Chris Watson

birding

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

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A Visual Celebration of Borneo's Wildlife

Review, Tourism, BirdingChris Watson

by Fanny Lai & Bjorn Olesen

Edited by Yong Ding Li

450 pages, $70 hardback

Published by Bjorn Olesen Wildlife Photography, Singapore

http://www.bjornolesen.com/

 

Fanny Lai and Bjorn Olesen started with Borneo the way many people do: the trek up to the summit of Mount Kinabalu. As Bjorn explained to me via email the other week:

After the climb we spent a few days at the Kinabatangan River in Sabah watching the incredible wildlife diversity there.  This was our first encounter with the Bornean Orangutan and the Bornean Pygmy Elephant; thus began our addiction to Borneo.  

That was in 1998 and it was enough to put the hook in them; they’ve been returning regularly ever since. A Visual Celebration of Borneo’s Wildlife is a photographic tribute to this captivating island and its unusual fauna. But it offers much more than a coffee-table experience of flicking through images. The photographs are accompanied by blocks of text providing more than mere captions; more than a visual celebration, there is genuine scholarship here too. There are chapters dedicated to the various habitats found around the island and specific destinations within them. Introductory pages pay tribute to the great naturalists of the region: Alfred Russel Wallace, John Whitehead, and Charles Hose. The depictions don’t focus only on the spectacular and celebrated animals of Borneo, but also direct attention toward the lesser-known. There are chapters covering marine fauna, invertebrates, amphibians, and the botanical wonders of Borneo as well.

Bornean Crested Flameback. Bjorn Olesen. Used with kind permission.

The book has a heavy focus on conservation. Royalties from the sale of the book are being donated to Fauna & Flora International (FFI): an international organisation which has fostered an innovative approach to conservation since the early 1960s. Fanny and Bjorn’s connection with FFI goes back several years:

We have worked with Fauna & Flora International in Southeast Asia on a pro bono basis since 2013, and we are impressed with their conservation work in the field. FFI was founded in 1903 and is the world’s longest established international conservation body, working now in more than 40 countries around the globe, mostly in the developing world.

An important partner to conservation initiatives is ecotourism and it can be argued that the income provided by ecotourism is particularly important in developing nations. This happy marriage of conservation science and ecotourism is something I’ve seen at work in numerous countries and it seems that Borneo is no different. Bjorn goes further, suggesting that conservation in many areas of the island would be lost without it:

For conservation projects in Borneo to be successful, it is now recognised that the involvement and participation of local people and communities is integral. It is imperative to find ways to generate some form of economic benefit from the ecosystem and doing so in a sustainable manner. In other words, conservation needs to be linked to improving the standard of living of the local people, so that they have a personal incentive in sustaining those conservation actions. It is here that ecotourism has an indispensable role to play for the continued existence and well-being of the natural areas and their wildlife in Borneo.

In Sabah, Borneo eco-tourism has been particularly successful and is employing a substantial number of local people and attracting international investments.  However, it is a long battle as for instance the palm-oil companies in Borneo also have a significant influence.

In Borneo, ecotourism has tremendous potential with the natural attractions and rich cultural traditions of the resident communities. Ecotourism can offer alternative ways to generate sustainable employment opportunities and income for the local communities, and provide unique tourism experiences, while creating incentives to protect habitat. While many challenges lie ahead, the experience from other parts of Southeast Asia shows that it may be the best way forward.

True to its conservation focus, A Visual Celebration of Borneo’s Wildlife doesn’t shy from facing the numerous impediments to conservation. One in particular might be difficult for Australian readers to fully grasp. The illegal trade in wildlife is naturally clandestine in nature but it is underestimated here in Australia. In South East Asia it is more blatant and what regulations there are tend to be poorly enforced. The nature of the market increasingly targets animals the rarer they become. It’s a savage feedback loop that currently has numerous species on a trajectory toward extinction. Bjorn elaborates:

In Borneo, trade in animal products and parts have been going on for centuries with China. Highly priced products like horns from the Sumatran Rhino and edible birds’ nests are in exceptionally high demand. Illegal trade in pangolin parts has decimated the population, and the Sunda Pangolin is now classified as Endangered.

