Birds of Central America Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama
By Andrew C. Vallely and Dale Dyer
This is the first comprehensive guide to the entire region encompassing all seven countries and is a massive undertaking and is a great credit to Andrew C. Vallely and Dale Dyer. It covers nearly 1200 resident and migrant species and includes 260 colour plates all brilliantly illustrated by Dale Dyer. That is almost unbelievable and great kudos to him for it, I can’t imagine the hours it took. I like the fact that each plate has the species name besides the illustration and not a series of numbers, which needs cross-referencing with the text. Each plate illustrates male, female and juvenile plumage, if different, and with species like raptors flight illustrations are included. Also, the regional variations of species are treated very well in the plates and is a great feature. Having visited Belize and Costa Rica twice and the U.S.A. (many U.S. species included) on many occasions I can vouch for the accuracy of the plates. Each one is very pleasing to look at and several make you want to book return trips for species you may have missed or are on your bucket list.
The range maps and concise text are all on the left-hand page facing the plate making it very easy to reference quickly. With the range maps you may need to consult the larger maps on page 16 to familiarise yourself where each country is in Central America initially. Green is used for breeding residents and brown for winter residents, light green is used for breeding visitors and light brown for transient visitors. As a minor gripe I would have preferred four different colours to be used. The species text is very readable and follows the format of Range first, countries, abundance and habitat, then Identification, followed by Habits and finally Voice, always difficult to convey in text, but I found them to be as accurate as possible with species I am familiar with. It seems to be quite up to date with taxonomy, which seems to be a movable feast in this region. For example, I saw Blue-crowned Motmot in Costa Rica, which is now Lesson’s Motmot and this is reflected in the book. However, I also saw Mistletoe Tyrannulet in Costa Rica, split from Paltry Tyrannulet by IOC as Zimmerius parvus, and although this is illustrated separately it isn’t split in the text and is still included under Paltry. This is not a criticism though because of the fluid nature of taxonomy it would be difficult for any book to keep apace.
At the front of the book prior to the all-important species accounts and plates are all the expected features of any good field guide and include an Introduction covering Scope and Plan of the book and Geography. Following the species accounts there is a couple of pages about the Marginal, Dubious and Hypothetical Species for Central America, then some up to date Taxonomic Notes and a Glossary. Then comes a Bibliography, over 600 references taking up 16 pages. I have a reservation about the inclusion of this and it could’ve been covered by an online Bibliography for those that wanted it, reducing the size of the book. Equally the Taxonomic notes could’ve been kept online and made it easier to update. It is by its scope a chunky book anyway at 584 pages so certainly not a pocket field guide but an essential book for a visit to the region and worthy of a place in your rucksack or kept handy for reference in your accommodation. Birds don’t keep to boundaries, so it is worth taking with you on any visit to this wonderful Neotropical region.
Paperback; 584 pages 6×9; £40.00; ISBN: 9780691138022
Published by Princeton University Press 2018
Mike King November 2018.
Birds of Chile A Photo Guide
by Steve N. G. Howell & Fabrice Schmitt
This is the first field-friendly photographic guide to the birds of Chile and I like it a lot. At 240 pages and 5 3/4″ x 8 1/4″ it is compact, lightweight and very portable. Photo guides are becoming ever popular and this is a good one. With more than 1000 photos and succinct accompanying text it is very easy to use. I particularly like most photos having a short piece of text highlighted in pale yellow giving the birding USP of each species. For example for Plumbeous Rail “widespread and distinctive, with colourful bill, hot-pink legs, the only large rail in Chile”.
Inside the front cover is a Pictorial Contents index, which even if you are a very novice birder is very easy to use with a representative picture for each group of birds, so you can immediately get to the right family.
The book covers birds found regularly on the Chilean mainland, adjacent islands and marine waters up to 30 miles offshore. Birds of remote islands and largely inaccessible places are dealt with in the appendix.
It is written in an easy to read style, from the How To Use This Book through the sections on habitat, geography, distribution and migration. The Species Accounts are embellished with beautiful photographs of birds in their expected habitats, showing both sexes where different and a selection of plumages for birds like waders and gulls.
