Working for birds in Africa

Complete Photographic Field Guide: Birds of Southern Africa. / Vögel in Afrika. Ein fotografischer Naturführer für Afrika

Fri, 12/21/2012 - 11:13 -- abc_admin
Complete Photographic Field Guide: Birds of Southern Africa. Ian Sinclair & Peter Ryan, 2009. Cape Town: Struik Nature. 432 pp, more than 2,500 colour photographs, 975 distribution maps. Softback. ISBN 978–1-77007–388–3. / Vögel in Afrika. Ein fotografischer Naturführer für Afrika. Rainer Christian Ertel, 2009. Nottuln: Fauna Verlag. 398 pp, more than 1,300 colour photographs and distribution maps. Softback. ISBN 978–3-935980–18–0. (info@ fauna-verlag.de)
pages 254-255

Although southern Africa is covered by the widest range of ornithological works on the African continent by far, new bird books keep appearing. The latest of these is a photographic field guide by well-known birders Ian Sinclair and Peter Ryan. Sinclair already has a whole series of bird guides to the region, including photographic ones, to his credit, so what's new about this book? The novelty principally resides in the number and the quality of the photographs. Indeed, the authors can rightly claim to present the most comprehensive collection of photographs—more than 2,500 of them—of the region's birds in one handy volume. Instead of each of the 975 species (including 17 from Antarctica and the Southern Ocean) being illustrated by a single photograph, as was the case in previous guides, all now have at least two, some even up to six. For only four species no images were available; these are illustrated by artwork. Per plate, there are 2–7 species (usually 5–6), with 8–20 photographs (mostly 10–16). As some species, e.g. raptors, are illustrated with a relatively large number of photographs on a single plate, some images are only thumbnails (see e.g. the harrier plate, with 20 photos). However, as the photographs are generally of high quality, useful characteristics are still visible. The species accounts, on the opposite page, have been substantially revised compared to previous guides, and now also provide weights and diet, and the small but clear distribution maps have been updated. A useful feature is a calendar bar showing seasonality of occurrence and breeding (an improved version of the bar in the Roberts Bird Guide, reviewed in Bull ABC 15: 283–284, which shows only breeding seasonality). The book is attractively laid out, as we've come to expect from this publisher, and is a pleasure to browse. But can it replace a 'classic' field guide with colour paintings rather than photographs? Despite the huge improvements, the usual objections against photographic guides remain pertinent: not all plumages are illustrated and, most importantly, similar species are not conveniently shown in similar postures. The layout of the photographs, although generally pleasing to the eye, also does not allow the reader to quickly grasp the clinching identification features, as first one has to figure out which images refer to each species. On the positive side, it is undoubtedly true that photographs often better convey the 'jizz' of the birds. As this well produced, rather large (16.6 × 24.6 cm) book is packed with information, much of it not habitually included within a 'classic' field guide, it will usefully complement such a guide.

How different is the German book! Although it basically follows the same, now standard, format of plates opposite text and distribution maps, we're back to the photographic guides of the 1980–90s, with a single photograph for each species. This is understandable, as the book presents over 1,300 species from the whole of Africa, with eight photographs per page. Most images are good to acceptable, but some are just 'record shots', while others are not really useful for identification purposes. The accompanying species accounts, which conveniently not only mention German and scientific, but also English names, are very brief, with just 2–6 (generally 3–4) lines per species, giving a succinct description of identification features, habitat and voice. Their brevity would not necessarily be a drawback, if the accompanying image clearly showed each bird's diagnostic features.

Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Many pages have blank spaces that could usefully have been filled with essential additional information. Although this book is presented as a field guide, it is difficult to imagine that a more or less serious birder would be tempted to use it as such. For the 'bird-minded' tourist, on the other hand, this collection of images may be insufficiently glossy and attractive, and may confusingly contain too many species. So the book appears to be some kind of unsatisfying hybrid: neither a field guide nor a coffee-table book. This is a pity, especially as there are extremely few recent books on African birds in German.

Ron Demey

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