Working for birds in Africa

Sappi Birds of South Africa

Mon, 10/08/2015 - 15:19 -- abc_admin
Saartjie Kidson and Herman van Niekerk, 2014. Briza Publications, Pretoria. 320 pp, 800 colour photographs and 720 maps. Flexibound with Callfinder. ISBN 978-1-920217-33-4. UK£79.99 (with Callfinder) or UK£19.99 (book only).
p 118

With the advent of digital technology a whole new realm of possibilities is evolving for field guides and how we use them. For the computer, tablet or smartphone there are currently ‘ebooks’ (straight copies of a book with or without sounds) and ‘apps’ (often complex and multi-layered aids to identification incorporating vocalisations) and now with this work we have the Callfinder! This standalone, rechargeable battery device is shaped like a giant index finger, which when pointed at an image in the accompanying traditional photographic field guide (branded ‘Callfinder ready’) scans an invisible grid underlying the photograph enabling it to play the relevant song or call of the species from its internal memory. Free updates are promised to be made available via the Briza website as new calls are added to the collection. The sound produced from the singlewatt speaker is clear, sharp and immediate. By inserting a TF card, the device can also be used as an MP3 player, although there appears to be no way to choose which track is to be played unless it is connected to a computer. It also functions as a simple recorder able to accommodate short recordings with c.100 minutes’ capacity, although you can only actually listen to the last recording made on the Callfinder itself. Any other recording requires a computer to be heard, managed or deleted. The battery life is estimated to be c.2 years (guaranteed for one year). However, what happens when the battery finally dies is unclear, but one assumes that a new Callfinder will have to be purchased or the existing one sent back for battery replacement.

The book itself is available in both English and Afrikaans editions, and covers more than 720 species of the 850+ found in South Africa. Each is represented by at least one photograph (occasionally an illustration), usually of a male in breeding plumage, alongside a clear detailed map. Avoiding taxonomic order, it seeks to aid identification by considering both habitat and shape of birds. Each of the species is included within one of four colour-indexed sections: Water and Wetland Birds, Birds of Prey and Carrion Eaters, Veld Landscape Birds, and Bush and Tree Landscape Birds. Within these broad categories, the species are then grouped into those of similar appearance, which are keyed by the ‘Shapefinder’ at the front of the book. The text that accompanies each bird is concise and covers rather more from field marks, whilst a series of complicated symbols aims to provide an understanding of size, habitat, nesting habits and social behaviour. The symbols are explained in full in the introduction and summarised at the end of the book for easier reference.

The layout is clear and pleasing, and by using the Callfinder while browsing it is very easy to quickly compare the sounds and simultaneously absorb a wealth of data for each species. There is a huge amount of abbreviated material here that has been arranged to provide as much immediately accessible information to the reader / viewer / listener as possible. At 175 × 245 mm, the book is rather too large to slip into the pocket and bears more resemblance to a condensed basic handbook than a field guide. Therefore, I feel that it has greater use as a primer at home before a trip, to familiarise oneself with the birds, rather than as a tool to be used in the field. Used in this context, I can see this novel concept as an ideal guide
to introduce the beginner to the wealth of South African birds and, in particular, to learn their vocalisations, for teachers in schools, or as a demonstration kit for tour guides.

Nik Borrow

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