If I’m ever lucky enough to make it to Chile then this book will be the first item in my bag and if you are going I recommend that you take it too.
Paperback; 240 pages; £24.95; ISBN: 9780691167398
Published by Princeton University Press 2018
Mike King April 2018.
Birds of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East: an Annotated Checklist
by Dominic Mitchell
This book is a labour of love and must have been a massive undertaking to collate so much information in one place. To any serious birder into Western Palaearctic birds or to those that recently jumped on a plane to Fuerteventura to twitch the Dwarf Bittern, then this is a ‘must have’ checklist for you.
The region covered is the “greater” Western Palearctic area, a biogeographical region which includes Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, including Iran and the Arabian Peninsula. The introduction includes the author’s definition of the Western Palearctic region, giving justification of the chosen regional borders. A useful map helps identify the countries covered.
The systematic list covers 1148 species of 104 families reliably recorded, from Common Ostrich to Indigo Bunting. Each species is laid out with Latin name preceding Common name, then three sections comprising Other Names, Taxonomy and Distribution. It is pleasing that the author has adopted the use of the International Ornithological Congress (IOC) taxonomic approach, especially as the BOU will do the same for the British List from 1 January 2018.
The appendices are very interesting, the first a list of endemic species, 87 in all, these are the species we all aspire to see on foreign trips. The second a list of extinct species, fortunately just two, Canarian Oystercatcher and Great Auk, but will probably be joined by the possibly extinct Eskimo Curlew and sadly the potentially extinct Slender-billed Curlew. The third Appendix, a list of omitted species which makes an entertaining read and possibly a pointer to actual occurrence. Finally, an appendix giving totals of species on the national lists of all the countries in the region.
A checklist follows this, which is very useful, but as someone who feels writing in books is the ultimate crime, it would be great if the publisher made this available as a download.
30 plus pages of references shows the staggering amount of reading and research that went into the production of this checklist.
Minor points worth mentioning are there are no illustrations, which is a shame as a few drawings maybe of the endemics would have enlivened the text, but understandable given the amount of data packed into its 335 pages. It is quite a small font as a result of being so compact but a larger font would increase the size and inevitably the cost. Taxonomy is continually changing, so this checklist will inevitably need updating, but for now it is the best available.
Many of you will know Dominic as the founder and managing editor of Birdwatch, this is a work he can be proud of, and many birders will use this as the best detailed checklist available for the Western Palaearctic.
Dominic Mitchell, 2017. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. Hardcover, 335 pages.
Mike King December 2017.
A Photographic Guide to the Birds of India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh
by Bikram Grewal, Sumit Sen, Sarwandeep Singh, Nikhil Devasar & Garima Bhatia
This photographic field guide is the first to cover all the birds of the entire Indian subcontinent and as such is a massive undertaking and a good effort to cover such a huge geographical area. It starts with a 10-page introduction covering a general overview of birdlife in the subcontinent and a brief history of ornithology there. It covers 1375 species with over 4000 photographs. There is the odd possible misidentification which has been pointed out by experts, notably a famous bleached Pomarine Skua pictured on page 211, was thought to be either Arctic or Long-tailed. In the main the photos are fantastic with most species getting half a page, others a full page and in some cases two pages, for example Indian Scimitar Babbler. I’m not sure what criteria for species selection for more than half a page was but it seems quite random. For example, an easily identifiable species like Eurasian Magpie gets a full page when the space would have been better given over to one of those difficult LBJ’s (Little Brown Jobs).
Each species has details of size, voice, range (often with a small map) and habitat followed by descriptive text. The accounts in black text on white are easy to read but on a few colour photographs the white text is harder to read, for example Amur Falcon.
After the main species accounts there is a section on Vagrants and Doubtful Species. There is a misprint here in that Rough-legged and Grey-faced Buzzard have the same description. This section is followed by acknowledgements, bibliography, descriptive parts of a bird, glossary of ornithological terms, checklists of the subcontinent and India, index and country maps.
