – Frank Knight
Scientific Editor – Sarah Pizzey
Weight – 1220g
Currency – 9th edition published in 2012
This is the heaviest of the bunch and outweighs its nearest rival (Morcombe) by almost 200g. Despite its heft, it remains a firm favourite with many and probably vies with Simpson & Day for Australia’s favourite field guide overall.
Frank Knight’s illustrations are clean, clear and beautiful but the criticism levelled at them by most is that at times they may be too simplistic. They don’t capture the jizz and motion of the birds in the same way that Nicolas Day manages to so consistently and Knight’s birds are often posed like statues or museum specimens all in a row. Despite this, they are beautifully executed and more than serviceable for all but the most vexing identification problems.
What this book has become most famous for is Graham Pizzey’s wonderful descriptions. I remain completely apathetic toward written descriptions of bird vocalisations; I suspect they have as much ability to lead observers astray as provide the final clincher in an identification conundrum. In the days of widely available and portable recordings I don’t see the point in persisting with trying to describe bird calls in text. However, if you need a bird call described, Graham Pizzey is clearly your man. This is perhaps most obvious in descriptions of two species with overlapping ranges which are virtually inseparable in the field… except by voice. Thus the Chiming Wedgebill has, “4 or 5 quick, peculiar metallic, ringing notes (or 3, or 2) in descending chime, ‘but-did-you-get-drunk’ with cyclic pattern; metallic plonk on ‘drunk.'” While the virtually identical-looking Chirruping Wedgebill gives a duet, “one bird calls ‘sitzi-cheeri’, like Budgerigars’ rolling chirrup; female answers with upward-rolling ‘r-e-e-e-t CHEER!’; combined in endless rondo”. I still maintain that that gives not the slightest inkling of the captivating beauty of the former bird’s far-carrying call, but it clearly provides enough information, perhaps the only information, to separate the two species if you find yourself in their shared territory.
The maps are clear and useful but contain no sub-species information, the binding is durable and solid, and this book is one of two Australian field guides which has a companion smartphone app which is recommended. It is also available as a multimedia version which you can install on a PC. Some may find this of use; I have a copy, I installed it once, had a browse and have never been back to open it since.
The upside is… Good artwork. Good maps. Plenty of introductory information and a whole section featuring descriptions of the various bird families. Lots of text in the species descriptions. Smart device app and desktop versions available. Several regional editions available. 2nd most recent.
However… Vagrant accounts are very patchy. Heaviest of all the field guides. Subspecies information is very light on.
The Slater Field Guide to Australian Birds
Authors – Pat Slater, Raoul Slater
Illustrator – Peter Slater
Weight – 447g
Currency – 2nd edition published in 2009
NB: I only have the revised 1st edition (1995) but a fully revised 2nd edition was published in 2009. If there are any errors in my assessment based on differences between these editions, feel free to get in touch and let me know.
This well-liked family production is instantly recognisable as the only truly pocket-sized (215 x 115mm) field guide to Australian birds (other than the cut down edition of Morcombe). As such it is the lightest by a long margin – almost one third the weight of Pizzey & Knight.
Despite its smaller size it still manages to pack in all the information most birders are ever going to need. The species descriptions are more than adequate but the most commonly lamented shortcoming of this book is the maps. For widely distributed species they are acceptable, but for species with small ranges (ie: the ones for which an accurate map is most critical) they are all but useless. The maps are all in black and white with the coastline delineated with a bold black line. So bold in fact, that the inexperienced newcomer to Australian birds could be forgiven for surmising that all Australian species occur around Adelaide and Kangaroo Island, completely obscured as this region is by the solid black of the coastline. The best (worst?) example of this is perhaps the Scrub-birds and Bristlebirds. For these species the maps in their present form are next to pointless.
I quite like the paintings in Slater. They’re truly very well executed throughout and all plates have the eggs of the species lined up along the bottom of the page – a nice touch. One perplexing aspect of the artwork arises in the plates depicting the petrels, storm-petrels and shearwaters. The main image of each species is depicted as if sitting on land – an image of absolutely no use to any pelagic birders other than the rare and lucky few who might occasionally visit these birds’ breeding colonies. Surely discarding these in favour of dorsal and ventral flight views and other angles where possible would be preferable? To be fair, there is a double plate of ‘petrels and shearwaters in flight’ but this has been inexplicably printed in a grainy monochrome; as if looking at an overly noisy black and white photograph. Absolutely baffling and surely of next-to-no use in the field.
