Article first published online: 14 JUN 2011
© 2011 The Authors. Ibis © 2011 British Ornithologists’ Union
Volume 153, Issue 3, pages 642–656, July 2011
How to Cite
(2011), Book reviews. Ibis, 153: 642–656. doi: 10.1111/j.1474-919X.2011.01143.x
- Issue published online: 14 JUN 2011
- Article first published online: 14 JUN 2011
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Archer, M., Grantham, M., Howlett, P. & Stansfield, S. ( eds ) Bird Observatories of Britain and Ireland . 592 pages, numerous black-and-white illustrations (maps, graphs, line drawings, 48 photographs), 40 colour photographs, tables, 5 appendices . London : T & AD Poyser , 2010 . Hardback, £60.00, ISBN 978-1-4081-1040-9 . Website: http://www.acblack.com .
This is nominally the second edition of R. Durman’s 1976 work (Bird Observatories in Britain and Ireland; reviewed in Ibis 119: 409) from the same publishers, but it is essentially a new book. The Editors have personal connections with five of the 18 observatories that they describe, and Howlett is the current Secretary of the Bird Observatories Council. They have called on the services of some 35 local experts, and their combined work, although allowance is made for agreeable variations in emphasis and treatment, is remarkably homogeneous. There is a useful general introduction on the development of the network, routines and facilities, seasonal patterns and research possibilities. The Editors look forward to closer co-operation between wardens and academics.
The 18 chapters contain descriptions of the sites, histories of their development as observatories, much detail on breeding and migratory birds and on other fauna and flora, sections on ringing and on visible migration, and information on access and accommodation. There are accompanying drawings, and some colour plates (photographs) are concentrated separately near the beginning. The maps are outstanding. Some observatories, such as Holme (Norfolk), struggled in their earlier years, and the list of survivors owes much to chance, as well as to determination on the part of a few individuals. Many birders probably assume that both Lundy and Skokholm will be there; they had a combined life of 60 years, but both dropped out in the mid-1970s. Surprisingly, the most recent addition is Hilbre (Dee Estuary), which was accredited only in 2008, after a 50-year history. Other new establishments on the East Coast, such as Filey, Flamborough and Landguard, have been partly driven by the popularity of watching visible migration. Many observatories collect records from quite large areas in their vicinity, and some, such as Gibraltar Point and Portland, have sought to acquire and manage neighbouring land.
Readers are likely to turn first to places that they know, which for many will be those reachable by land, such as Dungeness, Gibraltar Point, Portland or Flamborough, before passing on to read of remote islands, such as North Ronaldsay or Copeland. There is excitement in the accounts of famous ‘falls’, including the 31 000 birds of 18 species that descended on Bardsey, where the methods used to diminish casualties by mobile lights are of interest, on 9/10 November 2002. Other events have been confined to a single species, such as the 382 Spotted Flycatchers Muscicapa striata that descended one May lunchtime in 1992 on North Ronaldsay, an incident included in one of the best chapters, by the island’s GP.
The serious purpose, of course, has been the accumulation of data to provide the basis for speculations on the changing pattern and volume of migration. Indeed, the first of the authors ‘leads the data management team’ at Bardsey, no doubt a far cry from the evening entry sessions in scruffy notebooks and a card-index system. The general impression among the older observatories has been of a marked decline in the September influxes that were once such a feature of the East Coast.
But there is much of human interest here, too. The book tells a story of many enthusiasts in their strange isolations: Maury Meiklejohn filling the Isle of May log with witty poems and epigrams; an anonymous boy following his father across the dark causeway to Hilbre through gloop and sand and seaweed; Gurnard the Gannet Morus bassanus repelling one visitor from the top of its stepladder at Sandwich Bay; the sensible management of twitchable rarities, with all their scope for triumph and disaster. Some photographs were full of nostalgia for me, none more so than the figure at Spurn balancing on his knee the full length of a Broadhurst & Clarkson, in the days when draw-telescopes really telescoped. It is good to see that Heligoland traps have not been entirely replaced by mist-nets.
The book ends with appendices, including checklists of species recorded and totals ringed. The winning bird in the latter list is Willow Warbler Phylloscopus trochilus, with 261 869. There is also a list of British and Irish species first recorded at observatories: 26 at Fair Isle and 30 elsewhere.
Two small points: not all observatories mention their annual report, although all currently produce one either independently or in collaboration with another publication – except Cape Clear, where the tradition has lapsed; and it would have been good to have a brief account of those observatories that have failed to make the grade, or are aspiring to ‘Recognition’. And one greater one: this is a rather expensive book, for a work of much general interest is here published at a specialist price – and one 12 times that of the first edition.
This is a good idea: adapt the plates and text of the same authors’ admirable field guide to the Birds of Western Africa (2004, reviewed in Ibis 147: 432) to individual countries. The species text and map are together, facing the plates. With fewer birds now per page (often from five to seven), the illustrations are less cluttered, often a little enlarged. Many of the earlier paintings (by Nik Borrow) have been reused, but the printing much improved, with most of those plates that were too brown now corrected. The Green Hylia Hylia prasina is still too dark, and the Wood Warbler Phylloscopus sibilatrix on the same page too pale. But many plates are superb.
Adapting a tried-and-tested regional work to one country demands some added value, in the form of an authoritative text. It is in this respect that this book disappoints. The maps (as explained by the authors) are in part inferred, where firm data are lacking. Unfortunately, the publishers did not await the results of extensive atlas fieldwork (a project ending in 2011), in order to publish the book to coincide with their financial sponsors’ anniversary. As a result, the maps are particularly deficient for the parts of the country largely unknown to the authors, the northern two-thirds of Ghana. For instance, Zitting Cisticola Cisticola juncidis and African Quailfinch Ortygospiza atricollis are shown as widespread in the western half of the northern savannas, whereas they are common in the floodplains of the east (where shown as absent), and absent or very local in the more wooded west. Tropical Boubou Laniarius aethiopicus is mapped almost throughout the north, but is in fact largely absent north of 9°N, while Yellow-crowned Gonolek Laniarius barbarus, shown as missing from the eastern savannas, is common there. The authors write that they have included all published information until early 2010, but they have missed some earlier data; for example, records in Bull. Afr. Bird Club 16 (2009): 230–231 are not mapped, even a species new to Ghana, Quailfinch Indigobird Vidua nigeriae. The map of Shikra Accipiter badius (a savanna species) has been repeated in error for African Goshawk A. tachiro (a forest species).
There is an extremely short introduction to Ghana (five pages). The species text is essentially as in their earlier handbook or identification guide (2001, reviewed in Ibis 144: 535), but slightly shortened. It does not, as a rule, contain (new) information specific to Ghana. This can lead to inaccuracies: thus, the Brown-chested Alethe Alethe poliocephala is said to occupy ‘forest, gallery forest, forest patches in savanna’, whereas the map shows it exclusively within the rainforest zone (which is correct). The status of some species relies on data summarized by L. G. Grimes in The Birds of Ghana (BOU Check-list No. 9, 1987; reviewed in Ibis 130: 453), often outdated. Wahlberg’s Eagle Aquila wahlbergi is not a fairly common breeding visitor, but a rare non-breeding visitor; Mottled Spinetail Telacanthura ussheri does not have separate resident and migratory populations, being resident throughout. Yellow-billed Stork Mycteria ibis, shown quite widely in the north, has unfortunately been extinct for some 40 years.
