Chris Watson

book review

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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Birds of New Zealand: A Photographic Guide

ReviewChris Watson

With a cover image like this, you know good things will be within

By Paul Scofield and Brent Stephenson

545 pages, soft cover

Auckland University Press

Island gigantism is a well-studied phenomenon in biology. In New Zealand, a place with more than a few celebrated examples of island gigantism among its fauna, the phenomenon seems to have spread to its field guides too. Fear not though; it’s definitely not the drastic problem that it might seem on the surface.

Birds of New Zealand: a photographic guide, as the title suggests, was never intended as a field guide per se. It was released simultaneously with a companion smartphone app back in 2013. (I know; that’s how long it takes me to get around to reviews these days.) Smart birders will get both versions of this superb guide and leave the book in the car or hotel room. The app is all you’ll need while you’re out on the paddock and, of course, comes with the full compliment of recordings for use in training your ear or ethical playback. The book then provides the heavy artillery for resolving any really difficult ID quandaries and is perfect for poring over during evenings of tidying up lists and notebooks.

For a guide which only treats 365 species, Birds of New Zealand weighs in at a hefty 1240g; only 200g lighter than the Australian Bird Guide which treats 927 species! But even a quick flick through the pages will reveal where the book carries this weight: in addition to superb photography, it is dense with information. It verges on a full-blown handbook. Sacrificing the requirement for being a strictly portable field guide has allowed for the inclusion of much more detailed text than we’re accustomed to in most field guides. This has also given the authors freedom from the more common format of a plate of images facing a page of text. Birds of New Zealand gives full accounts for each species, in some instances running to three or four pages. The species accounts are preceded by a family summary and each account provides identification notes; vocalisations; separation from similar species; distribution; breeding biology; biometrics; and some quite detailed taxonomic notes. This latter section I found to be a particularly enjoyable and informative inclusion. It gives the history of the English and scientific names but also Māori names where they have been recorded. Indigenous names are starting to appear in some Australian bird books but it would be good to see more of it. The distribution maps are satisfyingly detailed and contain enough information to map out migration and sub-specific populations.

The authors will be well-known to any readers who have dipped a toe in the trans-Tasman birding scene. Stephenson is justly famed for his photography of antipodean fauna. That photographic archive is crucial to the success of Birds of New Zealand and is on full display throughout. I’d hope most Australian birders already have New Zealand high on their list of places to visit but there is another good reason why this book should find a place on most Australian birders’ shelves. Its treatment of seabirds is exceptional. The entire book contains 545 pages and fully 162 pages of these are devoted to seabirds. This is perhaps unsurprising given that one of the authors is Paul Scofield; a recognised authority and a name familiar to anyone who has perused the literature dealing with seabirds. A large proportion of these species also occur (or have been recorded as vagrants) in Australian waters but a few haven’t. The longer species accounts make for a superlative reference and any keen pelagic birders would be well-advised to keep a copy handy.

I’ve used both the app and the book while in New Zealand and recommend them highly. The app functions as well as any which I’ve encountered and is in the same league as the Collins Bird Guide app. The book, as well as being an information-packed reference, is a thing of beauty and will be of as much interest to Australian birders as their Kiwi counterparts.

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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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.