Arlott, Norman, “Birds of the West Indies”, Princeton Illustrated Checklists, Princeton University Press, 2010
For decades there was only one field guide for the Caribbean, the now classic “Birds of the West Indies” by the venerable James Bond. Today there are several choices, the latest of which is the 8th member of the Princeton series of Illustrated Checklists now familiar to many birders. Arlott’s work follows the same “at a glance” approach as the rest of the series and makes no pretext of being an authoritative guide. Dispensing with the usual front pieces, it leaps more or less directly to the the main event, an illustrated list of all the birds of the Caribbean. It features easy to use plates, with the birds lined up and all facing in the same direction and it is comprehensive, in that it has every species likely to be seen on any island in the Caribbean. Each illustration is complemented by a short but comprehensive text with information on main identification features, voice and habitat. Range maps are included for each species. In short, it is an easily portable complement to more comprehensive regional or island specific books.
In addition to its convenience there are a number of strong points. Where subspecies in the Caribbean differ strongly from those elsewhere, the local form is illustrated, thus the island forms of American Kestrel are shown, as is the local race of Osprey. Similarly, where there are distinctive populations on different islands they are portrayed. For example, five different Banaquits are featured, as are the various “Black-cowled Orioles”, the latter timely given recently adopted splits. It is also worth noting that this is one of the first guides to illustrate Barbados Bullfinch.
There are a number of weak points. While the paintings are generally good, the colors are wrong in some, most bizarrely the Black Vulture which is blue in the review copy. There are more subtle problems in other illustrations such as the St. Lucia Pewee and Brown Trembler, both of which are far too rufous. There are also some outright errors, for example dark phase Red-footed Boobies have gleaming white tails and rumps, here it is illustrated as being entirely brown. At a somewhat more subtle level, the juvenile Least Sandpiper is mislabeled as “non-breeding”. The text is generally accurate but some errors occur, to illustrate, White-tailed Tropicbird, which breeds in Saint Vincent is not listed for lesser Antilles. While the book is adequate to identify most birds likely to be seen, there are important exceptions. For example, it would be difficult to identify Narrow-billed from Broad-billed Tody based on the illustrations and text - not a hard identification given good illustrations. For tougher identifications observers would be well advised to follow the author’s advice and use a more definitive work.
While the taxonomy largely follows conventional treatments, there are exceptions. For example St. Vincent Solitaire is treated as a distinct species; it is unclear why this was selected for elevation to species levels whereas others are not. The treatment of vagrants also seems arbitrary, while many are included, some well documented sightings are not; for example, White-winged Swallow (1 record) is included whereas House Martin (at least 2 records) is not. It also includes some records that are not generally accepted (Bulwer’s Petrel in Barbados, excluded from the recently issued authoritative work on that island) and perpetuates errors from earlier works (ie Green-rumped Parrotlet is no longer is found on Barbados, nor are there any bona fide records of White-tailed Nightjar there). While on the subject of vagrants, in some cases more space is allocated to vagrants than to regularly occurring birds. For example, there are three illustrations of the Swainson’s Hawk but no illustrations of immature Night Herons, surely the latter would have been more helpful to most observers! Some of these short comings could have been solved by a review by local experts. Apparently this was not done; no Caribbean authorities are listed under the acknowledgements and only two regional references are cited.
As it happens there is another comprehensive pocket sized book for the region. Confusingly issued by the same publisher and carrying a similar name, “Princeton Field Guides Birds of the West Indies”, by Raffaele et al, 2003, is a mini version of a more comprehensive book by the same authors. So, which to buy? This is often a matter of taste, many prefer the more standardized illustrations in the Princeton Illustrated Checklists, and the Arlott book has an advantage in that it is modestly more up to date and illustrates some forms not found in Raffaele. However, and despite some shortcomings, the earlier Raffaele book is decidedly better. The text and maps are more accurate and, at least to my eye, the illustrations are better. When next I go to the Caribbean, it will be the Raffaele book that finds it way into my carry on bag, not the current book.