Working for birds in Africa

Birds of the Middle East. Second edition

Fri, 12/21/2012 - 10:49 -- abc_admin
Richard Porter & Simon Aspinall, illustrated by John Gale, Mike Langham & Brian Small, 2010. London, UK: Christopher Helm. 384 pp, 176 colour plates and c.800 colour distribution maps. Softback. ISBN 978–07136–76020.
page 116

Although officially the second edition, this title's origins also lie in the original 'desert guide' (Hollom et al. 1988, Birds of the Middle East and North Africa, T. & A. D. Poyser). A total of six different authors and four artists have been involved, but just one person, Richard Porter, has been a mainstay of all three incarnations. This is more than appropriate as Richard has been a leading light in Middle Eastern birding and conservation for a staggering four decades, yet has lost none of the enthusiasm that led him to Turkey (by train) 44 years ago!

The 'new' Birds of the Middle East has finally migrated to traditional field guide format with maps and text facing plates, and the systematic order is also substantially changed. The illustrations (and text) have been extensively revised, with some depictions 'borrowed' from the recent Redman et al. (2009) guide to the Birds of the Horn of Africa (see Bull. ABC 16: 243–244). More might usefully have been repeated too; the Socotra Sunbird Chalcomitra balfouri in the latter is markedly better than herein, in my opinion. But, generally, the artwork is of a good standard, with Langman's arguably the weak link, albeit this comment is highly relative.

Some 100 'new species' appear in this edition, comprising additions to the regional list as well as the inevitable taxonomic revisions since the first edition (1996). Many such changes are sensibly 'hedged', using parentheses, but I am surprised to see the notion expressed (p. 10) that hybrid gulls (Larus michahellis × L. armenicus) at a lake in southern Turkey might represent a 'potential or incipient species'! On the plus side, the gulls in general have been subject to a particularly substantial overhaul. The authors have also generally kept well abreast of vagrancy records, but occasional lapses are easily noted, e.g. Lesser Flamingo Phoeniconaias minor and Black Lark Melanocorypha yeltoniensis have both occurred in Turkey. On the other hand, they seem to have sensibly ignored claims of Pale Martin Riparia (riparia) diluta in Israel. As an aside, I think the evidence is sufficiently overwhelming to have been unequivocal about 'splitting' diluta, thereby also 'ignoring' the brackets.

Nomenclature and taxonomy follow the list prepared by a committee on behalf of the Ornithological Society of the Middle East, which is unsurprising given that both Aspinall and Porter 'sit' on that body. Names are, of course, subject to intensely personal preferences, but 'Eurasian' Crimson-winged Finch seems a curious name for a bird, Rhodopechys sanguineus, fundamentally Asian, while history students know that Smyrna Bunting cannot be a correct alternative name for Emberiza (cineracea) semenowi on geographical grounds. Long-standing errors in the scientific names of certain stonechat (Saxicola) taxa are perpetuated here.

Given the availability of the Redman et al. guide, readers of this Bulletin heading only to Socotra will have no real need of this book, but it will quite rightly be very warmly appreciated by those birding the wider Middle East.

Guy M. Kirwan

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