Mauritania is probably best known for the Banc d'Arguin, a key site for colonial waterbirds and Palearctic waders, whose ornithological treasures were (re)discovered in 1959 and which has been the object of considerable research ever since. And rightly so: harbouring c.2 million shorebirds, this unique area is indeed the most important wintering ground for these species along the entire West African coast. It is one of Mauritania's two national parks (established in 1976), the second, created in 1994, being another coastal wetland area, the Diawling, which covers the Mauritanian sector of the Senegal Delta and constitutes the counterpart of Senegal's Djoudj. It is perhaps somewhat ironic that Mauritania is most famous for its waterbirds when three-quarters of its surface area is desert, the remaining, southernmost part, belonging to the Sahel. Mauritania's landbirds are thus also worth studying, especially as the majority of the country lies in the transition zone between the Palearctic and Afrotropical regions.
The first annotated checklist of the birds of Mauritania, published in 1988 by Bruno Lamarche, was mainly based on the author's own observations, with about one-third of the records from other observers. Although a laudable attempt to present what was then known of the country's avifauna, it needed to be used with caution, due to the many rather vague or erroneous statements contained therein. It has taken more than 20 years, but finally we have a thoroughly revised and updated Mauritanian list.
This is the third annotated checklist published recently by the French ornithological society (Société d'Études Ornithologiques de France) with Paul Isenmann as first author, following Birds of Algeria (2000) and Birds of Tunisia (2005). It has the same format and appealing layout as its predecessors and is also bilingual French / English throughout - an extremely useful feature which will undoubtedly greatly enhance interest in the non-Francophone world. Introductory chapters present geography and climate, the history of ornithology in Mauritania, the biogeographical affinities of Mauritanian breeding birds, and the Palearctic–Afrotropical bird migration systems. The bulk of the book constitutes the 300 page annotated checklist, which provides details for the 506 species hitherto recorded with certainty in the country. Of these, more than 200 are Palearctic migrants, whilst 258 species are known or presumed to breed in the country, of which 208 are found in its Sahelian part. Finally, an annotated list is presented of 86 species that have not been retained: these include records (mainly from Lamarche's work) that are highly unlikely or clearly erroneous, insufficiently documented or single-observer only sightings. At the time of writing, many of these species figure on the ABC checklist (available as a .pdf on www.africanbirdclub.org), which in part explains the discrepancies between the latter and Birds of Mauritania. The book also accepts more than 20 species not on the current ABC list. The length of the species accounts varies from a few lines for rare vagrants to a full page or more for regular species; all records have been referenced. Where relevant, information is provided on the species' status in neighbouring countries or elsewhere in West Africa, usefully placing data into perspective. A few recent additions to the country list, e.g. Red-rumped Wheatear Oenanthe moesta and Red-breasted Flycatcher Ficedula parva, whose single record appears for the first time in print in this book, are not properly documented - a missed opportunity. Unlike in its predecessors, there are no distribution maps for the breeding species, which some may find disappointing: although maps are not essential, they permit one to understand a species' occurrence at a glance. However, the decision not to include distribution maps appears to be due to the dearth of available data for the landbirds, which is made clear in the species accounts.
Overall, this is a well-researched and attractively produced volume. Written by an international team including Mauritanian ornithologists, it contains a wealth of data and undoubtedly will become the yardstick by which observations will be assessed for many years to come. Additionally, it highlights the important gaps that still exist in our knowledge of Mauritania's avifauna: for example, large areas in the south have barely been explored during the wet season and for many species proof of breeding is still lacking. Hopefully, this book will stimulate both foreign and local ornithologists and birders to start filling those gaps.