This is a heavy book and would probably be too cumbersome to use in the field but you would certainly want it to hand in your accommodation to refer to. I would recommend this book but would probably use it in conjunction with more specific field guides.
Paperback; 792 pages; £37.95; ISBN: 9780691176499
Mike King July 2017
Published by Princeton University Press 2017
The New Neotropical Companion by John Kricher
I am a big fan of the Neotropics and was hooked from the first moment I set foot in Costa Rica in 2010 and I love this book.
It is a beautifully written and well-illustrated book which gives you a sense of what it’s like to be there and if you haven’t visited already it will make you want to go. Indeed, the Barred Antshrike on the cover makes me want to return as that is a species I missed.
Originally published in 1989 as The Neotropical Companion it is now largely rewritten in a less academic tone and enhanced with lots of stunning colour photographs of not only the animals but also of habitats and plants. It is a book you can dip into as every page contains a wealth of information and amazing facts and is just enthralling. All though a little on the large size for a standard field guide, and it’s far from standard, it is a book that travellers to the Neotropics will want to refer to before, during and after a trip. It will also keep the armchair naturalist entranced for hours.
It covers every major ecosystem, and there is a great variety, for all of tropical America from lowland rain forests via the cloud forests to the high Andes. This is the only guide of its kind to cover the entire regions ecology and the relationships between species. You will still need a traditional field guide to aid identification but this book prepares you for the journey and it’s a great one. In my opinion this is a highly recommended read and will enhance your trip considerably.
Paperback; 792 pages Princeton University Press; March 7, 2017 ISBN: 9780691115252
Mike King May 2017.
Britain’s Mammals: A Field Guide to the Mammals of Britain and Ireland by Dominic Couzens, Andy Swash, Robert Still & Jon Dunn
This is an excellent modern photographic field guide which comprehensively covers all of the mammals of Britain and Ireland, including some very unexpected species. It is a definitive volume for any naturalist with an interest in British mammals.
The format is clear and concise which is the norm with this set of field guides and is therefore very easy to use and reference.
Preceding the species accounts there are 53 pages with some excellent information on the history of our mammals, a guide to the different mammal families, useful tips on watching mammals and identifying tracks and signs you might find in the field.
The species accounts form the bulk of the book, each species generally having 3 or 4 photos which enhance the descriptions better than any words. The bat photos in particular are stunning with some unbelievably sharp flight shots. There are 500 excellent photos illustrating the book.
Each account is laid out with details for identification, sounds, signs, droppings, habitat, food, habits, breeding behaviour, population and status and flight in the case of bats. There is also a good-sized range map with each species.
At the back of the book is a detailed list, a section on status and legislation and a list of other resources.
This book held the attention of my 6-year-old grandson for every one of its 320+ pages and I was very impressed with it too. It is now my go-to field guide for anything and everything I could ever want to know about British and Irish mammals. I have no hesitation in recommending as an excellent addition to any naturalist’s library.
Flexibound ISBN 978-0-691-15697-2 published 2017 by Princeton University Press.
Mike King April 2017.
Birds of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East: A Photographic Guide by Frédéric Jiguet and Aurélien Audevard
Published by Princeton University Press 2017
Hot on the heels of the recent photographic guide “Britain’s Birds” comes this guide covering an even bigger geographical area. Little is wasted in the introductory pages, which usually explain how to watch, where to watch, habitat notes etc, here it is generally assumed this is for a birder that will travel and already understands the basics. This leaves pages 12 to 433 to cover the species accounts, 860 in all. It includes a large selection of North American species and introduced species which I rather liked, who knew you could get the African species Erckel’s Francolin on Zannone Island, between Rome and Naples, or Indian Silverbills in SE France.
It is bang up to date including Scopoli’s Shearwater, Cabot’s Tern, Slaty-backed Gull, our two favourite Murrelets, and mentions that Iago Sparrow has arrived by ship in the Netherlands from Cape Verde. It includes Common Redpoll with a picture of cabaret (Lesser), a downgrade we’ll have to get used to. It also includes Ambiguous Reed Warbler, a newly recognised race I hadn’t even heard of, which replaces scirpaceus in Iberia and North Africa.
