Working for birds in Africa

Stonechats. A Guide to the Genus Saxicola

Fri, 12/21/2012 - 13:31 -- abc_admin
Ewan Urquhart, illustrated by Adam Bowley, 2002. London, UK: Christopher Helm. 320 pp, 14 colour plates, 16 pp of colour photographs, 17 distribution maps, numerous line drawings, sonograms. Hardback. UK£37.
pages 142 - 143

Taking 320 pages to cover only 14 species, this book has the luxury of much more space for detail concerning each than do the majority of its stable mates in the Helm Identification Guides series. And a lot of detail there is - thus, the three species recognised as the Common Stonechat complex receive 80 pages of text between them, Whinchat S. rubetra 28 pages and even Reunion Stonechat, here treated as a species, S. tectes, six pages.

Seven of the 14 species of Saxicola recognised by this book occur in the African region, three as seasonal migrants. These include the five already mentioned, plus Canary Island Stonechat S. dacotiae, and S. bifasciata, here given the English name Buff-streaked Bushchat. The introductory sections run to c25 pages and, in addition to sections on 'How to use this book', 'Sequence and taxonomy', 'English names of birds' etc, there is also a nine-page section entitled 'A molecular phylogeny of Stonechats and related turdids'. Authored by Michael Wink and four collaborators, it amounts to a separate, technical paper on the systematic relationships of the genus based on analyses of mitochondrial cytochrome-b gene data. Leaving aside the question of how much the general readership of this book is going to acquire from, for example, Table 1, which covers two pages with lists of 'parsimony informative characters in the analysed data set of turdids', one wonders why the authors chose to publish this in full here rather than in a refereed journal. (A summary of the main findings has appeared recently in British Birds.) Yes, a synopsis, including a dendrogram of the phylogeny would, with more explanation of the terms used, be useful and informative, but its presence here seems disproportionate, rather like, say, including the Nairobi bus timetable in a guidebook to Kenya. It is also unnecessarily confusing, as different specific names are employed for two species from those adopted elsewhere in the book. Although this is mentioned in a footnote on the first page of the chapter, this assumes you will have read the footnote before attempting to relate cladogram to text. I hadn't...

The 14 colour plates are of a high quality. While some birds are perhaps a little dumpy and angular, overall they are extremely attractive, full of character and accurate. Having few species to depict, there are plenty of illustrations per species; flight views, subspecific variation, breeding and non-breeding plumages, immatures, wing and tail patterns etc. There is sufficient space too for lengthy legends as the distribution maps are placed with the text, not opposite the plates.

The species accounts are subdivided into sections on taxonomy, identification, description, distribution and status (including range maps), breeding, habitat, food, voice (including sonograms in some cases), movements, behaviour, moult and conservation. There is an enormous amount of information here, so much so that it is sometimes hard to find the main points. Indeed, such extensive extracts from source papers are given that one almost wished that summaries were provided. For example, within the five-page discussion as to whether Buff-streaked Chat / Bushchat S. bifasciata actually belongs in Saxicola (conclusion: maybe), ten paragraphs commence with the words 'Tye states...' or similar and four begin 'Clancey argued' etc. I found it hard to keep in mind the various points at issue over the course of the section and wonder if the argument might have been clearer had these points been presented in tabular form.

The main departure from conventional species treatments comes in the 'Common Stonechat complex' mentioned above. A lengthy introduction provides the justification, building upon Sangster et al, for recognising three species; European Stonechat S. rubicola, Siberian Stonechat S. maura and African Stonechat S. torquata, as well as for the scientific names used. Within the African Stonechat, 15 African and two Malagasy subspecies are recognised, differing mainly in the extent and location of chestnut on the breast and flanks of males. These patterns are illustrated for both Malagasy and 13 of the 15 African forms and, equally helpfully, their distributions are shown separately on the distribution map. The author admits that this treatment is provisional and, following Sibley & Monroe, suggests that S. torquata albofasciata of Ethiopia may warrant species rank. It is, accordingly, illustrated as such and complete plumage descriptions are given. The basis of this, however, seems solely to rest on a lack of any chestnut on the breast of the adult male. This doesn't seem entirely convincing, however, given both how little chestnut there is in males of some of the other races and that first-year male albofasciata also has chestnut fringes to breast feathers.

A 16-page section of colour photographs follows the species accounts. With five or six photos per plate, this welcome addition depicts all species in a mixture of perched and hand-held poses. The quality of the photographs and their reproduction is high and the legends direct one to key features. African Stonechat only receives one page, however, with only three subspecies illustrated, one of which is a fairly long-distance shot of the contentious albofasciata. There follows an extensive and up-to-date bibliography.

This is an extremely attractive, well-produced book, written by someone who is clearly passionate and deeply knowledgeable about his subject. It is, unquestionably, going to remain the standard work on stonechats for a long time to come. It cannot, however, be described as an easy read; both the style and the wealth of detail ensure that it is not for the fainthearted.

Lincoln Fishpool
References: 
Sangster, G., Hazevoet, C.J., van den Berg, A. and Roselaar, C.S. 1998. Dutch avifaunal lists: species concepts, taxonomic instability and taxonomic changes in 1998. Dutch Birding 20: 22-32.
Sibley, C.G. and Monroe, B.L. 1990. Distribution and Taxonomy of the Birds of the World. New Haven & London, UK: Yale University Press.
Wink, M., Sauer-Gurth, H. and Gwinner, E. 2002. Evolutionary relationships of stonechats and related species inferred from mitochondrial-DNA sequences and genomic fingerprinting. Br. Birds 95: 349-354.

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