Working for birds in Africa

Roberts Geographic Variation of Southern African Birds

Sat, 08/24/2013 - 14:50 -- abc_admin
Hugh Chittenden, David Allan & Ingrid Weiersbye, 2012. Cape Town: John Voelcker Bird Book Fund. 288 pp, 105 colour plates. Softback. ISBN 978-1-920602-00-0.

The passion for birding has grown hand-in-hand with its accoutrements, and together they have spurred each other’s development. Besides binoculars, nothing is as vital to a birder as books and, as we all know, virtually every facet of birds and birding seems to have been covered by countless tomes. However, only a very few publications can be considered groundbreaking.

Among those outstanding works that have changed the course of birding literature are Audubon’s Birds of America (1827–38)—the first regional bird book illustrated with high-quality and true-to-life bird art; Roger Tory Peterson’s Guide to the Birds (1934)—the first modern field guide that spawned a multitude of other publications; and Lynx Edicions’ Handbook of the Birds of the World (1992–2013)—a 17-volume series illustrating the entire world’s avifauna. Once again, I believe, we have another book that has added a new dimension to the way we will perceive birds and birding, namely Roberts Geographical Variation of Southern African Birds, published by the John Voelcker Bird Book Fund.

This groundbreaking guide takes us to the next level of birding—subspecific and geographic variation. It sets out to comprehensively cover the subspecies of birds known to occur within southern Africa (the region encompassing South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique south of the Zambezi). Of southern Africa’s 965 recorded species, 224 species show subspecific variation and these are the only species treated herein. As a result, potential purchasers must be aware that this guide will not suffice as a single source of reference when birding in southern Africa. However, what Roberts Geographical Variation does do is describe the distinctive features and map the distributions of all 613 of these subspecies. Furthermore, Weiersbye has illustrated c.70% of them, basically depicting every form that is separable in the field. The remaining 30% differ only in size and are thus not illustrated. This now permits a birder to identify the subspecies they are observing using plumage and bare-part characters, not only distribution.

Not only will this book stimulate more careful scrutiny of the region’s birds and create an awareness of regional variation, but it will also correct some common errors of misidentification resulting from use of current field guides, which typically illustrate just one form of a variable species. For example, many Cape-based birders misidentify Southern Double-collared Sunbird Cinnyris chalybeus when visiting KwaZulu-Natal since the eastern subalaris form of Southern Double-collared has a breast-band more than twice the width (thus resembling Greater Double-collared Sunbird C. afer) of their familiar Cape chalybeus subspecies. Poring over the plates, I was frequently dumbstruck at the remarkable differences between populations of the same species within such a small region and have felt equally embarrassed that I haven’t noticed some these in the field (for example the six African Green Pigeon Treron calvus subspecies). I will certainly be more observant when birding in future and this publication has already added a new dimension to my birding.

The guide is compact and well bound with a hard, weather-resistant plastic cover (one of the many modern field guide features adopted). Others include a useful two-page illustrated quick index on the inner front cover and an alphabetical quick index immediately thereafter, plus a double-page spread with four maps of the region: political, elevation (this one lacks interpretation codes), rainfall and habitat. Next is an extensive and well-balanced introduction that is well worth reading. Here the concept and evolution of subspecies is covered in both generic and regional terms with excellent examples, mostly illustrated by Chittenden’s high quality photographs. Furthermore, the history of subspecific taxonomy and the region’s most influential taxonomists are discussed, providing a comprehensive background to the subject. A further discussion outlines 18 subspecies that the authors feel may warrant specific status - something for ‘listers’ to watch out for! Seven pages of glossary finally lead to the book’s core: 105 high quality plates with accompanying text and maps.

Again adopting user-friendly modern field guide practice, the birds are illustrated opposite the relevant text and maps on each double-page spread. On the left page, each species text commences with an overview covering distribution, the number of subspecies (in total and within the region covered), abundance and movements, conservation status (a vital aspect far too often ignored in field guides) and sexual variation. Thereafter, each subspecies is individually discussed. Nomenclature is outlined, including the type locality and interpretation of the scientific name (I personally find etymology particularly fascinating and appreciate its inclusion), the key identification features and finally the habitat preferences of each subspecies. This is accompanied by a map that is colour-coded with the distribution. The same colour codes are cross-referenced to the plate on the opposite page where Weiersbye’s painstakingly accurate illustrations are placed. Another extremely useful aspect is that the key identification features are again outlined next to each illustration for ease of reference. Additional features include the coverage of colour forms within
certain subspecies, illustrations of wing patterns and formulae, even individual feathers where necessary, as well as maps of the subspecific breeding ranges of some Palearctic forms, such as European Nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus. Certainly no effort has been spared by the authors in making this book as comprehensive and user-friendly as humanly possible.

Weiersbye has proved herself to be arguably southern Africa’s premier bird artist and has done herself proud with the plates here. The technical detail is staggering and the illustrations world class. Nevertheless, some are better than others; for instance, I particularly enjoyed the mousebirds (Coliidae) and Cardinal Woodpeckers Dendropicus fuscescens, but a few seemed slightly less lifelike, such as some of the long-billed larks (Certhilauda spp.) and wagtails (Motacilla spp.). Overall, however, Weiersbye has more than ably pulled off a formidable task.

Little detracts from this book. I would have wished for some alternative names, especially those that are still used by longer established southern African birders. There are a few errors in the text and plates (e.g. maps of African Goshawk Accipiter tachiro, African Barred Owlet Glaucidium capense and Garden Warbler Sylvia borin), but these are few and far between. The taxonomy and nomenclature chosen by the authors follow the International Ornithological Congress with a few deviations allowed for historically entrenched local exceptions. A 13-page appendix indexing the illustrations to museum specimen registration numbers is, I feel, beyond the scope of a field guide. It would have been better placed on a website and referenced in the introduction.

Overall, however, I cannot recommend this book more highly; it is the first monumental venture into field guides for subspecific variation. The three authors and the trustees of the John Voelcker Bird Book Fund must surely be proud to have taken the first brave step, which will no doubt be followed by similar field guides covering other regions in the world, and in the process will change the way that we look at birds and bird identification.

Adam Riley

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