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Birds of South Asia
Review by Peter Kennerley
It is now almost eighteen months since Birds of South Asia (BOSA) appeared on the scene. This has given ample time for field testing, and to stake its claim as the most relevant guide to birds on the Indian subcontinent.
So, how has it fared? Prior to 1998, there were few guides that did justice to the superb birds of the Indian sub-continent, and no single guide that dealt with the entire sub-continent. Only Ali and Ripley’s now dated Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan (Handbook) provided complete coverage in 10 volumes! Everything else was incomplete, with inadequate text and poor illustrations, covered limited regions of the sub-continent, or omitted all but the most common and widespread species. Birders visiting India in the 1980s were often left floundering when faced with a confusing array of Phylloscopus warblers or Prinas. This left the market wide open for a modern field guide, that would cater to the ever-increasing numbers of birders visiting the subcontinent and realising just how superb the birding here can be.
In 1998, Richard Grimmett, together with Carol and Tim Inskipp produced the superb ‘Birds of the Indian Subcontinent’ (BIS) which, for the first time, provided the depth of coverage that modern birders demanded. Although it has had its detractors, in particular those who dislike the species sequence adopted (it follows the Sibley & Monroe Sequence) it represented a wonderful breakthrough. It’s true that it is the size and weight of a house brick, making it difficult to carry and use in the field, but several subsequent spin-off regional guides derived from BIS have appeared that address the portability issue albeit at the expense of descriptive detail and maps. Despite these shortcomings, BIS quickly became the guide of choice for many people, but a guide often left behind in the hotel room for later consultation.
Two years later, Krys Kazmierczak authored ‘A Field Guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent’, with illustrations by Ber van Perlo. For the first time, birders had a choice. Here was a single, hard-backed, pocket-sized guide which illustrated every species occurring on the sub-continent, provided minimal descriptive texts which included an attempt to address the thorny issue of vocalisations, and also included readily understood distribution maps. Furthermore, it returned to the familiar Peters Sequence that enabled users to quickly locate species. For some, this became the guide they used in the field, leaving BIS for later reference in the hotel room. For others, it’s simplistic approach left them cold, and it failed to take off in the way that BIS did.
Within the space of two years, birders were treated to this feast of knowledge. And, for the first time, were able to look back through notebooks and identify birds that had previously defied identification using the pre-1998 guides. And how many secretly removed birds from their lists when they realised just how dodgy some of those earlier IDs had been?
So, was the market ready for Birds of South Asia, (BOSA) so soon after the appearance of two already excellent guides? Had sufficient progress been made to justify the effort of a third field guide? Could another guide challenge the lead established by BIS? And, would users be prepared to fork out another £60 for a third guide and yet more weight to carry. In short, has this book been able to take the next great leap forward - is it worth buying? In the following paragraphs, I hope to provide a balanced review that will enable potential buyers to reach a decision.
To help users make this decision, the authors have expanded coverage to include two regions omitted from the earlier guides; Afghanistan and the Chagos Archipelago. Now, these aren’t current hot spots for travelling birders, and the Chagos don’t even feature on the maps of the region in BOSA, so potential uptake because of their inclusion isn’t likely to be massive. Yet, it is always nice to broaden our horizons and any guide which addresses previously blank regions is to be savoured. Furthermore, as many of the birds occurring in these regions really do form a part of the sub-continent’s avifauna, their omission from the two previous guides, in retrospect, appears a bit churlish.
Well, to start with, this isn’t one book, but two. Volume 1 comes as a stand-alone field guide, with plates illustrating all species along with many of the more distinctive races. It also includes the maps and an extremely brief description for each species and race illustrated. A total of 12 artists have contributed to the plates, so the styles and detail are quite variable. Some plates are quite superb, combining attention to detail with a pleasant style that draws you into the bird. I was particularly attracted to the crispness and technical accuracy of Bill Zetterström’s larks. Jonathan Alderfer’s shorebirds are neat and in most cases has got them about right, but his illustration of ‘Eastern’ Black-tailed Godwit Limosa melanuroides is much too dull and the wing-bar is way too narrow it should appear much closer to the illustration of ‘Western’ Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa, which, in itself, is too bright. In a similar vein, Thomas Schultz’s pipits appear technically accurate but seem a bit small-headed.