An Appendix lists all species ‘reliably recorded’ in Ghana, with some vernacular names. This includes several species for which there is no evidence of their occurrence in the country (e.g. Lappet-faced Vulture Torgos tracheliotus, Broad-billed Sandpiper Limicola falcinellus). Local names are presented for three of the many languages of the country, but we are not told how to pronounce the non-standard characters used. Most species do not have a name, and many share one; oddly, a vagrant can have two names (Wilson’s Storm Petrel Oceanites oceanicus), whereas a widespread rainforest species such as Spot-breasted Ibis Bostrychia rara (greatly under-represented on the map), well known to local people, has none.
Quibbles about the maps and text aside, as a field guide this is excellent. It was financed by Ala (Swiss Society for the Study and Conservation of Birds) to celebrate its 100th anniversary. Some of the production has been donated to the Ghana Wildlife Society, and if free copies can get to schools, it will serve a useful purpose. But given that Borrow and Demey’s original guide (2001) covering the whole of western Africa is available for the same price, the international tourist will find the latter more useful.
Françoise Dowsett-Lemaire & Robert J. Dowsett
Cartron, J.-L.E. ( ed .) Raptors of New Mexico . xvi + 710 pages, numerous colour and a few black-and-white photographs, maps, some black-and-white and part-coloured figures and tables, a few drawings . Albuquerque, NM : University of New Mexico Press , 2010 . Hardback, US$50.00, ISBN 978-0-8263-41457 . Website: http://www.unmpress.com .
The title of this new book may lead one to think it is just a small field guide to the raptors of the southwestern state of New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment, but that is hardly the case. Instead, we have a weighty encyclopedia of knowledge about its birds of prey, with in-depth accounts provided for 24 diurnal raptors, among them seven Buteo and five Falco species, and 13 owls (Strigiformes), from the Elf Owl Micrathene whitneyi, the world’s smallest, to the largest in the State, the widespread Great Horned Owl Bubo virginianus. There are also shorter accounts for seven other species recorded only as casual visitors or accidentals. Following Jean-Luc Cartron’s Introduction and short sections on raptor morphology and maps come the two fascinating and highly informative chapters that constitute Part I, in which the reader is introduced first to floristic zones and vegetation communities, then to raptor migration in New Mexico.
Individual species accounts (Part II), often compiled by experts carrying out long-term studies, are well written, opening with information on plumage colour based on age, sex and morph, followed by sections, sometimes extensive, on distribution, habitat associations, life history, status and management, and literature cited. As you would expect, preference is given to studies from within New Mexico when possible, data from outside being used to fill in any gaps.
The section on distribution encompasses where individuals nest and otherwise occur within New Mexico, and further information is given on the timing of seasonal movements and/or migration, this text being supported by detailed maps for each of the 37 primary raptor species considered. Life-history sections are the longest and contain a variety of information, from displays, nesting and social biology to diet and foraging, predation and interspecific interactions. Harris’s Hawk Parabuteo unicinctus, typically living in small groups and having two types of helpers, may be ‘the most compelling and enigmatic bird of prey’ in the State, but other stories likely to arrest the reader’s attention include the soaring flocks (‘kettles’) of migrating Broad-winged Hawks Buteo platypterus and Swainson’s Hawks Buteo swainsoni hunting bats and eating them in flight. For some of the better-studied species within New Mexico (e.g. Golden Eagle Aquila chrysaetos, and North America’s most abundant bird of prey, the colourful American Kestrel Falco sparverius), multiple figures and charts are also provided, making the life-history section even more useful and interesting. To conclude the accounts for each species, there is a brief discussion on status and management, valuable not least because it frequently gives a broad overview of the population status of each species while also focusing on specific threats that may occur in New Mexico.
Not only does this book present a tremendous amount of information, but the several hundred excellent photographs included are both a highly attractive feature and a valuable aid to understanding many aspects described in the text. As would be expected, the majority depict the raptors themselves, to include adults, juveniles and young in the nest (it is striking how many schemes there are to put up platforms and nestboxes and how quickly the birds take advantage of these). Other photographs in some species accounts are of nesting habitat and nests at a distance, which should prove useful to those trying to find the nests of many of these species on their own.
Well composed and beautifully produced, this book is an ideal work of reference for any enthusiast who wants to know more about the raptors of New Mexico, and it has much to offer anyone trying to find any of those species out in the field.
Kurt K. Burnham
Shorebird Ecology, Conservation and Management . 328 pages, many black-and-white figures (including photographs), text boxes and tables, 1 appendix . Berkeley, CA : University of California Press , 2010 . Hardback, US$60.00, £41.95, ISBN 978-0-520-26640-7 . Website: http://www.ucpress.edu ..
Shorebirds (or waders) are an iconic avian group that attract fans, with their own societies, meetings and journals, from all over the world. This is hardly surprising as these birds live on all continents, and although most species frequent wetlands, others breed in deserts, forests and alpine habitats. Shorebirds exhibit spectacular migrations, and they are also well known for having extraordinary breeding systems (e.g. the lekking behaviour of Ruff Philomachus pugnax and facultative brood desertion by the female or male in Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrinus), and one of the largest male biases in sexual size dimorphism (SSD) (Ruff, male larger than female) and one of the largest female biases (members of the Jacanidae, female larger than male), so that the range of SSD in shorebirds is the largest among comparable avian taxa. As Mark Colwell succinctly puts it, shorebirds are fascinating. This genuine fascination, coupled with great opportunities to reveal how evolution works, binds together the large number of shorebird enthusiasts from many walks of life.
This book fills a major gap in shorebird science by covering, in 14 chapters split into three parts, evolutionary relationships and breeding biology, non-breeding ecology and demography, and management and conservation. The Appendix lists the world’s shorebirds (including subspecies) and gives their breeding range and estimated population size. An eminently readable text brings to the reader state-of-the-art shorebird science. Recent advances in phylogeny, physiology, mating systems, migration, foraging ecology and population biology are all included. The transition from behaviour and ecology to conservation, habitat management and outreach is admirably smooth. Beyond having fascinating biology, shorebirds unfortunately provide some of the most spectacular population collapses in birds: the Eskimo Curlew Numenius borealis was once one of the commonest birds in North America, but is now widely regarded as extinct, although there is a faint hope that a few individuals might yet linger on in a remote part of Alaska or Canada; meanwhile, the Palaearctic Slender-billed Curlew Numenius tenuirostris is perilously close to attaining the same status. I fully concur with Colwell’s agenda: ecologists and behavioural scientists must work together with conservationists to protect shorebirds and their habitats.
This is a splendid book, and there are lots of reasons why. First, the text is based on careful research into various aspects of shorebird biology worldwide. This is not an encyclopedia of shorebird science, the chapters focusing rather on some of the major elements of behaviour or ecology and presenting sensible arguments that are easy to follow. Second, the book has a wealth of excellent illustrations and I particularly liked the text boxes: in every textbook there are case studies that illustrate a salient point, and it is refreshing to have a dedicated box dealing with these. Third, each chapter ends with a few paragraphs on conservation: this is a great idea as these paragraphs clearly tie the topics and implications of the given chapter to conservation and management. Many biologists still see a chasm between evolutionary ecology and behavioural ecology on the one hand and conservation on the other – a view I find misguided given that all biologists study the product of evolution, the tree of life, that is rapidly eroding. Colwell makes it clear there is not, and should not be, such a chasm.
Where is shorebird science heading? The future, as the book emphasizes, may lie in doing more and better shorebird science to underpin conservation. Shorebird biologists were quick to bring into their own research models, novel field tools, remote sensing and statistical techniques, but because their research is essentially field-based, they are somewhat slower to embrace new advances in lab-based life sciences, including physiology, genetics and genomics, which are necessary for a full grasp of the evolutionary implications and mechanism of particular traits. In the current scientific climate, where developmental biology, bioinformatics, systems biology and cognitive science are breaking new barriers, shorebird scientists should be more open to setting up cross-disciplinary projects. Widely diverse in their foraging behaviour, migration and breeding systems, shorebirds have lots to offer to evolutionary biology, biomedical sciences and sociobiology. They are great model systems, and Shorebird Ecology takes a huge step forward in revealing their full potential.
