Working for birds in Africa

Birds of Western Africa

Fri, 21/12/2012 - 13:43 -- abc_admin
Nik Borrow and Ron Demey. 2001. London, UK: Christopher Helm. 816 pp, 147 colour plates and over 1,100 colour distribution maps.
pages 38 - 39

Anyone who has been or ever wanted to go birding in West Africa - with the exception of The Gambia - will have been frustrated by the lack of a good comprehensive bird identification guide. It seems almost a decade since this project first drew my attention and I have been waiting in excited anticipation/frustration ever since, longing for the day when visitors would be equipped with something more substantial than Serle et al. Western Africa is defined as the region extending from Mauritania, in the north-west Sahel, east to Chad and the Central African Republic, south to and including Congo-Brazzaville. The Cape Verde Islands and Gulf of Guinea Islands, Annobon, Sao Tome, Principe and Bioko are also included, but the Democratic Republic of Congo (former Zaire) is not.

The book begins with a brief introductory section consisting of a series of chapters outlining the scope of the book, a comprehensive breakdown of the species accounts section and, in my view, too brief a section on climate, topography and the main habitats. With such a mammoth task, this is not really surprising, as this is a bird identification guide above all else and little space is devoted to other than the main body: the species accounts, maps and plates. However, with an ever-increasing threat to the West African environment, this I feel was an opportunity missed. There is also a short section on restricted range species and Endemic Bird Areas, and definitions of taxonomy. For taxonomy, sequence and scientific names, the book generally follows The Birds of Africa, although in some cases the suggestions of Dowsett & Forbes-Watson or other recent
authors, whose views are considered more advanced or consistent, are employed.

Dealing with almost 1,300 species and covering 23 countries, the scope of this work must have been quite daunting. There are 147 original colour plates, all painted by Nik Borrow, comprising over 3,000 figures and depicting almost every species described. When considering the work involved, it is unsurprising that this publication took a little longer than expected. There is a consistency to the work that is very pleasing to the eye. The plates are generally well arranged and do not appear unduly cluttered, although this seems to have been unavoidable in some of the raptor and gull plates, which required images of flying birds alongside perched individuals. The artwork is to a very high standard and, to my eye, remarkably accurate. Having scrutinised the originals several times during the years prior to publication, I feel it rather unfair to criticise at this stage. However, as reviewer, I feel that a couple of points deserve voicing. I think plate 87 - of the Andropadus bulbuls—contains some of the finest illustrations ever produced of this tricky group, perfectly capturing the salient features. That they were not reproduced slightly larger, thereby diminishing the glaring white paper surrrounding each image, is a crying shame. I feel that the swifts better deserved two plates as it is somewhat difficult to discern the relevant features. Whether the plate has been reproduced slightly too dark, I'm not sure, but Scarce Swift Schoutedenapus myioptilus should be paler brown than Common Swift Apus apus. On the second nightjar plate, Pennant-winged Nightjar Macrodipteryx longipennis is depicted with full pennants, a feature I'm not sure is ever observed in the region. The two plates of vagrants rather 'let the side down', particularly the gulls and auks, which may have been last-minute inclusions that do not really sit well within the rest of this classy work. However, this really is nitpicking for this is a superb body of work. Special mention should be given to the four bulbul plates, the warblers, Malaconotus bush-shrikes and weavers. And, extra-special praise for the superb trio of sunbird plates, for Nik's distinctive style takes them to the next level, stunning indeed!

The facing page from each plate initially comprises a brief introduction to the relevant family, followed by the plate captions including measurements, status and general distribution. The maps are incorporated into the main body of text alongside each species account. Some birders may not like this, but here I agree with the author's decision, as it creates greater flexibility, permits for more detail and, besides, the plate caption already offers a broad indication of range. As has become standard in identification guides, each species account covers plumage, voice, habits, similar species and status and distribution. It is clear that the author has a great deal of experience in the region because, despite being brief, all are remarkably authoritative. Closing each voice section is a reference to the relevant CD and track number of the Chappuis African Bird Sounds series, which is a particularly useful feature. Ron Demey has managed ro incorporate some very useful information, no doubt including many notes from personal observation in the relatively brief sections on habits and similar species, and deserves our congratulation for setting a really high standard. Status and distribution is equally brief but authoritative, and includes Red Data book categories. Where applicable, a short taxonomic note completes the species account. The text includes each bird's French name and there is a French index as well, a must in a region where this language is widely spoken. I have often wished for this, as I frequently meet people in northern Cameroon who know the French names but are at a loss in English.

A quite superior distribution map accompanies each species account, using colours that are very comfortable on the eye, and clearly indicate the extent of range at each season. There are a couple of pages of line drawings, one, depicting hornbills in flight should prove very useful and another, showing different weaver bird nests, is an excellent idea. Following the species accounts, a very useful references section is divided into four parts: general and regional, country, family and species and acoustic references. Scientific, French and English indexes comprise the remainder of the book.

Weighing in at a rather hefty 2 kg, this is one feature of the book I fear many birders will find frustrating, if attempting to travel light. It may well be too heavy for back-packing field use, something I hope the publishers will address at some stage. I personally feel that it could potentially be produced as two softbacks, a plate section for field purposes and the main text part for home/base-camp reference. I also hope that the cost doesn't prohibit resident African birders from obtaining a copy as I feel, for the first time, it is really possible for birders to identify the birds before them.

Both author and artist clearly possess extensive field experience over many years in western Africa. Their knowledge, expertise and sheer enthusiasm really does shine through. This is a really outstanding guide to one of the world's most exciting birding areas, and both Borrow and Demey can be justly proud to have completed a task many thought impossible. I congratulate them both on a job exceptionally well done. This is an indispensable guide and I have no hesitation in recommending anyone who has been to, or is considering a visit to the region to obtain a copy now; you will not be disappointed.

Mark Andrews
Chappuis, C. 2000. African Bird Sounds: Birds of North, West and Central Africa and Neighbouring Atlantic Islands. 15 CDs. Paris: Societe d'Etudes Ornithologiques de France & London, UK: British Library.
Dowsett, RJ. and Forbes-Watson, A.D. 1993. Checklist of Birds of the Afrotropical and Malagasy Regions. Tauraco Research Report No. 5. Liege: Tauraco Press.
Serle, W., Morel, G. and Hartwig, W. 1977. A Field Guide to the Birds of West Africa. London, UK: Collins.

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