Working for birds in Africa

Birds of Senegal and The Gambia

Wed, 11/07/2012 - 12:28 -- abc_admin
Nik Borrow and Ron Demey, 2011. London, UK: Christopher Helm. 352 pp, 140 colour plates, colour distribution and other maps. Softback. ISBN 978-1-4081-3469-6.
pages 112-113

This new field guide in the seemingly ever-expanding Helm series contains clear depictions of over 680 species known to occur in Senegambia. In many ways the Birds of Senegal and the Gambia is a cut-down version of the Birds of Western Africa by the same authors (and publisher), and it follows a similar layout and format. The new guide, however, benefits from larger, clearer illustrations, which in some cases have been re-drawn, with considerable gains for the reader in not having to sift through almost countless species that do not occur in this, still one of the most popular regions of West Africa among visiting birdwatchers. Species accounts include recent splits, such as Greyish Eagle Owl Bubo cinerascens and, by having a regional focus, the species distribution maps have been drawn with greater precision for Senegal and The Gambia. The maps cover not only breeding and non-breeding ranges, but also areas in which passage migrants both from Europe and from within Africa might be expected to occur.

The extra space in this guide permits the maps to accompany the descriptive text on the page facing the relevant species illustration. Illustrations of weaver nests appear on the same pages as the birds themselves, serving as a further identification aid. The text accommodates a summary sentence describing the species' relative abundance or the likelihood of encountering it. Together, these attributes combine for a more accessible and user-friendly guide, with less of the tedious page flicking necessary with its parent guide to the entire West African region. This is important for a book that covers a region visited by considerable numbers of more casual birdwatchers, drawn principally to the coastal resorts of the region, as well as many dedicated birders.

Like its predecessor, considerable effort has been devoted to setting the context of the guide, with respect to climate, topography and large-scale introductory maps to both countries, all of which information is designed to properly orient the reader. Descriptions and mapped locations of key birdwatching sites and nature reserves further contribute towards this informative and helpful introduction. A glossary of technical terms and jargon (e.g. 'jizz'), references and contacts are also included.

Taxonomic sequence follows that of 'older' works (i.e. grebes and cormorants appear first, not ducks), but this will probably please as many people as it annoys; ultimately it detracts little from the book's functionality. The artwork arguably does not match the 'immaculate' precision of the latest field guides for Europe or North America. Some species possess exaggerated proportions, to my eyes at least, for instance in tail width (Red Kite Milvus milvus and the robin chats Cossypha) or head size (Little Grey Woodpecker Dendrocopus elachus being one the worst examples), but generally most depictions are perfectly adequate for the book's scope and ambition. It is not entirely comprehensive in the sense that not all plumages are covered (witnessed personally by my own minor 'battle' to identify an immature Grey Kestrel Falco ardosiaceus - a plumage not illustrated here, but neither is it illustrated in the only other guide to Senegambia; see below). But, on the whole this work copes admirably with the daunting task of marrying detail with uncluttered presentation. I unhesitatingly recommend it to anyone planning a trip to either country that it covers.

This new guide obviously invites comparisons with the similarly titled guide by Barlow et al. (1997) - see review. Borrow & Demey's work is purely a guide to identification and provides fewer of the details on habits or behavioural traits that are a major strength of the older one. Nor does the newer book provide as much detail on identification features or voice as the latter, and instead frequently defaults to the irritating use of 'usually silent within the region'. This is a personal bugbear of mine that I view as both lazy and unhelpful. The observer needs to know what the bird sounds like when it vocalises (as they all do at least occasionally) as this can be critical to support identification. For me, in consequence, the Barlow et al. guide is a superior, more handbook-like work, although somewhat less user friendly in the field. In comparison, the Borrow & Demey guide is a more concise and accessible presentation, with the considerable advantage for the field that all of the relevant information (i.e. text, illustration and map) appears on the same double-page spread. There are no maps in the Barlow et al. work, as well as fewer illustrations overall.

Ian Henderson
Barlow, C., Wacher, T. & Disley, T. 1997. A Field Guide to the Birds of The Gambia and Senegal. London, UK: Christopher Helm.


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