Working for birds in Africa

Bird Sounds of Madagascar. An Audio Guide to the Island's Unique Birds

Fri, 12/21/2012 - 11:47 -- abc_admin
Frank Hawkins and Richard Ranft, 2007. One audio CD. London, UK: British Library. Available from WildSounds.
pages 280 - 281

This is the second major sound collection dealing with the Malagasy region, following the four-CD set published by Huguet & Chappuis in 2003 (and reviewed by Dowsett-Lemaire 2004). But the scope of this single CD is rather different as, unlike the very broad coverage of Huguet & Chappuis' collection, it focuses on species endemic to Madagascar (and some neighbouring islands), and includes 127 of the birds of the island most interesting to visitors.

As the first author has studied the birds of Madagascar for nearly 20 years one can expect and indeed welcome the result to be error-free. A number of unfortunate misidentifications had occurred in Huguet & Chappuis (cf. Dowsett-Lemaire 2004) but none appears here as far as I can judge, and indeed this collection includes the first (correct) commercial recordings of Rand's Warbler Randia pseudozosterops, Green Jery Neomixis viridis, Red-tailed Newtonia Newtonia fanovanae, Red-shouldered Vanga Calicalicus rufocarpalis, Spectacled Tetraka Xanthomixis (Bernieria) zosterops, Dusky Tetraka X. (B.) tenebrosa and Yellow-bellied Sunbird-Asity Neodrepanis hypoxantha. Other endemics that appear here for the first time are Madagascar Serpent Eagle Eutriorchis astur, Banded Kestrel Falco zoniventris, Slender-billed Flufftail Sarothrura watersi, Sakalava Rail Amaurornis oliveri (the contact calls only, a recording of its song is still eagerly awaited, especially to help unravel its relationship with its close congener on the African continent, the Black Crake A. flavirostra), Madagascar Spinetail Zoonavena grandidieri and Bernier's Vanga Oriolia bernieri. Also included are some endemic races, e.g. Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus pyrrhorhoa and Namaqua Dove Oena capensis aliena, albeit the recording of the first is too incomplete to permit comparison with other races; the latter does not sound different from continental birds. Of special interest is a song of an unidentified nightjar (a soft churring, almost trilled song) recorded by J. Roche, but as is typical with this recordist's material there is no locality, thus we have no idea whether this might apply to Collared Nightjar Caprimulgus enarratus of the forests of the north and east, whose song remains undescribed. But it is well worth presenting to draw attention to the problem. Also included are rock thrushes Monticola from the Isalo and Bemaraha massifs, the former previously known as Benson's Rock Thrush M. bensoni but later shown to be conspecific with Forest Rock Thrush M. sharpei (Goodman & Weigt 2002); the Bemaraha birds are perhaps of uncertain taxonomic status. The songs of rock thrushes of wet or dry forest are not unfortunately of much help in a taxonomic context: they all sound to me as if they could fall into dialectal variations of a single taxon, including that in the far north (Montagne d'Ambre). Only the Littoral Rock Thrush M. imerinus has a voice clearly distinct from the others, being rather scratchy and less melodious. Other additions are various vocalisations not presented by Huguet & Chappuis, such as the stunning mewing growl of Giant Coua Coua gigas. Only one recording comes from outside Madagascar, that of Thick-billed Cuckoo Pachycoccyx audeberti (represented in Madagascar by the nominate race), as the song of the local taxon has still not been tape-recorded.

A few endemic species are not presented, including the ducks (for which voice is not an essential identification tool), but one may regret the exclusion of Madagascar Plover Charadrius thoracicus and Madagascar Fish Eagle Haliaeetus vociferoides, which can, however, be found in Huguet & Chappuis (2003). Although F. Hawkins writes in a preface that the vocalisations of Madagascar Cuckoo-Falcon Aviceda madagascariensis and of the nominate race of Red-capped Coua Coua ruficeps remain undocumented, both were in fact presented by Huguet& Chappuis. Whilst the discreet calls of the cuckoo-falcon are nothing to get excited about, the song of the coua is so distinctive and different from that of the race olicaveiceps as probably to warrant a taxonomic split.