Some plates, however, are less attractive, and don’t rest easily with the eye, appearing rather small and garish compared with those of other artists, and the style used by the principle artist, John Anderton, falls into this category. However, this is purely a personal and subjective assessment, and I’m sure there are many who would disagree with this view. More than this though are numerous technical inaccuracies, in particular in the relative sizes of some of his images. For example on Plate 122, the images of White-throated Bushchat Saxicola insignis appear the same size as those of Common Stonechats Saxicola torquatus, despite the adjacent text telling us that White-throated is a full 4 cm larger than Common Stonechat. A similar error creeps in on plate 83, where I was scratching my head trying to work out what the small swift with the white rump was until I read the text and discovered it was Pacific Swift Apus pacificus, here illustrated as being distinctly smaller and narrower wing than the adjacent Common Swift Apus apus, yet described correctly in the text as being 1 cm longer. A similar problem has afflicted some of Ian Lewington’s Phylloscopus warblers, although here all images on individual plates are to the same scale, adjacent plates use different scales. For example, on Plate 152, we find the smaller wing-barred Phylloscs including Lemon-rumped Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus chloronotus appearing considerably larger than the larger Phylloscopus warblers on the previous plate. Clearly, the decision to print the plates to these sizes must rest with the publisher, but it is unfortunate that the decision reflects negatively on the artist’s skills.
The field guide lacks details of calls and songs, which is disappointing. These are, however, thoroughly dealt with in Volume 2 where Rasmussen has paid much attention to detail in preparing what are by far the best vocalisation accounts of Indian birds, together with many sonograms. But more of this later.
The distribution maps are included within the field guide. Although small, they use clear and contrasting colours (a significant improvement over BIS) to illustrate the ranges of resident, breeding visitors, wintering, as well as the extent of geographic variation, range on migration etc. Data was taken from proven sources, mostly museum specimens, in fact the work done by the authors while they examined innumerable specimens must have been a Herculean task, but very rewarding as it unearth many errors. Unfortunately, they have approached the casual observations made by visiting birders with less enthusiasm. This wealth of observational data has been largely discarded, which is regrettable as reports filed by amateur travelling birders are often highly accurate and provide up-to-date distributional data. While specimens provide (undisputed?) evidence for occurrence at specific locations, many museum specimens are over 100 years old and there is no modern data to indicate whether the species still occurs where it was collected.
Volume 2 contains the real meat of this guide. It represents the culmination of hundreds of hours of dedicated museum work, mainly by Rasmussen. Throughout, she has examined specimens, corrected misidentifications, revised distributions and resolved many misconceptions to make this the most detailed analysis of Indian birds yet available. It starts with an appreciation of S. Dillon Ripley’s life. Dillon Ripley was a pioneer of Indian ornithology who, together with Salim Ali, wrote the ‘Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan’, published between 1968 and 1975, and which for the first time brought together much of what was known about Indian birds. Times change, and Dillon Ripley had already laid the foundations for the next leap forward until ill-health forced him to retire. The task of completion then fell to two of his associates; Pamela Rasmussen and John Anderton, and the result is these two volumes. They have brought together a superb collection of data to produce what is, undoubtedly, the most accurate, detailed and current compilation of data in field guide format, on the birds of the Indian sub-continent.
There follows a detailed introduction which summarises the aims and objectives of BOSA. This provides readers with details of the methodology adopted throughout the books. Introductory chapters address topics as diverse as Coverage, Geography and Avifauna, Moult and Plumages, Measurements, Illustrations. Identification, Vocalisations, Taxonomy, Names, Maps, Records, History of Ornithology in South Asia, and Conservation. These introductory chapters are precise and clearly written, making it easy to read entire chapters in detail, or quickly locate specific issues or approaches taken while checking a particular species account or other aspect of the book.
