Chris Watson

CSIRO Publishing

Australasian Eagles and Eagle-like Birds

ReviewChris Watson

By Stephen Debus

192 pages

$49.95 (paperback)

CSIRO Publishing

Let’s get it out of the way right out of the gate: Australasian Eagles and Eagle-like Birds is a mouthful. But putting that to one side, there is plenty to be excited about in this publication. Much of the early buzz online about this book focused undue attention on the slightly ungainly title but if you get as far as the preface you’ll find the rationale adequately explained.

The broader region of Australasia (strictly speaking limited to Australia and Melanesia for this book) has been included because the 3 Australian eagles would make for a thin book. There is much new knowledge to be presented on their poorly-known Asian cousins: unpublished data on New Guinea Harpy Eagle; the first observations of an active nest of Sanford’s Sea-Eagle; first prey record for Gurney’s Eagle; first nest and prey records of Pygmy Eagle; etc. The Eagle-like designation is necessary because “birds of prey” or “raptors” would have been imprecise. This book does not treat owls, falcons, and most other Australian hawks. (The author has dealt with all of these species in previous dedicated titles or in chapters for HANZAB.) Red Goshawk, Black-breasted Buzzard, and Square-tailed Kite, however, are each included in the book despite certainly not being eagles. Those species are each objectively eagle-like in certain ways and they’re each listed (or have been recently uplisted) as Threatened and have considerable amounts of new information available on them since the publications of HANZAB and HBW. So much for the title then.

Dr Stephen Debus has been the steward of raptor research in Australia, both through his own research and his position as editor of Australian Field Ornithology, for decades. He has even taken on the misguided task of shepherding this unruly author through the tortuous process of peer-review on matters raptorial. Twice. His eminence in the field (and patience with novice authors) is unmatched.  

Australasian Eagles and Eagle-like Birds is a fascinating summary of our understanding of these charismatic species and collects the up-to-date publications describing their lives in one reference. The book is sectioned into four parts. Part One covers the Sea-eagles (White-bellied and Sanford’s). Part Two covers New Guinea Harpy Eagle; the only member of this group represented in the region. The biggest section is Part Three dealing with the Booted eagles: Wedge-tailed, Gurney’s, Little and Pygmy. The three Australian eagle-like hawks (Black-breasted Buzzard, Square-tailed Kite, Red Goshawk) are covered in Part Four. Each of these sections has a revealing introduction featuring historical and cultural information about the group, as well as pointing toward the work of prominent researchers in uncovering each of the species’ life cycles.

The ten species accounts themselves are comprehensive. They’re exhaustive without being exhausting. Each entry presents a highly readable distillation of the entire body of work which has been completed on each species including diet, movements, social organisation, habitat preferences, distribution, vocalisations, and measurements. Where more detailed work on nesting behaviour is available this is also included in the species account. Field identification is dealt with at the very front of each account, presenting all of the most common misidentifications with suggestions on how they can be avoided.  

Perhaps the most revealing, albeit not surprising, aspect of Australasian Eagles and Eagle-like Birds is the size disparity between the reference lists for different species. The list of references for Wedge-tailed Eagle runs to a shade more than 6 full pages. For its close relative to the north, Gurney’s Eagle, there are only 6 references cited in total. Not surprising considering the former is a common bird of prey across an entire continent which can even be observed from the back yards of many living outside major cities in Australia, whereas the latter lives in smaller numbers in more remote and difficult habitat. But the revelation comes from comparing the available literature cited in Debus’ previous title, Birds of Prey of Australia (2nd ed.), and this latest book. In the earlier work, only published in 2012, Debus cites a single (1!) paper on Gurney’s Eagle, so the 6 references cited in this book are surely indicative that we are drawing back the curtain on some of these more obscure species. We needn’t look to the remote shores of New Guinea to see such expansion of our knowledge either. Despite being widespread over much of inland Australia the Black-breasted Buzzard has seemed chronically data-deficient. Debus lists a mere 7 references on this species in the 2012 work, while this latest book refers to 27 papers. Still plenty of room for improvement perhaps but this is clearly progress of a kind.

Black-breasted Buzzard - a curious beastie. 

This illuminates something of a deficit in Australian science. There is very little funded raptor research in Australia (you might even extrapolate that to many other groups of fauna but I’ll remain focused on birds of prey for now). We can point to a few grant-funded or tenured researchers here and there but these are notable exceptions in a landscape of largely amateur or self-funded observers. Ecotourism, particularly just a handful of individuals running birding tours in remote areas of inland Australia, have contributed a disproportionately large amount to our knowledge of many species. They've also proven invaluable to professional researchers by providing virtually the only source of location (nests in particular) information for some hard-to-find species. I’m certain I’ve got no idea what the solution for the perpetual shortfall in science funding might be, but I’m encouraged by the fact that BirdLife’s Australian Raptor Association is apparently still working to improve ways of engaging birdwatchers and the wider public in raptor research.

