This book, covering the 597 species recorded within the country to date, claims to be the ‘ultimate’ guide to the birdlife of Botswana and fulfills the title admirably. A well-produced work, it is firmly in the style of what has come to be the ‘classic’ field guide. The smooth, soft, flexible cover has a useful alphabetical quick index on the inside front page. This is followed by a Contents listing, Foreword, Acknowledgements, Introduction and Glossary prior to the bulk of the book, the 356 pages of the illustrated species accounts. Perhaps a map of the country inside the back cover would have been a useful addition? The introduction includes small but clear, general maps of the country itself, and vegetation and habitat types. Small but attractive photographs that provide an idea of the various habitats within the country are included, and there is also an approximate guide as to which species are associated with them, followed by a brief ‘where to see birds’ section.
It is, however, the main section of the work that this book will be judged by, and with any field guide the eye is at least initially drawn to the plates. Ingrid Weiersbye is the sole artist and has admirably illustrated the avifauna of the country. It is immediately obvious that she is very familiar with the birds that she has painted. The illustrations are clean, clear and precise, on a white background, with the species separated from each other by thin, straight black lines. All of the species are depicted by one or more illustrations that cover significant differences in plumage due to age, sex or regional variation specific to Botswana. Species sharing the same page are drawn to the same scale and are in general pleasingly accurate. Occasionally, diagnostic behavioural traits are illustrated. Although some groups (e.g. gulls) may have benefited from having a few more figures, other groups such as nightjars display an impressive thoroughness and attention to detail, with feather-by-feather maps of the relevant parts of the wings and tails. On the whole, the illustrations perform their job as identification aids extremely well, but some of the more difficult larks and warblers do not quite hit the mark, and perhaps would have benefited from being treated with the same apparent care as the nightjars. However, the cisticolas (a much-maligned group) are rather good and the sunbirds, weavers and widowbirds are also depicted extremely well to help identify the difficult female and transitional plumages. Opposite the plates lie the species accounts, with large, clear distribution maps and, for species other than erratic visitors, a bar graphic that shows at a glance if the bird is present or absent, breeding or non-breeding for each month of the year. An overview of each family precedes the individual species accounts, and English, scientific and Setswana names headline each account. The main body of each species entry is broken into subsections covering identification, call, status, abundance, habitat, habits and conservation status. The text, written by Peter Hancock, is thorough and informative, with a great deal of information provided in the relatively small space available. There are generally three or four species per page, occasionally two or five, and at no time does the book feel ‘crowded’ or pressed for space. Perhaps the main question is why buy Birds of Botswana rather than, for example, SASOL’s Birds of Southern Africa, Newman’s Birds of Southern Africa or the Roberts Bird Guide? Each of these highly regarded works covers Botswana and the larger geographical area of southern Africa, which would appeal to the birder wanting to travel in other countries in the region. All of these books are of roughly similar size and weight, contrary to the expectation that Birds of Botswana would be a more lightweight and portable field guide. Each book is unarguably a quality field guide, but for a resident birder or visitor to the country the benefits of using Birds of Botswana are that it is a dedicated country guide with larger and far more detailed maps, and because it obviously excludes extralimital species from the equation, this should make identification problems clearer. There is also no doubt that the text of this new book is more thorough than both the SASOL and Newman guides, thus making the main competition, in my view, the Roberts guide. In the end personal preference will probably win the day.