Another curious aspect of Slater is some of the strange inclusions: Grenadier Weaver, White-winged Wydah, Great Reed Warbler to name just a few. The book has no separate section for vagrants and escaped or feral populations so these sometimes contested records are included in the main body of the guide.
The upside is… Very good artwork which includes depictions of eggs but plates are sometimes deficient in a few areas. Tiny size and weight is easily carried in a trouser or jacket pocket.
However… Terrible maps. Limited supplementary text. Probably not the best reference for pelagic birding.
Campbell, Woods & Leseberg
Birds of Australia: A photographic guide
Authors – Iain Campbell, Sam Woods, Nick Leseberg
Weight – 996g
Currency – 1st edition published in 2015
This most recent field guide to Australian birds, sits at the lighter end of the heavyweight division and is the only photographic entry. I posted a full review of this book here when it first came out in which I disclosed my troubled relationship with photographic guides in the past. This book however, went a long way toward addressing my misgivings about the form. This isn’t my first choice among Australian field guides but it is a long way from my last choice.
It’s a beautiful production, with good solid binding, heavy and glossy stock paper and very high quality photography throughout. It has some excellent introductory text on habitats and climate across Australia and depicts all resident species with the obvious exceptions of the problematic Night Parrot and Buff-breasted Button-Quail; the former only recently photographed and the latter which still eludes the lens.
The accompanying text is adequate for all species and the birds are depicted, for the most part, in poses that make field marks clear. The only thing missing from this guide that all the others have is any vagrant species. In an effort to save space and weight, even established breeding species like Spotted Whistling-Duck don’t get a look in.
The upside is… For a photographic guide it has a good variety of depictions. Extensive introduction on habitats and climate. Reasonably good maps. Most recent edition of any Australian guides.
However… No vagrants at all. On the heavier side.
Field Guide to Australian Birds
Author – Michael Morcombe
Weight – 1053g
Currency – 2nd edition published in 2004
NB: I only have the revised 1st edition so there may be some differences in my assessment.
Regardless of what you think of the shortcomings of any of these guides, or any guides from elsewhere around the world, we should always keep in mind what a monumental amount of work they represent. It may seem simple on the surface to assemble an annotated list of birds, pop some maps in, illustrate it with paintings or photos and bind it all up into a nice book, but nothing could be farther from the reality. Putting together a work like any of the books reviewed here is a herculean feat of great scholarship and dedication.
With that in mind, Michael Morcombe can be singled out for particular awe, being the only sole author among these Australian field guide producers. His book is almost 200g shy of Pizzey & Knight but at over a kilogram, still very much a heavyweight. The book looks good, no doubt owing something to the tidy graphic design of the Steve Parish publishing house, and the cover is a robust plasticised card.
My well-thumbed copy of Morcombe is what I turn to most often when I’m in need of sub-species information. Morcombe’s coloured, graduated maps do a good job of the difficult task of describing our incomplete knowledge of bird distribution across Australia to sub-species level.
Part of the weightiness of this book is due to an extensive section near the rear which provides a complete guide to the nests and eggs of the birds – another inclusion which no other guide does to a similar extent. There is also a section treating the species of Australia’s island territories and vagrants but the latter is fairly rudimentary.
My main reservation with Morcombe is the artwork. He is clearly a talented artist and many of the birds are depicted adequately but occasionally it seems like he got to some species at the end of a long day at the drawing board. Some drawings definitely seem to have received less careful attention than others. Look at the Grey Falcon, Bourke’s Parrot and Powerful Owl (below) as just a few examples: body proportions are all squiffy or colours are just plain wrong. To be fair, none of these are so bad that they might cause any danger of misidentification, but they’re just a lot less accurate than other artwork available. Again, as the sole author and artist of such a comprehensive work I’m sure we can all forgive Morcombe a few dud daubs.
Morcombe was also the first Australian field guide to become available as a smart phone app and this is still the one that I use the most – the functionality of the call recordings alone make it worth the asking price. It also comes in a cut-down pocket-sized version which makes it similar in scale to the Slater field guide. This contains most of what the full-sized edition contains minus the nesting information and bit of other text. It can’t be that bad as my copy was pilfered by a light-fingered birdwatcher on a tour bus many years ago.
The upside is… The best maps and subspecies information of any of the guides. Good amount of text for each species account. Nests and eggs supplement. Smartphone app and cut-down pocket-sized edition available.
However… Probably the weakest artwork of all the guides. At the heavier end of the scale.