Working for birds in Africa

The Birds of Kenya and northern Tanzania

Sat, 29/12/2012 - 13:23 -- abc_admin
Date A. Zimmerman, Donald A. Turner & David J. Pearson. Christopher Helm, A. & C. Black. 740 pages, 124 colour plates and 19 black-and-white pages of photographs.
pages 48 - 49

According to the poet Keats, who knew about these matters, a thing of beauty is a joy for ever. For those lucky enough to possess it, this splendid book is likely to be a joy, if not for ever, then for as long as as can reasonably be expected in this changing world. East African birders, rendered parched and gasping by a 30-year drought of field guides, might be expected to fall upon almost any new bird book with the enthusiasm of the seriously dehydrated for a sparkling pool of spring water. When the spring actually turns out to be bubbling with vintage champagne the whole experience is likely to go a little to one's head.

Well: before proceeding, let sober calm return. And appropriately so, since this is a very serious-minded book, the foster child of silence and time - it was a whole eleven years in the making. It is dedicated to the memories of no lesser luminaries than Sir Frederick Jackson, Victor Gurner Logan van Someren and Reginald E. Moreau.

Unremitting seriousness might sound tiresome, but in this case it is, I believe, an excellent thing. This book succeeds so brilliantly because it tries to do things properly and takes no short cuts. Essentially it is a field handbook to the 1,114 species found in Kenya, and northern Tanzania south to 5°30' S and west to about the longitude of Mwanza, an area which includes the Tanzanian National Parks that are most popular with visitors. No doubt these boundaries were dictated largely by commercial concerns, but they make biogeographical sense as well, apart from the intrusion of the Usambara Mountains, with its eastern arc forest birds. The avifaunas of northern Tanzania and southern Kenya have a great deal in common.

Perhaps footbook would be a better term for this size of a text. Although the authors expressly state that it is intended for use in the field anyone lugging it about with them will develop a Schwarzenegger-like physique, or alternatively a hernia. But, as Keats never seems to have said, there is no such thing as a free lunch. If you want information you have to put up with the size and weight. The construction is robust enough to take some field wear and tear particularly if you add one of the tough protective covers already being manufactured by various local companies in East Africa. I imagine I will not end up taking my own copy into the field but keeping it for handy end-of-day reference in a car or tent.

So what does all this bulk consist of? The text begins with a concise but useful introduction explaining the layout of the book, giving a helpful guide to the region and its habitats and general tips on finding and identifying the birds, and a very clear and comprehensive glossary. This last is important since the text makes no concession to lack of technical knowledge. There is a fine set of black and white habitat photographs, the best I have seen in any book on East Africa.

Then come the colour plates. Seventy-nine of these are by Dale Zimmerman, a gigantic piece" of work. Sadly, eye problems meant that Zimmerman could not complete the set, and Ian Willis and H. Douglas Pratt were drafted in to finish the remaining 45 plates. Collectively these illustrations are not only a staggering improvement on what has been available for the region in the past they are world class and able to hold their own against any. Design and layout have been done with great care balancing aesthetic considerations with the constraints of a field-guide format. There is a free use of partial portraits, overlapped illustrations and scaled down flight figures to show off distinctive features and plumages, and a large number of poorly known and less commonly seen adult and sub-adult plumages, many never illustrated before', have been included. Needless to say this is enormously helpful.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the plates is their exceptional accuracy and attention to detail. Although the Introduction warns about shifting colours, for once the printers seem to have done the artists justice and the top quality paper obviously helps. This is especially impressive for some of the more subtly coloured species. I had almost despaired of ever seeing an accurately printed plate of pycnonotids, but Plate 76 in this book has greenbuls to die for. Wonderful.

Superlatives do not apply everywhere. All the passerine plates are by Dale Zimmerman, and most of these are excellent. Even so I find some of his birds a touch too reptilian for my taste - all claws and beaks and beady eyes. There has already been muttering from colleagues about the legs of some species, which often seem excessively spindly and stuck on at odd angles. The glossy starlings, while accurate enough, and I guess that is whal counts, are distinctly odd. I am not sure I would like to encounter any of them on a dark night, even the innocent-looking but apparently free-falling Ruppell's Long-tailed. Zimmerman's non-passerine plates, painted later than the others, are a mixed bag. I thought the swifts and bustards just about adequate, for instance, whereas the coucals and large plovers are much more impressive.

The plates by Willis and Pratt, mainly waterbirds and raptors, range from good to very good. There are a few surprising omissions: for example, almost no ducks in flight and disappointingly little on winter-plumage terns, but in a sense these illustrations are less important. Excellent depictions of most of these groups, though not perhaps the wintering terns, can already be found in South African and European field guides, and in the Birds of Africa.

Opposite each plate are short notes for each species, concisely giving status, distribution and key identification features, as well as a page number reference for the main text, following this up leads to a compact but detailed species account. The descriptions are clear and comprehensive and, where appropriate, giving details for different races and plumages; key identifiation features are helpfully italicised. Sections on voice, habits, similar species and status and distribution complete each account. There is a small but accurate and useful distribution map for each species with breeding and non-breeding ranges distinguished, though it might have helped to have a few more points to orient oneself by: only the two main east-flowing rivers are shown. Overall these accounts are models of their type and contain a huge amount of information. Even if you can identify a bird straight away from its illustration you will learn a great deal from reading the text.

A descriptive account at the beginning of each bird family gives general information on its characteristics, taxonomy, habits, status in the region and identification. Other nice touches are the detailed treatment of cisticola identification, comparative wing outlines of some difficult species, in case you have them in the hand, and a scattering of line drawings illustrating particular points, I particularly liked the pages describing and illustrating typical nests of different weaver species, though these are not unfortunately cross-referenced to the text.

Taxonomy and nomenclature follow the new East African list, and are thus completely up to date. Some names will be new and unfamiliar to many readers. Alternative English names are given where they are in common use, and the indexes are well constructed and will help. One really new and helpful feature of the book, at least for the serious observer, is its thorough treatment of subspecies, giving clear descriptions of plumage differences and ranges.

I have a few minor quibbles. The maps in the Introduction are rather small and confusing. It would have been clearer to show the actual features that the numbers on each map refer to, though the map on the frontispiece has just about everything on it anyway. It seems a pity that the species only found in northern Tanzania have been shunted off into exile on the last three plates, a decision that pays respect to political rather than biogeographic boundaries. Presumably the authors decided to include this area when it was too late to alter the other plates. It would have been good to see some information on local ornithological societies and institutions especially for those who might want to report unusual or interesting sightings.

The text is generally very accurate. After an intensive search I did manage to find a couple of tiny errors (on page 569, compared above should be compared below, for example) but these are really entirely trivial.

It is an expensive book, but worth every shilling. It is actually very good value for money. Unfortunately the high price will clearly put the text out of reach for many young, aspiring birders. Perhaps ways can be found to make it accessible to the wide audience it deserves.

It should be clear by now that any serious observer will want to rush out and buy this book. Is it also a book for beginners or those who just take a mild interest in birding? I think the answer is definitely yes: this will be an essential text whatever the level of your knowledge or expertise. It's easy to access the illustrations and key identification features, while a wealth of more detailed information is available for those who require it. Anyone using this book, at whatever level, will find it a source of valuable and pleasurable instruction.

This text puts Kenyan ornithology on a solid footing for the next millenium. It is a highly unusual and dazzingly successful combination of meticulous science, artistic flair and vast field experience, the distillation of not one but three lifetimes in ornithology. All of us who care about the region's birds owe grateful thanks to Dale, Don and David. We are remarkably lucky,

Leon Bennun

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