Working for birds in Africa

Southern African Birdfinder

Fri, 21/12/2012 - 12:40 -- abc_admin
Callan Cohen, Claire Spottiswoode & Jonathan Rossouw, 2006. Cape Town: Struik. 455 pp, colour photographs, maps and pull-out map. Softback. ISBN 1-868- 72-725-4.
page 112

'Where to find 1400 bird species in southern Africa and Madagascar' is the tempting subtitle. In this book the traditional southern African borders have been extended, quite considerably, to include not only South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe, but also Angola, Zambia, Malawi and all of Mozambique, and as an aside Madagascar too. The authors suggest describing the area covered by the book as the greater southern African region. To include Madagascar is perhaps extending the boundaries of this region too far, and the latter could probably be discussed more comprehensively in a separate work also covering all of the other Indian Ocean Islands.

Almost two-thirds of the book concentrates on Africa south of the Cunene and Zambezi rivers. The text leads one to more than 300 birding sites and describes in detail which bird species can be found at any given locality. Directions on how to get to each site are given as well as, in some cases, maps with markers indicating where one should spend some more time looking for a specific bird species. Chapters are divided into routes. In the introduction to each of these, the authors give a list of 'Top 10 birds' for which each route is particularly noted.

The remaining third of the book covers the less birded areas north of the Cunene and Zambezi. For these areas, the information provided is less detailed and far fewer sites are described. The least well-covered countries are Angola, a relatively new destination for adventurous birders following years of civil war, and Madagascar. For the latter the coverage is restricted mainly to the traditional sites. Admittedly, as it is mandatory in Madagascar's reserves and national parks to use a local guide, some of which are exceptionally skilled at finding the birds at their site, the value of the maps and textual information is relatively minor. However, there are many other sites in the country that are not well documented and where local guides are not skilled. Perhaps in future these are the areas this type of book should concentrate on.

The work concludes with a chapter on the region's 150 most sought after birds followed by a separate chapter on Madagascar's top 20 birds. Here some extra guidance is provided and, in the authors' words, the list 'encapsulates a balance between elusiveness and desirability'. Each entry proffers information on the species' preferred habitat, habits and the best site to search for it. Two pages of useful contacts are given, including telephone numbers, e-mail addresses and websites.

A checklist of all species found in the region is provided at the back of the book. This list includes common and scientific names and is cross-referenced to the page number(s) where the species is mentioned in the text; it thus functions as an index. This is fine for the more experienced birder but more difficult for the novice, who may have difficulty in finding the relevant page number for a particular bird. There is also a general index to place names and a mammal index.

The overall quality of the text, photographs, maps and general information in this very attractively produced and practical book is excellent and usually exceptionally detailed. The proof-reading must have been very scrupulous, as I could only detect one minor error (there are two sites numbered 334 on the map) and one spelling inconsistency ('Cunene' river on the map, 'Kunene' in the text). In short: a very useful book for beginners and experienced birders alike. Browsing through it one feels like leaving immediately for the field to search for all those 1,400 bird species! Buy it and take it with you on your travels.

Ian Davidson

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