Chris Watson

Princeton University Press

A Photographic Field Guide to the Birds of India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh

ReviewChris Watson

By Bikram Grewal, Sumit Sen, Sarwandeep Singh, Nikhil Devasar and Garima Bhatia

792 pages, soft cover

Princeton University Press

As exciting and well-executed as this book is, it is definitely another field guide falling into the category of ‘leave-at-home-and-go-birding-with-the-app”. There are some good smartphone apps covering this region, but if you’re heading over to bird the Subcontinent this book will bring you up to speed and provide you with most of the information needed to plan your trip.

To be clear, it’s not a bad book; far from it. It’s outstanding. Merely assembling a photographic collection of the entire avifauna of such a large and diverse region is an achievement in itself. Fitting such a collection into a single book which remains fairly portable is nothing short of a marvel of modern publishing. But in cramming coverage of 1375 species into a single 1450g volume the same size as the Australian Bird Guide (only 927 species and 1400g), there have to be some sacrifices.

In the case of Birds of India etc, that sacrifice has been the richness of the imagery and the quality and quantity of text. Most species are depicted well. Occasional species are given a double page spread with multiple images. But the majority of species accounts are only allowed a quarter page and feature only one or two images at most. This seriously limits the book’s portrayal of plumage variations and gender and age differences. Not a fatal flaw, certainly, but it will limit the visiting birder’s ability to clinch difficult identification challenges involving immature or female individuals of a lot of species.

Another sacrifice which has been necessary is the quality and size of the distribution maps. Many species don’t get a map at all with their distribution described in the text. For species with tiny restricted ranges the maps are not much help; the scale does not zoom in to permit finer resolution. The maps are one-size-fits-all and display the entire region treated by the book. There is different coloured shading to denote resident species and seasonal visitors but no such shading to show different regional forms or subspecies. Movements and migrations also are described in the text but not pictured on the maps.

The text is sometimes imprecise and not authoritative. The bullet points for each account are: size (I presume this refers to length but this is not defined further); voice; range; and habitat. Following this information is a brief paragraph containing other information but these passages don’t seem to conform to any discernible pattern. Sometimes there are notes relating to the naming of the bird, its behaviour, guides to field marks, conservation notes, dietary information, or specific site information for particularly rare species. It’s a bit like lucky dip. You might get some of that information, or none at all. Some of the accounts intone information with phrases like, “this bird is said to….”, and the like. This can come across as anecdotal or un-researched speculation and shouldn’t really have a place in a field guide.

The text is also littered with typographical errors. I don’t normally point these out as I haven’t yet read a book that doesn’t have some typos, and in a reference book they are rarely so bad or so numerous that they affect its usefulness. But it is infuriating how often a mysterious single letter has been erroneously inserted between the generic and specific names. Again, it’s not a disastrous error but it’s difficult to shake the feeling that it might be an indicator of the haste with which the book might have been proofread and edited. Another simple editing failure is the text running over background images. On a few accounts this has resulted in the text becoming difficult to make out against the photography. This is very easily avoided and should have been picked up before going to print. I’ve never birded the Subcontinent and have only a passing familiarity with the birds there but I’m reliably informed that there are a number of incorrectly assigned photographs – another error which should have been caught by careful proofreading.

One excellent feature of the book is the historical essay, Birds of the Indian Subcontinent by Carol and Tim Inskipp. This gives a good grounding in the history of ornithology across the region and a comprehensive overview of the birds themselves.

In summary, this is a beautiful book filled to overflowing with sumptuous imagery of the birds of the entire Indian Subcontinent. It is let down by substandard editing and text, but not to a disastrous extent. For anyone planning an extended trip taking in several different countries, this book will be a useful reference. There are better field guides to individual countries which are more detailed and more portable so birders should investigate these as well. There are also some good smartphone apps to the region which will be much more portable than this book. Ultimately, this is a good book which will find a welcome place among my references.

CBW

Buy it from Andrew Isles

Britain's Birds: An identification guide to the birds of Britain and Ireland

Review, BirdingChris Watson

by Rob Hume, Robert Still, Andy Swash, Hugh Harrop and David Tipling

Princeton University Press, August 2016

Paperback AU$78.00

This new field guide arrived, fortuitously, only a few hours before I departed for a four week stint in the British Isles. As such, it has received a more thorough road-test than some field guides I’ve reviewed. I was also able to meet the authors at the British Birdfair and speak to a number of British birdwatchers there to gauge the early reception Britain’s Birds has received from locals. The overwhelming impression from my snap-poll? A resounding 'thumbs up'.