The latest example is the ‘ivory’ casque of the Helmeted Hornbill, which is directly carved on or cut into ornaments.  Based on reports of confiscations and Asian trading websites between 2012 and 2013, it has emerged that up to 500 Helmeted Hornbills were killed every month in the province of West Kalimantan, Indonesia alone. The heads of the Helmeted Hornbills were subsequently smuggled out via Sumatra and Java to Hong Kong, China and Taiwan.  For this reason the Helmeted Hornbill was classified as Critically Endangered in 2016.

To make a long story short, illegal trading in wildlife is still a big problem in Borneo and the rest of Asia.

There are some species in the book which will be a genuine treat for birders. The pittas, of course, are true “birders’ birds”; they’re both difficult to see and wonderfully coloured. The grip-off factor is dialled up to eleven here as all Bornean species are depicted and stunningly captured by Olesen. When you appreciate how hard it is merely to glimpse these birds, it is flabbergasting to see them photographed so beautifully. Another stand-out in this regard is the Bornean Ground-cuckoo. This species permitted only the most fleeting of glimpses when I visited the Kinabatangan wetlands in 2015 and I was grateful for that. Again though, Olesen has triumphed with some marvellous shots of the species.

....and it's not all about the birds. Bornean Keeled Pit Viper. Bjorn Olesen. Used with kind permission.

For these birds alone, A Visual Celebration of Borneo’s Wildlife will be worth the asking price for most birders and there is much more besides to recommend it. Australian birders will find a thoroughly informative text providing an excellent foundation for birding trips in the region as well as information on all the other fauna and flora to be found on the island.

Fanny and Bjorn are already working on their next large-format publishing project which I am told has a working title of Asia’s Wildlife: A Journey to the Forests of Hope. The authors tell me it visits eight different ‘forests of hope’ in eight different Asian nations and is due for publication in mid-2018.

If the quality of A Visual Celebration of Borneo’s Wildlife is anything to go by the new book should be a lavish treatment of an even wider sample of Asia’s wildlife. I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for it.

CBW

 

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Grasswrens: Australian Outback Identities

Review, ResearchChris Watson

By Andrew Black and Peter Gower

153 pages

$45 (full colour, hardback)

Axiom Publishing

Last year I was fortunate enough to visit the ornithological collection of the Natural History Museum at Tring. When you’ve not spent a lot of time around large natural history collections it is quite an experience. The avian skin collection is staggeringly large. As you walk among the seemingly endless ranks of cabinets you pass within centimetres of the preserved skins of 750,000 birds; a large flock by anyone’s reckoning. Here you pass an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, there a prostrate Kagu. Somewhere a Shoebill lurks and, within another drawer, a Passenger Pigeon. Within this flock are representatives from almost 95% of all species of birds and 8,000 type specimens. But amid this circus of the spectacular—toucans and flamingos; turacos and tanagers; harpy eagles and hummingbirds—I’d come to inspect what are, in some peoples’ misguided opinions anyway, boring little brown birds….

Dull? Drab? Says who?

The grasswrens in the endemic Australian genus Amytornis are currently enjoying a surge of interest to rival recent crazes for craft liquor, naff tattoos, and tight pants with baggy arses. These inscrutable little birds have always had devotees but lately that coterie has been expanding.

Grasswrens: Australian Outback Identities is an important culmination of this interest. In summarising our latest understanding of these birds as well as assembling a detailed history of the birds’ discovery and naming, Grasswrens succeeds brilliantly. It is not a comprehensive monograph of all that is currently known about the genus; but it doesn’t set out to be. The authors refer the reader to other more technical and exhaustive works for in-depth analysis of some aspects of grasswren biology and physiology. This is not a shortcoming, it is actually one of the book’s greatest strengths. The aim of Grasswrens, is to present a much-needed update. Our knowledge of this group has come ahead in large leaps in recent years and while still quite incomplete, there is a lot of information which has, until now, remained unpublished or difficult to access. Now you can find almost anything you need to know about this genus, including directions to further references, in the one book.

