Roberts Birds of Southern Africa has undergone as much, and as rapid, speciation as Darwin's Finches, tending latterly to gigantism in its recent, seventh, edition (see review in Bull. ABC 13: 233-237), from which this portable field guide is derived.
This new book marks another complete break with editions up to the sixth, in that the brief text and distribution maps appear opposite the plates, omitting the fuller treatment of habits, breeding and food which made those earlier editions such comprehensive and compact handbooks. This new guide will inevitably be compared with the Sasol guide (Sinclair et al. 1998), and Newman's Birds of Southern Africa (Newman 1998), itself in its sixth edition. So how does it measure up?
Given that the seventh edition is almost too heavy to lift, Roberts would have come to the end of its reign as a field book unless someone had reorganised the illustrations in this format. However, the more one studies them, the more it is apparent that the illustrations in the larger book were not designed, and are therefore not always suitable, for the field guide approach, particularly due to the lack of illustrations of birds in flight. Unbelievably, even the 1958 edition of Roberts possesses more species of waders depicted in flight, albeit in black and white, whilst the 1978 edition illustrates all of the waders, ducks, gulls and terns in flight, in colour! No ducks or terns are shown in flight in the present volume, only three gulls, and 19 of over 60 shorebird species. In the 1978 edition, the colour figures of flying raptors are placed together for easy comparison, whilst in the new book they appear several to a page, beside the perched examples. Both Newman and the Sasol guide score much better on flying birds.
This leads to a more general appraisal of the illustrations. The 80 plates in the recent Roberts were newly commissioned from seven artists, and they have been cleverly digitised for the field guide, so that c.6 species appear on each of the 166 plates. Sasol has 200 plates, Newman a few more than that, and the styles in those books appear more uniform, with only two artists for the former and Newmans being entirely self illustrated. Ken Newman was also responsible for most of the illustrations in the later, but previous editions of Roberts. As already noted in these pages (Bull. ABC 13: 233 - 237), the new ones vary considerably in style, the raptors by Chris van Rooyen being amongst the best, and considerably more lively and naturalistic than his competitors. Seabirds and especially the penguins are pleasing, but some other groups, particularly the gulls and terns, are less successful. There has been a great deal of repainting, with additional figures to extend the coverage of the larger volume, which was particularly 'light' on females, and, even now, design only permits the heads of many female weavers, estrildid and other finches and buntings to appear. The same applies to the non-breeding plumages of bishops, widowbirds and weavers, which unfortunately is how I often seem to see them! Females of flufftails are amongst other additions of this type.
One difficulty when digitising images is to balance comparative scales correctly, but this seems to have been achieved well, and the layout of the plates is attractive. As the birds are not aligned facing the same way to facilitate close comparison, they appear rather more 'lively' than many of plates in the two other guides, although the larks and pipits seem to have been positioned more with comparison in mind.
An addition to the figures in this version are the brief notes drawing attention to salient features, though many of these border on the obvious, such as noting the prominent yellow rump of a Yellow Bishop Euplectes capensis. There are some anomalies. For instance, the (Common) Redstart Phoenicurus phoenlcurus - a rare vagrant - warrants a male in summer plumage, but a couple of rare wheatears Oenanthe spp. appear in winter plumage. I did not especially check for discrepancies between text and plates, but I was surprised to see the text for the Malagasy Pond Heron Ardeola idae state that the species lacks white wings, rump and tail.
The maps are clear and informative, and use ten colours (not on each map!) to indicate both status and abundance. Rarities and vagrants warrant a pink-shaded area, plus red spots for actual sightings, but sometimes the dots alone are presented. Thus the map for Eurasian Reed Warbler Acrocephalus scirpaceus has a large area of pink shading with some dots within it, but Basra Reed Warbler A. griseldis has just dots and no shading. Eleonora's Falcon Falco eleonorae, on the other hand, has a shaded area with some dots within it, but also dots well outside the shading. This is confusing. On some maps the red dots have pointer arrows, in others there are no arrows.
For users of previous editions, as well as Newman or the Sasol guide, getting used to the new sequence of families will be problematic. Furthermore, because this guide possesses twice as many plates as the 'big' Roberts, the sequence has been modified to suit the plate contents. Even allowing for this, though, it is questionable why a plate of babblers should appear halfway through the warbler plates, or why one plate of crows appears amidst the shrike plates. Personally, I find it absurd in a field guide to see a plate of ducks adjacent to one of barbets, and orioles on a plate following shearwaters. It is not as if, with the constraints imposed by having only six species per plate, such a guide cannot present a satisfactory linear statement of relationships.
There are no references to other bird books for further reading, and it would have been nice if the African Bird Club had been listed under useful addresses, given that the Bulletin has much of interest to southern African birders.
The final 100 pages comprise a glossary and indices, which apart from the usual English and scientific name indices, include those to names in Portuguese, German, French, Zulu, and no less than seven local languages as well as Afrikaans. Another unusual feature is that 40 pages (!) are devoted to explaining the derivation of both scientific and patronymic names.
For many people, this will represent an attractive, well-produced and printed pocket guide, and many of the plates are more appealing than those available in other guides. Some information, however, will have to be sought elsewhere. One wonders what the Roberts lineage can possibly produce next.