This excellent work should be on the shelf of anyone interested in shorebirds, including field biologists, birders, students, teachers and professors. It is based on a degree course in shorebird biology, and it nicely fits this purpose as part of an undergraduate, master’s or PhD curriculum. Beyond shorebird enthusiasts, the book will benefit behavioural ecologists and evolutionary ecologists: it is an extremely valuable source of information. I envisage that conservationists, including managers of wetland reserves, will also find much useful advice and inspiration in its pages. Shorebird Ecology is a fine book, and a joy to read.
Del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Christie, D.A. ( eds ) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 14. Bush-shrikes to Old World Sparrows . 893 pages, 657 photographs, 51 colour plates, 485 distribution maps . Barcelona : Lynx Edicions , 2009 . Hardback, €212.00, ISBN 978-84-96553-50-7 .
The editors of the series, the 25 specialist authors and the seven artists must be congratulated on the completion of another outstanding volume of the Handbook of the Birds of the World (HBW). Although unashamedly admitting clear personal (and professional) interests in certain bird families, I think it is fair to say that a volume of HBW containing bowerbirds (Ptilonorhynchidae), birds-of-paradise (Paradisaeidae) and crows (Corvidae) is a special treat with more than its fair share of charismatic species. However, this volume covers an additional 14 families – including drongos (Dicruridae), New Zealand wattlebirds (Callaeidae), starlings (Sturnidae) and Old World sparrows (Passeridae) to name but a few – and taken together, the 17 families make for a truly fascinating taxonomic sample from the avian world.
I enjoyed the well-researched introductory essay by Stephen Moss, entitled ‘Birding Past, Present and Future – a Global View’. Woven into a general historical account of how birdwatching has developed over the last 100 years or so, are stimulating reviews of a range of topics, such as the societal and economic context of birding, the productive cross-fostering between birding and ornithological research, and the contributions birding can make to conservation efforts. I thought this multi-faceted approach works very well and nicely sets the scene for the subsequent taxonomic parts.
The general format of the family reviews follows that of previous HBW volumes, with sections on systematics, morphological aspects, habitat, general habits, voice, food and feeding, breeding, movements, relationship with man, status and conservation, and a general bibliography. These reviews are followed by brief, but information-rich, species accounts that contain a distribution map and are linked by number to paintings on one of the colour plates. The book’s bibliography, with over 6000 references, covers an impressive body of literature – from articles that pre-date electronic databases to the very latest findings published in the book’s year of publication. Apart from being an impressive editing achievement, this is clear testament to the scholarship of the authors of family chapters and species accounts.
When reviewing this volume, I have naturally focused on the family I am most familiar with, the Corvidae, and I found the quality of the text excellent throughout. Written in an engaging style, the essay successfully combines scientific facts with more anecdotal material. It is fully up to date throughout and covers even unpublished findings, such as the rediscovery of the Banggai Crow Corvus unicolor in 1991/2004 on the remote island of Peleng, Indonesia. It will be fascinating to see how the taxonomy of the crows of the world changes, once more refined molecular phylogenies become available.
As far as I could tell, the other family reviews are of equally high standard. And as is always the case, the better a synthesis, the easier it is for readers not only to appreciate the work that has already been done, but importantly to see the research and conservation challenges that still lie ahead. I personally have not yet observed bowerbirds or birds-of-paradise in the wild, but I feel that this volume has equipped me extremely well for future expeditions, should I ever be lucky enough to visit these birds’ remote breeding locations. Clearly, many of the species covered in volume 14 offer outstanding research opportunities, and I am sure that this publication will be a major source of inspiration for many future projects.
The photographs, and paintings, are of consistently high standard, and many of them are outstanding – which is exactly what ‘spoilt’ HBW readers have learned to expect. Extensive, well-written photograph captions cover, or expand on, key points from the text or provide valuable additional information. This ensures that studying the images is not just a great pleasure, but provides easy access to essential facts; indeed, I found that, taken together, the captions in a family chapter can be read almost like a ‘mini essay’, as an enjoyable preamble to the main text. I think it would have been nice to have a plate showing bower structures of all, or selected, bowerbird species, but this is only a minor quibble, considering how well produced the book is overall.
With the series nearing completion, I wonder whether the Editors and the publisher will now direct their attention to revising the first volumes of HBW. While the series was launched with an exceptionally high production standard, visual enhancements have become increasingly lavish over time, to the point where reviewers of the latest volumes have been struggling to find appropriate superlatives for their praise. Although I am not sure whether such revision work would be economically viable, it would provide opportunities to increase consistency across all volumes, to update technical information and to give this magnificent series its final polishing. This could potentially come at the cost of upsetting subscribers who over the last few years have invested a significant amount of money into their full set of HBW, but perhaps free electronic updates could offer a solution.
My personal preferences aside, I believe many readers without a subscription to the HBW series should seriously consider buying a copy of volume 14. Even when not forming part of a complete set, this superb volume would make a truly spectacular addition to their ornithological libraries.
Devenish, C., Díaz Fernández, D.F., Clay, R.P., Davidson, I.J. & Yépez Zabala, I. ( eds ) Important Bird Areas Americas – Priority Sites for Biodiversity Conservation. (BirdLife Conservation Series No. 16.) ( in English, with summary in Spanish ). 456 pages, numerous colour photographs, maps, graphs, text boxes, tables, 5 appendices, fold-out IBAs map with index on reverse . Quito, Ecuador : BirdLife International , 2009 . Hardback, £44.99, from NHBS Environment Bookstore –http://www.nhbs.com, ISBN 978-9942-9959-0-2 .
One of BirdLife International’s core research activities over recent years has centred on developing an Important Bird Area (IBA) network worldwide. The publication of ‘IBAs Americas’ represents a major milestone in this project. It is the culmination of 15 years of work by 72 partner organizations and over 3000 people to identify and document the most important sites for birds and biodiversity conservation in a region covering all of North America, Central America and, most ambitiously, South America – the ‘bird continent’, where one-third of the Earth’s avian species occur. It takes the form of a comprehensive directory of 2345 sites identified in all 57 countries and territories, covering more than 3.25 million km2. The aim of the book is to provide a concise summary of these sites, and an overview of the opportunities they provide for biodiversity conservation. In general, this is achieved very well, and very attractively, as the final product is beautifully organized and liberally illustrated with detailed maps and stunning colour photographs.
If I had to put my finger on my only misgivings about the project, I would point to the practical obstacles of applying a site-based method to complex ecosystems such as Neotropical rainforests. The IBA approach seems tailor-made for developed nations, where biodiversity is largely restricted to patches of natural habitat embedded in human-modified landscapes, and where we often know fairly well what each patch contains in terms of species and populations. In contrast, the IBA maps of poorly developed regions seem to align, not with the distribution of biodiversity per se, but the happenstance of data availability. In Amazonia or the Andes, for example, IBAs tend to align closely with sites targeted by existing conservation actions, or else visited by expeditions or birdwatchers, whereas many remote regions are missing even though they appear to offer better habitat and better prospects for long-term conservation. The result is that the IBA map in such regions is often a better guide to accessibility than to importance for birds. There is a need to acknowledge that temperate-zone strategies may not work so well in such cases, and that the IBA approach may be less effective than regional conservation strategies based on habitat classifications and remote sensing data. A similar argument applies to the quality of status or population data, which again is often poor in tropical ecosystems. As such, it is generally difficult to know whether a species listed for a particular tropical IBA occurs locally in numbers sufficient for long-term conservation.
