By Arend Wassink and Gerald J. Oreel. Published by Arend Wassink in 2007. 288 pages; numerous maps and bar diagrams; many colour photographs. ISBN 978-90-811462-1-0, Hardback, ?44.99/?60.00/US$92.00.
Review by Peter Kennerley
Kazakhstan is an enormous country, extending to over 2,750,000 km2, and making this the ninth largest nation on Earth. It extends from the shores of the Caspian Sea in the west, to the Tien Shan and Altai Mountains in the east, where it borders China and Russia. This vast region is of immense interest to seasoned birders as it marks the transition zone between the Western and Eastern Palearctic. In fact, with so many regional endemics, a case could be argued for recognising a Central Palearctic region. Add into this heady mix the Tien Shan Mountains, that a mighty spur of snow-capped peaks extending northwest from the Himalaya and reaching into southeastern Kazakhstan, bringing with it many Himalayan species that would otherwise not encroach into this region.
It is for the many special birds, including the likes of White-headed Duck, Himalayan Snowcock, Himalayan Griffon Vulture, Pallid Harrier, Macqueen?s Bustard, Demoiselle Crane, Black-winged Pratincole, Caspian Plover, Sociable Lapwing, Ibisbill, Relict Gull, Pallas?s Sandgrouse, Yellow-eyed Dove, Black and White-winged Larks, Himalayan Rubythroat, G?ldenst?dt?s and Eversmann?s Redstarts, Severtsov?s Tit Warbler, Azure and Turkestan Tits, Saxaul Sparrow and many more, that birders yearn to visit Kazakhstan, where these and so many other excruciatingly rare and highly sought-after species can be found with relative ease. Throw in numerous vagrants to Europe such as Oriental Turtle Dove, Bimaculated Lark, Asian Desert and Hume?s Leaf Warblers, Isabelline and Desert (or Steppe) Grey Shrikes, and Pine, Grey-necked and Red-headed Buntings, plus a plentiful sprinkling of regional endemics and distinctive sub-species of many familiar Western Palearctic species, here reaching the eastern limit of their range, and you have one of the most exciting destinations in Asia. It is the prospect of seeing these almost mythical birds that Kazakhstan attracts birders from far and wide. Despite its huge size Kazakhstan, and the many Range Restricted and Red List species that remain relatively numerous here, readers may be surprised to discover that the country boasts not a single endemic bird species, and is home to just one endemic sub-species, Pander?s Ground Jay of the race ilensis which is restricted to the Lake Balkash region.
Although much has been published about Kazakhstan?s birds, including a detailed handbook, almost all is written in Russian, making it inaccessible to the vast majority of western birders. In ?The Birds of Kazakhstan? the authors have attempted to bring together this wealth of knowledge and present it in an attractively packaged format. Only the recently available ?Birds of Kazakhstan?, by Edward and Andrey Gavrilov, and published in English by Tethys Ornithological Research in 2005, has made inroads into a western birder?s perception of Kazakhstan and its birds. Although Gavrilov & Gavrilov provides more detail, their work would appear to be less well researched and slightly out-of-date, although both refer to much of the same source material.
?The Birds of Kazakhstan? is a compact and well-designed book, aimed firmly at the growing market of birders who desire to visit this region, and yet are unable to find much written about the birds which occur here. This has clearly been a well-researched project which is a delight to browse. Its attractive design, ample use of high quality photographs, concise text and punchy style will make it a popular read for anyone with an interest in the birds of Central Asia. There are numerous colour photographs scattered throughout the text that illustrate many of the species and distinctive races that occur in Kazakhstan.
The introductory chapters provide an overview of the Geography, Habitats, Climate, and the Environmental threats and conservation, and are illustrated with many photographs showing typical habitats and landscapes. Shorter sections discuss the Avifauna and Migration, and others outline the primary Sources consulted and the Systematics and taxonomy adopted. Finally, an explanation of how to interpret the Breeding distribution maps and bar diagrams is provided.