Grasswrens is a thorough work of deep scholarship and any Australian, and many international, birdos will find it a detailed and valued reference. There are dedicated chapters treating vocalisations; habits and habitats; nests and eggs; social organisation; threats and conservation; and a particularly good one titled A photographer’s view. This chapter delineates the very different approach required for photographing these birds. The historical chapter detailing the birds’ discovery, naming and their collectors over the years, excels. Most of this is information that has never been gathered in a single volume like this; some of it has never been published before. The authors have done us a great service. Axiom Publishing have produced a high quality book too. The hardback edition in the large quarto format is printed on heavy, gloss stock, and the book is richly illustrated with full-colour photographs throughout. Most sub-species are depicted and the photography is of a uniformly high standard and sourced from a number of contributors whose names will be familiar to most readers.

Some may lament the lack of inclusion of any Indigenous knowledge relating to the genus but I think this may be a justified omission. This would have expanded the scale of the work considerably and would stray into the field of ethno-ornithology where, I have it on good authority, work on a major publication is already underway.

The meat of the book is in the chapters dedicated to the birds themselves; each species gets its own. Grasswrens recognises a parsimonious eleven species. I can already hear the gnashing of teeth from some quarters but this conservative treatment is necessary. Many recently proposed splits have not been robustly supported and taxonomists have already been put through a number of surprising twists by genus Amytornis in recent years. It’s wise to be cautious. Even so, I suspect this will date the book very rapidly. The authors hint at this with a “stop press” notice below the phylogeny on page 123, evidently inserted at the last minute, alluding to “unexpected complexity” uncovered by recent work on Striated Grasswren populations from the Great Victoria Desert and The Pilbara. Personally, I think the grasswrens will always be subject to data-poor research work. That is, there will always be comparatively little data available even if the data is sometimes of a high quality. Massive tracts of outback Australia are, for all practical purposes, off-limits to the majority of researchers. The remoteness of many grasswren populations is a big enough barrier to research already, the additional difficulty of negotiating permission to access some populations is often simply a bridge too far. Field ornithology in this country is not famously well-resourced; you could argue quite the opposite. Until we can smooth land access arrangements to most of outback Australia and secure routine funding for more exploratory ornithology in remote areas we will continue to be simply nibbling at the edges. Either that, or resampling the same populations over and over without really testing the edges of our knowledge.

It is probably only a matter of time before the splits proposed within Amytornis striatus by Christidis, et al., (2013) receive more robust support. I suspect there may even be further splits within taxa occurring throughout the Great Victoria Desert and north through the Tanami. I think it’s likely that we’ll see the phylogeny expand to accommodate at least another 2-3 species and possibly as many as 6 or more. It’s an exciting time.

The species accounts in Grasswrens proceed logically and are dense with even more historical information about the species’ discovery and naming. As well as superb photographs of the birds there are some good representative habitat pictures included in this section further to a detailed discussion of grasswren habitat use earlier in the book. The range maps are especially detailed but, perhaps unavoidably for reasons discussed above, they are still somewhat speculative in areas where we don’t have substantial numbers of observations from recent years.

Grasswrens are very special birds. At least they’re very special to me and a good many people of my acquaintance. Going back to that day at NHM Tring, even the curator there seemed quite taken by the tray of brown birds as I set them out on the bench top.

“They’re fine birds”, he said simply.

This is noteworthy from a man who spends most of his time surrounded by most of the birds of Earth. There was still something about these unassuming species from a distant and remote land that had caught his attention; their reputation precedes them. He had travelled to remote parts of Australia, observed them in their natural habitat and assisted with field work on their ecology. As phylogeny dictates, the adjacent drawers were filled with dazzling arrays of male fairy-wrens in every eye-catching shade of blue and violet. Even by comparison with these gaudy neighbours, the grasswrens were refulgent. If anyone ever describes them as dull, drab or plain, it can only be because they haven’t seen them well enough. The least-boldly marked still have rich colour and fine markings. White-throated and Carpentarian Grasswrens at the more boldly-marked end of the spectrum are as objectively beautiful as even the most loudly-coloured fairy-wrens.

Fine birds all....

Yes, they’re very fine birds. As such, I’m hugely grateful that Andrew Black and Peter Gower have committed the time and resources to produce this book and to do such a sterling job of it. It can’t have been easy.