Species sequence follows that used in Ali & Ripley’s Handbook, which adopted the familiar Peter’s Sequence. This gives it a head start over BIS, which followed the confusing OBC sequence, based upon the work of Sibley & Munroe. Many of the names adopted by BOSA are also to be commended, i.e. it is pleasing to note the welcome return of the traditional Striolated Bunting Emberiza striolata rather than the recently concocted and entirely inappropriate European alternative of Mountain Bunting. And, while Yellow-browed Leaf-Warbler Phylloscopus inornatus is an improvement over the grating Inornate Warbler, this need to change the name from Yellow-browed Warbler is irritating, as is the hyphenation of Leaf Warbler. There is, however, no excuse for the retention of the new fangled Rusty-rumped Warbler Locustella certhiola. Also, it will be interesting to see whether the return to the use of Ceylon catches on where it has been used to provide English names for Sri Lankan species. Certainly, many of the Sri Lankan birders I’ve spoken with naturally use Ceylon when naming species such as Ceylon Blue Magpie Urocissa ornate. As the use of these names is clearly a decision of choice by the authors, they are plainly unconcerned about offending local sensitivities. Perhaps the rest of us should just stop worrying and follow their lead?
Throughout this work, the authors have taken a fairly radical approach towards the taxonomy of the birds of the region. In appendix 3 of the nine appendices in Volume 2, we are told that this book includes 203 species-level differences from the old Ali & Ripley Handbook, 131 from BIS, of which 83 are additional species to the region (including splits and overlooked species). For some of these splits, observers familiar with Indian birds will welcome the changes, as they should have been introduced many years ago. In some cases, however, the reasons for change are less clear but the decisions appear sensible. There are, however, just too many instances where the authors appear to have made random decisions, unsupported by published research, many of which will come as a surprise to those familiar with Asian birds. On the other hand, the widely supported split of Siberian Stoinechat Saxicola maurus from its European counterpart is not recognised here, and all forms are treated as races of Saxicola torquatus.
The authors have provided new English names for the many newly split species they have included. It is too soon to say whether these will catch on, but some will undoubtedly become popular. I for one, though, don’t intend to change to the use ‘Western ’ Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa to distinguish it from ‘Eastern’ Black-tailed Godwit Limosa melanuroides, particularly as this split is not recognised beyond this book. Surely though, when adopting such a radical approach to taxonomy, something a bit more imaginative could have been tried for the new English names.
The bulk of Volume 2 comprises the accounts for 1,441 species which, together with the distinctive races also discussed, bring together a total to just over 2,500 distinctive taxa reviewed. Individual species accounts are concise but thorough. For example, readily identified species such as herons receive much shorter summaries than the more difficult juvenile flycatchers species that require extremely careful scrutiny. That said, the accounts have been reduced to such an extent that you will need to read each very carefully and several times to fully understand, appreciate and then apply to separate some of the more similar species. In addition to the description, each account summarises variation where relevant, includes a range of measurements covering body length, head length and tail length but, surprisingly, no wing measurements are included and important data on wing formula is also omitted, even where this is essential for the separation of some closely related species, i.e. various Acrocephalus ands Phylloscopus warblers. Range and distribution comments including useful altitudinal ranges then follow.
Perhaps the most interesting and useful aspect of the book are the sections on voice. The attention to detail here sets a new gold standard. Again, the accounts are concise although this will not suit everyone. Transcriptions seem to be based upon English pronunciations, although this isn’t mentioned in the text. For example, not everyone can differentiate between their SWEEe\si-si/SEEep! and their SWEE/SEE\SWEE/SEE, particularly if English isn’t your first language. In an attempt to get around this issue, the big innovation in this book is the inclusion of sonograms for many species. Reference to the introductory chapters is essential to their understanding, as is a bit of practice making your own sonograms before attempting to interpret these. This is relatively easy using one of the free downloadable programs, but it will take some time until you are able to interpret just how a single strophe, at a certain frequency, should sound. With practice, though, the sonograms display a visual interpretation of the song. But, no matter how well these are understood, a sonogram is no substitute for a sound recording. Perhaps a CD with songs and calls is in the pipeline? It certainly is required as there as so few recordings available of Indian birds.
