Working for birds in Africa

Birds of Ethiopia and Eritrea: An Atlas of Distribution

Fri, 21/12/2012 - 11:22 -- abc_admin
John Ash & John Atkins, 2009. London, UK: Christopher Helm. 464 pp, numerous photographs (16 pp in colour) and more than 872 maps. Hardback. ISBN: 978–1- 4081–0979–3.
pages 128 - 129

For the scholar and discerning traveller alike, a good distributional atlas to the avifauna of a region is an invaluable key to unlocking its ornithological gems. The two countries, Ethiopia and Eritrea, covered by this well-produced book are most certainly an avian treasure house, with a grand total of 872 species having been recorded from within their boundaries. More than 30 of these are endemic to the region and most of these specialities are mouth-wateringly depicted in a photo gallery section.

These ancient lands are undeniably fascinating, possessing as they do a rich and colourful history, and superb natural scenery, albeit greatly modified by the effects of mankind. The lengthy Blue Nile commences its journey in Ethiopia flowing out from the enormous high inland Lake Tana that provides a livelihood for fishermen using their traditional papyrus boats before it tips its waters over the dramatic Tissisat Falls. The extensive highland plateau dissected by the Great Rift Valley covers an area that lies predominantly over 2,000 m and ultimately peaks at 4,620 m on Ras Deshen in the Simien Mountains. These lofty lands have acted as a natural fortress, both protecting and isolating, over the centuries. In contrast, at the base of these sheer, vertical cliffs stretch the lands that lead to the Danakil Desert, a desolate but equally mystifying place that reaches 110 m below sea level and is occupied by the fearsome Afar tribe. Although Ethiopia is landlocked, there are numerous rocky islands along the Eritrean coastline holding important seabird colonies. This is certainly a land of contrasts!

John Ash and John Atkins are indisputably both highly qualified to prepare this book for between them they have lived and worked in Ethiopia for a total of 15 years. Over the course of the past four decades, they have summarised their own records and included a huge number of sightings submitted by many of the other long- and short-term visitors to these countries. Impressively, they have also assimilated a mass of historical records (all well referenced in the concise bibliography).

This largish book (246 × 189 mm) is somewhat deeper than the norm but snuggles up perfectly on the bookshelf alongside John Ash and John Miskell's previous atlas and authoritative sister volume Birds of Somalia. This new book, however, is a much more refined and somewhat thicker volume containing 463 pages, the first 80 of which provide an excellent insight to Ethiopia and Eritrea's ornithology. An initial general introduction proffers a thumbnail sketch of culture and politics, and this is followed by well-researched, readable and informative essays covering such subjects as the history of bird-finding, topography, hydrography, geology, vegetation, climate, habitats, conservation and breeding habits, all generously illustrated with photographs and tables. A suite of coloured maps provides information on political boundaries, topography, geology, rainfall and notable localities including national parks and wildlife refuges. The physical situation of these two countries and the dramatic nature of the terrain have an obvious effect on migrants moving in and out of Africa, making the chapter on migration especially interesting. It looks into where these birds are coming from and outlines the status of each species within the region, as well as giving information on their arrival and departure dates, all of which will be immensely useful to the visitor.

The bulk of the book comprises the atlas and species accounts. Sequence and nomenclature generally follow The Howard & Moore Complete Checklist of the Birds of the World (Dickinson 2003) although some English names have been changed to fall into line with the choices made in the recently published and essential companion field guide Birds of the Horn of Africa (Redman et al. 2009). Therefore, there are no great surprises taxonomically and the book is as up to date as possible, and rightly no longer treats 'Degodi' Lark Mirafra degodiensis as a species but as a form of Gillett's Lark M. gilletti.

Three species are laid out per page, the text for each being accompanied by a large-scale, monochrome ochre-coloured map indicating basic topographical contours and major rivers. On a grid of half-degree squares, each species' presence is clearly recorded by the presence of black (breeding) or white (sight) circles with other symbols being used for uncertain sightings or unconfirmed breeding records. The layout is exceedingly pleasing to the eye and the superimposed data are clear and very easy to read against the background map, which although strongly coloured is not obtrusive.

The written account confirms the species' presence in either one or both of the countries and endemic species are highlighted. Sadly, a more global indication of a species' range and distribution is not included. However, all subspecies known to occur in the area are taken into account and where there is more than one race represented then the known boundaries between the forms are outlined in black on the map. With migrants such as Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava, where multiple races overlap and ranges cannot be so defined then the known status in either country is stated. Information on breeding is briefly summarised and succinctly covers laying dates and clutch size. There is a wealth of information given in a relatively small space and, from each account, there is enough to inform the reader in which habitat to find the species, what altitude it prefers, habits where relevant, migratory movements and often exact localities to look for the birds. Appendices cover hybridisation, potential and rejected species lists, Important Bird Areas, ringing and a very thorough gazetteer.

This excellent atlas summarises a wealth of field experience from real authorities and all that is known to date from the literature about the distribution of birds in these two exciting countries. Both clear and precise, it sets a new high standard in works of this kind and definitely forms a benchmark. It is a fitting monument to John Ash's long-standing work and discoveries in the region, and is thus an absolutely essential reference for anyone interested in the countries. For many years now Ethiopia has been an increasingly popular tourist destination for those interested in its wildlife and culture. I would recommend this atlas to any potential visitor, as it will provide the perfect overview to the distribution of a rich avifauna and a superb aid as to where to find the special birds.

Nik Borrow
Ash, J. S. & Miskell, J. 1998. Birds of Somalia. Robertsbridge: Pica Press.
Dickinson, E. C. (ed.) 2003. The Howard and Moore Complete Checklist of the Birds of the World. Third edn. London, UK: Christopher Helm.
Redman, N., Stevenson, T.& Fanshawe, J. 2009. Birds of the Horn of Africa. London, UK: Christopher Helm.

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