For many people, Stuart Keith's recordings, originally available as LPs, but now in this pair of easily portable cassettes, have made a valuable contribution to helping with identifying African rainforest birds. Dealing with 92 species, they present calls and songs from a range of forests in five countries: Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe (which the antediluvian producers persist in calling Rhodesia). Many of the forests in which these recordings were made are famous birding sites, including Kakamega, Irangi (on Mount Kenya) and Sokoke, while others, like Bwamba and the Usambaras, are destined to become so as access improves. Altogether, recordings have been made in 19 different sites, with, in a few cases, songs for the same species provided for more than one forest. Abyssinian Hill Babbler Alcippe abyssinica, for example, babbles from Irangi, Impenetrable and the Cheranganis. Almost all the recordings are good and clear and represent reasonable bursts of song (or call). They run systematically from ibis to weaver and cover 31 groups in all, with the largest numbers being 17 warblers (including seven apalises) and a dozen greenbuls (a baker's dozen if you include Nicator Nicator chloris). Both these groups illustrate taxonomic changes which have or may take place, with the Ruwenzori Apalis Apalis ruwenzorii now considered conspecific with Black-collared A.pulchra; the nicators, on the other hand, still have an uncertain status as greenbuls (they show a strong likeness to bush-shrikes). On the tape, the eastern bird, Yellow-spotted Nicator chloris recorded in Kenya's Sokoke, delivers an explosively loud song typical of individuals in that forest, while the western bird. Yellow-throated N. gularis calls and chacks angrily in Uganda's Bwamba. Keith has never heard the latter call in Sokoke, but I found birds in the hand regularly used a similar call, and Bob Dowsett & Francoise Dowsett-Lemaire (1993, Tauraco Research Report no 5:323- 389) believe their voices are broadly similar. Amani Sunbird Anthreptes pallidigaster sings on the tape although, like its congener Collared Sunbird A. collaris, this species is most often recognised by its insistent call, and rarely seems to resort to its pretty song. Families which are missing include the doves, nightjars, honeyguides and woodpeckers, and there is only one raptor and owl, but the tapes still provide a good insight into many species and help with some real skulkers like the three illadopses and two Bradypterus warblers, Evergreen Forest B. barratti and Cinnamon Bracken B. cinnamomeus. Like these evocative names, it is hard not to enjoy the calls presented, even for those species, like Dark-backed Weaver Ploceus bicolor (which sound simply amazing), where knowledge of their call is simply an adjunct to their fairly straightforward field recognition. In a characterful way, Stuart Keith's brief notes (on the tape sleeves) speak of location and the circumstances surrounding each of his recordings and, even though they appear in eye-squintingly small type, his descriptions are a useful and entertaining source of information. (Notes on species calling in the background are also provided). On the tapes his comments are confined to the English name followed quickly by the call, which obviously maximises the room available for recordings. The nomenclature followed is that of Mackworth-Praed & Grant (1957, 1960, Birds of Eastern and North-eastern Africa Vols 1 &2) - hardly surprising given the LPs first appeared in 1971! - but most names are still familiar. The second tape ends with a brief dawn chorus from Sokoke Forest and the calls of four primates, Chimpanzee Pan troglodytes, Black and White Colobus Colobus polykomos and Blue Monkey Cercopithecus mitis, and Olive Baboon Papio anubis, and a bat, possibly the Hammer-headed Hypsignathus monstrosus. Needless to say, for many species, knowledge of calls can be critical to locating your bird. I wonder how many birders have put down the accelerating whistles of Barred Long-tailed Cuckoo Cercococcyx montanus, to a hyper-Red-chested Cuckoo Cuculus solitarius, or simply ignored the bizarre beakings of Buff-spotted Pygmy Crake Sarothrura elegans (originally thought to be the sound of a chamaeleon giving birth!) or been bewildered at African Broadbill Smithornis capensis, which Williams & Arlott (1980, A Field Guide to the Birds of East Africa) likened to a klaxon horn. All these curious calls are taped, along with Green Barbet Stactolaema olivacea, the monotonous tonking of which persists throughout the heat of the hottest days in Sokoke, and Crowned Eagle Spizaetus coronatus which, despite its undoubted magnificence, calls like a demented windup toy (and is the endless butt of mimicking thrushes, like Red-capped Robin-Chat Cossypha natalensis). My favourite call, however, has to be that of another eagle mimic, Blue-shouldered Robin-chat Cossypha cyanocampter, not because it is the most beautiful (although it has a great song), but because of the memories which flood in when I listen to the recording: the frustration of my whistled duets with this robin-chat the first time I visited Kakamega and of subsequent unrewarded stalks. It took a second trip to see this wonderful thrush when, after failing with another exchange of whistles, a pair joined a bird party mobbing an African Wood Owl Ciccaba woodfordii. All told, these two tapes provide a good vocal introduction to a number of difficult and not-so-difficult species and, despite having first appeared over twenty years ago, and competition from more comprehensive tape collections, they are still well worth purchasing.
Birds of the African Rainforests, Sounds of Nature Series. Parts One and Two
Recorded by Stuart Keith, produced by Stuart Keith and William Gunn. Published by the Federation of Ontario Naturalists and the American Museum of Natural History. Total running time approximately 50 minutes each. £16.95 incl p&p the pair from WildSounds, PO Box 9 Holt, Norfolk NR25 7AW, UK. tel/fax + 44 (0) 1263 741100.