Working for birds in Africa

Field Guide to the Birds of Western Africa

Fri, 21/12/2012 - 12:34 -- abc_admin
Nik Borrow & Ron Demey, 2004. London, UK: Christopher Helm. 512 pp, 148 colour plates, c.1,300 maps. Paperback. ISBN 0713666927.
pages 109 - 110

This recently published field guide complements the original well-received Birds of Western Africa (Borrow & Demey 2001; see review Bull. ABC 10: 38–39). With almost 150 plates and concise authoritative text on facing pages, it offers a compact, lightweight field reference to all 1,304 bird species, including vagrants and visitors, recorded from Mauritania and Senegal east to Chad and the Central African Republic, and south to Congo. It is the first field guide to cover this region both exclusively and comprehensively, thus enabling birders to identify all species found in any of the 23 countries covered.

The guide is much-needed and largely follows the order of the original, larger book. Initially, it introduces the reader to the area covered, updates nomenclature and provides a user's guide to the plate captions, plates and maps. There follow sections on climate, topography and the main habitats, restricted-range species and Endemic Bird Areas. Updated taxonomy with definitions, organisations, bird topography, a glossary and an explanation of abbreviations and symbols are all presented clearly and precisely, making the introduction as user-friendly as expected from these authors and publishing house.

There are now 148 plates, one more than in the original tome. Most plates have been reproduced unchanged, though c.15 appear to have been repainted. Personally, I doubted that Nik Borrow's original bulbul plates, for example, could be faulted. He has, however, proved me wrong with improved ones. I was pleased to see a colour plate of hornbills in flight, which many users will greatly appreciate. What lets this guide down slightly is the reproduction, unlike the parent hardback which rather faithfully reproduced his fine plates. Having seen Nik's vibrant originals, I was disappointed to note that the smaller format softback not only loses out slightly in the reduction process, but also swings quite dramatically with the colour reproduction. I find the reds and greens very 'punchy' compared to the original. The cisticolas, for example, are rather orange and lose the tonal values of Nik's original work, a rather important point in field identification of these tricky species, and some of his painstaking work has therefore been lost. Some plates have suffered through darkening during reproduction at a smaller scale, and appear rather dingy. These, however, are not necessarily those of the originals, which had tinted backgrounds. That said birders using this guide will not lose out in the field, as the rather poor reproduction will, in some circumstances at least, only enhance enjoyment of the real thing. I still 'hold my hat up' to Nik Borrow; this is a fantastic achievement let down only by an inconsistent printing.

Facing each plate, the accompanying text is very brief but authoritative. The short descriptions, covering adult male, female and juvenile plumages plus any racial variation, habitat requirements and vocals, are all well transcribed. Reference to Claude Chappuis' (2000) outstanding collection of 15 CDs of African Bird Sounds are presented within square brackets with both CD and track number.

I like the use of colour banding at the head of each page to delineate different groups. After a few days in the field, I am sure this feature will become particularly useful, as familiarity will speed finding different families, thus quickening the identification process. The field guide also has an updated colour distribution map for each species, conveniently placed on interleaved pages between the colour plates. This may not be to everyone's liking, but is perhaps the best option considering just how much territory and bird species are covered in a relatively small amount of space. Birders should not be too disgruntled by having to turn the page just to see whether or not the species occurs in a given region. It is far better than having the maps at the back of the book, which instead closes with an updated reference list. With more birders now visiting western Africa and, finally, able to use a book worthy of the title 'field guide', I imagine future editions will contain even more species as many exciting discoveries surely await in this region. We have waited some considerable time for a modern and usable field guide to West African birds. Nik Borrow and Ron Demey clearly have extensive field experience over many years in the region. Their knowledge and expertise shines through in this excellent field guide to one of the world's most exciting birding regions, and both are to be congratulated for completing the task admirably. Now, I only wish I hadn't split my original hardback in half, as clearly I did not need to!

Mark Andrews
Borrow, N. & Demey, R. 2001. Birds of Western Africa. London, UK: Christopher Helm.
Chappuis, C. 2000. African Bird Sounds: Birds of North, West and Central Africa and Neighbouring Atlantic Islands. 15CDs. Paris: Société d'Études Ornithologiques de France & London, UK: British Library National Sound Archive.

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