The Best Bird Books for Africa by Keith Betton
A recent survey of African Bird Club members showed that 83 percent plan to go birding in Africa over the next three years, and as cheap package holidays to places such as The Gambia continue to offer amazing value for money, more and more of us are visiting Africa. With nearly 2,300 species to be seen - of which about 1,500 are found nowhere else, Africa offers a lifetime of birding opportunities. So which books should you use? In this article, Keith Betton presents his personal opinion.
For the dedicated enthusiast the authoritative reference has to be the seven volume anthology known simply as The Birds of Africa. Published by Academic Press in regular intervals since 1982 the final volume was published in 2004. Under the editorship of Hilary Fry, Stuart Keith and Emil Urban, each new tome has steadily got better and Martin Woodcock's paintings are clear and uncluttered. The authoritative text covers all breeding species in full, with details of range, status, description, voice, general habits and breeding. Non-breeding visitors are treated more briefly, with emphasis on their status and behaviour whilst in Africa. Large distribution maps are given for each species, showing both breeding and wintering ranges together with isolated sightings. Each volume has an extensive bibliography and set of acoustic references. Indexes are given in English, French and scientific names. Full sets can be found second-hand for £600 or more. An additional volume on Madagascar is to be published in 2013, and when that arrives copies of all of the volumes will be made available once again. Meanwhile individual volumes 2, 3, 5, 6 and 7 are still available.
Nik Borrow's outstanding 142 plates accompany detailed text by Ron Demey in describing 1,282 species occurring in Senegal, The Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon, Rio Muni, Gabon, Congo, Central African Republic, Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, part of Mauritania and the islands of São Tomé, Príncipe and Bioko (Fernando Po). There are almost 1,100 distribution maps which are clear and precise. At 832 pages it is too big to carry in the field; however a new version is available (image shown) which has all the plates but much reduced text - much more useful in the field.
This book is the first-ever field guide to the birds of Ghana (and neighbouring Togo) and it uses almost 2,000 illustrations from Birds of Western Africa, recomposed into a new set of 145 colour plates, with a more detailed text and colour maps specific to Ghana. A total of 758 species is included, including all residents, migrants and vagrants. A checklist of these species is also given, and an appendix mentions 19 others for which evidence of their existence in the country is thin. The text has been adapted to emphasise status and distribution in Ghana. I particularly like the maps which very clearly show areas where birds are resident, migratory, non-breeding or vagrants.
Again using almost 2,000 illustrations from Birds of Western Africa, this covers almost 680 species, across 143 colour plates. A checklist of these species is also given. The text has been adapted to show status and distribution in The Gambia and Senegal and again the maps show areas where birds are resident, migratory, non-breeding or vagrants – an advantage over the book below.
This book by Clive Barlow first appeared in 1997 and is popular for the level of information it provides, describing the 660 species of which 570 are illustrated by Tony Disley. Identification tips, habits and voice descriptions are given at the back of the book away from the plates. There are also helpful comments on status and distribution. However there are no maps.
Dale Zimmerman, Don Turner and David Pearson joined forces with artists Ian Willis and Douglas Pratt to produce this mighty tome in 1996. It describes and illustrates 1,114 species - representing all of Kenya's birds, and 90 percent of those from Uganda and 75 percent of those from Tanzania. Many species from southern Ethiopia are therefore covered too - but not any of the endemics. Each species description provides full identification notes, and there is a full distribution map for all but 56 species. This is an essential reference for anyone visiting East Africa, but weighing in at a hefty 2 kg, you should consider using the much lighter softback edition (image shown), which has all of the 124 plates but gives reduced information - cutting the text by 200 pages. It is also lighter on your wallet!
In 2001 the arrival of this guide gave birders yet another choice. Covering Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi it describes a massive 1,388 species. The text by Terry Stevenson and John Fanshawe gives concise identification information and the accompanying distribution maps are in red - a great advance over the monochrome maps in the previous book. Working in very similar styles Brian Small, John Gale and Norman Arlott have divided the illustrations between them. Another great advantage is the positioning of the text facing the illustrations.
By taking many of the plates from the Field Guide to the Birds of East Africa and adding new material by two of the original artists, this book has over 2,600 illustrations of the 1,000 or so species found in “the Horn” – including migrants and vagrants. The area covered is Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia and Socotra. In a number of families not all races have been illustrated, but care has also been taken to adjust some plumages to accurately reflect differences that occur in the region away from East Africa. In line with the best field guides this has text on the left and labelled illustrations on the right. The text describes plumage characteristics, habitat, habits and voice. Frequently additional taxonomic notes are also given. Whereas the Field Guide to the Birds of East Africa uses distribution maps that do not distinguish between residents and migrants, the maps in this volume use six colours and hatch variations to indicate status. This is an excellent book that fills one of the few remaining gaps in the quality field guide market.
When the first edition of this softback book appeared in 2003 it certainly made an impact! Never before had a single volume covered all of the species found in Africa south of the Sahara. Also within its pages were new splits that were unexpected and some new names that were unfamiliar so, perhaps unsurprisingly, opinions on the book tended to be polarised. In the intervening years between that and the 2010 edition, fans of this book have outnumbered its critics, and while it covers too many species to compete effectively as a field guide, it certainly provides a very accessible resource for those who want to compare most of Africa’s birds in one place. Covering 2,129 species, the book’s northern cut-off is at 20ºN and while Socotra and the Gulf of Guinea islands are included, Madagascar or islands in the Indian or Atlantic Oceans are not. Small distribution maps are shown for each species but there is no differentiation between the breeding and non-breeding ranges of migratory species. Similarly Palearctic species that winter in Africa are only shown at their winter range with no indication of likely occurrence on passage. This is a monumental work, and while I have no intention of taking it into the field it brings together in one place a huge amount of information in a design that allows rapid access.
