Working for birds in Africa

Birds of Africa South of the Sahara (second revised edition)

Fri, 12/21/2012 - 10:42 -- abc_admin
Ian Sinclair & Peter Ryan, 2010. Cape Town: Struik Nature. 767 pp, 363 colour plates and many maps. Softback. ISBN 978–1-7700–7623–5. R395.00. (Available in Europe from New Holland Publishers)
pages 113 - 114

When the first edition of this book appeared in 2003 it certainly made an impact! Never before had a single volume covered all of the species found in Africa south of the Sahara. Also within its pages were new splits that were unexpected and some new names that were unfamiliar, making it perhaps unsurprising that opinions concerning the book tended to be polarised. In the intervening years between first and second editions, I believe that its fans have outnumbered the critics, and while it covers too many species to compete effectively as a field guide, the book certainly proves a very accessible resource for those wishing to compare most of Africa's birds in one place.

In total the book covers 2,129 species (a net increase of 24 over the first edition). The northern geographical cut-off is at 20ºN and whilst Socotra and the Gulf of Guinea islands are included, Madagascar and other endemic-rich islands in the Indian or Atlantic Oceans are not. However, seabirds known to occur within 200 nautical miles of the continent are covered.

Sporting a striking new cover design, this edition also features over 500 new illustrations by Norman Arlott, with much-improved plates for several groups including francolins, spurfowls, rails, pigeons, coucals, fishing owls, scops owls, barbets, woodpeckers, larks, drongos, orioles, warblers and white-eyes. The addition of helpful annotations on the plates is very welcome, but the removal of gender icons where only the male is shown is a backward step that could generate confusion. The text has been updated and often expanded with useful notes on identification, habitat, status and voice. BirdLife International's conservation designations for the most threatened species have also been added.

Small distribution maps are presented for each species but, as before, no attempt has been made to differentiate between breeding and non-breeding ranges of migratory species. Similarly, Palearctic species that winter in Africa are only shown at their winter range with no indication of likely occurrence on passage. The recent publication of atlas data from Ethiopia, Somalia, Uganda, Malaŵi and Zambia has permitted many maps to be refined, and this is particularly noticeable for some passerines such as weavers and sparrows. Extralimital records have also been added in many cases.

Given that Peter Ryan is an adviser to the IOC World Bird List ( it is no surprise that the book largely follows the nomenclature used by that project. There are exceptions and the authors have removed three species ahead of the IOC. These are White-crowned Cliff-Chat Thamnolaea coronata (subsumed into Mocking Cliff-Chat T. cinnamomeiventris), Reichenow's Batis Batis reichenowi (= Short-tailed Batis B. mixta) and both São Tomé Alcedo thomensis and Príncipe Kingfishers A. nias (= Malachite Kingfisher A. cristata). Species now lumped in line with IOC include Heuglin's Gull Larus heuglini (in Lesser Black-backed Gull L. fuscus), Bale Parisoma Parisoma griseiventris (in Brown Parisoma P. lugens), Agulhas Clapper Lark Mirafra marjoriae (in Cape Clapper Lark M. apiata), Damara Canary Crithagra leucolaema (in Black-headed Canary C. alario), while Western Stiphrornis erythrothorax, Eastern S. xanthogaster, Gabon S. gabonensis and Sangha Forest Robins S. sanghensis are all now lumped within Forest Robin S. erythrothorax. Also deleted are Bulo Burti Bushshrike Laniarius liberatus and Degodi Lark Mirafra degodiensis, both of which are widely accepted as synonyms of other species.

The authors confess in their opening chapter to a certain amount of 'kite-flying' with respect to the splits that they included in the first edition, and once again they offer some splits that will raise a few eyebrows, but most are already accepted elsewhere. 'New' species added include Southern Royal Albatross Diomedea epomophora, Arabian Shearwater Puffinus persicus, Tropical Shearwater Puffinus bailloni, Socotra Buzzard Buteo 'socotrae' (though since described officially as B. socotraensis), Archer's Buzzard B. archeri, Caspian Gull Larus cachinnans, Socotra Scops Owl Otus socotranus, Usambara Greenbul Phyllastrephus albigula, Rubeho Akalat Sheppardia aurantiithorax, Siberian Stonechat Saxicola maurus, Hartert's Camaroptera Camaroptera harterti, Atlas Pied Flycatcher Ficedula speculigera, Western Black-headed Batis Batis erlangeri, Dark Batis B. crypta, East Coast Boubou Laniarius sublacteus, Somali Boubou L. erlangeri, Willard's Sooty Boubou L. willardi, Príncipe White-eye Zosterops ficedulinus, Abd al-Kuri Sparrow Passer hemileucus, Jameson's Antpecker Parmoptila jamesoni, Lufira Masked Weaver Ploceus ruweti, Katanga Masked Weaver P. katangae, Vincent's Bunting Emberiza vincenti and Striated Bunting E. striolata.

This is a monumental work, and it spends more time on my desk than on the shelf. However, I have no intention of taking it into the field. For me it brings together in one place a huge amount of information in a design that permits rapid access, and for that reason above all others I recommend it.

Keith Betton

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