Working for birds in Africa

Reed and Bush Warblers

Fri, 21/12/2012 - 10:24 -- abc_admin
Peter Kennerley & David Pearson, illustrated by Brian Small, 2010. London, UK: Christopher Helm. 712 pp, 42 colour plates, many photographs and maps. Hardback. ISBN 978-0-7136-6022-7. UK£65.00.
pages 244 - 245

If the quality of a book can be measured by its weight then this work comes out top of its league! Weighing in at nearly 2 kg it is indeed a heavy book, but quality it also has and Kennerley and Pearson can be congratulated for producing one of the outstanding pieces of work on the identification of a group of birds since Hadoram Shirihai and his colleagues' book on Sylvia Warblers in the same series. Reed and Bush Warblers is part of the Helm Identification guides, but it is an injustice to the authors to describe it as such. It is so much more - covering identification, similar species, voice (including sonograms), moult, habitat, behaviour, breeding habits, distribution, movements, description, in the hand characters, geographical variation, and taxonomy and systematics. In addition to the main section, there are several appendices listing such things as live and museum measurements, comparative field characters of similar species, and recent developments since 2010.

Reed and bush warblers (the families Locustellidae, Acrocephalidae and Cettiidae) are, of course, challenging both in terms of identification but also seeing them well in the field. This book will, therefore, not appeal to everyone, although it is a title that really should be on every serious birder's bookshelf as I can guarantee that it will be used far more as a reference guide than might initially be expected. The mostly superb photos, covering nearly all of the 112 species, in themselves are an invaluable reference source, whilst the 42 colour plates, painted by Brian Small, provide further material to aid identification of this tricky group of birds. The distribution maps, so often a disappointment in guides such as these, are large and well reproduced. The African distribution maps, in particular, are detailed, accurate and, in the case, for example, of African Reed Warbler Acrocephalus baeticatus, plotted by race—how good is that?

The taxonomy of this group, and the warblers (Sylviidae, sensu lato) as a whole, is complex and still poorly understood, despite much molecular research over the past decade. The authors have therefore adopted a pragmatic approach in deciding which genera to include, based on similarities in morphology and field appearance, and supported rather than led by molecular data. This may not meet the approval of everyone, and excludes some near relatives such as Schoenicola and Megalurus. Suffice to say that future molecular forensics will doubtless lead to major changes in the generic arrangements of Locustellidae and Cettiidae in particular.

To find fault with any component of this book has proved difficult, although it has not been for want of trying! However, there are two rather obvious points to make, which should be placed at the door of the publisher and not the authors or illustrator. Firstly, the sonograms are painfully small and, for a group of birds that largely remain hidden from view to the observer, a key component of the identification process is vocalisations. For those of us who have invested time in understanding and interpreting songs and calls of birds using sonograms then I am afraid these are woefully inadequate. Secondly, the colour saturation on many of the plates is too rich (dark) - again, a shame for a group of birds where evaluation of subtle colour differentiation is critical to successful identification. This seems to be an all too common problem these days in printed media, a result it seems of publishers having little control of the printing process where the presses are run on another continent!

Jeff Baker

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