Each species includes a section of succinct text, including Identification, Voice and Habitat, and a small distribution map. The reason for this is simply to accommodate the 2200 photographs, which are the real triumph of the book. It generally shows male and female where they are different and includes many subspecies too. I never was a fan of photographic field guides but they just keep getting better and this one is the best yet for this region.
This book at 19cm x 13.5cm x 2.5cm and 800gms in weight is portable and would be great to take into the field on your travels.
Originally published in French as “Tous les Oiseaux d’Europe” in 2015 it has been translated into English and its range expanded. The authors, two widely respected ornithologists, have done a great job with this photographic field guide. I can recommend it and I will be taking it on my travels this year and I’m sure it will find its way into many other rucksacks as well.
Paperback £24.95 ISBN: 9780691172439
Mike King March 2017
Britain’s Birds: An identification guide to the birds of Britain and Ireland by Rob Hume, Robert Still, Andy Swash, Hugh Harrop & David Tipling
Published by Princeton University Press
I love receiving new books from Princeton for review, there’s something about having a book in your hand that an App or a computer screen that just doesn’t cut it. I have a confession to make about this one though. When I received a book called Britain’s Birds, with a Robin on the cover and the RSPB logo, I judged it straight away as being a perfectly nice book helping perfectly nice people tell the difference between Song Thrush and Mistle Thrush and Starling from Blackbird. How wrong could I be! Then I saw the names of some very respected authors and actually opened it. I was in awe, this is simply the Best book covering Britain’s birds for a very long time. It’s not just for novices either, this will appeal to birders of all abilities and even has something for the twitcher in all of us.
This is a photo guide and is absolutely packed with fabulous photos and so much information about each species. As well as all the expected British species the rarities are here too, for example a whole page on European Nightjar is faced by a page with Common Nighthawk, Red-necked Nightjar and even Egyptian Nightjar. The flight photos are a triumph, do you want to see a Herring Gull in flight, maybe not, but want to see it alongside Caspian and Yellow-legged Gulls, well you can here. There’s a double page spread with all the regularly occurring ducks in flight, which is a really useful comparison and a page with all the falcons includes escapes like Lanner and Saker.
At the end of the species accounts there is a dozen pages of American vagrants followed by a section on those birds of uncertain origin and escapes and introductions. Finally a useful section on the British and Irish Lists and status and legislation.
This is a weighty book at c550 pages but is a must for any birders library in my opinion. It is a Magnum Opus for Britain’s Birds, congratulations to all the authors and photographers involved.
Mike King. August 2016.
Birds of Western Ecuador by Nick Athanas & Paul J. Greenfield
Published by Princeton University Press
This new photographic field guide is a wonderful addition to the library of anyone travelling to Ecuador, a Neotropical bird fan or anyone who enjoys great bird books. The triumph of this book is the photographs. There are 946 species here of about a 1000 that have been seen in the region covered. Some of them are nearly impossible to see let alone photograph. My favourites include the owls, and the hummers, Oh and all those Oh so difficult to identify tyrant flycatchers, in fact all of them. Many of them I’ve seen during my forays to Central America but these photos, compared to mine, make me very jealous indeed. Some of the rarest and most difficult birds to see are included, such as the Banded Ground-Cuckoo, the wonderfully named, Star-Chested Treerunner, Choco Vireo and Tanager Finch to name a few. Page 313, top left, is alone enough to make me want to go, my Most Wanted world bird, Andean Cock of the Rock.
The format is five or six species depicted on the right, with covering text and maps on the left. The text includes notes on identification, range and other useful notes. The map in conjunction with the text, although small is adequate enough.
The first 20 pages cover the expected prefacing to any field guide such as Taxonomy, Conservation and Habitats. The remaining c430 pages are the species accounts making this quite a weighty tome, not suitable for a pocket, but an essential to pack in a rucksack.
This is truly an indispensable guide to the birds of Western Ecuador and a must if you are planning a visit.
Mike King. August 2016.
