Working for birds in Africa

Birds of Liberia

Fri, 12/28/2012 - 14:36 -- abc_admin
Wulf Gatter. 1998. 320 pp, 4 colour plates, 107 photographs, maps, figures. Pica Press, The Banks, Mountfield, Nr. Robertsbridge, East Sussex TN32 5JY. UK£40.00.
p 139

With a total area of 96,258 km2 (about three times the size of Belgium), Liberia is a relatively small country. It is, however, the only West African country which was originally almost entirely covered by forest and now contains more than half of the remaining closed canopy forest in the Upper Guinea Forest Block. It therefore constitutes the most important reservoir for forest species typical of this area. Despite recent fieldwork, mostly carried out in the 1960s and 1970s and concentrated around Mount Nimba, ornithological knowledge of the country has remained scanty and scattered. In assembling and synthesizing all that is known about the country's avifauna, Birds of Liberia thus constitutes the first modern and readily available reference work. It is the result of some 15 years of fieldwork by the author, mainly conducted between 1981-1995, augmented by previously published data, and is clearly the work of someone who knows the country and its birds intimately. The first part (76 pp) includes chapters on the political history and the history of ornithology in Liberia, geology and topography, climate, vegetation zones, habitats of importance to birds, biological seasons in forest and savannah, moult, migration, ecology of forest birds, aspects of biogeography, and conservation in Liberia. The second and major part (157 pp) contains a complete annotated list of the birds of the country, followed by a lavish photographic section (39 pp) with 86 colour and 22 black-and-white photographs. The final part contains six appendices, a detailed gazetteer, a bibliography listing 238 titles, and an index including English and scientific bird names. The introductory section is quite extensive and competently treats the different subjects. The maps of administrative counties, major towns, topography and main rivers are clear and adequate, but unfortunately on the printed page they are reduced to such a degree that one needs a magnifying glass to read the names of localities and topographical features on them. The inclusion of a map showing National Forest Reserves and Parks, which are often referred to in the species accounts, would have been useful. An unusual chapter in a book of this kind is that on the ecology of forest birds, which discusses niche occupation and behaviour of birds in rainforest trees. It actually constitutes a substantial paper, illustrating foraging height and vertical species distribution with numerous graphs and a table of 109 species occurring in mixed bird parties. The latter, included as Appendix 2, also gives the height ranges over which each species was encountered, with a figure apparently indicating (although this is not mentioned) the number of bird parties in which they were found. Without the indication of the total number of bird parties, however, these figures are of less value than they otherwise might have been. The systematic list contains 611 species, a total which, curiously, is nowhere mentioned and is 30 more than the last published list, by Dowsett, which was almost wholly based on Gatter's preliminary checklist of 1988, The total of 611 includes, however, possible escapes, such as Mallard Anas platyrhynchos and Long-tailed Glossy Starling Lamprotornis caudatus as well as Feral Pigeon Columba livia. For each species, information is given on abundance, status, habitat and distribution within the country and, for most, interesting notes are included on their habits, ecology, and annual cycle. The author regularly stresses where his findings differ from those of other workers. An extremely useful feature are the distribution maps with quarter-degree grid squares of 27.5 x 27.5 km, which are provided for 381 species. An appendix lists 21 additional species which might occur in Liberia, with reasons given. To describe abundance, five categories have been used: abundant, common, not uncommon (erroneously printed as "not common"), uncommon, and rare. While one can only agree with the author that such categories are difficult to define, one would have expected to find at least an attempt at one, as occurs in some other country checklists and in Birds of Africa. Now that the available information is so clearly presented, some intriguing questions arise. Is Shelley's Eagle Owl Bubo shelleyi really more widespread than Red-chested Owlet Glaucidium tephronotum? Why are typical forest species such as Black-headed Apalis Apalis nigriceps and Yellow-fronted Penduline Tit Anthoscopus flavifrons so restricted in distribution? And why are there so few records of Winding Cisticola Cisticola galactotes! Do the data reflect their actual distributions or have these species been under-recorded? Future fieldwork should provide the answers. Inevitably, a few published data have been overlooked, but these merely result in minor inaccuracies that do not affect the general quality of the work. With reference to Birds of Africa it is, for example, stated that the voice of Grey-throated Rail Canirallus oculeus is unknown; this may have been so in 1986, when the second volume of the latter