Working for birds in Africa

Raptors of the World: A Field Guide

Fri, 12/21/2012 - 12:52 -- abc_admin
James Ferguson-Lees and David A. Christie, 2005. Illustrated by Kim Franklin, David Mead and Philip Burton. London, UK: Christopher Helm. 320 pp, 118 colour plates and numerous black-and-white drawings and maps. ISBN 0-7136-6957-8.
pages 238 - 239

Raptors are pretty well covered by identification guides, provided you are interested in Nearctic, Palearctic, Australian or southern African raptors. Worldwide overviews are scarce and bulky, like Eagles, Hawks and Falcons by Brown & Amadon (1968), Volume 2 of the Handbook of the Birds of the World (1994), and Raptors of the World by Ferguson-Lees & Christie (2001). The latter book is now trimmed into a field guide covering all 338 (or so) raptor species, and at a quarter of the original weight (2.5 kg) should be within the range of birders travelling light. The extensive species texts, some introductory chapters and the majority of the references were eliminated. Six new plates comprising 65 images were painted by Alan Harris, and maps were substantially corrected and updated. The opportunity was lost to replace or redo less satisfactory plates that were obviously skin-based, such as Honey Buzzards (strange-headed, big-eyed), Chanting Goshawks, Accipiters (big-eyed, round-headed birds in strong colours) and falcons (big-headed and sturdy-clawed, lacking the elegance of live birds, as for example in African Hobby Falco cuvierii). But overall, the plates, being the main body of the present guide, are of high quality, showing birds perched and in flight, and of various subspecies, ages, sexes and morphs, where appropriate. Even the smallest insets, showing typical behaviour, work well. My favourites are the vultures (the African species having a wider array of plumages than shown in regional field guides, but for Hooded Necrosyrtes monachus and Ruppell's Gyps rueppellii only juvenile and adult are shown), harriers, buzzards and (hawk) eagles. Main identification features are described in succinct texts opposite each plate. Given the restrictions posed by space (over 2,000 illustrations, crammed onto 118 plates), artists and authors did a miraculous job. Inevitably, there is always room for improvement. For example, the Yellow-billed Kite (here renamed Milvus aegyptiacus parasitus) is illustrated with six-fingered wings (instead of five), and the text is not helpful in separating juveniles of migrans and parasitus (a standard problem for those visiting Africa in the Eurasian winter). Also, recently snake eagle identification made a leap forward with the publications of Clark (Bull. Br. Ornithol. Club 122: 156-157; Bull. ABC 7: 13-17; Bull. ABC 12: 150-152) and Campora & Cattaneo (Br. Birds 98: 369-376). And I guess that (sub)specific identity in the Peregrine Falco peregrinus and Hierofalco groups will (forever?) remain difficult, further aggravated by the widespread production of hybrids for falconry purposes. In the Lanner Falcon Falco biarmicus, African subspecies are more likely to be identified on the basis of geography than plumage characteristics, and separating juvenile Lanners from ditto Sakers F. cherrug is - also when using the present guide - far from easy where the two co-occur (as in East Africa). Juvenile and immature plumages in many other species are still not adequately described, and there is much to be discovered by local birders who can follow individual birds for years (either in captivity or in the wild).

This guide is an essential tool for raptorphiles. Reliably identifying species, ages and sexes is crucial to fruitfully endeavour into the real thing: the study of the life and times of this fascinating group of birds. For Africa aficionados, this guide presents a perfect alternative to the Sasol Birds of Prey of Africa and its Islands (by Kemp & Kemp) and A Photographic Guide to Birds of Prey of Southern, Central and East Africa (by Allan).

Rob G. Bijlsma
References: 
Allan, D. 1996. A Photographic Guide to Birds of Prey of Southern, Central and East Africa. Cape Town: New Holland.
Brown, L. H. & Amadon, D. 1968. Eagles, Hawks and Falcons of the World. Feltham: Country Life Books.
Ferguson-Lees, J. & Christie, D. A. 2001. Raptors of the World. London, UK: Christopher Helm.
del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Sargatal, J. (eds.) 1994. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 2. Barcelona: Lynx Edicions.
Kemp, A. & Kemp, M. 1998. Sasol Birds of Prey of Africa and its Islands. Cape Town: New Holland.

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