The last year or two has seen several publications of significance dealing with the birds of Eritrea, for example Semere et al. (2008), Ash & Atkins (2009), Redman et al. (2009) and Anderson (2010), and this volume on the birds of the Eritrean Red Sea islands represents a further important contribution. It summarises data collected during 2001–09 as part of an ongoing joint research project, focusing mainly on the breeding biology of the Crab-plover Dromas ardeola, by a team of researchers from the Museo di Storia Naturale di Milano, the Department of Animal Biology at the University of Pavia and the Eritrean Ministry of Fisheries. These data are supported with further reference to the historical record.
There are informative chapters on the history of ornithological exploration of the Eritrean Red Sea, its geological history, topography and climate, ecology of the different marine and terrestrial habitats, and migration. The bulk of the book comprises the species accounts, supported by many excellent colour photographs, for the 237 terrestrial and marine species recorded from the islands. The volume concludes with an important chapter on conservation and a bibliography.
Using categories from Fishpool & Evans (2001), the authors confirm the importance of Eritrean coastal waters and islands for the global conservation of birds based on the presence of significant populations of seabirds, waterbirds and certain terrestrial migratory species. The coastal bays of Iddi, Howakil, Thio and Mersa Fatma are shown to be extremely important year-round for several thousand Socotra Cormorants Phalacrocorax nigrogularis, though breeding has yet to be confirmed. The islands provide breeding grounds for >8,500 pairs of Crab-plover, representing at least 20% of the world population and probably the largest concentration anywhere. Other seabirds with significant breeding populations include Brown Booby Sula leucogaster (10,000 breeding pairs on 46 islands; 10% of the estimated world population), White-eyed Gull Larus leucophthalmus (5,900 pairs on 49 islands; c.30% of the world breeding population), Lesser Crested Tern Sterna bengalensis (63,000 breeding pairs in 40 colonies on 32 islands); White-cheeked Tern S. repressa (18,000 breeding pairs on 69 islands); Bridled Tern S. anaethetus (30,000–35,000 breeding pairs on 66 islands) and Brown Noddy Anous stolidus (11,000 pairs on six islands). In addition to these very significant numbers of breeding seabirds, the southern Eritrean islands are shown to be important for the huge number of soaring migratory birds that pass over the Bab al-Mandeb strait.
I would have appreciated a more detailed map of the islands and more detailed information in the species accounts, particularly where conclusions are drawn from the historical record. Nevertheless, this volume represents an important contribution to the growing literature on the status of the birds of Eritrea and adds significantly to our knowledge of the avifauna of the Eritrean islands. I would recommend it to any potential visitor with an interest in visiting the islands of the Eritrean Red Sea.
One further pertinent point is made by the authors in the introduction. Many Italian museum collections are as yet uncatalogued or unpublished, and some were destroyed or dispersed during the Second World War. Those collections extant may still prove to be a very valuable source of new knowledge about the Eritrean bird fauna and possibly volumes such as this may kindle an initiative to catalogue and publish them.