Chris Watson

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 Outdated ideas can be tenacious.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!



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.