Chris Watson

Review: Birds & Animals of Australia's Top End - Darwin, Kakadu, Katherine and Kununurra by Nick Leseberg & Iain Campbell

ReviewChris Watson

Here at the Box Hill Laboratory of Ornithology we love books and we love getting mail. This being the case, there is no more welcome kind of mail than fresh-from-the-press bird books. So it was a wonderful augment to a slightly overcast Wednesday to find this new book in the mail box.

Straight off the bat, it’s worth noting the technical redundancy in the title. This guide covers birds AND animals of the Top End. This has attracted comment elsewhere along predictable lines so I should deal with this before moving on – yes, birds ARE animals. Thanks professor. Seriously though, this is a redundancy that many of us have difficulty avoiding. Just do a search for tour operators offering birding AND wildlife tours and you’ll get an idea of the magnitude of the problem.

To describe yourself as a birder, birdwatcher, or ornithologist, at each level glosses over a good portion of your other interests and skills. Many birders also keep lists of mammals, reptiles, butterflies and moths. It would be a rare birdwatcher that didn’t derive as much pleasure from an encounter with a possum or goanna as the birds that share the same habitat. Any qualified ornithologist will almost certainly have passed through training in general zoology before specialising, so has skills and interests beyond the world of feathered things. So we often feel compelled to explicitly state that our interests and skills extend to furred, scaled and even spineless things also. As I’m known to say perhaps too often, birds are a ‘gateway drug’.

So yes, the title is somewhat redundant, but it points to something you’ll enjoy; there’s a good deal more than birds within.  

Just one of the glorious frog plates.

Nick and Iain (who together produced the recent Birds of Australia: A Photographic Guide with Sam Woods covered here) have gathered around them a ‘who’s who’ (or should it be ‘whom’s whom?’ – I can never work it out) of esteemed wildlife photographers to deliver this new guide. Up front, it is acknowledged that this is a guide targeted specifically at beginners. The experienced birder will find a fragmented and incomplete account of the region’s birdlife here, but the authors state as much in many parts of the book. The novice will find plenty within its pages to keep them busy and set the hook for further explorations, but if you’re looking for a comprehensive treatment of Top End fauna, other more complete books are readily available and, if you’re that way inclined, you probably already know what they are.

With that out of the way though, there is still plenty within this guide to recommend it to more experienced birders. The introductory section gives a good grounding in the geology, climate and habitats of the Top End. There is also a brief guide to some of the more popular wildlife-watching sites.

The layout of the images is up there with the best I’ve seen and, for a few tricky confusion pairs, it provides some neat comparisons. (If you’ve never sat on the beach at Lee Point, beset by sandflies, sweat lashing off you, trying to convincingly separate Greater and Lesser Sand Plover, then you have yet to truly earn your Top End birding stripes. In December it can feel like even your fingernails are sweating.) For novices, the plates for herons and egrets will be handy too, as will the section covering terns in breeding and non-breeding plumage, at rest and in flight. The notorious LBJs of the tropical mangroves (Green-backed, Mangrove and Large-billed Gerygone) would be intimidating to the new-comer but they are beautifully compared on the one page allowing quick assessment of the salient field marks. Again, though obviously handy for the beginner, there will be experienced birders breathing a sigh of relief quietly to themselves. These species don’t always appear together so neatly to offer clean comparisons when you’re ankle-deep in black mud out the back of Palmerston sewage works! This is a great reference.

One of the finch pages: flawless images with simple, beautiful presentation.

The layout of the images has been done with great care and the result is effective and very easy on the eye. Multiple species from similar habitats are blended into the one scene to allow easy comparison. There is only one drawback with this approach – when the same care isn’t applied to the scale of images. There are a couple of obvious examples, neither drastic, where this might cause some difficulty for a novice birder. In one example I think the size of the Australasian Grebe is too close to the Green Pygmy-Goose it is depicted beside. This is not a great problem as they are distinctly different-looking birds. A greater challenge for an inexperienced observer is that Great-billed Heron, a monster among wetland species, is depicted beside the dainty White-faced Heron with their sizes being far too similar on the page to suggest the significant difference in bulk that will greet the observer in the field. Putting the massive size difference to one side, these two species look similar enough that a first time observer might easily be confused. But this is the only potentially negative aspect of this approach that is otherwise user-friendly, accurate and beautiful.