We should be reassured that the contributions of a researcher of Stephen Debus’ stature continue to inspire in-kind contributions from ornithologists of every stripe. In communication with Dr Debus he informs me of a number of papers already in preparation and another book project looming on the distant horizon. He also intimates that a joint photographic book on the field identification of Australian raptors is in the pipes. So whatever laurels the author may be in possession of, he clearly doesn’t intend resting on them any time soon.  

Australasian Eagles and Eagle-like Birds is more than a handbook of large birds of prey of Australia and neighbouring areas. It is a simultaneously highly readable, thoroughly enjoyable and authoritative monograph of some of the most captivating animals in Australasian skies. It’s the first such comprehensive book on these birds since HANZAB in 1993 and features arresting colour photographs portraying some rarely seen behaviours. I commend it to every reader who is interested in furthering their understanding of our large birds of prey.

CBW

 

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The Australian Bird Guide

ReviewChris Watson

by Peter Menkhorst, Danny Rogers, Rohan Clarke, Jeff Davies, Peter Marsack & Kim Franklin.

CSIRO Publishing

“…research in systematics can enliven the way one observes any bird. When observing a bird, we see the latest results of ongoing and open-ended evolution. That makes things far more interesting than if our understanding of the birds and the names we use all just stood still.” – Dr Leo Joseph

 

This passage from Leo Joseph’s essay in The Australian Bird Guide zeroes in on what is, perhaps, a challenging aspect of birding for some: constant open-ended change. The endless mutability of species and bird names is a fact capable of draining the colour from many birders’ faces. Earlier in the same essay entitled A guide for birders to the evolution and classification of Australian birds, Dr Joseph points out that, “…this book and its successors should look very different from their predecessors in the species and groups they recognise.” It might seem like an obvious thing to point out but it’s a timely reminder. Outdated ideas can be tenacious. Change is something we all wrestle with in different ways but it cannot be resisted.

With that in mind, find your favourite armchair. Sitting comfortably? Things are about to change. Get excited.

To say that The Australian Bird Guide (ABG) is the most anticipated natural history publishing release in recent Australian history might sound like embroidery, but it may in fact be selling the phenomenon short. The only other release I can think of that caused quite such a stir in the last few decades is that of HANZAB; still a towering landmark. During the final months before the release of The ABG the suspense in the birdwatching community has been palpable. The book has been a full eight years in the making and the last couple of weeks ‘til its official launch promise to drag out larghissimo. A few have remained phlegmatic but most birdwatchers have by now seen a few sneak peeks online, which have raised expectations to stratospheric elevations. Speaking to some, you might get the impression of a group of acolytes awaiting the delivery of the gospels of Australian birding; carved in stone; direct from the mountaintop; from the inner circle of the highest curia of austral ornithological savvy.

In many ways it’s an apt analogy.

But the authors acknowledge that the production of The ABG has been a profoundly collaborative process; one that has involved not just the authors and artists directly responsible for its genesis, but a broad swathe of the Australian and global birdwatching community. The team took full advantage of social media and the online birding community’s natural generosity and propensity for image and data sharing. In doing so, they were able to amass unprecedented archives of photographic reference material to inform the 4700+ individually commissioned paintings that form the colour plates. This meticulous research shows in the plates too. The artwork of Jeff Davies, Peter Marsack, and Kim Franklin will already be well known to readers and the plates in this volume are as near to perfect as possible. (I include no photographs of the plates as my photographs would do no justice to them, but trust me; they’re beautiful.) Further superlatives on the quality of the paintings are superfluous but it’s worth noting that it’s the first time the Night Parrot has been illustrated in the age in which photographic references of a live individual are available. Also it’s the first, among all the existing field guides I could find, to feature a depiction of a juvenile Night Parrot and to picture most of the grasswren species also with juveniles.

But there will be many firsts for readers to enjoy among the plates.

“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?)

But I promised change at the top of this review. The biggest change, for many, will be that The Australian Bird Guide, for the most part, dispenses with the usual practice of presenting the species in taxonomic order. Instead, birds are grouped according to the broad habitat class in which they will most likely be found: marine, freshwater, and terrestrial. Coloured tabs on the top edge of pages direct the reader to these groups and then, within those groupings, current taxonomic order prevails. This is a bold step, but one that is justified in the introduction and, ultimately, works.