Wildlife of Southeast Asia by Susan Myers
Published by Princeton University Press
This is an excellent pocket guide covering the wildlife of Southeast Asia covering Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, West Malaysia, and Singapore. This would be perfect for a first time visitor wanting a good overview of the wildlife that could be found there.
The book starts with a short section on useful basic tips for visitors, much of which is common sense but it doesn’t hurt to have it reiterated. This is followed by a guide to some of the best wildlife viewing areas of the region.
Then comes the species accounts which forms the bulk of the book with 500+ colour photographs, each account highlighting key identification features, status and distribution. Unsurprisingly the bulk of the accounts relates to the birds and forms 2/3 of the book. There are some great birds to be seen in the region such as Pheasant-tailed Jacana, a personal favourite, Long-toed Stint, Great Hornbill, Black-naped Oriole, a bird I have seen in Gloucestershire when a Golden Oriole was reported, Lanceolated Warbler and Asian Brown Flycatcher. Wildfowl enthusiasts may be disappointed to see only Eastern Spot-billed Duck included.
Next come the mammals with obvious big target species like Tiger, Sun Bear, Asian Elephant and Siamang included but also good selection of smaller mammals which are more likely to be seen by a casual visiting naturalist/birder.
This is followed by smaller sections on reptiles, frogs and invertebrates.
This paperback would be great to take on a trip to the region and would cover many of the species you would see. However if you are a keener birder/naturalist you would need a more extensive field guide to cover all species.
Mike King. August 2016.
Birds of Botswana by Peter Hancock (author) & Ingrid Weiersbye (illustrator)
Published by Princeton University Press
Birds of Botswana is yet another superb Field Guide from Princeton. Botswana is a country with some fabulous sites, which many of us will have been introduced to by Sir David Attenborough including the Makgadikgadi Pans, the Kalahari Desert and of course the fabulous Okavango Delta. Just the mention of the latter makes me want to start packing.
The Field Guide comprehensively covers all 597 species found in Botswana, many illustrated in several plumages including subspecies and colour variants.
There are over 1200 colour images beautifully and accurately drawn by Ingrid Weiersbye.
Detailed species accounts include colour distribution maps and very useful seasonality and breeding bars.
The book includes the latest regional and national data making it the most essential and up to date guide for Botswana available. At just short of 400 pages it is portable and easy to use in the field.
Prior to the main species account there are additional, sections aside from the usual Glossary and Topography. Very useful for the first time visitor is an overview of Botswana and some of the excellent sites to see birds.
I thoroughly recommend this book and it should be the first thing on your packing list if you are going birding in Botswana.
Mike King January 2016
Birds of Australia: A Photographic Guide
By Iain Campbell, Sam Woods & Nick Leseberg
Published by Princeton University Press.
This excellent new photographic field guide covers all 714 species of resident birds and regularly occurring migrants in Australia. It is illustrated with over 1100 excellent quality colour photos. The guide is aimed at visiting birders and follows IOC taxonomy. In just the second line of the Introduction it speaks of unfamiliar bird families such as Cassowaries, chowchillas and sitellas, I certainly hadn’t heard of the latter two so immediately I was delving into the guide for enlightenment. Then follows a section on Climate and Rainfall followed by Habitats. I think most of us who have never visited, myself included, fail to realise the size of the country or the number of diverse habitats. It is not a place covered in just one holiday visit.
This is followed by the bulk of the 391 page guide, which is the species accounts. From Cassowary and Emu through to Starlings and Bulbuls this photographic section is a visual delight. Concise species accounts and range maps opposite each plate make for easy reference throughout. There are up to 12 photos per page but the norm is probably 6, a minor criticism is that the 12 photo pages are a little crowded. This is fully understandable given the number of species the guide covers, otherwise it would hardly be portable, which it currently is. There are up to three photos per species where it is necessary to convey alternate plumages or flight shots. I personally love the photographic content, which belies the myth that birders can only identify hand-drawn birds facing right. I showed this to a good friend who lived in Australia who has a 600+ Australian list and he proclaimed it to be excellent and a welcome addition to any birding library.
