Working for birds in Africa

Field Guide to the Birds of East Africa

Fri, 12/21/2012 - 13:53 -- abc_admin
Terry Stevenson and John Fanshawe, 2001. xxvii + 604 pp, 287 colour plates. London, UK: T. & A.D. Poyser.
pp 159-160

Anyone who has birded in East Africa outside Kenya and northern Tanzania will have been keenly awaiting this book, as the only 'modern' guide to the birds of this area has been van Perlo, which is helpful but badly flawed. They will not be disappointed, as every species occurring in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi is illustrated and described, all 1,388 of them. The 287 plates are painted by three experienced artists and depict most of the plumages and major races. The book is a trifle heavy and could have been condensed by having more than 4-5 species per plate, as was done by Robson, but I think the uncluttered appearance of the plates is good and justifies the relatively high number of pages.

There is a clear, simple map of the region on the inside cover and another useful map of the same area on the end cover, illustrating Important Bird Areas and Protected Areas. The 14-page introduction briefly covers landscapes, seasonality, terminology, and explains the species accounts and using the guide; it also includes interesting colour maps of habitats and topography. Next there is a plate and accounts of seven recently added species, which would have more logically been placed at the end, followed by a page on conservation and suggestions for additional reading.

Nearly the entire book is occupied by the species accounts and plates, a sensible decision in my view. For all illustrated species, the text and map appears on the page facing the plate, which is undoubtedly the best way of organising a field guide. The accounts are inevitably condensed, given the need to cover a large number of species: important diagnostic features are italicised, while habits, habitat, status and voice are treated in brief, possibly too briefly on occasion in the case of habitat. The texts appear well written, accurate and largely adequate, complementing the excellent plates, although use of English colloquialisms such as 'stonking' should have been avoided. If l had had this book with me in Uganda last summer, I would have known how Red-faced Barbet Lybius rubrifacies called and had more chance to locate it, along with several other previously inadequately described species.

The maps are very clear but basic, indicative rather than accurate, especially for Tanzania, with no attempt made to differentiate the area of occurrence according to seasonality or breeding range, always a tricky and time-consuming exercise. It will still be necessary to consult Britton, and the Ugandan and Tanzanian atlases (for information concerning the latter see Baker) when published, for more accurate information on distribution.

The plates by all three artists are generally excellent, with rare exceptions such as the wryneck plate in which the quality falls well short of that in Birds of Africa. Although Norman Arlott's style is slightly different from Brian Small and John Gale's, I think the three blend well and most birds are depicted to the highest standard of current field guides, which is praise indeed. Given a good view, it should be possible to identify most species using this book, even the cisticolas (for possibly the first time). A few which might cause problems are Lesser Swamp Warbler Acrocephalus gracilirostris — bill length is variable but never as long as illustrated; Yellow Warbler Chloropeta natalensis, which is a delicate bird that has only a hint of raised feathers when agitated, not as depicted with a large square head giving the impression of a large bird; and Stripe-cheeked Greenbul Andropadus milanjensis, a green bird with bright yellow-green underparts, red eye and prominent white-streaked black ear-coverts. The muddy green colour pervading some of the plates, for example the crombec and longbill plate, is a little disconcerting and may confuse less-experienced birders who take such plates as gospel.

The taxonomy of some sub-Saharan birds appears to be in a state of flux at present, and this work takes a middle course, for example recognising Taita Thrush Turdus (olivaceus) helleri but not Taita Apalis Apalis thoracica fuscigularis and Taita White-eye Zosterops (poliogaster) silvanus as species. It does detail and illustrate the two 'new' species of Cisticola on the Kilombero floodplain — 'White-tailed' and 'Kilombero' — which have yet to be scientifically described.

Significant inaccuracies in distributions include Blue-headed Centropus monachus and Senegal Coucals C. senegalensis, not depicted as present in Tanzania where they do occur, and Cape Teal Anas capensis, which is shown for the entire Ufipa Plateau in southern Tanzania where it does not occur. For many species the distribution reflects habitat availability. This is especially so on the dry central plateau in Tanzania, yet this appears to have been mapped differently for many species that share the same habitat restrictions, and a similar situation occurs for many miombo species. Also note that Speckle-throated Woodpecker Campethera scriptoricauda is not a miombo bird — C. bennettii is the miombo species with scriptoricauda occurring in coastal woodland and more open areas such as on the floodplain in Mikumi National Park, Tanzania. One editorial error is that the plate for Grey-capped Social-Weaver Pseudonigrita arnaudi has the subspecies transposed, the text being correct.

Kenya and northern Tanzania are already covered by the superb Zimmerman et al, which is a larger book, too heavy really for field use . Nonetheless, it is still indispensable and the illustrations, though a little jumbled and featuring some strange poses, are largely accurate, the artists possibly having more field experience than those that worked on the volume under review. For birding in Kenya it would be useful to have both books; it would be hard to decide which if you only wanted to take one. However, I have no hesitation in recommending anyone with an interest in African birds to buy the excellent book under review here.

I am indebted to Neil Baker for comments relating to Tanzania.

Jon Hornbuckle
References: 
Baker, N. 2001 http://home.no.net/ stenil1/TZbirdatlas/tzatlas.htm.
Britton, P. L. (ed) 1980 Birds of East Africa. Nairobi: East Africa Natural History Society.
Fry, C.H., Keith, S. and Urban, E. K. (eds) 1988. The Birds of Africa. Vol 3. London, UK: Academic Press.
van Perlo, B. 1995. Collins Illustrated Checklist of the Birds of Eastern Africa. London, UK: HarperCollins.
Robson, C. 2000. A Field Guide to the Birds of South-East Asia. London, UK: New Holland.
Zimmerman, D. A., Turner, D. A. and Pearson, D.J. 1996. Birds of Kenya and northern Tanzania. London, UK: A. & C. Black.

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