In total, Britain’s Birds was knocking about in my glovebox or backpack for a shade over 2200 kilometres of a trip that took in parts of England around Oxford and Rutland Water; southern Scotland around Glasgow; and islands of the Inner Hebrides including Mull, Islay and Arran in the Firth of Clyde. These are all areas that I have birded intermittently over the last 15 years, apart from Mull and Islay, to which this was my first visit. After a brutal dip on a vagrant Long-tailed Duck at Rutland Water, my only lifer from four weeks of birding was Red-billed Chough on Islay. But despite all other species being familiar to me already, Britain’s Birds taught me much more about them all and I referred to it constantly.

That first glimpse of a lifer; is there anything like it?! My picture here isn't a patch on the images you'll find in Britain's Birds but we were rapt to eventually have great views of close to 40 birds. Islay is one of very few places in Scotland this rare species still occurs. Britain's Birds informs us there are fewer than 3500 birds across Britain and Ireland with as few as 300 individuals remaining in Scotland.

Completeness is the inescapable first impression Britain’s Birds makes. It includes accounts for just shy of 650 species. With the usual list of resident birds and annual migrants to Britain barely topping 200 species, the fact that the official British list has grown to such a size is testament partly to its geographic location being favourable to avian vagrancy, but mainly to the fervour, size and skill of its birdwatching community. (For comparison, the vaunted Collins guide to all the birds of Europe treats 713 species, has 100 fewer pages and is about two thirds the weight.) As the inevitable result of being so comprehensive, Britain’s Birds is heftier than any other British field guide I’ve used, coming in at 1190g, just a fraction lighter than my ‘go to’ guide to Australia’s 700+ birds, Pizzey & Knight.

The species account for (Red-billed) Chough. The text is concise but more than sufficient. This is one of the more straightforward species to identify.

But if size is the only criticism I can make of Britain’s Birds, it is also a piddling one. It still fits comfortably in the glovebox or day pack, if not quite a jacket pocket. I happily carried mine in the Scopac across many miles of forests, moors and peaks during my visit. It’s printed on robust stock with a low-gloss finish and the solid cover is made of a splash-proof plasticised card which was sufficient to withstand the drizzliest days the Hebridean weather could throw at us.

My antipathy toward photographic field guides has been gradually dissolving since the release of Birds of Australia by Campbell, Woods & Leseberg; Britain’s Birds has banished my reservations about the form entirely. The images are uniformly brightly-lit, well-chosen, frequently breathtaking and carefully arranged without crowding the pages.

The authors have adopted an approach that will be familiar to users of the Crossley ID guides, with a few innovations of their own. Birds are set against a typical background with a number of other birds of the same species super-imposed around them for comparison. The collection of photographs they have collected in Britain’s Birds is staggering. Unlike Australian photographic guides which remain frustratingly bereft of images of Buff-breasted Button-quail (and Night Parrot although photos, happily, are now available for this species), every species is depicted. Not only that, but each species is shown in almost every plumage variation, in comparable light, in near identical poses, in flight and at rest. For a country in which a newb can easily become befuddled by the profusion of gulls (not to mention hybrid ducks!), the inclusion of additional comparison pages for difficult groups is particularly handy. Where vagrants are pictured, the authors have even gone to the trouble of sourcing photographs of an actual individual from its occurrence in British territory. Sub-species are also detailed in most cases; the best example of this may be the species account for Wren Troglodytes troglodytes, which has a dedicated page picturing all six races which occur.

For potentially problematic species you get the Full Monty: a double page spread here for the bogey bird of my trip, Long-tailed Duck. Flight shots, head shots, different moults, behavioural notes, other species it is likely to associate with... all in beautifully comparable, well-lit, photos.

Another highlight is the size and detail of the maps. This is a common stumbling block for many guides so I was stoked to see these produced at a size that allows for fine-grain geographic detail. Each map also has a caption giving movement information, a summary of habitat use and an estimate of British population size.

Also a welcome addition for many will be the ‘educational’ pages at the start of some sections for bird groups that might be difficult for newer birders or birders new to the region. These include helpful pages on the field identification of swans and geese, ducks, waders, gulls, skuas, auks and many others. These pages summarise the field marks to look for in separating the species and give useful behavioural details, moult cycles, confusion species, etc. Certain species accounts also carry a “Rare Beware” inset beside the title. This is a great innovation which immediately alerts you to the possibility of rare birds that might be confused with the species you’re looking at and lists the page numbers to check for those confusion species.

The order is roughly taxonomic with a twist; species are grouped into general categories like water birds, wetland birds, birds of prey, night birds, game birds, etc. To be honest, I’d be happier with a more strictly taxonomic order but the order presented doesn’t affect the usability of the guide in the slightest.

