I first visited Madagascar in 1989, when there was effectively no field guide—I can remember studying the tail shape on singing jeries perched on treetops in the hope of finding one with a wedge-shaped tail—I eventually discovered that Wedgetailed Jery, as it was then (now Wedge-tailed Tetraka Hartertula flavoviridis), is a bird of forest undergrowth. Over the years things have improved somewhat, and this is at least the fourth guide in English to the birds of Madagascar (in this review I will confine myself to Madagascar, as I have never visited the other islands covered).
This new title in the Helm field guides series is essentially a ‘baby’ version of The Birds of Africa volume 8, which is most definitely not a field guide. The taxonomy followed is much the same, although it has been updated to reflect the expansion of the Vangidae to include Ward’s ‘Flycatcher’ Pseudobias wardi, Crossley’s ‘Babbler’ Mystacornis crossleyi and the newtonias Newtonia spp., and the recognition of four warbler families in line with the ongoing shake-up of the former Sylviidae. We have also lost Benson’s Rock Thrush Monticola bensoni (fair enough!) and there is again only one scops owl (Otus sp.) on Madagascar (a backwards step in my opinion, not least because BOA’s ‘perceived vocal differences’ are real enough in my experience).
The book contains the usual introductory sections, but with the addition of a great discussion of ‘biogeography: colonisation, differentiation and survival’ and a very useful review of endemic families and genera. The main field guide section is divided into colourcoded sections. Part 1 deals with waterbirds, raptors and gamebirds, groups in which most species are common to the whole region (and indeed, widespread in the Old World). Part 2 covers passerines and near-passerines, divided into seven islands or island groups. Part 3 covers vagrants to the region (of which there are many). Thus, for Madagascar, most landbirds are found in Part 2 (with no confusing species from the Seychelles, Comoros etc.), but some landbirds—raptors, rails, mesites and gamebirds—are found in Part 1 (together with those from Seychelles, Comoros etc.), which is also where you will find herons, ducks, waders etc. I understand the logic behind this, but it is a bit confusing at times. Surely, in this day and age, it would not be too hard to have produced separate field guides for each island or island group? It is presumably a case of perceived commercial interest winning over functionality, although it is true that a field guide to the birds of the Comoros is unlikely to be a best seller at the present time.
How do the field guide sections stand up? The illustrations are generally very good, and there are useful range maps, although in some cases these seem to be more maps of available habitat and less maps of actual records than the introduction suggests (e.g. Red-tailed Newtonia Newtonia fanovanae). The text is competent, with brief but helpful notes on behaviour. Confining myself to landbirds, I looked at the handful of birds that are hard to identify on Madagascar, and at the sections on vocalisations. Tricky identifications include Madagascar Cuckoo-hawk Aviceda madagascariensis, Madagascar Serpent Eagle Eutriorchis astur, Madagascar Sparrowhawk Accipiter madagascariensis and the vasa parrots Coracopsis spp. Sadly, the illustration of Madagascar Cuckoo-hawk fails to capture its distinctive large, dark, centrally-placed ‘bug’ eyes, and this is not emphasised sufficiently in the text—in my experience the eyes are the single best feature for separating perched birds from Madagascar Buzzard Buteo brachypterus (similarly, the painting of Banded Kestrel Falco zoniventris has eyes that are too small, thus failing to impart the species’ ‘character’). Of course, most species are easy to identify and very distinctive, and for most species the illustrations are more than adequate.
Looking at the descriptions of vocalisations, I was more disappointed. It is hard—very hard— to transcribe bird vocalisations in any meaningful way, but the text should at least point out obvious and distinctive calls, and attempt to convey the character of the call. Yet, looking at Lesser Vasa Parrot Coracopsis nigra, there is no mention of the fact that its calls commonly include shrill, clear whistles, most unusual for a parrot. Similarly, we are not informed that the ‘check-in’ call of Verreaux’s Coua Coua verreauxi is a series of load croaks, that a good rendition of the flight call of Cuckoo-roller Leptosomus discolor is easily whistled, and there is no indication that the song of Schlegel’s Asity Philepitta schlegeli consists of a series of thin, high-pitched, squeaky notes (‘hu-hu-hu-hi-hi-hu hu’ could just as well be some sort of owl!). At least nowadays it is easy enough to listen to recordings of the real thing, making the verbal descriptions a little superfluous, but the text should still point out what is distinctive.
All in all, this is clearly an excellent field guide. It is significantly better than the other recent guide to the region (Sinclair & Langrand 2013) and should undoubtedly be your first choice when visiting Madagascar or any of the other Indian Ocean islands. It is aimed however, at the visiting birder or world lister, rather than the indigenous population. It would be really good to see the artwork, which is mostly excellent, used in genuinely local field guides for each island or island group, with the text in the local language. Come on BirdLife, there’s a challenge!