It was a long wait before a comprehensive guide to the very distinctive Malagasy avifauna, illustrating all its species, was published, in 1990. Olivier Langrand's excellent Guide to the Birds of Madagascar is, however, a rather bulky tome, especially considering the relatively low number of species - just under 260 - that needed to be treated. It also has some decidedly user-unfriendly features which could have been easily avoided, but were nonetheless repeated in the French edition, which appeared five years after the original. Thus, the plate captions consist solely of species names each preceded by a number indicating order of treatment in the text. Numerical order is, however, not followed in the captions and no identification pointers are given, despite there being plenty of room to do so. The number of the plate that illustrates the species is not indicated in the species accounts, making it sometimes hard to find the relevant illustration. The distribution maps are grouped at the end of the book and species are indicated by number only, not by name. The birds on the colour plates also generally appear a bit pallid.
Two new books on the birds of the region have now been published almost simultaneously. Both are considerably smaller in size and lighter in weight than the original Langrand and will, for this reason alone, appeal to the travelling birder.
Sinclair & Langrand's is by far the smaller and lighter of the two, although it covers not only the birds of Madagascar, but, conveniently, also those of the other islands of the region: Mauritius; Réunion; Rodrigues; the Seychelles and the Comoros. It is the first field guide to do so. This attractively produced book is presented in the well-established and handy format of colour plates facing succinct species accounts that are accompanied by small distribution maps. An introductory chapter, designed to serve as a general guide to locating the endemic species, presents the various islands and island groups in nine pages and includes a small map of each. In the following 141 pages, 359 regularly encountered species are described and illustrated. Several taxa, usually treated as subspecies, have been elevated to species rank. Although some of these will cause little surprise, eg Madagascar Hoopoe Upupa marginata (split from U. epops), many others are bound to cause some eyebrows to be raised, such as, to name but two, the splits of 'Comoro' Cuckoo-Roller Leptosomus gracilis from 'Madagascar' Cuckoo-Roller L. discolor and of 'Comoro' Blue Vanga Cyanolanius comoriensis from 'Madagascar' Blue Vanga C. madagascariensis. Surprisingly, it is the less distinct cuckoo-roller taxon from Grand Comoro which is given species status, while the more distinctive form from Anjouan, for which species status has sometimes been suggested, remains lumped with the nominate. Comoro Thrush Turdus bewsheri, for which a split has been proposed, remains a single species. In a move that is rather unusual these days, one taxon formerly treated as a species has been accorded subspecific status: Benson's Rock Thrush Monticola (=Pseudocossyphus) bensoni has been lumped with Forest Rock Thrush M. sharpei. Species that have been recorded fewer than ten times - 89 in total - have not been treated, but merely listed at the end of the book.
The plates are generally of the high standard almost taken for granted nowadays, and, although having four illustrators inevitably has resulted in different styles, I did not find this distracting. Occasionally, the colours are too saturated, as on the kingfisher and bee-eater plate, but this is probably not the illustrator's fault but the printer's. A serious error in scale has been made on p. 127, where the tiny sunbird-asities Neodrapanis appear almost as big as the stocky asities Philepitta. There are, inevitably, a few other mistakes. The Sakalava Rail Amaurornis olivieri, on p. 75, confusingly resembles a small Porzana crake, rather than its closest relative on the African mainland, the relatively similar Black Crake A. flavirostris, Cryptic Warbler Cryptosylvicola randrianasoloi should have dark, not pale, legs, and the breast and belly of Madagascar White-eye Zosterops maderapatanus should be bright white, not grey, Comoro Thrush appears washed out whilst the Fodies look too grey and have lost their conspicuous pale feather edgings. Inter-island variation is sometimes poorly treated: the Comoro Fody Foudia emientissima described and illustrated is the Grand Comoro form: in the races occurring on the other islands of the archipelago the red in the plumage is more extensive, making them appear very similar to Forest Fody F. omissa. Similarly, the very distinct form of Comoro Thrush on Anjouan is not illustrated nor discussed in the text.
In some illustrations, the characteristic jizz of a species has been missed, as in the mesites and the flufftails, perhaps because of the illustrator's lack of field experience, but this should nowhere lead to identification problems.
The species accounts are necessarily brief and only point to main identification clinchers, followed by notes on habitat, status and call. Some of these appear to have been written under a severe time constraint and not to have been revised subsequently, resulting in a few confusing slips. For example, the description of Cryptic Warbler first states that the species is distinguished from Common Neomixis tenella and Green Jeries N. viridis by, among other features, its pale legs, then goes on to say that it differs from Stripe-throated Jery N. striatigula by its dark legs. In some cases the name of the subspecies occurring in the region is mentioned (without any indication of its difference from others), but in most it is not. The plate on p.157 illustrates both subspecies of Chabert's Vanga Leptopterus chabert, nominate and the distinctive schistocercus, but nowhere is this mentioned in the text. Although describing calls is notoriously difficult, their transcription rarely matched what I heard in the field during a recent visit to the region. That it can be done in a far better way is proven by the other guide. The distribution maps, although tiny, are eemarkably clear. It is therefore a pity that some inaccuracies have crept in. Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis is stated to be common on three of the Comoro islands, but this is not shown on the accompanying map. Frances's Sparrowhawk Accipiter francesiae, which does not occur on Mohéli, is erroneously shown as present on all four Comoro islands. The Comoro Cuckoo Shrike Coracina cucullata is only mapped for Grand Comoro, although the text correctly states that it also occurs on Mohéli. Crested Drongo Dicrurus forficatus is rightly said to occur on Anjouan, but it is Mohéli that is marked on the map. Even the attractive maps in the introductory chapter are not without flaws. For example, the map of Mayotte incorrectly situates Pic Combani in the southern part of the island, in the Bénara Massif, and the accompanying text presents it as the nearest stretch of montane forest from Mamoudzou, whereas this is, in fact, La Convalescence / Majimbini, which is just uphill from the town.