This book first appeared in 1993 and had been repackaged several times since. The latest 2011 version is softback. Text by Ian Sinclair, Phil Hockey, Warwick Tarboton and Peter Ryan is accompanied by colour plates by Peter Hayman and Norman Arlott. In total it spans 464 pages. This fourth edition has been improved by the addition of group introductions, calendar bars showing species' occurrence and breeding periods, and sonograms depicting the calls. Distribution maps show the relative abundance of a species in the region and also indicate resident or migrant status.
The first edition of the “Roberts Bird Guide” was titled The Birds of South Africa and appeared in 1940. It was republished many times and sold over 300,000 copies. The book that we see today is completely different, and was written by Hugh Chittenden but retains the Roberts name. It was the first regional field guide to display multi-coloured distribution maps. Breeding bars indicate if a species is present and / or breeding and the text faces 166 colour plates which cover over 950 species illustrated by seven artists.
Of all the world's bird artists none is more prolific than Ber Van Perlo. In just six years he produced three guides illustrating all of mainland Africa's birds. His first offering was Collins Illustrated Checklist: Birds of Eastern Africa which covers every species found in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Somalia, Ethiopia and Socotra. In all, 1,487 species are illustrated. The text is extremely brief - just four lines in most cases to cover everything, and the distribution maps are hidden away at the back with only plate numbers to help you identify the corresponding species - a real pain! Next in the series from Van Perlo was Collins Illustrated Checklist: Birds of Southern Africa which covers over 1,250 species from the region (including Angola and Malaŵi), and most recently Collins Illustrated Checklist: Birds of Western and Central Africa. Over 1,500 species are illustrated - at least 200 more than the tome from Demey and Borrow. I do not mean to be critical of Ber Van Perlo's work because he is a good artist, but you will be hard pressed to use his guides to differentiate between the fine feather detail on the confusing larks, pipits and greenbuls. All of these guides have been reprinted in recent years, but a few errors in the plates have not been corrected (except in the text), which is a missed opportunity.
It is important to remember that the African avifaunal region extends out to the Indian Ocean to include Madagascar, Mauritius, Réunion, Rodrigues, The Seychelles and the Cormoros Islands. Some 338 species are covered and the style is similar to the SASOL guides, and the illustrations are by Norman Arlott, Hilary Burn, Peter Hayman and Ian Lewington. All the usual descriptive details are given opposite the illustrations and plenty of space is devoted to each painting. Each species has its own map on the text page although these do not indicate seasonal differences. The book is only available in softback.
Written by Pete Morris and Frank Hawkins, this really is a superb photographic field guide with over 500 colour photographs covering all 280 species known to have occurred in Madagascar up to 1997. The text is excellent and gives a description of all known plumages likely to be encountered, vocalisations, habitat and behaviour, range, status (including taxonomic notes where relevant) and where to find the species, and an invaluable identification section. There is also a short section detailing the best birding sites.
There are two books of this name – both by Adrian Skerrett and Tony Disley. The first appeared in 2000, co-authored with Ian Bullock, and was then the only modern book to cover every species recorded in the Seychelles. It is out of print now, but copies are easily available second-hand. Containing 320 pages it provides a great source of information. The second book (image above) appeared in 2011, and at just 176 pages and with 65 colour plates it includes all of the same species, but here the text has been considerably reduced and rewritten. It highlights key identification features, including habitat, distribution, status and voice. The original plates have been repeated but many have been resized and a number of new images have been added, with 12 extra plates. In total there are around 1,000 illustrations.
In 2006 this was the first comprehensive field guide dealing exclusively with the birds of this region, covering all resident, migrant and vagrant species found in Macaronesia (Canary Islands, Madeira, Azores and Cape Verde). Over 450 species are illustrated by Chris Orgill and Tony Disley, with full details of all the plumages and major races likely to be encountered. There are 69 colour plates and 368 pages in total, with text by Tony Clarke. The early chapters cover the geography of the islands, climate, habitats, ornithological history and birdwatching areas. At around 20 pages, these are well in proportion to the primary purpose of the book - identification - and provide a concise, readable and informative introduction to the islands. There is plenty of detail, but the book has no distribution maps.
Appearing in 2011, this hardcover book covers all of the same islands as the one above and includes 573 species and subspecies across 150 plates and a total of 341 pages – all of it produced by Eduardo Garcia-del-Rey. It contains less detail than the previous volume, but is easier to carry and includes maps for more than 230 species. What this book lacks in detail it makes up for in portability.
Deciding which sites to visit in each country was once a major challenge unless you were weighed down with trip reports, but Nigel Wheatley summarised all the important information into this excellent book. Covering some 200 sites in detail, with brief coverage of many more, this gives all the basic information you need to find most species, together with general introductions to each country. Key sites are detailed along with lists of endemics, specialities and other birds likely to be seen, accompanied by maps and drawings. Quite how Nigel found the time to pull all this together is a mystery, but we should all be thankful that he has done so. This is a hardback, which has now unfortunately gone out of print, but many second hand copies are available via one of the larger online second hand booksellers.
I must also mention the Prion Birdwatchers Guides. These are very user-friendly softback guides of more than 100 pages, giving detailed maps and instructions for important birding sites. In particular each has notes on the key target birds summarising all the available information. The Prion range includes guides to The Gambia, Canary Islands and Madeira, and Morocco (image shown).