Working for birds in Africa

The Birds of St Helena. An annotated Checklist

Fri, 12/28/2012 - 14:19 -- abc_admin
Beau W. Rowlands, Trevor Trueman, Storrs L Olson, M. Neil McCulloch and Richard K. Brooke. 1998. 295 pp, 50 colour photographs, 3 colour and 1 black-and-white map. BOU Checklist No. 16. British Ornithologists' Union, Tring.
page 69

Four of the five authors can be counted among the select band of ornithologists to have visited the remote island of St Helena, and all have made significant contributions to studies of its avifauna. This work sits well with other titles in the BOU Checklist series: it is an in-depth overview of the island's birdlife and associated material written by those truly familiar with their subject. A total of 112 species have been recorded, many as a result of human introductions and three only from the fossil record, a small total which has allowed the authors to present near-exhaustive detail on each. Presaging the species accounts are introductory chapters describing the island's general history and communications with the outside world, the history of ornithological exploration, St Helena's geography and geomorphology, geology and pedology, climate, vegetation and habitats, land use, nature reserves, alien introductions, bird migration, breeding, guano exploitation, zoogeography, palaeornithology, other vertebrates, invertebrates, and conservation action; in short, more than enough information to satiate most readers. All of the introductory sections are technically well written, detailed and thoroughly researched. The much publicised exiling of Napoleon Bonaparte to St Helena in 1815, following his final military defeat at Waterloo, is mentioned briefly: the authors make every effort not to dwell on those few facts concerning St Helena known to most people. Of the 112 species confirmed to occur, 34 have bred and another five, all seabirds, may have done so. Sixteen of the 23 landbirds known to breed have been introduced by man. Five of the eight extinct endemics were landbirds: St Helena Rail Atlantisia podarces, St Helena Crake Porzana astrictocarpus, St Helena Dove Dysmoropelia dekarchiskos, St Helena Cuckoo Nannococcyx psix and St Helena Hoopoe Upupa antaios. Three other endemics have been lost: St Helena Bulweria Bulweria bifax, St Helena Petrel Pterodroma rupinarum and St Helena Shearwater Pufflnus pacificoides, and only an endemic plover, the Wirebird Charadrius sanctaehelenae, is extant. A total of 15 species no longer breed on the island - including such exotics as Peafowl Pavo cristatus, Red Bishop Euplectes orix and, ironically, House Sparrow Passer domesticus, usually such a successful colonist - and several seabird populations have declined. Each species included in the systematic list is subject to thorough treatment. Full details of status and distribution, breeding data, specimens, information from the fossil record (where relevant) and world distribution are presented. Records from all offshore islets, stacks and at sea up to 200 nautical miles from St Helena are incorporated. Unconfirmed species, birds only identified to genus, or records which concern one of two possible species are unnumbered and included in square brackets. Endemics, breeding species, including introductions, and seabirds are subject to particularly detailed treatment. Those with an interest in the remarkable will enjoy leafing through this, the longest section of the book: in 1879, one farmer staged an unsuccessful attempt to introduce Ostrich Struthio camelus to St Helena, and the list of vagrants includes Eastern Red-footed Falcon Falco amurensis (one in November - December 1989). The book closes with 54 pages of appendices: species extinct on the island prior to 1502 (the date of its discovery); extralimital species recorded within 200-500 nautical miles of St Helena (six species); a very detailed synopsis of ornithological reports; the visits and contributions made by the authors of the checklist; breeding seabird population estimates; the avifauna and physical features of offshore islands and stacks; the origins of the 18 species of vagrant landbird; details of an unidentified Pterodroma seen and photographed by Trueman in March 1988, and variously considered a vagrant, perhaps Murphy's Petrel P. ultima, or a hitherto undescribed species (see pp. 40-43); an account of the life of Fernão Lopes, the island's first settler; St Helena's game laws; and current conservation initiatives and development. A series of useful addresses, references and indices complete the work. Collectors of the BOU series will not be disappointed by this volume, which maintains the high standard previously set, and those with a serious interest in island avifaunas particularly of the Atlantic or Afrotropical region will find it a near irresistible purchase.

Guy M. Kirwan

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