“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.
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