These caveats aside, ‘IBAs Americas’ is an impressive reference work embodying a huge amount of effort, and a major contribution to biodiversity conservation in a crucial region. It provides an excellent summary of current knowledge regarding many sites destined to play a key role in the fight to preserve rare species from extinction, deserves widespread acclaim and a space on the bookshelf of anyone interested in New World birds and their conservation.
Joseph M. Tobias
A Complete Guide to the Birds of Malta . xxiv + 424 pages, abundant illustrations (mainly photographs), most in colour, 8 tables, 2 appendices . Valletta, Malta : Midsea Books Ltd , 2010 . Hardback, €50.00 from: http://www.midseabooks.com, or £50.90 from Oxbow Books: http://www.oxbowbooks.com, ISBN 978-99932-7-310-3 ..
Before I had seen the review copy of A Complete Guide to the Birds of Malta, I was not sure what to expect, not just from the title, but especially considering the country’s terrible reputation with regard to bird crime. Would it be similar to A Guide to the Birds of Malta (Sultana et al. 1975) or the updated New Guide of Sultana and Gauci (1982)? Might it be suitable for the average holidaymaker, who would want to know what is special about Malta, be able to name a few species seen and be given information on key sites to visit? Or would it be a kind of ‘Where to watch’ guide, giving tips for visiting birders on planning a trip, i.e. what can be seen, when and where, and how to get to the best sites? Many of those birders would perhaps do better to consult BirdLife Malta (http://www.birdlifemalta.org) and the Malta Breeding Bird Atlas 2008 (Raine et al. 2009; reviewed in Ibis 151: 786–787).
Natalino Fenech’s new book proved to be a profusely illustrated, large-format and heavy hardback, presented as ‘a comprehensive almanac about all that has to do with birds in the Maltese Islands’. Contact with relatives who were hunters and with whom he went hunting, then involvement with bird and environmental protection movements, means that Fenech came to see both sides. Later, as the author of Fatal Flight – the Maltese Obsession with Killing Birds (a controversial book on illegal hunting in Malta), which was published in 1992 and briefly noticed in Ibis 135: 217, and having written a PhD thesis on ‘Bird shooting and trapping in the Maltese Islands’ (University of Durham 1997), he certainly has the background to deal with the issue of the illegal killing of protected species in Malta.
Hunting and trapping of birds is discussed in various contexts and from many different angles in all seven chapters that make up the impressively detailed and beautifully illustrated Part 1 of the book, although only one has that phrase as its title. ‘Man and birds’ touches, among other things, on birds in history, art, literature, folklore and place names, while the chapter ‘Social aspects’ discusses topics such as hunter satisfaction and hunters in pictorial maps and cartoons, and ‘Ornithological works’ contains early travellers’ accounts and Victorian attitudes, people and publications right through to the modern age. There is a relatively short chapter on migration, and one entitled ‘Conservation measures’ which describes the serious conservation issues that still plague the island, but where notable omissions are readily apparent, particularly in relation to more recent conservation work in Malta, e.g. the EU LIFE Yelkouan Shearwater [Puffinus yelkouan] Project, which was the largest conservation initiative of its kind and involved a partnership of non-governmental organizations and government departments.
Part 2 comprises detailed accounts of the 428 bird species Fenech lists for Malta. Here one can read about birds such as the European Turtle Dove Streptopelia turtur (a species at the epicentre of the ongoing conflict over spring hunting in Malta) and the European Honey Buzzard Pernis apivorus, along with other migratory raptors for which Malta is an important stopover during migration. The accounts also cover all of the common and familiar species, such as the Spanish Sparrow Passer hispaniolensis and, among more recent additions, the Zitting Cisticola Cisticola juncidis. Unfortunately, there are no maps in the accounts of breeding species (the few in the migration chapter are the only ones in the book). Also, the seemingly endless series of individual sightings in many accounts would surely have been much better shown as tables or graphs. Were it not for the linking theme of hunting and trapping and conservation, this work might be seen as two separate halves or could even have been two separate volumes for different audiences.
A large amount of information on individual species is presented in Part 2, but it is apparent that the author does not take a critical approach with regard to his acceptance of records, particularly those of rarities. Early on in the book, Fenech makes clear that he does not agree with the Maltese Rarities Committee and its working methods and he states that he does not accept their judgement on certain species. He then out of hand accepts rarities records based simply on his own judgement, with weak arguments such as the fact that he knew the person who made the sighting. I consider this is a serious failing of the book, as Rarities Committees are created to deal with such questions by discussing them at a Committee level, thus excluding the bias of a single individual. To do otherwise risks damaging ornithology.
In summary, I am in two minds about this book. On the one hand, it is undoubtedly a very imposing work, more encyclopedia than ‘guide’, and has to some extent achieved Fenech’s aim of providing information ‘about all that has to do with birds in the Maltese Islands’. On the other hand, Fenech left me sceptical about certain records presented, particularly his new additions to the Maltese species list. Although many readers will find A Complete Guide offers in the breadth of its coverage a fascinating and valuable insight into Malta, Maltese folklore and attitudes to birds and bird protection, those with a narrower ornithological focus will almost certainly feel the need to consult other sources in addition to Fenech.
Ian K. Langford
The Nesting Season; Cuckoos, Cuckolds, and the Invention of Monogamy . 337 pages, 52 colour plates including photographs and watercolour drawings, a few line drawings . Cambridge, MA and London : The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press , 2010 . Hardback, US$29.95, £22.95, €27.00, ISBN 978-0-674-04877-5 . Website: http://www.hup.harvard.edu ..
Monogamy is relatively rare in most animals, even in birds and mammals in which it is thought to occur most often. In The Nesting Season, Professor Emeritus Bernd Heinrich, whose best-known work is probably Ravens in Winter (1990; reviewed in Ibis 133: 321), explains that monogamy is only one of many possible solutions to the problem of how to raise offspring successfully. Whether a species is monogamous or not depends on environmental constraints such as resource availability, monogamy occurring when the young are unlikely to survive with only one parent. Throughout the book, Heinrich combines personal observations with evidence from the scientific literature, supplemented with his own photographs and drawings, to illustrate this point. The book is not (and does not claim to be) an academic treatise on monogamy, but provides a popular introduction to the topic of mating systems and to the flexibility that has allowed birds (and humans) to evolve such a bewildering variety of ways in which to raise their young.
The first half of the book discusses the concept of monogamy and explores the characteristics that are shared between the mating systems of birds and humans. Heinrich raises the questions of whether animals have feelings, a rather contentious idea which is hard to demonstrate (or disprove), and whether they can be said to feel love in the same way that we do. He draws from his own and others’ experiences raising ‘wild’ geese and Ravens Corvus corax to support his belief that ‘it would be a greater error to presume that animals are not driven by feelings than to suppose that they are’. Considering the emotion of love as a physiological reaction, ‘not a mystical arrow shot from heaven’ but ‘a chemically induced state of mind’, which has evolved to enhance pair bonding in situations that require the co-operation of two parents to raise young, it doesn’t seem like such a big stretch to believe that birds probably do feel love like us (or vice versa). Although Heinrich highlights many similarities between bird and human behaviour, he also cautions against taking lessons in morality from other species, ‘unless we want to legitimize burying children in a mound of rotting vegetation and then abandoning them for life (because malleefowl [Leipoa ocellata] do it), or sneakily dropping one’s baby into another’s house after killing one or all of theirs (because cowbirds [Molothrus spp.] and cuckoos [Cuculidae] do it).’
