Working for birds in Africa

Southern African Birds: A Photographic Guide

Sat, 29/12/2012 - 14:21 -- abc_admin
Ian Sinclair and Ian Davidson, 1995. Struik: Cape Town. ISBN 1 86825 785 1. 28.5 x 22.0 cm, 304 pages, 142 plates.
pages 58-59

After Europe and North America, southern Africa must be the region with the widest selection of bird guides. This latest contribution states that its main purpose is to bring together as many photographs as possible and to facilitate field identification when used in conjunction with more conventional guides based on artist illustrations. As a believer in the usefulness of good photographs, I fully support this initiative and the photographs that have been reproduced in this book certainly do not disappoint. However the book's format poses something of a dilemma, since its size and bulk consign it to the reference library for use on return from field trips. Despite the quality of the photographs I doubt if many persons would include it in their luggage when visiting southern Africa. No doubt one argument for this size is that it allows for high quality photographic reproduction. But could not the authors' stated aims have been achieved by other means? For example the photographs of each species placed opposite a page containing a brief identification text and a distribution map. These do not really add anything new to the similar descriptions and maps contained in the conventional guides. By eliminating them the book could have been reduced to a manageable field size without reducing the size of the illustrations. This format would also allow future editions to contain more photos of different plumages as they become available.

The authors state that in the selection process they eliminated not only very rare and vagrant species but also those for which no photographs were available, unless the bird was relatively common. In the latter situation a colour illustration was then used. This sensible approach seems to have been applied consistently, although the inclusion of birds such as American Pluvialis dominica and Pacific Golden P. fulva Plovers seems at variance with the stated intention. Much more importantly, however, there are some omissions which are not easy to understand. For example the endemic Short-clawed Lark Certhilauda chuana, European Golden Oriole Oriolus oriolus, Stierling's Barred Warbler Camaroptera stierlingi and Miombo Double-collared Sunbird Nectarinia manuensis are missing. The first two certainly have good photographs available and the second two are common enough to justify illustrations, if no photos were available. Indeed all four are sufficiently similar to other species in their respective genera that the book's intention of assisting with field identification has not been properly served.

The most serious criticism is in regard to some of the distribution maps. The claim in the introduction that they are the most up to date available unfortunately does not imply that they are all as accurate as they could be. It is often argued that one should not expect too much of such maps because the scale is so small. But if maps are included then I believe they should attempt to be as accurate as possible, whatever the scale. I found at least 38 maps, using Botswana as a yardstick, where the information was significantly misleading. A few examples are provided as evidence of this. The Okavango Delta is an important birding area targeted by many visitors. Red-chested Flufftail Sarothrura rufa, White-browed Coucal Centropus superciliosus, Natal Nightjar Caprimulgus natalensis and Blue-grey Flycatcher Muscicapa caerulescens are all shown as absent, whereas all four regularly occur. The map for South African Cliff Swallow Hirundo spilodera suggests that it is present in the Kalahari habitat of Botswana. This species merely migrates through Botswana. This leads on to several editing aspects of the maps. Some maps such as the one for Yellow-spotted Nicator Nicator gularis have no colour at all, which suggest Struik should improve their proof reading. The colour chosen is very difficult to see on certain maps and there is a case for distinguishing (using different colours or patterns) between occurrences that are migratory as distinct from breeding or all-year residency. Other maps either exaggerate or understate distribution ranges, which could have been avoided by cross referencing to the Botswana Bird Atlas (published nearly a year ago). Perhaps the worst example of this relates to Melodious Lark Mirafra cheniana. The distribution for north-west Botswana was based on one specimen, which has subsequently been shown to be a misidentification of Monotonous Lark M. passerina. The lack of reference to recent literature is also pertinent to the maps for Tropical Laniarius ferrugineus and Southern L. aethiopicus Boubou. The Limpopo Valley is occupied by the Tropical Boubou and not the Southern as indicated. I suspect this confusion also applies to the northern part of South Africa. Despite these criticisms, the real substance of the book is the photographs. As indicated earlier, they are of a high standard. Where possible, different plumages relating to breeding, sex or age have been included. As more photographs become available, then presumably future editions will cover the variation in species not currently well served. To summarise the initiative, the photographs and the main purpose of the book are to be applauded and at £20 the book is good value. As the authors state, this book will help field identification especially in regard to such features as shape and jizz, and will usefully complement the field guides using artists' illustrations. The criticisms, therefore, are best thought of as suggestions for how future editions of the book could be improved.

Nigel Hunter

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