work was published, but since then the rail's vocalizations have been described by Brosset & Erard and Dowsett-Lemaire & Dowsett. Outside Liberia, the vagrant Greater Sand Plover Charadrius leschenaultii has not only been recorded from Senegal, Nigeria and Gallon, but also from neighbouring Ivory Coast', a country where Pale-fronted Negrofinch Nigrita luteifrons, rare and local in Upper Guinea, has also been found, in addition to Ghana and Sierra Leone". The extensive photographic section mainly contains photos of habitats (29 colour and seven black-and-white) and birds (56 colour and seven black-and-white), plus a few others. Amongst the latter, the author has commendably included historic portraits of J Buttikofer, the most important early explorer of Liberia's avifauna, and of F X Stampfli, who made a significant collection of birds in the 1880s. The habitat photos are of good quality and cover the country's different habitats, thus forming an essential part of the book. The quality of the bird photos is rather variable, although generally acceptable, and the selection is somewhat haphazard, apparently more reflecting availability than usefulness. I found the most interesting those of Sierra Leone Prinia Schistolais leontica and Black-headed Rufous Warbler Bathmocercus cerviniventris - the first photos of these species I have seen. I was particularly thrilled to see that a photograph had been included of the enigmatic Baumann's Greenbul Phyllastrephus baumanni, a species of which there are few claims, many of them moreover based on misidentificalions. Unfortunately, this seems also to be true here, to my eye the bird in the photo looks suspiciously like a White-throated Greenbul P. albigularis. I found the inclusion of eight pages of black-and-white photos at the end of 29 pages of colour a bit of an anticlimax: surely the most interesting ones (eg those of habitats) could have been included in the colour section, if necessary replacing some of the less inspiring bird photos, while others could easily have been omitted. Appendix 3 gives estimates of population sizes for 87 species, such as White-breasted Guineafowl Agelastes meleagrides (10,000 pairs). Rufous Fishing Owl Scotopelia ussheri (800 pairs), Western Wattled Cuckoo-shrike Lobotos lobatus (20,000 pairs), Baumann's Greenbul (a remarkable 15,000 pairs), Yellow-headed Picathartes Picathartes gymnocephalus (1,000 pairs) and Gola Malimbe Malimbus ballmanni (10,000 pairs). At the other end of the spectrum, Little Greenbul Andropadus virens and Grey-backed Camaroptera Camaroptera brachyura are estimated to be most numerous with 4 million pairs, curiously followed by Grey-headed Negrofinch Nigrita canicapilla with 3 million. One would be interested to know why these 87 particular species were selected and, especially, how these estimates were made. I noticed some editorial slips, such as errors in foreign words and names, and a few references, mentioned in the text, are missing from the bibliography. Finally, a word on the four colour plates by Martin Woodcock, inserted between the first and second part. Although of high quality, one is left wondering why these have been included at all and on what basis the 29 species illustrated were selected as they range from the rare Spot-breasted Ibis Bostrychia rara to the abundant Olive Sunbird Nectarinia olivacea, indeed, explanatory captions are lacking and nowhere in the text is reference made to these illustrations. They thus appear out of place and redundant, and could have been usefully replaced by, for example, full page colour maps of vegetation and topography, as with those in the recently published Birds of Somalia from the same publisher. Regarding maps, it would also have been a great help if a map with county and place names had been printed on the inside of the cover (as in another Pica Press publication, Birds of The Gambia): this would have avoided much laborious turning of pages to locate the tiny maps on pp. 11-12. Stressing that criticisms such as these do not detract from the high quality of the work is something of a cliche but in this case is nonetheless true for that. This attractively produced book is indeed an impressive piece of work containing a wealth of information, much of it fascinating. It constitutes an essential reference to the birds of the region for which the author and publisher are to be congratulated.

Ron Demey
References: 
Ash, J.S. and Miskell, J.E. 1998, Birds of Somalia. Robertsbridge, UK: Pica Press.
Barlow, C., Wacher, T. and Disley, T. 1997. A Field Guide to the birds of The Gambia and Senegal. Robertsbridge, UK: Pica Press.
Brosset, A. and Erard, C. 1986. Les oiseaux des régions forestières du nord-est du Gabon. Paris: Société Nationale de Protection de la Nature.
Demey. R. and Fishpool, L.D.C. 1991. Additions and annotations to the avifauna of Côte d'lvoire. Malimbus 12: 61-86.
Dowsett, R.J. and Dowsett-Lemaire, F. 1993. Afrotropical avifaunas: annotated country checklists. Liege: Tauraco Press.
Dowsett-Lemaire, F. and Dowsett, R.J. 1991. The avifauna of the Kouilou basin in Congo, Tauraco Res. Rep. 4: 189-239.
Gartshore, M.E., Taylor, P.D, and Francis. I.S. 1995 Forest birds in Côte d'Ivoire. Cambridge, UK: BirdLife International Study Report 58.

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