Mostly the scale of the images is spot on as in this page of Top End doves.

So what of the other animals sections? The book reflects the fact that when we go in search of wildlife, it is mostly birds that we see. Birds fill the first three quarters of the book, with other fauna treated at the back. All of the pictures are of a similar high quality to the bird section. The difficulty of finding mammals is reflected in the slim coverage but this is fair enough. Again, this book is targeted at the novice and probably at the international visitor, so identifying the many different macropods is a priority over mice, rats and dunnarts. Even the ardent and trained observer will be lucky to see these animals at all, let alone well. But there is much more than just kangaroos and wallabies for the fur-lovers. I’m particularly glad that there are a few microbats treated, as I always see these charismatic little creatures as the unsung heroes among mammals. They make up almost a quarter of our mammal list but are often relegated to the too hard basket by recreational wildlife seekers; this needn’t be the case. Acoustic detection gear is now quite affordable and user-friendly for the amateur enthusiast and the Top End offers many locations for observing bats leaving and returning from roosts; a situation where they are quite identifiable to species level with a bit of practice.

Herpers too will be satisfied with the tremendous imagery of frogs. There are more than enough confusion species among Top End frogs to trip up even a practised observer. I was emphatically reminded of this fact during a recent stint on the Arnhem Land Plateau. But having the likely candidates laid on a single plate in gloriously sharp colour is a great help. Sadly, the snakes and lizards of the Top End have fared pretty badly since the arrival of the Cane Toad, with many species noticeably more difficult to find now than they were even 5-10 years ago. The obvious snake species are covered, a few of the agamids, skinks and happily, a good variety of the geckos; once again, with some excellent comparison plates presented.

There is only one major typographical error that got past the editors and I suspect the authors will have been mortified as soon as the book was in print and they found it. It’s nothing that can’t be fixed with a sharpened HB pencil. On page 225, both accounts for the two turtle species presented are headed “Northern Long-necked Turtle Chelodina rugosa”, despite the images and the body of the text depicting different animals. A quick check of the Australian Reptile Online Database (AROD) website, which is actually the source for one of the photos here, quickly clears up any confusion: the bottom species is Northern Long-necked Turtle Chelodina rugosa. The top species is Northern Yellow-faced Turtle Emydura tanybaraga. No problem.

The only other puzzling references I found are as likely to result from my ignorance as actual errors. I’ve never heard of Intermediate Egret referred to as “Plumed Egret Ardea plumifera”. I understood plumifera to be a subspecies of Intermediate Egret Ardea intermedia. Similarly, I’ve never heard of Pacific Emerald Dove being referred to as “Brown-capped Emerald Dove”. But this could just be the authors singing from a taxonomic songbook that I’m unfamiliar with. While we’re being pedantic, sharp-eyed birdos will spot on page 113 that the scientific binomial of Little Shrikethrush is incorrectly given as Colluricincla harmonica, which is actually Grey Shrikethrush – just a typo.

All in all, this is another high quality production from these authors. As with Birds of Australia: A Photographic Guide, the images are a testament to the dedication of the talented photographers who have contributed their work.

This will be a tremendous introduction to wildlife-watching in the Top End for first time visitors – authoritative, clear, attractive and small enough to go in a camera bag or day-pack. Although this is openly targeted at novice wildlife seekers, I’d suggest that there will still be many experienced naturalists and locals out there who will find this a useful reference.

The essentials:

Soft cover, 272 pages

Published by Princeton University Press

Price varies between sellers from around $18 up to $50

Happy reading.



Support a local and buy it from Andrew Isles.

The birds and other wildlife of the Top End won’t watch themselves; it’s time to start planning your trip.

The NT is blessed with numerous experts who can assist with the planning and execution of your ultimate Top End birding trip. Get in touch:

Mick Jerram in Katherine at Gecko Canoeing and Trekking

Mike Jarvis in Darwin at Experience The Wild

Luke Paterson in Darwin at NT Bird Specialist