Chris Watson

field guide

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

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

Buy it from Andrew Isles

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.

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

 

Buy it from Andrew Isles.

 

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