The second half of the book follows a more conventional natural history format, with each chapter focusing on a different aspect of nesting behaviour, from mate choice to the fledging of young. Each topic is supported by a wealth of examples illustrating the many different ways in which nesting behaviour has evolved in birds around the world, including a discussion of birds that cheat the system by laying their eggs in the nests of others. This is a popular book and many of the examples will be well known to avian biologists, but I still found plenty of information that was new to me, including examples of songbirds building their nests in active raptor nests and Common Swifts Apus apus flying thousands of kilometres in a single foraging bout in order to provide food for their nestlings. Overall, Heinrich does an admirable job of conveying complex evolutionary ideas in a simple and straightforward manner and I found this book enjoyable to read.
The highlight for me was reading Heinrich’s personal anecdotes about his experiences observing and interacting with birds in his garden and elsewhere. These stories provided insight into the mind of a naturalist, while conveying a sense of excitement and passion for birds. It seems that Heinrich is equally likely to be found up a tree trying to get a closer look at a nest, stomping through a bog following some geese or in his barn expounding on the ‘wonders of bird poop’ as sitting at his desk writing about it all. This book reminds me of why I became an ornithologist in the first place and inspired me several times to put the book down and get outdoors to see what my own neighbourhood birds were getting up to.
Reed and Bush Warblers. (Helm Identification Guides.) 712 pages, numerous colour photographs and maps, 42 colour plates, 125 black-and-white figures, sonograms, tables, 7 appendices . London : Christopher Helm , 2010 . Hardback, £65.00, ISBN 978-0-7136-6022-7 .& .
This present work is the latest and, in my opinion, the best publication in the well-known series of Helm Identification Guides. It is a true monograph on the new taxonomic families Cettidae, Locustellidae and Acrocephalidae, after the recent break-up of the classic Sylviidae according to the latest taxonomic views (see Sangster et al. (2010) Taxonomic recommendations for British birds: Sixth report. Ibis 152: 180–186).
Separate chapters include a general introduction, taxonomy, moult strategies, migration and a special chapter on phylogenetic relationships as revealed by molecular analyses. This section gives an overview of the use of modern molecular techniques and their limitations and interpretations. For me, it is one of the most instructive parts of the book. There is also a chapter on origins, distribution and extinction of Acrocephalus spp. in the Pacific Ocean. No fewer than eight endemic species are found on the southeast Polynesian Islands, those furthest from the Asian and Australian mainland. These endemics are also highly diverse; some species are grey and white and the bizarre Tahiti Warbler Acrocephalus caffer has an enormous bill and a completely dark morph! It is presently found on one island only, three other races being extinct on neighbouring islands.
There are very detailed accounts of 112 species, well supported by a most impressive array of photographs, colour plates, distribution maps and (for most species) sonograms. Among the many high-quality colour photographs, several are of species for which images have never been published before. All the colour plates were painted by Brian Small and are excellent. Bradypterus and Cettia are among the most difficult groups to illustrate, but they have not been pictured as well as this before. The emphasis on vocalizations is most important in the groups of birds covered, which are often difficult to locate and observe in the field if they remain silent. Their sounds also play a key role in clarifying species limits and affinities. Detailed in-hand characters, including wing formulae and measurements, are given and are very useful for ringers.
The main text holds an astonishing wealth of information. I did not know before that the winter range of the Long-billed Bush Warbler Bradypterus major remains completely unknown. Nor did I realize that the breeding range of Aquatic Warbler Acrocephalus paludicola, probably the rarest migratory passerine in Europe, is much smaller and more fragmented than suggested by most other works. Among the really rare species are Cape Verde Warbler Acrocephalus brevipennis with probably under 500 birds, and the Millerbird Acrocephalus familiaris, which is extinct in Hawaii except for the island of Nihoa, where fewer than 200 birds are found. I was struck by the unusual history of the Aldabra Brush Warbler Nesillas aldabranus, last seen in 1983 and confirmed as extinct in 1986: in 1974–75, just five individuals were found and the suggestion, by extrapolation, was a population of about 25 birds in a 9-km strip of coastal scrub. Two colour photographs are presented here.
However, it is possible to find some omissions. Although I had sound-recorded harsh calls of the Luzon Bush Warbler Cettia seebohmi daily in 1985, these calls are not found in the vocal descriptions under this species account. Why the genera Megalurus, Chaetornis, Schoenicola and Graminicola are excluded is not entirely clear, except for being of uncertain affinities. It is unlikely that these genera will be included in future monographs, and therefore they could have been added here, probably with little extra effort. The only other criticism I would make is the diminutive size of the sonograms.
Very interesting appendices include: measurements from specimens, wing-length of Palaearctic migrant species, migration and moult strategies, comparative field characters, recent developments in 2010, likely future taxonomic revisions, latest discoveries and possible species new to science, and an exhaustive bibliography. One of the newest discoveries, the Timor Bush Warbler Bradypterus timorensis, was formerly known from two collected specimens only, but was rediscovered on Timor (and on Alor for the first time) in 2009. The enigmatic Large-billed Reed Warbler Acrocephalus orinus was only recently discovered breeding in the mountains of northeast Afghanistan and southeast Tajikistan (Central Asia).
The most difficult of the warbler groups, in terms of both taxonomy and identification, deserves a detailed work like this. Kennerley and Pearson are real experts on these warblers and have succeeded in making it the definitive publication for at least many years to come.
Nature’s Interpreter. The Life and Times of Alexander von Humboldt . 242 pages, 12 black-and-white illustrations . Cambridge : The Lutterworth Press , 2010 . Paperback, £22.50, ISBN 978-0-7188-9231-9 . Website: http://www.lutterworth.com ..
The year 2009 was not only a Darwin Year (150 years since the publication of On the Origin of Species and 200 years since the birth of its author), but also an Alexander von Humboldt year, as he died just a few months before the publication of Darwin’s revolutionary book, 4 months short of his 90th birthday, still working on the fifth and last volume of his magnum opus Kosmos. It would have been wonderful to be able to read Humboldt’s reaction to Darwin’s great work, but it was not to be.
In the English-speaking world it seems natural to link the names Humboldt and Darwin, who deeply revered the older man, but their approaches to the study of nature were quite different. Humboldt (‘the father of ecology’) was steeped in the German holistic Naturphilosophie of Schelling and of Goethe to some extent, and until the end of his life wrote and lectured on the life-force, harmony in nature and reverence for natural phenomena. On the other hand, he had little time for airy theories, being a passionate believer in exact measurement of everything measurable. No matter whether he was in a canoe on the Orinoco, in the snows of the Andes or in the wastes of Siberia, he always had a full complement of portable instruments, many in duplicate from different manufacturers just to be sure. His contention was that by collecting and comparing data from every kind of environment an underlying pattern of cohesion would emerge; this was dubbed ‘Humboldtian science’, in contrast to ‘Baconian’. Consequently, he never settled on one particular problem (e.g. how did species originate?) that had to be thought hard about, using data amassed to that end. Instead, he spent the last decades of his very long life working on his Kosmos (‘an outline of a physical description of the universe’), a gargantuan compilation of scientific knowledge from all of history. After 15 years he had set the scene for the appearance of life at the beginning of volume 5, but died before he could begin with his special interest, the vegetation zones.