There are many other things that The ABG does well: a single index by both scientific and common names; some great introductory chapters, including the essay by Leo Joseph from which I quoted at the beginning of this review; helpful passages on birding in Australia; and an open acknowledgement of the contributions that have been made to the knowledge of Australia’s birds by birdwatchers and photographers. Refreshingly, The ABG team have also stepped back from the sanctimonious position that is frequently adopted on the use of playback. Rather, they present a fulsome account of its ethical deployment, its drawbacks, and recommendations for and against its use in particular circumstances. This section runs to a full page and a half and brought me to a lachrymose standing ovation. Let this be the end to the interminable online bickering!

Finally, it wouldn’t be a fair review if I was only breathless and moist-eyed in my admiration of the achievements of The ABG. As any publication will, it has its flaws but they are mostly fairly trivial. I won’t list the many typographical and editorial errors I encountered; they’ll be like Easter eggs for sharp-eyed readers and they don’t effect the book’s usability. The ABG has continued the use of text descriptions of bird vocalisations that I have railed against in the past and will continue to do so. I think there are a limited number of cases where the practice may be helpful but for the most part it is a waste of text space. I will happily change my position on this as soon as someone can persuade me of the value of including quinquinkrrkrrquinquinquinkrrkrr as an aid to identifying the call of the Australasian Swamphen. I’m all ears.

On a slightly more serious note, two of the plates in the copy I received, (Fluttering to Newell’s Shearwater on p.59 and Bulwer’s Petrel to Tristram’s Storm-Petrel on p. 79) have a printing error resulting in all the species on the plates appearing to have a washed-out and much browner appearance than similar species on adjacent pages. I’m hoping that this is a one-off and only appears in my copy but my contacts within the publishing industry inform me that this may be right through an entire batch of books in the same printing run. As printing errors go it’s far from disastrous, the plates are still quite usable, but let’s hope it is limited to just a few aberrant copies.

But those are the very few minor faults I could find in a book, which—and I told myself that I’d try to avoid the more obvious clichés but every other reviewer seems to be trotting this one out—is sure to become our favourite field guide to Australia’s birds. 

In all truth, this could be the most pointless review I’ve ever written. Everyone is going to buy this book and everyone is going to love it. Enjoy!

CBW

 

NB: The official release date for The Australian Bird Guide is the 1st of May but it is already in most good book shops and has a recommended retail price of $49.95.

The Red Kangaroo in Central Australia: An Early Account by A. E. Newsome

Review, EcologyChris Watson

by Thomas Newsome and Alan Newsome

CSIRO Publishing, July 2016

Paperback AU$39.95

“Desert lands have an appealing starkness and simplicity. The very grain of the countryside is exposed to all. Ancient mountain ranges plunge and rear from the plains. Rocks and boulders lie tumbled at their feet. Dry watercourses break through mountain gorges to meander and die in the desert. Stunted trees stand mutely enduring the heat.

Biological survival in such a land is not simple.” - p.15-16

 

It is just such a land, however, which is home to the Red Kangaroo Osphranter rufus; the largest extant marsupial on Earth and Australia’s largest terrestrial mammal. The Red Kangaroo is an Australian icon that ranks with Uluru and the Sydney Opera House for international recognition. The Red Kangaroo in Central Australia presents the gathered thoughts and findings on the species, from the early work of one of the great minds of Australian ecology.

Alan Newsome’s work was already familiar to me when I gained employment as an environmental consultant in Alice Springs in 2011. As it happens, Alan’s son, Thomas Newsome, was working at the firm which took me on, and I’d learn that he is a gifted ecologist in his own right. I’d been living in Central Australia for several years at that time and, being interested in the ecology of Central Australian fauna, Alan Newsome’s name was a regular feature on my reading list. Though I only worked with Thomas for a short time, my excitement at the publication of The Red Kangaroo in Central Australia comes, not only from my own affinity for the country and animals that it describes, but from an appreciation of his standing, and his father’s, in the Australian ecological community.

Alan began studying the Red Kangaroo in 1957 and it’s important to appreciate how rudimentary our understanding of the animal’s ecology was at that time. Alan was the first to discover many of the behavioural and physiological adaptations that have allowed the species to live so successfully in a landscape with such famously extreme and irregular conditions. Working on the beautiful plains to the north of the MacDonnell Range, Alan methodically uncovered the mysteries of the Red Kangaroo’s life. His book takes us through the challenges the kangaroo must overcome to survive in this country in chapters dealing with the landforms, climate and vegetation; distribution and abundance; reproduction (some of Alan’s most astonishing discoveries relate to the reproductive biology of the Red Kangaroo and these breakthroughs, and the methods by which they were revealed, are presented in considerable detail); food and water; sociology and a final chapter titled Ecomythology.

