Working for birds in Africa

Field Guide to the Birds of Macaronesia

Wed, 11/07/2012 - 12:25 -- abc_admin
Eduardo Garcia-del-Rey, 2011. Barcelona: Lynx Edicions. 341 pp, 150 colour plates, 230 colour distribution maps. Hardback. ISBN 9-788496-553712.
pages 111-112

Interest in the birds of the north-east Atlantic Islands—Macaronesia— has 'mushroomed' in recent years, with the Azores attracting as many birders eager to find North American vagrants in autumn as for its endemic (and Endangered) Azores Bullfinch Pyrrhula murina, and the other archipelagos of Madeira, the Canaries and the Cape Verdes well visited in spring and summer, especially, for their landbird endemics and breeding seabirds. This region already boasts its own dedicated field guide (Clarke 2006; see review) and is also covered by one of the most successful and well regarded of such books ever to be published (Svensson et al. 1999), although curiously despite the work under review boasting an unusually extensive bibliography neither of these alternative guides is mentioned herein. Such omissions, at least in the case of the first-named, can hardly reflect an oversight and one is left to speculate on the potential reasons for this.

Given the availability of the Clarke field guide, it seems safe to presume that most people contemplating the purchase of the present work will want to know the differences and relative merits of these two 'rival' works. It is assumed here that most visitors to the region requiring reasonably detailed status and distribution for the birds they see will want to carry one of the two. For those vagrant hunters intent on making a name for themselves on the Azores, the Svensson et al. work, and a North American field guide or two (!), will possibly suffice.

Whereas the new work under consideration here is a 'classic' field guide, with maps, text and plates appearing together on facing pages, Clarke's book has the main text and plates (with their minimalist facing page captions) well separated, and it lacks distribution maps entirely. However, it must be stated that the maps in the Garcia-del-Rey book are usually nothing more than spots of colour covering each relevant island. For many users, the Lynx guide will also score well for its smaller dimensions, so despite being a hardback this book is easier to carry in the field.

Most of the artwork in Garcia-del-Rey's guide is, unsurprisingly, 'borrowed' from Lynx's Handbook of the Birds of the World series, and is therefore the product of some 25 artists, rather than the two different illustrators responsible for Clarke's birds and whose styles were rather complementary. The result is that the Spanish work obviously suffers from some lack of uniformity in the style of the depictions - the Blue Tits Cyanistes caeruleus on p. 275 represent a particularly good example - although many are undoubtedly very good. Overall, in terms of the scope of their illustrations - different ages / sexes, racial variation, birds in flight - the two guides are rather closely matched, although birds in flight receive on average a poorer 'shake' in the Lynx book, despite that Clarke's has many fewer plates in total. It's certainly the case that Garcia-del-Rey's guide could have been even more compact, if the images therein were smaller, and so much 'white space' hadn't gone 'begging' on some plates and their facing-page texts.

Turning to the texts, the overall amount of information in each species account in the Clarke and Garcia-del-Rey guides appears to be broadly comparable. Coming later, the latter author has had the advantage of being able to update some of his sections, for example on taxonomy. In contrast, Clarke gives many more details concerning status and individual records of vagrants, and although obviously outdated to some extent already, the information therein will be useful to some users at least. I also mark Clarke's introductory sections more highly than those in the Lynx guide; minimalist in the latter, but reasonably expansive in the former, covering habitats, ornithological history, and even good birdwatching areas, among others, in the Helm book. In contrast to this, Garcia-del-Rey's bibliography is markedly more extensive at eight pages, although many of his citations are to works, including a great number of his own, that have little or absolutely no bearing on the text for this field guide. Clarke's more focused four page bibliography, with the exception of some subsequently published works, should prove more than adequate for most visitors.

Both works feature handy tabulated lists showing occurrence on different islands, but again there are good and bad features to the different approaches. Clarke analysed species status island-by-island, archipelago-by-archipelago, and included Spanish and Portuguese names (as well as English and scientific ones), resulting in a massive 24-page appendix (B). In contrast, Garcia-del-Rey omits names other than the English and scientific, and analyses status only across archipelagos (the result is a more concise 13-page checklist). Most positively, his status codes and information are somewhat more detailed than in the Helm guide. Unlike the latter though, there are no separate tabulations of endemic taxa by archipelago (Clarke's Appendix C), which some might consider to be a strange omission.

Undoubtedly both of these guides to the birds of Macaronesia will serve their users well and the relative differences (merits and downsides) between them are such that deciding which to carry with you on a trip to the region will probably revolve entirely around personal preference. Garcia-del-Rey's has the obvious advantages of smaller size and more up-to-date text, but I personally prefer (with some exceptions) the illustrations, as well as the more detailed status information, of the earlier work in the Helm field guides series.

Guy M. Kirwan
Clarke, T. 2006. Field Guide to the Birds of the Atlantic Islands. London, UK: Christopher Helm.
Svensson, L., Mullarney, K., Zetterström, D. & Grant, P. J. 1999. Collins Birds Guide. London, UK: HarperCollins.

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