This book deals with such matters only superficially. The author has no training in the natural sciences, and his previous book was a biography of Cervantes. He unfortunately trivializes Humboldt’s ideas and the problems he wrestled with, taking them at their simplest face value. It is also rather poorly written in a wooden, repetitive manner and has only a few, often unhelpful, small monochrome illustrations. It contains no real errors that I could see (McCrory’s speciality is languages so translations from the German are fine) and would suffice as an introduction to a very complex figure. There are two famous birds that are particularly associated with Humboldt, neither mentioned by McCrory. The first is the mysterious Oilbird Steatornis caripensis, the frugivorous, nocturnal, cave-dwelling nightjar-like bird of northwest South America. It was known to Europeans before his time, but he was the first to name and describe it scientifically. The second was of course Jacob, his pet Vasa Parrot Coracopsis vasa from Madagascar or Réunion, which on its death was found to be a female and whose mounted skin can still be seen in Berlin’s Natural History Museum.
I know little about the current popular literature on Humboldt in English, but I do know that any interested reader would probably be better advised to seek out a second-hand copy of Douglas Botting’s excellent and beautifully illustrated Humboldt and the Cosmos from 1973. As one can easily imagine, the German secondary literature would fill a medium-sized library. I did try to be sympathetic to this book but one of the author’s mannerisms made this very difficult: he often calls his subject ‘Alex’! I shouldn’t think that in the course of his 89 years Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt was ever once addressed in this fashion.
Van der Weijden, W., Terwan, P. & Guldemond, A . ( eds ) Farmland Birds across the World . vi + 138 pages, 264 coloured photographs, 56 topic boxes, 15 figures, glossary and index . Barcelona : Lynx Edicions , 2010 . Hardback, €24.00 plus shipping costs from Dutch Centre for Agriculture and Environment (CLM), http://www.clm.nl, or Lynx Edicions, http://www.lynxeds.com, ISBN 978-84-96553-63-7 .
This wonderful book could easily command pride of place on any coffee-table solely on the strength of the 264 marvellous photographs, mainly of birds and farmscapes, from all over the globe. But this is much more than a coffee-table spectacular.
Wouter van der Weijden and two CLM colleagues edited the book and also wrote some of the text together with four other authors: Paul Donald, Linus van der Plas, Eefje den Belder and Hans Schinkel. These authors have assembled a prodigious amount of information, which they have harnessed, using maps, diagrams, clear text with good headings and interspersed with topic boxes and photographs, to explore birdlife on farmland across the world. This format, with the help of the glossary and index, makes it easy for readers with diverse interests to dip in and out of the book.
There are nine chapters. The first two set the scene. Farmland is shown to be the most widespread habitat on the planet and covers 38% of the land surface not covered by ice. It is highly diverse and supports some 3600 species of bird, or 37% of the world’s total, 13% of which are listed as Threatened or Near Threatened. In terms of numbers of species supported, farmland is the third most important habitat for birds after forest and shrublands. The sheer beauty and diversity of this avifauna is portrayed and it is emphasized how its fortunes depend on the laws of ecology. Thus, as natural habitats were taken over by agriculture, the birds living there either took advantage of the new agricultural habitats or disappeared from that land. The factors governing how well birds succeed in farmland habitats are explored and it is shown that success is related to how similar the agricultural habitats are to their natural habitats. Thus, flooded rice paddies provide great opportunities for wetland species while vast monocultures produced by highly mechanized industrial farming can be virtual deserts for birds.
The introductory chapters are followed by six which examine in depth the fortunes of birds under the following headings: Grasslands; Arable: cereals and other annual crops; Rice fields; Orchards, tree plantations and forest gardens; Coffee and cacoa cultivation systems; and Farmyards. These beautifully illustrated chapters are a mine of fascinating information and ideas for problem solving from all over the planet: from endemic bird conservation in the montane Kinangop grasslands in Kenya, to saving Skylarks Alauda arvensis and other birds on intensively managed arable land in Europe, and to how isolated farm trees can increase bird diversity in degraded agricultural landscapes in Ethiopia.
The final chapter considers the future of farmland birds. Threats and possible measures for their mitigation are discussed and summarized in useful topic boxes. The two main threats are seen as agricultural expansion at the expense of natural habitats mainly in the so-called developing world, and fossil fuel-dependent intensification, which produces monocultures where bird populations have collapsed in the so-called developed world. One of the strengths of the book is its global reach and policy-makers in countries where polycultures still support rich birdlife will, let us hope, learn from it, count their blessings and question whether ‘developed’ in this context is really a goal worth pursuing. For those of us in the developed world, various measures are suggested to restore birdsong to our silent springs. These come under the heading of agri-environment schemes, which are mainly designed to ameliorate the negative effects on wildlife of fossil fuel-dependent farming. In this context, I was surprised to find only eight brief references to organic farming which, of course, has to include a fertility-building component, usually legume-rich pastures, which increases habitat diversity and hence is good for wildlife. A more straightforward way of introducing a fertility-building phase into chemical monocultures would be to tax nitrogen fertilizers or to offer serious incentives for not using them, as was the case in the now cancelled Nitrate Sensitive Areas Scheme in the UK. Such measures would come under ‘support for farming systems delivering high diversity value’ in box 54 (pp. 118–119) where threats to birdlife (also to farming from pest birds) and possible solutions are listed.
The nub of the problem, of course, is that farmland is important both for birdlife and for the production of food, fibre, fuel, etc., for mankind. This brings birds and humans into competition and never more so than at present when human numbers and expectations are increasing fast. Indeed, with recent steep price increases for food and energy together with concerns about climate change, management of farmland is rocketing up political agendas around the world. Almost every day another long and detailed report is published advocating, for example, ‘agroecological food production’ (International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development: http://www.agassessment.org) or ‘sustainable intensification’ (Foresight Report: Global food and farming futures: http://www.bis.gov.uk/foresight). The world is clearly rattled and pressure to produce more is inevitable, which will undoubtedly have a detrimental impact on birds. Although these big reports acknowledge the importance of biodiversity, my fear is that the interests of birds will be buried under the sheer weight of information and this is where I think Farmland Birds across the World is very timely and has a role to play. It should be on the desks of politicians and administrators across the world as a constant visual reminder of the wonderful wildlife which is at stake. The trouble with this conclusion is that I now feel honour-bound to present a copy of the book to my local MP, who happens to be the current British Prime Minister, David Cameron, especially as in our constituency there are large areas of monoculture which are depressingly devoid of birds.
In Search of Harriers: Over the Hills and Far Away. (Langford Press Wildlife Art Series.) 112 pages, many paintings by the author . Peterborough, UK : Langford Press , 2010 . Hardback, £38.00, ISBN 978-1-904078-12-8 . Website: http://www.langford-press.co.uk ..
Donald Watson finished writing this book shortly before he died in 2005. It revolves around his love of harriers Circus spp., and in particular the Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus in his home patch of southwest Scotland. Unlike his delightful monograph of the Hen Harrier published in 1977 (reviewed in Ibis 120: 249), it is his paintings, drawn together from private collections, that are the primary focus here.
I have to admit to having a large soft spot for the artist and his paintings. He was warm and generous to me when I started studying Harriers in the 1980s. His paintings, more than any other artist I know, capture the soul of the bird and the mood of their upland haunts. Donald was particularly skilled at placing the bird in its landscape, a skill he claimed was inspired by the wonderful paintings of the Swedish artist Bruno Liljefors.
The book is full of richly reproduced artwork, but the short pieces of accompanying text are also informative and frequently poetic. Watson touches on his early encounters with harriers in France and Burma, but concentrates mainly on his experiences of Hen Harriers in Scotland, although other associated wildlife is also depicted. Frustratingly, some of the larger paintings are split by the spine, the dates of the paintings are often unclear and a couple of the reproductions are disappointingly small, but overall this is a delightful book that draws one into the artist’s world.
