This is an impressive book, weighing in at over 3 kg - or about the same as a Tawny Eagle Aquila rapax and comes in a protective and handsome box. It derives from the Sasol Illustrated Guide to the Birds of Southern Africa by Ian Sinclair, Phil Hockey and Warwick Tarboton, and the intention is to reproduce the plates in that guide at their original size with a new text. There is a preface by each of the artists, with comments on their general approach and working methods, and also an introduction by the author discussing the taxonomy and systematics of southern African birds. The book is issued in three versions - a Sponsor's, Collector's and Standard edition - the first two limited to 26 and 150 numbered copies respectively, the last to 6,000 copies unnumbered.
It thus follows a well established tradition in southern Africa, since various volumes featuring the bird paintings of C G Finch Davies were published in subscriber's editions and, earlier, the well-known illustrations of Norman Lighten for Roberts Birds of South Africa were reproduced at two thirds the size of the original paintings in a splendid volume measuring 18" x 13". The plates in 'Roberts' were published at only a quarter the size of the originals and much detail was revealed in the larger format book, but in the present case there is not quite so much to gain, as the plates are only about a third larger than they appear in the SASOL Guide.
Rather over half the plates were painted by Peter Hayman including most of the non-passerines, as well as larks Alaudidae, cisticolas Cisticola spp, cuckoo-shrikes Campephagidae, swallows Hirundinidae, orioles Oriolidae and crows Corvidae. The artwork has been altered in some respects, especially for seabirds and herons Ardeidae, and some eight plates of sunbirds Nectariniidae, sparrows and weavers Ploceidae by Norman Arlott are completely new, and replace the earlier versions. Since this is emphatically not a field-guide one wonders why, for instance, one of the Royal Albatross Diomedea epomophora figures has metamorphosed from an adult to a juvenile, and why there is now an additional figure of an immature Dark-mantled Sooty Albatross Phoebetria fusca. The new plate of white egrets Egretta spp is more pleasing, and various small figures have been removed from other plates, and opportunity has been taken to correct the captioning on the plate of crombecs Sylvietta spp. Overall, the plates gain a lot in appearance not only through the enlarged size, but also because the captions have been removed, and appear in a neat - and novel - panel at the bottom of the facing page, with all the figures relating to a species tinted the same colour, distinguishing them at a glance from the other species. The only slight problem is that the plates of birds in flight, which are such a feature of the work, appear as double-page spreads, sometimes consecutively, so that the captions have to appear before and after each section, leaving large blank areas, as there is no other text on these pages. The useful distribution maps in the smaller book do not appear, and the text itself is entirely new, being a half page of very readable general information about the species depicted opposite, discussing any aspects of interest from behaviour, relationships or migration, to field characters. It thus complements the character of the book as a splendid pictorial account of southern African birds, meant for browsing through at one's leisure. Its smaller cousin is still the one to use in the field.