As I have said before, what may irritate many field birders is the wholesale dismissal of sight records by the authors when compiling distribution data. To quote the opening two sentences in the Records chapter in Volume 2, ‘ Records routinely admitted elsewhere to checklists and maps are of various types and often of uncertain reliability and provenance. The backbone of our knowledge of distributions of birds in South Asia has always been based on museum specimens’. While what they say is partially true, there are many well-documented records seen or heard by competent and reliable observers that have been dismissed. And who is to say that that the labelling of a particular specimen is correct, or that a sound recorder didn’t later enter the incorrect location, or even species, while making a recording? Acceptance of all records require a degree of trust. While a sound recording or specimen provides a repeatability that is absent from a sight record, the provenance and authenticity of any specimen or recording is based upon the honesty of the recorder or collector, and this must be treated to the same degree of doubt that the author’s place on sight records made by amateur birders. The authors have made a huge mistake here, and one that may alienate many potential purchasers and users. It must be hoped that birders will not put off by their approach, and will continue to submit records and reports. Without these reports, how would we know where to direct the already limited conservation funding?
Going back to the original question, how does BOSA compare with the guides already serving this market? When it comes to portability and species covered, BOSA becomes the preferred guide of choice, since BIS is neither a field guide or readily portable, and the plates in Kazmierczak & van Perlo are not up to the quality of those in BOSA. Another challenge comes in the form of the regional derivatives of BIS which are portable field guides, and here the contest is much closer. The derivatives use the plates from BIS which compare favourably with those in BOSA, and although the text in BIS is slightly more detailed, that in the derivatives fails to match BOSA. Where BOSA takes the upper hand is the provision of maps. It could be argued that the derivatives don’t require maps because they are regional guides. But, this misses the point. The maps form an integral part of both BIS and BOSA, and users rightly want to know whether they are in range of particular species or, more importantly, where similar species occur, which can be initially eliminated on the basis of distribution. On this basis, BOSA gets my vote, but BIS and its derivatives come a close second.
Despite what you may feel about the taxonomy used in BOSA, the fact is that many of the leading bird tour companies and global listers have already adopted this taxonomy, perhaps in part because this gives participants increased ‘ticks per dollar’. I’m all in favour of illustrating and discussing obscure forms; after all, it was only while reviewing BOSA that I realised that the Brown-necked Ravens Corvus ruficollis which I’d cheerfully added to my list in the Thar Desert near Jaisalmeer over 20 years ago could not have been this species which, according to the distribution map, doesn’t occur anywhere near the Thar Desert at all. Instead they must have been the poorly described ‘Punjab’ Raven Corvus corax subcorax, which also sports brown feathering on the nape. No wonder I was struggling to identify the monotypic Brown-necked Raven in Morocco many years later and wondering why they didn’t look like the Indian birds! Now all is clear and perhaps the authors are right to reject all sight records! So, if you want a guide which illustrates most of the identifiable taxa occurring in the Indian subcontinent, then again BOSA is the book to buy.
On the down side, BOSA sells for £60, which is expensive for a book that is going to take a pounding in the field. Far better to leave both volumes of BOSA back in the hotel room and rely on your BIS derivatives and your notebook to establish the identification, and refer to BOSA and BIS back in the hotel. If a low cost, softback version of Volume 1 was to be produced, this would surely become the field guide of choice for the region. As it stands though, I would not want to see a well-thumbed copy of Volume 1 on my bookshelves alongside a pristine copy of Volume 2. Surely it should be possible to buy a replacement for Volume 1 when it has received heavy usage, but this appears not to be possible without buying Volume 2 as well.
In conclusion, I feel that the authors and publishers have squandered a wonderful opportunity to produce a truly outstanding field guide. As it is, the ultimate Indian field guide has yet to be written. BOSA has undoubtedly raised the game, making the challenge of bettering it all the more difficult. What really is needed to satisfy the market is Volume 1 published in softback format for use in the field, with increased texts covering identification and vocalisations, a true handbook of Indian birds which must be possible as the authors will have amassed a huge collection of data which space limitations have prevented them from including in BOSA, and a selection of CDs featuring the songs and calls to accompany the sonograms. Hopefully this will be forthcoming in the near future.
If making my first visit to the Indian subcontinent, I would certainly buy BOSA for its coverage and as a detailed reference. For field use, however, I would stick with the relevant BIS regional guide for the area I was visiting, giving me the combination of lightweight guide for use in the field and the more detailed BOSA to refer to in the hotel. This combination provides an additional range of plates, enabling readers to view illustrations of various species