Donald Watson was not just a great artist but a fine naturalist with an obsession for harriers and this enthusiasm attracted others. Indeed, southwest Scotland became a hotspot for amateurs and professional academics alike, drawn to work on Hen Harriers and other birds of prey. Many of them are acknowledged in the book. During Watson’s lifetime there were significant changes in the uplands, especially in the amount of new forest plantations. His paintings and writings bear witness to these changes, which certainly affected the Harriers.
We live in a time when concepts of ecosystem services dominate academic thinking and guide conservation policy. A lot of thought is given to the services that the uplands provide for society, with an emphasis on attempts to quantify their monetary value. In Search of Harriers is a stark reminder that it is often the non-monetary value of biodiversity that provides compelling arguments for conservation. The artist has a crucial role in expressing the beauty, the emotion and the sense of place. This is where Donald Watson excelled – through his paintings and writings he has elegantly made an unassuming but passionate case for conserving Hen Harriers and their upland habitats.
Spechte. Ein Leben in der Vertikalen . 112 pages, 178 colour photographs, 10 maps, 5 drawings, 1 table . Karlsruhe : G. Braun Buchverlag , 2010 . Hardback, €27.90, sFr48.00, ISBN 978-3-7650-8526-0 . Website: http://www.gbraun-buchverlag.de .& .
This rather well-conceived book, somewhat of the coffee-table type in outward appearance but none the poorer for that, provides a smart overview of the family Picidae as represented in Europe. The bulk of the pages are taken up by 12 chapters dealing with subjects varying from life in the vertical plane (a single page) to a 14-page synthesis of foraging, which includes anvil use and bark-ringing (please, not ‘ring-barking’!). Just about every other aspect of woodpeckers and their lives is covered in these chapters, including a fascinating four pages on myths, legends and superstitions surrounding these special birds and, in complete contrast, a most interesting 12-page precis of family life. The latter deals with the problems of living in a hole from birth, and what the young experience from the time when they leave the nest-hole until the time when they become independent. A very interesting aspect concerns the problem of oxygen starvation faced by the embryo in the egg, because, as incubation by the adult is more or less constant, the eggs are subject to CO2 overload. To counter this, the eggs hatch relatively quickly, in many cases after just 8–9 days, so that the chicks can get their lungs working as soon as possible; the nestling period, on the other hand, is unusually protracted. After the chicks leave the nest, the two parents divide the brood between them, each leading 1–4 fledglings on foraging exploits as the latter learn how to fend for themselves; this stage lasts for an average of 3–4 weeks. This practice of brood division is typical of European woodpeckers, but is not always appreciated by non-specialist ornithologists.
Another interesting section is that on the utilization of woodpecker holes by other animal species. This, too, is a well-known phenomenon, but perhaps not everybody is fully aware of how wide is the range of species which take advantage of this supply of free accommodation. Secondary hole-users range from other bird species, especially owls (Strigiformes), but also, for example, tits (Paridae) and many other passerines, to mammals such as squirrels, martens, mice and bats, and insects such as beetles and hymenopterans, especially hornets and other vespids. The authors cover this topic well, as they do the matters of conservation and the relationship of woodpeckers with humans.
Closing the book are potted species accounts of the 10 European members of the family, each given two pages, a map and two or three photographs. The Wryneck Jynx torquilla is an exception, with three pages, but, being an ‘aberrant’ woodpecker, it does not feature in the main chapters. These individual treatments are tailored to suit the species in question, so that they differ in the subheadings used. They are preceded by a two-page summary of Piciformes, with seven photographs giving an idea of the global range of variation in the order.
The German text is very well written, accurate and up to date. It is profusely illustrated with good-quality colour photographs, often as many as four, and sometimes five or six, on a double-page spread. A particular favourite of mine depicts a nest-hole of Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius with the heads of several well-advanced chicks poking outside as they call for food; perched a few feet above and to one side of the hole is an inquisitive Great Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos major. As the caption explains, the begging calls of the young sometimes also attract Great Spotted Woodpeckers.
All in all, this is a very nice book, providing an excellent summary of Europe’s woodpeckers. If you can read German well, you should consider buying it. It is not simply a reference book, but can be read from cover to cover for sheer pleasure.
David A. Christie
Aaaw to Zzzzzd. The Words of Birds: North America, Britain, and Northern Europe . 143 pages, 25 black-and-white photographs . Cambridge, MA and London : The MIT Press , 2010 . Hardback, US$12.95, £9.95, ISBN 978-0-262-01429-8 . Website: http://email@example.com ..
Aaaw to Zzzzzd invites the reader to delve into the wonderful world of birdsong notation. It brings together notations for the most typical and distinctive songs and calls of commonly heard birds in North America, Britain and Northern Europe. Two lexicons have been compiled, dividing species into the Nearctic and Palaearctic regions. This approach could have created some confusion and duplication as several birds occur in both regions, but Bevis has successfully tackled this potential problem by using the notation commonly employed by each region in which the bird appears. A good example is the male Common Eider Somateria mollissima whose cooing call is described as ‘oh-oooo-ooo’ in North America and ‘ah-hee-oo’ in Britain and Europe. The lexicon for North America contains notations for over 800 species, that for Britain and Northern Europe nearly 500. It is truly fascinating to go through the lists of notations and then try your hand at saying these ‘bird words’. There is also a small section on mnemonics which presents a range of phrases that can be used as an aid to remembering birdsong. The familiar ‘a little bit of bread and no cheese’ of the Yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella is just one example in Britain, while one transcription of the song of the American Robin Turdus migratorius is ‘cheerily, cheer-up, cheerily’.
This book is so much more than just a list of bird sounds. There are introductory pieces on how and why birds sing, and how ornithologists have attempted to describe the vast array of songs and calls and, to conclude, a series of short chapters that focus on other methods of capturing and expressing birdsong. Sound recording, graphic notation and musical representation are summarized along with examples of human and mechanical imitation of those songs and calls that we know so well. This is a really nice addition to the book and provides an interesting overview of how humans have attempted to represent birdsong over the centuries.
The Pigeon in the Wider World . 96 pages, many colour and black-and-white illustrations, including drawings and watercolours by Barbara Frears . Bath, UK : Millstream Books , 2010 . Hardback, £10.00, ISBN 978-0-948975-91-2 ..
Jean Hansell has been much occupied with researching the story of the pigeon or dove Columba livia (also known as Common Pigeon, Blue Rock Pigeon or Rock Dove) over many years, out of which came The Pigeon in History (1998), Images of the Dove (2003) and earlier, in co-authorship with her husband Peter Hansell, Doves and Dovecotes (1988) and A Dovecote Heritage (1992). This fifth in the series (all from Millstream Books) will, she announces, be the last. It shifts the focus to pigeons in the religion and culture of the Near East (Sumeria, Assyria, Babylonia), Egypt, early Greece and Italy, the Muslim World, India and China and along the Silk Road. A scholarly text, interwoven with a wonderful variety of well-chosen illustrations, considers pigeons as symbol, sacrifice and, through domestication, source of food and guano, myths, legends, fables, art and jewellery, fancy pigeon breeds, bizarre in name and appearance, and the ancient sport of triganieri (training a flock to entice competing birds back to its own loft). Carrier pigeons are the subject of the last chapter, from ancient times, up to the two world wars of the 20th century, when some birds were awarded medals for gallantry.
Morozov, V.V. & Sviridova, T.V. ( eds ) [ Information Materials of the Working Group on Waders no. 23 ] ( in Russian, with English Contents, summaries and captions ). 68 pages, tables, line drawings . Moscow : Working Group on Waders , 2010 . Website: http://www.waders.ru .
