Working for birds in Africa

Birds of the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia and Socotra). [First edition]

Fri, 12/21/2012 - 10:06 -- abc_admin
Nigel Redman, Terry Stevenson and John Fanshawe, illustrated by John Gale and Brian Small, 2011. Second edn. London, UK: Christopher Helm. 512 pp, 213 colour plates, colour distribution and other maps. Softback. ISBN 978-1-4081-5735-0.
pages 243 - 244

The huge continent of Africa possesses an extremely diverse range of countries and an equally diverse spread of habitats, whilst the four main countries covered by this new guide are famous for their very diverse range of birds and other wildlife. Eastern Africa is best known, to non-specialists at least, for its mammals, but its avifauna is both fascinating and beautiful. A very wide range of habitats, from coasts to deserts and bushland to forest, as well as some quite high mountains comprise the region covered by this latest field guide, a region which is still, in parts at least, very remote and difficult of access, indeed some areas (especially war-torn Somalia) are effectively completely inaccessible at present.

This new book is one of the latest of the Helm Field Guides, which have been invaribly of a high quality. Several field guides are now available covering the countries of eastern Africa and southern Africa, but this is the first such book devoted to that part of north-east Africa south and east of the Sahara. Within its remit, the book encompasses Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia, as well as the small archipelago of Socotra, which although politically part of Yemen (and can only be visited via the latter) is Afrotropical in its avifaunal composition (the same is not necessarily the case for other taxa, including the islands' flora). Socotran birds are also covered by another Helm field guide, that to the birds of the Middle East (Porter et al. 1996), of which a new edition is currently work in progress. The illustrations of these birds, especially the all important endemics, are generally better and more detailed in the work under review here, compare for one those of the endemic Socotra Sunbird Chalcomitra balfouri, despite that the same artists were largely responsible for the depictions in both works. (Furthermore, the intervening years have witnessed a great many additions to the list of birds recorded on Socotra, as well as significant changes to the taxonomy of some of these.)

Over 1,000 species are covered, represented by more than 2,600 individual illustraions on 213 colour plates. The avifauna of the region combines elements representative of several biomes, which overlap with other regions, especially East Africa, but there are a fair number of species that are more or less endemic to the Horn of Africa (and Socotra). Because of this overlap, some illustrations have been borrowed (though often rearranged on a plate) from a previous Helm Field Guide, Birds of East Africa (Stevenson & Fanshawe 2002). Where necessary too, such re-used illustrations have been digitally manipulated to ensure that the correct subspecies occurring in the region is shown. New plates were commissioned to cover the remaining species - c.20% of the species found in the Horn do not occur further south in East Africa. All new and previously used plates are by John Gale or Brian Small.

The taxonomy employed broadly follows the African Bird Club checklist (www.africanbirdclub.org/checklist) and English names are those considered to be most established in eastern Africa. However, 27 of the more distinct forms are afforded specific status, e.g. Somali Ostrich Struthio molybdophanes (formerly treated within S. camelus) and Somali Courser Cursorius somalensis (formerly within Cream-coloured Courser C. cursor), and some other races are noted separately as potential species, e.g. the two forms of Winding Cisticola Cisticola galactotes that occur in the region are afforded separate treatment, as Coastal Cisticola C. (g.) haematocephala and Ethiopian Cisticola C. (g.) lugubris. Redman and his co-workers seem to have universally adopted recently suggested changes to the taxonomy of Socotran birds. Some might have preferred to see these recommendations become more embedded before their wholesale adoption in a work of this nature. The book is also commendably up to date with vagrant occurrences including, for example, the Himalayan Swiftlets Aerodramus brevirostris observed on Socotra in November 2007 (see Bull. ABC 15: 136), although full details of this outstanding record (regrettably) remain unpublished. In this and other respects, the authors have relied on a wide network of contacts, detailed in the Acknowledgements, to good effect. Furthermore, recent literature appears to have been generally well covered, although much of it, as one would expect in a field guide, is not specifically cited. Indeed, the Bibliography is perhaps notable chiefly for its brevity (with some spare white space 'going begging') and somewhat haphazard coverage, e.g. with most papers in the periodical literature not being mentioned, which will perhaps lead some readers to wonder why certain articles have been selected for inclusion?

The guide's introductory sections cover the basics of bird identification and avian topography, followed by a brief description of the region's geography, climate and habitats. The species' accounts then take up the bulk of the book, which closes with a checklist of the region, and appendices covering endemic species and hypothetical species (included in the book but requiring confirmation). The format of the species accounts follows the usual pattern, with a colour plate facing a page of descriptive text and a distribution map. The illustrations are crisp and accurate, and clearly laid out on each page, showing the adult plumage as well as any sexual differences, juvenile plumages, in-flight views and subspecific variation where necessary. Although quite small, the distribution maps are of clear cartography, with the range colour-coded as to status (resident, breeding or non-breeding visitor or migrant). The text for each species comprises a description, emphasising the important distinguishing features and including Voice. Habitat is described together with specific habits useful to help identify the species, as well as status in the region. Despite the need to pack the information into limited space, the text is pleasingly free of too many abbreviations. Nonetheless, because of such limitations, it has been necessary to give only brief information on issues such as subspecies ranges, which will thus sometimes require elucidation from more specialist and detailed sources. Errors in these are not immediately apparent, at least within Africa, although the breeding range of the eastern subspecies of Cinereous Bunting Emberiza cineracea semenowi is incorrectly solely delimited as 'south-west Iran' herein. Any alternative English names in widespread use are listed whilst brief notes discussing species-level taxonomy close each account.

The question finally arises as to whether I would buy the book? If you already own Birds of East Africa, is it worth buying this guide when there is such overlap in the species coverage? If travelling to the region, I recommend that you do not try and rely on the earlier book. It is so much more convenient to have one guide covering all of the region's birds, especially when it includes the 70+ species (such as the endemic Stresemann's Bush Crow Zavattariornis stresemanni and White-tailed Swallow Hirundo megaensis) found only in this remarkable corner of Africa.

Derek Toomer
References: 
Porter, R. F., Christensen, S.& Schiermacker-Hansen, P. 1996. Field Guide to the Birds of the Middle East. London, UK: T.& A. D. Poyser.
Stevenson, T. & Fanshawe, J. 2002. Birds of East Africa. London, L K: T. & A. D. Poyser.

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