The CD lasts 77 minutes, and different species are separated by silences of c.2 seconds. This means an average of 34 seconds per species, which may be considered by some as on the short side. For instance some of the ground rollers could have been given more space: in my review of Huguet & Chappuis I pointed out that Short-legged Ground Roller Brachypteracias leptosomus sounded rather unmotivated, with an untypical short series of three or four notes only (the song normally consists of a very long series of notes repeated at intervals of about one second). The song presented here consists of just ten notes, with some irregular spacing between them (was this perhaps the result of the bird reacting to playback?). This is better than the first published recording, but still does not give quite the right impression of this long, monotonous series of popping notes, which is such a characteristic sound of some eastern forests in the early morning mist. The necessity of keeping to one CD for the editors also means that there are just 99 numbered tracks, thus 28 species are grouped by two or three under the same number. To hear the last species under such groupings one has to wait 20-55 seconds, and anyone wishing to use this material in the field will have to make his (her) own copy with proper species identification marks. It is a pity that the lengths of recordings of 'species one' are not indicated in such cases, as inexperienced listeners may become confused, especially when more than one cut is presented for some species (also with a short break between them). Of course producing two CDs instead of one to solve this problem would have caused other drawbacks (more time and material needed to fill the second CD) and further delays in the production of this essential series. The quality of recordings is variable, sometimes excellent but usually good enough for identification or use in the field. A few contain fairly loud calls of other species, and it might have been useful to mention these in the accompanying text, to avoid confusion.

Some taxonomic problems have been highlighted using bio-acoustical evidence. One is that of the two forms of Madagascar Scops Owl Otus rutilus, the western form having been recently split (as Torotoroka Scops Owl O. madagascariensis) on account of its different song, with a series of trembled rather than pure notes, at a lower pitch. However, the situation is rather more complex than illustrated here (with just one or two song types of each form): there is already great variation in pitch between birds within each biome, and in addition some song types in the east are of trembled, rather than pure notes. I heard at least two examples of this in the forests of Masoala and of Perinet (the latter tape-recorded), and the second song type of O. rutilus published by Huguet & Chappuis is of slightly trembled notes (my tape from Perinet being of a song even more noticeably trembled). More material would be desirable.

One striking peculiarity of many Malagasy birds is their extremely high-pitched vocalisations, even in forest species. The list is rather long as this comment applies to several unrelated families such as Accipiter hawks (the thin high calls of Madagascar Sparrowhawk A. madagascariensis being especially curious), Velvet Asity Philepitta castanea, sunbird-asitys Neodrepanis spp., several species of tetraka of the genus Xanthomixis, several warblers (especially Neomixis), babblers of the genera Oxylabes and Crossleyia, and the two fodies Foudia spp. There is no equivalent in Africa among species of forest understorey. Chappuis (1971) discussed the low-pitched voices of forest birds in Africa in relation to physical constraints (e.g., the fairly long, low-pitched whistles of Illadopsis babblers and Alethe thrushes are thought to penetrate forest understorey better), but this argument breaks down completely here, as tetrakas, oxylabes and others (living in dense forest at ground level) do exactly the opposite!

To conclude, anyone interested in the Malagasy avifauna should get both Huguet & Chappuis (for its wider coverage) and this new collection, but for those visiting only Madagascar the present collection will be the more useful of the two. It can be considered essential as a sound field guide for anyone who intends to seek the island's endemic birds.

Françoise Dowsett-Lemaire
Chappuis, C. 1971. Un exemple de l'influence du milieu sur les émissions vocales des oiseaux: l'évolution des chants en foret équatoriale. Terre et Vie 25: 183-202.
Dowsett-Lemaire, F. 2004. Review of Huguet & Chappuis (2003). Bull. ABC 11: 161-164.
Fuchs, J., Pons, J.-M., Pasquet, E., Raherilalao, M. J. & Goodman, S. M. 2007. Geographical structure of genetic variation in the Malagasy Scops-Owl inferred from mitochondrial sequence data. Condor 109:408-418.
Goodman, S. M. & Weigt, L. A. 2002. The generic and species relationship of the reputed endemic Malagasy genus Pseudocossyphus (family Turdidae). Ostrich 73: 26-35.
Huguet, P. & Chappuis, C. 2003. Oiseaux de Madagascar, Mayotte, Comoros, Seychelles, Réunion, Maurice. Four CDs and booklet. Paris: Société d'Études Ornithologiques de France.

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