In addition to the main body of text there is an enlightening foreword by famed marsupial biologist Hugh Tyndale-Biscoe and a preface by Thomas Newsome in his role as co-author and editor. [Alan Newsome passed away in 2007. This book is the edited result of a mostly complete manuscript which Thomas discovered among Alan’s effects in 2010.]

In the intervening decades since Alan Newsome’s field work, another generation of ecologists has built on his findings and we understand the Red Kangaroo’s biology well. But perhaps the great story presented by The Red Kangaroo in Central Australia, and a thread running through the entire book, is Alan’s determination to also come to grips with the Aranda* understanding of kangaroo ecology.

Like few other outback zoologists since Baldwin Spencer and F. J. Gillen, Newsome allows room for Indigenous Ecological Knowledge (IEK) to be interpreted scientifically and considered alongside his own findings. The culmination of the book is in the final chapter titled Ecomythology in which Alan sets out the close alignment of his own hard-won knowledge with the traditional knowledge of his Aranda colleagues. The world has turned now and it is routine for IEK to be incorporated into scientific research and reporting, but we see the foundations of this practice in Alan’s work at a time when such considerations were by no means commonplace.

In addition to the book’s value as an important work of science and history, it is a beautiful piece of writing. As the brief excerpt I’ve used reveals, Alan's was an engaging writing style, as stripped-back and plain as the desert landscapes he describes. As an avowed desert-lover myself, Alan’s deep affection for the country in which he spent so much of his career, is instantly relatable from the way he writes about it. He also had that all-too-rare talent for rendering scientific writing enjoyable for the reader, without sacrificing any of its rigour. The ease of his style is such that The Red Kangaroo in Central Australia reads more like a story than a scientific treatise at times. This is testament to his ability to render deep scholarship comprehensible to the lay-reader rather than any “dumbing down” or skimping on detail.

Ultimately, The Red Kangaroo in Central Australia will appeal to an audience far beyond the ranks of biologists. It includes almost as much history and anthropology as it does ecology. It’s difficult to avoid drawing comparisons with the writings of other prominent Centralian researchers like T.G.H. Strehlow, with whom Alan discussed his work at some length, and the correspondence of the aforementioned Spencer and Gillen.

As well as being a peerless account of animal ecology and scientific investigation in the desert, it is a postcard from Central Australia and the ecological adventures of a young scientist on a personal journey of discovery. There is no doubt that The Red Kangaroo in Central Australia will continue to inspire and inform future generations of Australian ecologists for a very long time to come.

CBW

 

*Also spelled Arrernte and Arunta, these are the Aboriginal Australians who are the traditional custodians of the lands surrounding Alice Springs and much of the MacDonnell Ranges in Central Australia. 

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Review: Australian Wildlife After Dark

ReviewChris Watson

By Martyn Robinson and Bruce Thomson

Who among us doesn’t have a soft spot for owls? If you’re interested in looking for night birds and most of Australia’s other fauna, you’re eventually going to have to head out after dark. In fact, compared to most other places, Australia has an extremely high proportion of nocturnal fauna.

This book will be a good starting point for those who might be unfamiliar with spotlighting techniques and the ecology of the fauna that you’re likely to encounter. It deals not only with the more highly sought and charismatic species, like the owls, but with virtually every kind of animal that you might find in Australian habitats after dark: mammals, frogs, reptiles of various kinds and all manner of invertebrate are all treated in the one book.

Most of the chapters are organised according to the senses by which different animals navigate their world. This is a perceptive innovation and one that I think may help many to hone their field-craft and more successfully find their target species.

Australian Wildlife After Dark will be most suitable for the relative newcomer to spotlighting but will certainly have something to teach even experienced practitioners.

This review was first published in Australian Birdlife magazine Vol. 5 No. 1, March 2016.

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Birds in Dead Trees

Review, birdingChris Watson

Tattiness: an indicator of durability or preference?

 

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.

If the imminent field guide from CSIRO Publishing achieves even close to the acclaim that this book has received it'll be a huge success. No pressure.

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

Simpson & Day - it's not pretty, but it's what's on the inside that counts.

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.

In Summary:

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.

 

Slater

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.

So THAT'S where they live...

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.

 

Morcombe

Field Guide to Australian Birds

Author – Michael Morcombe

Weight – 1053g

Currency – 2nd edition published in 2004

My very old and well-used Morcombe - clearly a reference I visit often.

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.

 

Buy any of these guides from Andrew Isles:

Collins Bird Guide

Simpson & Day

Pizzey & Knight

Slater

Campbell, Woods & Leseberg

Morcombe