One more word, on the front cover. I'd be interested to hear if anyone has ever observed a tight flock of three adult male Blue Vangas as depicted!
The second guide, written by Pete Morris and Frank Hawkins, although limited to the birds of Madagascar, is substantially thicker than the other volume because it treats two species per double page spread, instead of three to six. The text is therefore much more elaborate and comprises accurate and detailed plumage descriptions, including those of all subspecies occurring on the island, followed by sections on voice, habitat and behaviour, range and status, similar species, and a particularly useful one on where to see the bird. The taxonomy is deliberately more conservative than in the first guide, with almost no new splits except a few for which there is serious evidence, such as Threskiornis bernieri, Upupa marginata, Monticola erythronotus and Nesillas lantzii. The very un-greenbul-like 'greenbuls' (which would better be named tetrakas) are still placed in the genus Phyllastrephus instead of Bernieria.
I found the transcription of vocalisations exceptionally good and extremely useful in the field.
The range and status section includes conservation status, as categorised by Birds to Watch. Whereas this is undoubtedly useful, the indication "Not globally threatened" seems redundant and tedious. Occasionally, as for Common Jery, the distribution of the different subspecies has been omitted, and for Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax, range and status in Madagascar has been forgotten altogether.
Almost all species have been illustrated with at least one, and often two photographs. Seven species, for which no photos could be found (which in the case of the widespread African Allen's Gallinule Porphyrio alleni is rather surprising), have been illustrated by colour paintings by Mark Andrews. Two more are illustrated by both a photograph and a painting. The quality of the photos is rather variable. Most are good, many even excellent, others fall in the category 'record shots', and a few are poor. There are a few anomalies: a vagrant that has only been recorded twice, such as Eurasian Avocet Recurvirostra avosetta, is illustrated by two large photographs, one of which is a juvenile, while the endemic and widespread Madagascar Pratincole Glareola ocularis has to make do with a small picture in the right hand corner of the same page. A rare migrant like Common Sand Martin Riparia riparia has a photograph of three birds at their nesting holes - a blunder I thought seasoned authors and publishers such as these would not have made. Strangely, the Common Myna Acridotheres tristis in the book is all black, but something more serious has happened to the Subdesert Mesite Monias benschi. A male and a female of this terrestrial species are illustrated while perching in a cramped posture in a tree. Contrary to what is stated in the text, this species normally escapes danger by running, but local guides in the Ifaty area appear to have become experts in silently approaching the birds and then suddenly frightening the wits out of them. The panicked birds then fly up in a tree, where they may remain motionless for long periods of time, thus giving all participants of even large birding groups the opportunity to see them. This disruptive way of showing the birds, of which even bird tour companies of good repute appear to make use, has, not surprisingly, made this threatened species harder to see in that particular area and interferes with an ongoing research programme. It may be worth adding that the species can usually be found in a relatively short period of time by any serious birder investigating the right habitat, even without the help of a guide or playback - although, admittedly, it may take a bit longer.
To me, the selection of photographs presented here once more illustrates both the usefulness and the limitations of a photographic guide. As a complement to a 'classic' guide with standardised paintings it proves its worth in often allowing a better appreciation of the real jizz of a species; used on its own, however, some poorly illustrated birds would be hard to identify. Luckily, in this case, the text is nothing less than excellent - but this may seem a bit ironic for a book whose illustrations are probably meant to be its main attraction.
The book has a clear layout and a rather small but still easily readable print. The meaning of the different colour bars that highlight the names of the 265 illustrated species, however, remains a mystery: at first sight the colours appear to have been used as a code to distinguish different families or species groups, but closer inspection does not bear this out. Thirteen seabird species rarely recorded in Malagasy territorial waters and three species not recorded within the last 50 years are described, without illustration, in appendices. An introductory section describes the main habitat types, which are illustrated by a map and colour photographs, and gives practical details on 19 birdwatching sites (against nine in Sinclair & Langrand).
So which book should the travelling birder take along? Although both are good value, the ideal guide has yet to see the light. If you are visiting various islands, want to travel light and have done your homework, the first guide is the obvious choice. However, if you are only visiting Madagascar, the photographic guide, with all the details provided by its text, would be preferred. Anyone seriously interested in the birds of the region will, I'm sure, end up buying both, in addition to the original Langrand, which could then be left at home or packed in the suitcase, rather than in the hand luggage.