Working for birds in Africa

The Birds of Ghana: An Atlas and Handbook

Mon, 08/10/2015 - 15:05 -- abc_admin
Françoise Dowsett-Lemaire and Robert J. Dowsett, 2014. Tauraco Press, Liège. 720 pp, 21 colour photographic plates of habitats and birds, plus numerous black-and-white photographs, figures and distribution maps. Paperback. ISBN 2-87225-007-7. UK£34.99.
pp 116-117

This awe-inspiring volume follows the style of the same authors’ The Birds of Malawi and The Birds of Zambia (reviewed in Bull. ABC 14: 110–111 & 16: 112–113), and anyone familiar with these already classic works will immediately recognise the same high standard and layout.

L. G. Grimes published the first annotated checklist of the birds of Ghana in 1987 as part of the BOU checklist series. That work listed 721 species known from Ghana, which figure has now risen to some 750, reflecting the considerable advance in knowledge of the Ghanaian avifauna within a relatively short period. This is primarily due to the determined efforts of the present authors. The slim, older work was a simple and somewhat briefly annotated list, which has obviously formed part of the basis for the present volume, but each species has been critically re-evaluated, and the current tome now presents so much more information by incorporating a detailed atlas. To create the maps, the country has been divided into a total of 93 30 × 30-minute squares, which between the years 2004 and 2011 the authors remarkably managed to personally survey in their entirety. Indeed, one figure in the book plots the authors’ overnight campsites, at which even a casual glance immediately demonstrates the thoroughness of their travels! Added to the authors’ own exhaustive field records are confirmed historical records, museum specimens and, in recent years, numerous field sightings contributed by a large number of credited field observers. Thus the clear and accurate distribution maps depict the current state of knowledge and form the ultimate benchmark against which anyone, whether casual birder or serious ornithologist, will be able to compare their own sightings.

It should be stressed that this is not only an atlas as it also describes itself as a ‘handbook’. The 144 pages of introductory material includes a chapter describing the country’s fascinating ornithological history, chronologically cataloguing the exploits of workers from Bosman, Isert and Pel to the recent work of the British Trust for Ornithology, as well as the amazing discoveries made by those whose work involves following satellite-tracked birds. There follow detailed essays on the vegetation and major bird habitats. The biogeography of the country is examined based on the concepts and definitions of White (1983), and useful tables of species from the Guineo-Congolian and Sudanian regions are included. Finally, the composition of the avifauna and its conservation within Ghana is discussed. It is noteworthy that the authors have acquired breeding evidence for almost 100 additional species, versus those known by Grimes. The ‘Conservation’ chapter makes a good read and could easily act as a ‘where to watch birds in Ghana’ guide as it is packed with useful information.

The species accounts themselves occupy 500 pages. Unsurprisingly, given that Bob Dowsett was a major contributor to the work, taxonomy generally follows the fourth edition of The Howard and Moore Complete Checklist of the Birds of the World (Dickinson & Remsen 2013, Dickinson & Christidis 2014). However, reference is also made to the taxonomy that was followed by Grimes, which in turn was based on Morony et al. (1975) for its family sequence and White (1961–65) and Bannerman (1930–51) for the names. A large and clear distribution map is presented for each species, with the exception of vagrants and accidental visitors known from just one or two localities / records. The map template depicts country boundaries, principal rivers and the Volta River dam, with water shaded pale blue, whilst an area shaded pale grey elegantly represents the transition zone separating the rainforest in the south-west from the northern savannas. Within the 30 × 30-minute squares, the presence of each species is represented by a solid blue square. Other symbols, such as an open blue square, question mark or black square, are used to denote historical, questionable or migratory statuses, which are further discussed in the accompanying texts. Usually, there are just one or two species per page and the maps are accompanied by precise, succinct and wellreferenced texts covering distribution not only in Ghana, but also elsewhere in Africa and the rest of the world. Further sections cover ecology and habits, status, conservation and taxonomy. Where appropriate, IUCN status is also indicated.

Appendices analyse 2,541 ringing recoveries of 65 species and include plotted maps for 22 of them. Finally, there is a very thorough and invaluable gazetteer of all Ghanaian localities mentioned in the text, often based on the authors’ own GPS readings, followed by an extensive 14 pages of references.

Available superlatives are probably insufficient for this superb and thoroughly essential, academic work. For anybody interested in Ghanaian birds and their distribution, it should be a compulsory purchase and would ideally be used in conjunction with a field guide that covers the topic of species identification, thereby affording the user the most complete overview of the country’s avifauna that has ever existed.

Nik Borrow
Bannerman, D. A. 1930–1951. The Birds of Tropical West Africa. Vols. 1–8. London, UK: Crown Agents.
Dowsett, R. J., Aspinwall, D. R. & Dowsett-Lemaire, F. 2008. The Birds of Zambia: An Atlas and Handbook. Liège: Tauraco Press & Aves.
Dowsett-Lemaire, F. & Dowsett, R. J. 2006. The Birds of Malawi: An Atlas and Handbook. Liège: Tauraco Press & Aves.
Grimes, L. G. 1987. The Birds of Ghana: An Annotated Check-list. BOU Check-list No. 9. London, UK: British Ornithologists’ Union.
Morony, J. J., Bock, W. & Farrand, J. 1975. Reference List of the Birds of the World. New York: American Museum of Natural History.
White, C. M. N. 1961. A Revised Check List of African Broadbills, Pittas, Larks, Swallows, Wagtails and Pipits. Lusaka: Govt. Printer.
White, C. M. N. 1965. A Revised Check List of African Non-passerine Birds. Lusaka: Govt. Printer.
White, F. 1983. The Vegetation of Africa. Paris: UNESCO.

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