Working for birds in Africa

Shorebirds of the Northern Hemisphere

Fri, 12/21/2012 - 11:32 -- abc_admin
Richard Chandler, 2009. London, UK: Christopher Helm. 448 pp, 700 colour photographs and 150 colour maps. Softback. ISBN: 978-1-4081-0790-4.
page 242 - 243

This well-presented book is a shorebird identification guide notable for the lavish use of photographs to illustrate the different plumages. The introduction includes a helpful summary of the plumages and moult, plus a section on behaviour, again illustrated by the author's own photographs.

The vast majority of the book comprises the species accounts, presented in a sequence that broadly follows that of the British Ornithologists' Union, with non-UK species inserted as necessary. Thus it remains rather conventional in structure, rather than grasping the more 'revolutionary' sequences that have been proposed since the initial upheaval suggested by the Sibley and Monroe revision of higher-level systematics. For each species there are all the sections one would expect of a guide of this type, including identification features, age / sex characters, racial information and distribution (with some very clear maps). As each species is illustrated by 4 - 8 and in some cases up to 14 photographs, usually with helpful captions, the text is rather reduced.

The photographs selected, mostly taken by the author, are really good and the vast majority of them are crisp and clear. Because he has studied shorebirds for many years, Richard Chandler has an eye for the shot that best illustrates the key features. I really enjoyed looking at this array of great pictures, which have also been well reproduced. However, I was a little disappointed that the book's structure meant that each species is treated separately and there are very few (I didn't notice any) comparisons between species, meaning that one must turn pages to achieve this. Although the text does of course 'make such comparisons, it would have brought alive the differences if the photographs also had done so.

From an African perspective, there are a couple of downsides to the guide. The most obvious is that the definition of the Northern Hemisphere used here essentially follows the boundaries of the Palearctic in Africa, i.e. from southern Morocco to Egypt. Southern species that have occurred as vagrants further north, such as Egyptian Plover Pluvianus aegyptius and Black-headed Lapwing Vanellus tectus, are included, and Somali Courser Cursorius (cursor) somalensis is illustrated as it might occur. However, no fewer than 20 species of African shorebirds that occur within the real Northern Hemisphere are not included here. By way of comparison, just three Asian and six South American species are so affected.

The other slight negative for ABC members is that northern species spending their first winter (and sometimes the following year too) at southern latitudes are not as extensively illustrated as they might be. Very heavy wear and complex moult patterns can make some of these individuals more problematical to identify. The illustrations and text do certainly help and if one works one's way through the features, identification should be achievable.

The one-sentence digest at the top of each new species' page contrasts with the thoughtful text and, one has to say, they are trite. Take, for example, the comment on Great Knot Calidris tenuirostris which is 'similar to Red Knot (C. canutus) in proportions'—really? I gather these are not the author's words and they are certainly best ignored.

Although sewn and glued, my copy's spine is already creasing. It seems a shame that the book wasn't bound as well as The Shorebird Guide, a recently published North American photographic guide, which also lies flat when opened. I hope it lasts as well, as the present volume will be well used.

Overall, Richard Chandler's book is an excellent guide and a valuable contribution. It needs to be on the side table of all those shorebird aficionados, not just in the bookshelf. Am I biased, surely not?

Tony Prater

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