Working for birds in Africa

Nocturnal Birds of Southern Africa

Wed, 06/02/2013 - 11:58 -- abc_admin
John Carlyon, illustrated by Penny Meakin, 2011. Pietermaritzburg: privately published. 290 pp, c.370 colour photographs, 27 maps. Hardback. ISBN 978-0-620-51571-9. In southern Africa available via the author; elsewhere from WildSounds

This attractive book is the result of a 30-year fascination with nocturnal birds, and covers not only southern Africa’s 12 owl and seven nightjar species, but also Bat Hawk Macheiramphus alcinus, night herons (two species), Dwarf Bittern Ixobrychus sturmii, thick-knees (two), coursers (two), and, more succinctly, a few partially nocturnal birds. It is thus the first to treat all nocturnal birds of the sub-region in a single work. At first sight, one could be misled into thinking that this lavishly illustrated and beautifully produced volume of 21.5 × 26.5 cm is ‘just’ a coffee-table book, but, although it is not a scientific treatise either, it is far more than a merely pictorial work. In his preface, the author states that his aims were twofold: first, to illustrate as many aspects of the birds’ life histories as possible with high-quality photographs and, secondly, to facilitate identification of species considered to be difficult to identify in the field, such as nightjars. In most cases he has succeeded splendidly in both aims.

An introductory chapter discusses the nocturnal and crepuscular habits of birds occurring in southern Africa and the adaptations required, as well as, more briefly, superstition and folklore associated with nightbirds, and the threats they face. Each species account includes sections on identification, biology and habits, breeding, conservation, how and where to find the species, a ‘fast facts’ box, and a distribution map showing the species’ global range. For (Western) Barn Owl Tyto alba and Spotted Eagle Owl Bubo africanus information is given on how to provide an attractive nest box for these species. All nightjars also have a very useful section summarising their distinguishing features. As an additional nightjar identification aid, a separate chapter presents photographs of a typical individual of all southern African species, all in the same pose, with a list of the key identification points, and colour illustrations showing the spread wing and tail patterns. All species are illustrated by photographs varying from a minimum of four (Dwarf Bittern) to a maximum of 19 (Fiery-necked Nightjar Caprimulgus pectoralis) or even 22 (Spotted Eagle Owl), with an average of 10–12. These include pictures of adults, young and nests, as well as habitat. Almost all were taken by the author and his companion Penny Meakin, and are generally excellent. The text, which is based on published research and the author’s personal experience, is accurate and informative, yet highly readable. The distribution maps are large and clear but unfortunately rather approximate, schematic and, for regions outside southern Africa, sometimes quite inaccurate. It is a great pity that the author doesn’t seem to have consulted recent regional field guides; some glaring errors could have been easily avoided. For example, Verreaux’s Eagle Owl Bubo lacteus is much more widespread in western Africa than indicated, whilst Square-tailed Nightjar Caprimulgus fossii does also occur in Gabon, but not to the west of it. This is, however, the only negative point concerning this otherwise beautiful and interesting book, which is a pleasure to browse. It has been published privately by the author, whose enthusiasm for his subject is obvious throughout. It deserves to be owned by anyone interested in Africa’s nightbirds.

Ron Demey

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