Grasswrens: Australian Outback Identities is a masterful survey of everything that is captivating and unique about these birds. Its publication offers the additional promise that it may inspire other works of a similar scale and level of detail on other Australian birds. Several groups come to mind which are either overdue for an update or have never had a comprehensive monograph prepared in recent times. More than this though, I hope Grasswrens inspires continued interest in this most Australian group of birds and drives more ornithologists into less-explored parts of the continent to further unpick the many remaining mysteries of this fascinating group.

CBW

 

Further reading

Christidis, L., Rheindt, F. E., Boles, W. E. & Norman, J. A., 2013. A re-appraisal of species diversity within the Australian grasswrens Amytornis (Aves: Maluridae). Australian Zoologist, Volume 36, pp. 429-437.

 

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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.

Gotta Tick 'Em All

Birding, OpinionChris Watson

This piece first appeared in Australian Birdlife Magazine Vol. 5 No.3, September 2016.

Cast your mind back and you may remember an old Nintendo game from the 1990s where players would seek out fictional creatures and capture them to add them to their list—Pokémon.  

The latest version of the game, harnessing the cameras and GPS capability of smartphones, was released in early July and it didn’t take long for problems to arise. Within the first week of the game’s release, the Darwin Police had to remind players that they mustn’t enter their premises just because the game had designated the building a “Pokestop”.

Reports of car crashes and pedestrian accidents have been common, as have accusations of trespass as people chased Jigglypuffs and Charizards through suburban parks late at night—some Pokémon, it seems, are nocturnal. In the US, a series of muggings occurred when nefarious players lured others into isolated places. Bosnian players even had to be reminded to avoid wandering onto minefields, such was their Pokémon-induced stupor.

A lot of this should have a familiar ring to birdwatchers. We all know how single minded birders can be in pursuit of a lifer. There’re plenty of stories of birdwatchers, lurking behind binoculars, suspected of snooping. I’ve been grilled by the Australian Federal Police myself for straying too close to the Pine Gap Joint Defence Facility toting high-end optics. There are also many regrettable instances of erratic driving, trespass and other ill-advised behaviour by birdwatchers in pursuit of their quarry.

But despite all the similarities, the biggest point of difference between birdwatching and Pokémon Go is the most obvious: birds are real. That’s not a small thing. Because birds are real, birdwatchers, from the rank beginner to the most experienced ornithologist, in their efforts to see as many species as possible, are learning about the world we live in and contributing to our understanding of its ecosystems.

Birdwatchers keep notebooks and submit their observations to online atlas projects where the information can be accessed by researchers and governments and used to inform studies of bird populations, movements and distribution, and make decisions about their conservation status and required levels of protection. Birdwatchers’ observations have informed recent decisions regarding the management of fire, mineral exploration and vegetation clearing.

Due in large part to the contributions of birdwatchers, our understanding of how birds occupy the landscape is more complete than for any other class of vertebrate on the planet.

But although my initial reflex was to dismiss Pokémon Go as mere skim milk to birding’s full cream, its phenomenal popularity clearly confirms one thing: our huge appetite for exploring, collecting and cataloguing. The similarity between the collecting mentality of birdwatching and the Pokémon tagline of “Gotta Catch ‘Em All”, shows the fascination with collecting to be a universal character of humanity.

So with the Twitchathon going national this year and the Aussie Backyard Bird Count in October, perhaps there’s an opportunity here. These are the extreme sports of birdwatching. It may take just the gentlest of nudges, as the interest in Pokémon Go begins to wane, for the listers of the virtual world to see their opportunity in an unaugmented world filled with multitudes of creatures which are even more spectacular and enchanting for their reality…

An iridescent flying creature which steals clothes pegs and trinkets from humans, but only if they’re blue? Satin Bowerbird—tick it off.

A ground-dwelling animal which constructs a mighty oven with delicate temperature control to hatch its young? Malleefowl—another one in the bag.

A huge flightless dinosaur-like beast with a single horn on its head and a vicious kick that could disembowel a would-be attacker?

Southern Cassowary—you beauty!

If they thought Pokémon Go was addictive, wait ‘til they try birding.