The main section of this book addresses the species reliably recorded from within the territory of Kazakhstan. This amounts to no less than 498 species, of which 388 regularly breed. Individual species accounts are quite brief with, typically, two or three species accounts displayed on each page. Each account includes the sub-species under consideration, followed by a very brief summary of its status, habitat requirements, distribution and migration, typically of no more than 100 words. Where two or more races breed within the country, each is given equal treatment including a distribution map and, consequently, the summaries for these species tend to be somewhat larger. In addition, a bar diagram divided into 36 sections illustrates the ten-day periods in which each species can be found in the country. With this is a map outlining the breeding distribution, based upon the 14 Administrative Regions in which each species has been recorded during the breeding season. Accounts for passage migrants and winter visitors follow a similar format but omit the map, while vagrants are treated briefly, with just the dates and locations given.
The text itself is concise but space and cost limitations have, presumably, placed restrictions upon just what can be included. Data contained here appears to be well researched, with the emphasis placed on Distribution, which takes up the bulk of the text. Comments relating to Status, Habitat and Migration typically extend to just a single line of text. Throughout the text, very few references are included, again a space-saving economy, but one which ensures that tracing source information is difficult, and almost impossible for those who do not read Russian. It is assumed that the authors have drawn extensively from sources contained in the Bibliography, although primary source data is limited to just five major handbooks. The bar diagrams provided for many species are clear and concise, showing the periods when species are present within the country.
The main drawback and only serious criticism I have of this book is the presentational style selected for the maps, which seems destined to confuse unless the text is read together with the map. For example, if a species has occurred on just one occasion during the breeding season in a particular Administrative Region, or regularly breeds within a restricted area, this information may appear in the text, but the entire Administrative Region is shaded on the map, suggesting it occurs widely here and birders would have a reasonable chance of encountering it. Reference to the text may clarify a more precise range, and if a place name is mentioned, a quick check in the gazetteer will enable specific sites or locations to be located. Surely, though, it would have been preferable to provide maps which more accurately reflect the true breeding season distribution, with a symbol included for occasional extralimital breeding season records.
Three appendices follow the main text. In the first, there is a review of species and races previously included on the Kazakhstan List but now omitted from the individual species accounts. Each of these species is discussed briefly, with details of the record in a Kazakhstan context, and an explanation why the authors have chosen to omit it from the list of species recorded. Their reasons are varied, ranging from no specimens, descriptions or photographs to support the claim, to the location actually lying outside the borders of Kazakhstan. In total, 36 taxa fall within this appendix, which sees the removal of such exciting species as Oriental Plover, Pechora Pipit, Hodgson?s Bushchat and Two-barred Warbler from the Kazakhstan list.
The second appendix provides a list of 21 threatened species, as defined by the IUCN Red List, which have been recorded in Kazakhstan. It may come as a surprise then, that many of the species listed here are relatively easy to see, much more so than in many other parts of their range. In fact, this provides a mouth-watering list of many of Kazakhstan?s most wanted birds, and the reason why Kazakhstan is so popular with visiting birders.
The third appendix contains a list of plants and their genera mentioned in the book.
There follows a detailed gazetteer which details all localities mentioned in the text. To find many of these localities, however, a large-scale map is required. The inclusion of the latitude and longitude co-ordinates of each site does enable these locations to be found on mapping websites, for example on Google Earth (http://earth.google.com/). The book concludes with a detailed bibliography containing over 400 entries, with extensive reference made to Russian literature.
If you are searching for specific site information, this book will not provide much in the way of site details for an independently minded birder. This is not a site guide, and a comprehensive guide to birding in Kazakhstan is still some way off. In fact, Gavrilov & Gavrilov (2005) provided a useful summary of some of the more interesting birding sites. To get to see the best birds, you will still need to bite the bullet and travel within an ?package?, or make independent arrangements using one of the many excellent ground agents who provide camping facilities and local guides at some of the best birding sites. With this type of arrangement you can be sure of camping exactly where the best birds are to be found.
Where ?The Birds of Kazakhstan? really excels is providing an up-to-date summary of all taxa recorded from Kazakhstan, the general regions where they can be expected to occur, and the likely habitats in which to search for them. This is a book to whet the appetite of all birders with an interest in Asia and is essential for anyone intending to visit this wonderful country. It provides a wealth of information in a single volume that is not readily available from other sources. After reading it, you?ll want to go there next year, and if you?ve been to Kazakhstan before, now you realise what you may have missed, and start to salivate over those still to see species. Combined with its attractive layout, this book must figure highly on the ?most wanted books list? and as a useful stocking filler. The authors are to be commended for their efforts in producing such an attractive and useful guide.
Other Reviews by Peter include:
Birds of South Asia The Ripley Guide, Volumes 1 and 2