Working for birds in Africa

Birds of Ghana

Fri, 12/21/2012 - 10:35 -- abc_admin
Nik Borrow & Ron Demey, 2010. London, UK: Christopher Helm. 352 pp, 145 colour plates and 758 colour distribution maps. Softback. ISBN 978–1-4081–2279–2.
pages 111 - 112

I had expected this field guide to be 'just' a condensed version of the Field Guide to the Birds of Western Africa (2004) by the same authors, which is itself a portable version of their Birds of Western Africa (2001). I was wrong. Most of the illustrations are indeed repeated from those volumes, but apart from restricting its scope to species recorded only in Ghana (and neighbouring Togo) a number of significant improvements and innovations have been made.

The reduced number of species (758 compared to 1,304 in the 2004 field guide) has enabled the authors to enlarge most of the illustrations to the same size as those in Birds of Western Africa, whilst maintaining a compact field guide format, slimmer than the 2004 guide. All of the plates have been printed with a white background (rather than the original tinted backgrounds used in some plates), which I think works well, even for largely white species such as egrets and gulls. Maps, texts and plates are located together, with a page of text and maps facing each plate, which means all of the information for each species is visible without turning pages. With only around five species per page, rather than ten or more as in the 2004 field guide, there is space for more expansive texts: in addition to highlighting key identification features, fuller (though still brief) descriptions of habitat and habits are provided.

Extra space is also gained through the obvious omission of subspecies from Lower Guinea or elsewhere. For instance, only the green-tailed subspecies of Red-tailed Greenbul Criniger calurus is shown, which should limit the confusion created by its English name. The restricted geographic scope of necessity cuts out much information irrelevant to the birder visiting only Ghana or Togo. In the 2004 guide, 25 species of cisticola were covered, but only a more manageable 11 are included here. There is a risk that a few species have been excluded which might ultimately be discovered in Ghana (e.g., Lesser Jacana Microparra capensis), but the line has to be drawn somewhere and the overall species selection appears sensible.

Most of the maps have been redrawn, to show just Ghana and immediately adjacent regions of neighbouring countries, including all of Togo. In some cases genuine improvements to the accuracy of the maps as a result of new discoveries have been made. For example, African Barred Owlet Glaucidium capense, Nimba Flycatcher Melaenornis annamarulae and other species have been discovered in Ghana since 2004, and other species, such as Baumann's Greenbul Phyllastrephus baumanni and Grey-throated Flycatcher Myioparus griseigularis, are more widespread than was previously realised (see Dowsett et al. 2007 for a complete list). In many other instances, however, the maps are still quite sketchy, reflecting current knowledge of the distribution of birds in Ghana. Françoise Dowsett-Lemaire and Bob Dowsett are preparing an atlas of the birds of Ghana that will do much to remedy this. Unfortunately, the map for Shikra Accipiter badius has been repeated in error for African Goshawk A. tachiro. As with the 2004 guide, the maps should not be taken too literally: to do so would suggest, for example, that Cape Three Points lacks forest bristlebills, greenbuls, drongos and malimbes, which is certainly not the case (pers. obs.).

Some new illustrations are incorporated, particularly of birds in flight (especially useful in the case of the quails). There are also new depictions of the small herons, many of the warblers and some flycatchers. Many of these new additions possess a more expressive, lively style than the old, which adds character but does not always work when new and old are juxtaposed on the same plate. The new illustration of Pale Flycatcher Melaenornis pallidus is an improvement and 'fits' in well, but I was less convinced by the Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata, and the mix of styles for Pied Flycatcher Ficedula hypoleuca is somewhat jarring. Some minor weaknesses in the old plates remain to be corrected: the proportions of Common Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita appear quite odd, and the text describes the eye of juvenile Grey-headed Negrofinch Nigrita canicapillus as pale grey whilst the plate depicts it as reddish brown. However, these are minor criticisms and, overall, Nik Borrow's artwork is excellent.

The numbering system used in both previous books has been sacrificed, so rather than having to establish what '4b' refers to, species, subspecies, sex and plumage are indicated on the plates. Other useful improvements include a list of bird names in Akan (=Twi/ Fante), Ewe and Gonja. A short guide to pronunciation would have been useful, to explain, for instance that the 'kyi' in the evocative name 'Kokokyinaka' (Great Blue Turaco Corythaeola cristata) is pronounced 'chi' as in chiffchaff. Other nice additions include a road map of Ghana, a map of Important Bird Areas (which provides some indication of places to explore beyond the best-known localities of Kakum, Atewa and Mole) and a one page quick index to the main avian groups, as well as a conventional index and three pages of up-to-date references. More guidance on where to send interesting records would have been useful: the address of the Ghana Wildlife Society is given, but georeferenced records will also be of interest to the Dowsetts, and to recording schemes such as WorldBirds (

As with the 2004 field guide, species texts are cross-referenced to a superb set of sound-recordings (Chappuis 2000), a really useful feature for anyone endeavouring to get to grips with vocalisations. One error from Chappuis has not been corrected: the recording of Yellow-spotted Barbet Buccanodon duchaillui is not of the West African dialect, although this dialect is described accurately in the text. The West African dialect of Yellow-spotted Barbet is mislabelled by Chappuis as Naked-faced Barbet Gymnobucco calvus.

So, if you are travelling to Ghana should you take this guide or the Field Guide to the Birds of Western Africa? If visiting only Ghana, I would not hesitate to recommend this guide. It includes every species you are likely to see, with larger illustrations, more up-to-date maps and more detailed information. Those making multiple visits to the country and other parts of West Africa will probably want to own both.

Ben Phalan
Chappuis, C. 2000. African Bird Sounds: Birds of North, West and Central Africa. 15 CDs. Paris: Société d'Études Ornithologiques de France & London, UK: British Library.
Dowsett, R., Dowsett-Lemaire, F.& Hester, A. 2007. The avifauna of Ghana: additions and corrections. Bull. ABC 15: 191–200.

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