For me, Britain’s Birds has finally eliminated any reticence toward photographic field guides. Photographic and production technology has clearly reached a point at which a guide like this can be the equal of any hand-illustrated version. With the gobsmacking growth in popularity of wildlife photography in recent years who knows? Perhaps one day photo field guides could even become the preferred format.

Britain’s Birds will now be my first pick of field guides to pack when visiting the UK. It’s on the heavier side, but not impractically so. For the extra size you get a field guide which is beautiful, comprehensive, highly usable, as up-to-date as a book in print is able to be and will be a valuable reference on the species it describes, wherever they happen to be found.

CBW

 

Buy it from Andrew Isles

Review: Birds of New Guinea (2nd Edition)

ReviewChris Watson

Birds of New Guinea 2nd Edition by Thane K. Pratt and Bruce M. Beehler.

 

“New Guinea is central to this story: the island is not so much a neighbour of Australia as a core part of it, biologically speaking. To include Tasmania but not New Guinea is to let nationalism distort ecological thinking. Whenever sea levels have fallen New Guinea has joined the mainland for longer than Tasmania has, because the water that separates it is shallower. The line between northern Australian savanna and rainforest is more limiting to birds than is the Torres Strait. New Guinea’s birds are part of the Australian bird fauna.” Tim Low in Where Song Began: Australia's birds and how they changed the world, Chapter 4 - New Guinea: Australia's Northern Province.

 

New Guinea is weird - so close but so distant.

A perfunctory scan through a list of its fauna reveals tree kangaroos and hare-wallabies, dasyurids and monotremes: all the sorts of animals that are most obviously associated with Australia. The little Rakali Hydromys chrysogaster, can be found from Tasmania right up through Australia's mainland and through all but the highest parts of New Guinea. Even New Guinea’s most iconic animals, the birds-of-paradise, are also represented in Australia by four species: three riflebirds and the Trumpet Manucode.

As birders, we’re used to drawing arbitrary lines on maps for the purposes of delineating our lists but, at least from a biological perspective, none of these lines is more arbitrary than the separation of New Guinea’s fauna from Australia’s. This is perhaps one of the major themes of Tim Low’s sweeping assessment of song bird evolution in Where Song Began.

Like many birders, New Guinea is high on my list of places I yearn to visit. Also, I suspect, like many Australian birders, I barely gave New Guinea a moment’s thought before reading Low’s book. Despite being so close to Australia – I’ve flown over it countless times on my way to near-antipodal destinations – New Guinea is, by most accounts, still a challenging place to visit.

Gradually though, this reputation is changing and books like this 2nd edition of Birds of New Guinea are an important part of the process. Papua New Guinea, and even parts of Indonesian-occupied West Papua, is now a fixture on the itineraries of most of the major wildlife touring outfits. There is a string of reputable wildlife lodges across some of the more important habitat areas. As well as infrastructure and services though, the availability of accurate field guides is an important step in making wildlife tourism more attractive. And, as we’ve seen in many other developing parts of the world, when tourism revenue is tied to biodiversity it can result in benefits for research, conservation, local economies and, ultimately, greatly improve our understanding of the birds of that region.

For an area with such a famously diverse avifauna, New Guinea has been served by a limited, though quite high-quality, range of books on the topic. Before the release of this 2nd edition, the 1st edition of Birds of New Guinea was thirty years old and Birds of New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago by Coates and Peckover, while an impressive achievement as a photograph record of such a diverse and often secretive bird fauna, was a long way short of comprehensive (it covers 444 species).

Birds of New Guinea 2nd edition covers all 780 bird species for the first time and includes full-colour plates for all (some plates in the 1st edition were black and white). For a book treating such a number of species the layout is smart. The plates fill the first 260 pages and are accompanied by brief species accounts and range maps on the facing page. Maps were critically lacking in the 1st edition. The remaining half of the book is taken up with more detailed family and species accounts including range, habitat and appearance notes as well as quite detailed commentary on the vocalisations including, for selected species, stylised spectrograms giving a visual aid to the cadence and pitch variation of the bird’s song.

The plates are a bit of a mixed bag. They range from superb to serviceable but are competently executed throughout. They’ve been supplied by four different artists so there is bound to be some variation and, unsurprisingly, the plates depicting the birds-of-paradise are probably the finest in the book.

Considering the close affinities between Australian and New Guinean birds, Birds of New Guinea 2nd edition is a useful reference for Australian birders to have available. For northern Australian birders ever-hopeful for vagrant birds visiting from our northern neighbour, it’ll be indispensable.  For the introductory sections alone, describing the natural history and geography of the island, it is worth the asking price; there is so much to learn here.

We can hope that it won’t be so long before another revision, but with this edition being so expertly finished, Birds of New Guinea 2nd edition looks capable of seeing us through another 30 years if necessary.

CBW

 

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