Working for birds in Africa

Illustrated Guide to the Birds of Southern Africa

Sat, 12/29/2012 - 14:38 -- abc_admin
Ian Sinclair, Phil Hockey and Warwick Tarboton. Illustrated by Peter Hayman & Norman Arlott. New Holland 1993. 426 pp, 200 colour plates, distribution maps, £19.99.
page 103

The publication of a new field guide dealing with African birds is a major event but, since southern Africa is already well served by existing guides, how does this one compare? The authors claim that the aim of the book was to produce the most comprehensive set of illustrations of southern African birds in one volume. With over 4000 figures, they have undoubtedly achieved this. The 'text-facing-plate' format dictates that the written descriptions are necessarily concise and there is little new information here, indeed most of the text has been lifted word for word from the senior author's 1984 photographic guide. It is disappointing that some of the advances in field identification made in the last ten years have not been incorporated. I noted that drive-in cinemas are given as a habitat type for House Crow, Corvus splendens. Town planners in Mombasa beware! Errors are few, but it is worth pointing out that the text and plate captions for Red-faced Crombec Sylvietta whytii and Red-capped Crombec S. ruficapilla have been transposed. The real value of the book lies in the quality of the plates, many of which set new standards for an African field guide. The treatment of raptors is particularly thorough, eg Steppe Buzzard Buteo buteo is depicted in no less than twelve figures, ten of which are in flight and a further three figures illustrate variation in tail patterns. The plates of nightjars are also outstanding with the best illustrations I have seen of this group. Difficult groups such as larks and cisticolas are similarly well covered. However, the rest of the plates are a mixed bag; surprisingly, in view of Hayman's previous work, the figures of Sand Plover Charadrius leschenaultii and Mongolian Plover C. mongolus are almost caricatures and his flight figures of some bee-eaters are decidedly raptorial. Norman Arlott passerines are attractive to look at but not particularly strong on accuracy, e.g. Phylloscopus, Hippolais and Sylvia warblers do not share the same bill shapes, the wing formulae of Acrocephalus warblers do not show any primary feather emargination as claimed, but illustrate the notch on the second primary and there are several instances where the text is at variance with the illustrations. I found the sunbirds rather disappointing - many appear to be weighed down by the weight of their bills. To redress this situation a series of disembodied bills are depicted separately, though strangely these rarely match the bill shapes of the main figures. The colour printing is too vivid and has led to some remarkably lurid rollers, kingfishers and swallows. The taxonomy mainly follows the SAOS List though departures are the splitting of Black Korhaan Eupodotis afra into Southern afra and Northern afroides forms, other splits are Livingstone's Lourie Tauraco livingstonii and Knysna Lourie T. corythaix, Burchell's and White-browed Coucals Centropus burchelli and C. superciliosus, Grey-backed and Green-backed Bleating Warblers Camaroptera brevicaudata and C. brachyura and Spotted and Drakensberg Prinias Prinia maculosa and P. hypoxantha. Namaqua Prinia moves from Prinia to Phragmacia. Violet Widowfinch Vidua incognita has been removed from the regional list which conveniently avoids the problem of having to illustrate a hypothetical bird. English names also largely follow the SAOS List and unfortunately for users outside the sub-region, no alternatives are given. Fans of the hyphen will note that I have resurrected its use in the above names. There is an apparent lack of this symbol on word processors in South Africa. Grey stippling is used to indicate range on the distribution maps and there is no attempt to differentiate between residents, migrants and (austral) summer visitors. The open circle symbols for vagrants are very hard to distinguish. The use of arrows would have be useful here and would also have helped to indicate the range of species with very restricted distributions. Despite these criticisms this is undoubtedly the best field guide for Southern Africa and will be a most useful complementary guide elsewhere on the continent, though users outside the sub-region should be aware that there are often major differences between local races and those covered in this work, particularly in groups such as cisticolas.

lain Robertson

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