In no. 23 of this bulletin (for reviews of numbers 18–21 and 22, see Ibis 151: 221–222 and 152: 196), the Group’s Faunistic Commission was called upon to assess (from photographs) a report of Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus of the race alboaxillaris in the Volgograd Region, and to reconsider the sole breeding record (1964) of Great Snipe Gallinago media in Kazakhstan. Of 13 wader species in the 3rd edition of the Ukrainian Red Book (2009), Avocet Recurvirostra avosetta, Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula and Great Snipe are additions. ‘Information from the regions’ includes reports of over 32 000 waders of 11 species moving north along the southwest coast of Kamchatka on 21 May, and over 350 000 of 30 species south through northern Sakhalin during 1 July–31 August 2009. Summaries of progress are given for international projects relating to Sociable Lapwing Vanellus gregarius in Kazakhstan, Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago and Woodcock Scolopax rusticola in European Russia, and Woodcock also in Belarus. There are reflections on 2009 conferences in Rostov-on-Don (WGW), Texel (WSG) and Mexico (Third Western Hemisphere Shorebird Group Meeting), book reviews, and recent publications about waders of the CIS from abroad.
RSPB British Birds of Prey . 224 pages, numerous colour photographs (most by Stig Frode Olsen) and text boxes . London : Christopher Helm , 2010 . Hardback, £24.99, ISBN 978-1-4081-2849-7 . Website: http://www.acblack.com ..
After introductory discussion of raptor persecution, anatomy and taxonomy, pesticides, reintroductions, the current situation in the British Isles and ‘economics of ecology’ (the theory that the increase in numbers of raptors, which should hence be ‘controlled’, is the cause of declines in songbird populations – not borne out by any scientific evidence), this handsome book presents up-to-date and fairly detailed accounts, illustrated with high-quality photographs, of the 15 British breeding species of diurnal raptors (Falconiformes) and five species of breeding owls (Strigiformes). Rare visitors and vagrants (16 species, five of which are owls) are dealt with only briefly.
Overwhelmingly, this is a grim picture of unrelenting persecution over many years, leading to some extinctions, the dire effects of ingested pesticides, then the remarkable and (to most) welcome recovery of depleted populations in more enlightened, conservation-minded times. Natural recolonization of Scotland by the Osprey Pandion haliaetus, more recent, largely successful reintroduction schemes for Red Kite Milvus milvus and White-tailed Eagle Haliaeetus albicilla, and urban-nesting Peregrines Falco peregrinus– these developments are, thanks to the RSPB and others, widely known and appreciated by the general public. Among problems that remain is the continued (illegal) persecution of the Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus; there is concern about the decline of the Kestrel Falco tinnunculus and the Barn Owl Tyto alba; and it is clear that deliberately released or escaped Eagle Owls Bubo bubo need to be carefully monitored.
Collins Bird Songs & Calls. 2nd edn . Boxed set of 3 audio CDs with total playing time of 210 minutes and accompanying paperback book of 232 pages with 52 colour photographs and 74 song-period bar charts . London : Collins , 2010 . £30.00, ISBN 978-0-00-733976-1 . Website: http://www.collins.co.uk ..
Geoff Sample has been making sound recordings of birds for two decades and is a leading light in the Wildlife Sound Recording Society. His latest publication is the 2nd edition of a work that first appeared as The Collins Field Guide to Bird Songs & Calls in 1996, although the text has been rewritten and almost all of the audio replaced.
The book is divided into two main sections. In the first, a wealth of background information, including historical, scientific and cultural aspects of bird song, is distilled into 66 pages. The remainder is devoted to the voice accounts of 252 British and Northern European species and follows the Voous order. For each species, there is information on when it is most likely to be heard and then selected vocalizations are described in the author’s informal style, with frequent personal observations and a scattering of related anecdotes.
On the first two CDs, species are placed into 13 habitat categories. For each habitat, a series of sound recordings have been strung together to create an unbroken sequence, a stereo sound picture conjuring up the essence of that habitat and its typical avian inhabitants. The author acts as guide, setting the scene in a few words and then drawing our attention to the utterances of different species as they appear. Although the sound editing has departed somewhat from the particularly seamless style of the first edition, the effect is still reminiscent of a series of enjoyable guided walks through the different habitats. The listening experience is thus far removed from that of some identification guides, with their indigestible (although valuable), rapidly delivered ‘checklists’ of vocalizations.
CD 3 is entirely different, taking the form of a tutorial, or ‘crash course’, on identifying birds by ear. The start is aimed at the novice, with advice on useful aspects of the acoustic structure to concentrate on when learning how to identify and separate bird sounds. Commonly heard bird songs are used as illustrations. Seasoned ‘bird listeners’ are well advised not to press the ‘eject’ button here because the tutorial becomes significantly more advanced, progressing to some sounds that are a challenge even for the most knowledgeable. An earlier work by Sample, Bird Call Identification (1998), was reviewed in Ibis 141: 340.
In total, the three CDs include sounds from 196 species, 44 more than the first edition, although a few have been dropped. Recordings are not indexed alphabetically, which would have been helpful. Background noise is a subject of some debate in wildlife sound recording circles, and the author is unapologetic for allowing man-made noises to appear as part of the soundscape in a proportion of his recordings. Some purists may frown on this but it is an honest reflection of reality for both human listener and avian singer in most of Britain today. It is a joy to listen to the many excellent recordings and this set is strongly recommended to those with an interest in bird sounds.
William T. C. Seale
Beautiful Bird Songs of Britain: The Music of Nature. (NSACD 85.) One audio CD with 69 minutes of recordings and an accompanying insert booklet . London : British Library , 2011 . £10.16 from British Library Shop, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB, online at http://www.bl.uk/shop, email: firstname.lastname@example.org, ISBN 978-0-7123-5112-6 .. ( Compiler )
This CD is a compilation of 13 beautiful recordings of some of our best-loved songsters, made in some unusually quiet locations around Britain by seven of our most talented wildlife sound recordists.
Recording durations range from 1 min 45 s for the Yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella to 8 min for the Common Nightingale Luscinia megarhynchos. The majority of the songs are from predictable ‘old favourites’, such as Common Blackbird Turdus merula, European Robin Erithacus rubecula and Woodlark Lullula arborea but the inclusion of a few others brings pleasant surprises. Although an evocative sound on summer days when other songsters are largely silent, I had not, for example, predicted the Yellowhammer. This recording is not the classic ‘little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheese’, as the usual penultimate high note is omitted and a descending wheeze intermittently tagged on at the end, as is prevalent in parts of the Continent. Although this dialect can be heard across some of the UK, it may be new to some listeners.
It is a rare achievement to obtain a flawless wildlife sound recording and some in this collection are perfect, whereas others contain minor imperfections. Some are stereo and others mono. Stereo is not necessarily best, particularly for a lone singer against a silent background, as the excellent mono Sedge Warbler Acrocephalus schoenobaenus illustrates. Where there are background species, however, stereo can enhance the realism, as heard in the gloriously atmospheric Eurasian Blackcap Sylvia atricapilla recording.
In a limited selection such as this, the personal favourites of some listeners will not have been included; for example, I would love to have heard Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica. It is, though, most unlikely that anyone will not be delighted by Cheryl Tipp’s overall selection. This CD will appeal to birders and non-birders alike and is perfect for lifting the spirits on a cold winter evening.
William T. C. Seale
Readers wishing to purchase Birds of Colombia (Field Guide and Checklist; reviewed in Ibis 153: 447–448), can do so through NHBS Environment Bookstore –http://www.nhbs.com (Eds).