Working for birds in Africa

Nightjars. A Guide to the Nightjars and related nightbirds

Fri, 12/28/2012 - 14:20 -- abc_admin
Nigel Cleere and Dave Nurney. 1998. 317 pp, 36 colour plates. Pica Press, The Banks, Nr. Robertsbridge, East Sussex TN32 5JY. UK£30.
pages 70 - 71

Some well-travelled birders that I know regard nightjars as "boring" presumably a reflection of the difficulty of identifying many of them. Hopefully this book will help overcome such prejudices, especially when one looks at such marvellous creatures as the Lyre-tailed Uropsalis lyra, Long-trained Macropsalis creaga and White-winged Nightjars Caprimulgus candicans of South America and Africa's Pennant Macrodipteryx vexillarius and Standard-winged Nightjars M. longipennis. This book, another from the Pica Press stable, covers not only the traditional nightjars but also the Oilbird Steatornis caripennis, nighthawks and potoos of the Americas, the frogmouths of Australasia and Asia and the owlet-nightjars of Australasia. A 25-page introduction covers such subjects as an explanation of the species accounts, Taxonomy & Relationships, Distribution, Topography & Morphology, Structure & Mechanics, Plumages & Moult, Behaviour and Fossil Record, and provides a fascinating overview of the group. The colour plates follow and these will probably either by loved or loathed, depending on your appreciation or otherwise of Dave Nurney's style. Personally, I found many of the plates far too stylised although I accept the need for this to some degree for comparative purposes. Nevertheless I do feel that several of the plates fail to capture the 'real' bird, eg the Star-spotted Nightjar Caprimulgus stellatus on plate 26 while many of the illustrations of nightjars in flight show more than a passing resemblance to songflighting larks rather than nightjars. Furthermore, comparison of the plates with published photographs, for example those of Brown C. binotatus and Golden Nightjars C. eximius in Bull. ABC, does raise questions about the accuracy of the plates. The above comments may seem harsh given that nightjars are notoriously difficult birds to illustrate well and that Dave Nurney has clearly worked hard to produce the plates, some of which are very good. Nevertheless, in a book of this nature, the accuracy of the plates is of critical importance and personal experiences coupled with a comparison of the plates with available photographs does raise questions in this respect. As with other Pica Press monographs, the species accounts form the bulk of the book with each account covering Identification, Voice, Habitat, Habits, Food, Breeding, Description, Measurements, Moult, Geographical Variation, Distribution & Movements, Status and References. Each account also includes a range map which incorporates the range of all recognised races, eg for Whip-poor-will Caprimulgus vociferus. The species accounts appear both comprehensive and up-to-date, incorporating material published as recently as 1998, eg the Brown Nightjar paper published in Bull. ABC. Despite this, as with another recent Pica Press title - Rails - the number of species for which basic information is still lacking is significant, and the references to No Data Available provide an insight into the sort of information travelling birders should attempt to obtain. In Africa, for example, two species - Nechisar Caprimulgus solala and Prigogine's Nightjars C. prigoginei - remain known from single specimens or part specimens. Nigel Cleere's choice of species will doubtless draw criticism from some quarters, eg his inclusion of Black-shouldered Nightjar C. nigriscapularis as a distinct species. With 24 species, 24.4% of the world's species, occurring in the Afrotropical region Nightjars potentially has a lot to offer birders active in the region and the detail certainly appears as comprehensive, if not more so, than that in Birds of Africa. Furthermore, despite the comments made above, dare I say that I also prefer the plates to those in Birds of Africa. The publishers ensured that Nightjars appeared before volume 5 of the Handbook of Birds of the world which will also include these species. Nevertheless, I suspect that the ongoing success of that publication will affect sales of this volume, especially among those with only a passing interest in this family. In addition others may be tempted to wait to compare it with the forthcoming OUP publication on Nightjars before parting with their money. In conclusion, although this book is not likely to be the last word on nightjars and their identification the author and artist should be congratulated on the end result and as such it deserves to be well read by all birders active in Africa and elsewhere.

Richard Webb

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