I would highly recommend this book to visiting birders and Australian resident birders alike. It is also just great to dip into if you are an armchair birder just to enjoy the wonderful photos. This is a book which would give impetus to wanting to visit and see Chowchillas, sitellas and the rest in the wild. An excellent production from the authors and the photography supplied by Geoff Jones.
Mike King December 2014
Birds of New Guinea: The New Second Edition
By Thane K. Pratt & Bruce M. Beehler
Illustrated by John C. Anderton & Szabolcs Kókay
Published by Princeton University Press.
This is a fabulous fully-updated field guide to the birds of New Guinea, beautifully illustrated throughout. It covers all 780 species found in New Guinea and includes an incredible 366 endemic species. It has 110 colour plates and 635 range maps. This is the long awaited successor to the original guide published in 1986. At 528 pages it is a little chunky but it will an absolute essential to take on a trip there, especially if you are a first time visitor.
New Guinea used to be a fabled place only visited by people like Sir David Attenborough but now of course it is on the birding trail. Just sitting looking at the plates makes it tempting to pick up the phone to your travel agent but on reaching the Bird of Paradise plates (94-100) it makes it almost impossible to resist.
The opening chapters are an overview of New Guinea Natural History including the environment, ecology, geography, the bird regions and conservation, and also a table of New Guinea’s threatened birds.
Then come the plates, my favourite section of the book by far. On the page to the left of each plate is a brief description of each species and where appropriate a colour range map.
After the plates come the more detailed species accounts which includes details of subspecies and most usefully similar species to compare with. The latter should be a must for all field guides in the future. When you arrive in another country for the first time you need to use a field guide, a lot in my experience, and to have the spectrum of species narrowed down quickly is a great help, if there are no similar species it says so as well. Each new family is preceded by highlighted text giving an overview to immediately give you a feel for that family, very useful if it is a new family of birds for you.
I can not recommend this guide highly enough whether you are planning a trip to New Guinea or you are just an armchair birder widening your horizons about the world’s birds.
An excellent present for yourself or the birder in your family.
Mike King November 2014
The Passenger Pigeon
By Errol Fuller
Princeton University Press
This is a lavishly illustrated book written by Errol Fuller, an acclaimed artist and world expert on bird and animal extinction.
The book tells the tragic story of the demise of the Passenger Pigeon. It went from an incredibly numerous and common bird which flocked in pest proportions in the early 1800’s to the extinction of the species when Martha, the last living bird, died on the 1st of September 1914 in Cincinnati Zoo.
The book contains every aspect of the pigeon’s lifestyle and includes many little known facts about the species. For example when the birds were in steep decline President Theodore Roosevelt, an amateur naturalist, believed he saw a small flock in Virginia in 1907.
It seems incredible that a bird which blackened the skies and broke branches under the sheer weight of numbers just dwindled away and was allowed to be added to the awfully long list of extinct species. The Passenger Pigeon and modern man were just not compatible and living side by side was not an option. The onslaught of man was ferocious, coupled with a loss of land and food meant the Passenger Pigeon was heading for trouble very quickly. They were shot, clubbed, netted and killed by hand in their thousands, the descriptions of this carnage is a hard read. Today we rightly complain about the bird slaughter in Malta and other Mediterranean countries, but this was on another level entirely.
The book contains an wonderful collection of photographs of live Passenger Pigeons, in black and white, reminiscent of a large Mourning Dove, but in life a far more colourful bird with an array of colours, browns and greens and pinkish breast and bluish head, a true rainbow of a bird.
There are also some incredible paintings throughout; one of my favourites is the plate on Page 134 from Illustrations of British Birds by H Meyer. I would think it very debatable that Passenger Pigeon did occur naturally in Britain, but Mourning Dove has made it so why not? Imagine the twitch it would’ve caused amongst birders of the day if they had our fast communications.
I also like the fact that the type is quite large, which is an added bonus for me, needing reading glasses anyway.
It is a slim book with 168 pages, printed on high quality paper and is THE monograph for the Passenger Pigeon. I imagine everyone would learn something from this book. I personally was left with a feeling that we should not stand idle and allow mankind to eradicate any other living species. An excellent read, recommended.
Mike King September 2014