So … we have nearly reached the end, and for African birdwatchers there are only the buntings to come in volume 16 (due later this year). (The rest of the final volume will nearly entirely be comprised of New World species.)
Volume 15 contains four families of considerable interest, not to mention complexity - weavers (Ploceidae), whydahs and indigobirds (Viduidae), waxbills (Estrildidae) and finches (Fringillidae), as well as vireos, New World warblers, Hawaiian honeycreepers and the Olive Warbler Peucedramus taeniatus (Peucedramidae). The format by now must be well known to everyone and this volume certainly lives up to the standard. As usual, the taxonomy employed herein differs slightly from authorities such as the International Ornithological Congress list. For example, the quailfinches Ortygospiza spp. are lumped into one species (O. atricollis), but I did not find any taxonomic decisions that were truly novel, and there are usually notes on the various taxa not recognised and some rationale for the decisions taken.
The plates (by Tim Worfolk, Hilary Burn, Brian Small, Norman Arlott, David Pratt and David Quinn) are perhaps slightly wooden in places (personally, I prefer those in Birds of Africa). However, to cover all of the species in these groups, many of them of fairly similar appearance, is quite a feat in itself especially when both sexes (usually) and different subspecies (some) are included as well. As usual the selection of photographs within the family essays range from the excellent to the stunning, particularly as many of them illustrate a point of behaviour or biology as well.
The customary Foreword this time is what amounts to a 'state of the art' piece on bird conservation. Written by four staff members of BirdLife it covers a wide range and provides a very useful summary of the main conservation issues and actions of today. Following brief notes on the distribution of threatened species and on the fairly widespread declines in many commoner birds, the bulk of the essay enters some detail in discussing the current main threats to birds - agriculture, unsustainable forestry, invasive alien species and disease, over-exploitation, infrastructure development, fire, water management, pollution and, of course, climate change. However, the essay concludes with a résumé of some actions that are being taken or that could be taken, ranging from site protection and management to species-focused action and the necessity to inspire and engage people in the whole process. (The essay has 13 pages of references too, so there is plenty of scope to find more detail if you need it.)
The price of the complete set is now nearly €2,700 (this special price exists until October 2011) so is likely to be beyond most individual pockets, but if you need or want to know the basics concerning any bird in the world, as well as useful summaries of each group and the main talking points in ornithology this set has to be the place to start. However, the Lynx 'steam train' does not stop with this series. Volume 1 of HMW (the companion series on Mammals of the World) was published last year, while volume 2 is due in July 2011 and there will be six further volumes to come in due course.