Book Reviews

A review of Stray Feathers, a wonderful new book of snippets from Penny Olsen and Leo Joseph, will be posted soon

Book Review

Richard Thomas, Sarah Thomas, David Andrew and Alan McBride (2011). The complete guide to finding the birds of Australia (2nd edition). Collingwood, Vic: CSIRO Publishing.

In the 1980s, Australian birdwatchers celebrated the arrival of several new bird guides. Most were field guides, aids to bird identification, but one, Where to find birds in Australia (John Bransbury) broke new ground as a guide to finding birds across the continent. Since then, numerous state and regional guides have followed this format, listing the best birding spots in the area covered, and in some cases presenting a list of species and where to find each one. The first work to suggest locations for each species of Australian bird was completed by visiting Britons, Richard and Sarah Thomas, and published in 1996. It soon took over from the Bransbury volume as the essential traveling companion for long-distance birdwatching trips. The completely revised 2nd edition takes this volume even further ahead, and brings two other prominent birders into the writing team: David Andrew and Alan McBride.

The new edition almost doubles the size of the original, adding nearly 200 pages. Every section has been rewritten, line-drawings and mudmaps have been redrawn, and photographs have been added to illustrate habitats and some species. The directory of birding organisations and support services has been updated and extended, while information for travelers, both domestic and international, has been consolidated to provide a broad coverage of essential information, omitting some of the unnecessary detail of the first edition. The biggest changes, however, are found in the two main sections: the site information, presented state by state; and the “Bird Finder”, giving updated information on where to see every Australian species.

The majority of sites were re-visited by at least one of the authors, and recent information was sought from local birders or groups. Australia’s island territories have been included in the new edition, and the chapter on pelagic birding has been expanded to reflect the increased interest in this form of birding around the country. This section describes 60 new sites, about 240 in total.  The list of Key Species for each site is now given as a separate paragraph, making it much simpler to scan site descriptions quickly for target birds. The species indices refer to entries in these Key Species descriptions. Overall, page layout and font selection have been improved to make the book clearer to read.

One of the slightly frustrating aspects of the first edition was the inclusion of lists of species seen by the authors on a particular visit, but usually without reference to the time of year. This has been improved in the new edition by omitting “we saw” in favour of a list of species expected, by season where appropriate. In some cases, rarer sightings are mentioned by including the month and year of the record. Links to relevant websites, local experts, and phone numbers are now provided in many of the site descriptions.

The authors point out (x., “How to use this Guide”) that this is not a comprehensive site guide, as there are already many publications that fulfill that role on a local basis. The aim in this book is to provide advice on finding “as many of Australia’s bird species as possible in the most efficient way.” The second section, “Bird Finder Guide,” identifies the most likely regions for finding every species, and for most birds, lists likely sites from the first section of the book.

The species entries in the Bird Finder now feature an introduction for each family, including comparative numbers of world and Australian species. Taxonomic order follows Christidis and Boles’ 2008 revision. Every species entry has been rewritten, usually to add extra detail, but occasionally omitting sensitive information, such as nesting sites (e.g. Pacific Baza) or to reflect changes in birding ethics – there is no longer any mention of tree-tapping in the Owlet-Nightjar entry.

The most striking feature of the new edition is the addition of sixteen coloured leaves in the centre of the book, each with photographs of four bird species. Most of the photos are by David Stowe, although several other well-known bird photographers are represented. The images are a curious mix, including iconic species, such as Southern Cassowary, Hooded Plover, Red Goshawk, Palm Cockatoo, Superb Lyrebird, Regent Bowerbird and Regent Honeyeater.  Some photos are there because of their stunning colour: Red-capped Robin, Splendid Fairy-Wren and Frilled Monarch fall into this group. Other species may have been chosen because they are less frequently photographed: Lewin’s Rail, Inland Dotterel, Marbled Frogmouth, Chestnut-breasted Whiteface and Eyrean Grasswren. There are several photographs whose inclusion is puzzling: they are not uncommon species, they do not pose identification problems, and they do not show the photographer at his or her best. Varied Sitella, Victoria’s Riflebird, Blue-winged Kookaburra and Gang-gang Cockatoo are all partially obscured by shadow or foliage, and several, such as the Black-bellied Storm-Petrel could have been significantly cropped, or replaced by a closer photo. There does not seem to be a clear rationale for the choice of species, or even for the inclusion of these plates at all – but they do add colour and interest.

The guide should appeal to the traveling birder, both international visitor and anyone on a visit to an unfamiliar area. Even the expert birder is likely to find the site descriptions and mud maps helpful when visiting new locations, although a few directions have already been disputed in discussions on the Birding-Aus forum. For remote areas and those where access is difficult, the traveler should take the authors’ advice of using a GPS device and consulting detailed maps. They also stress that inclusion of a site does not imply right of access, and that visitors should always seek permission before entering private land – contact details are provided for some sites.

There will always be critics, particularly in the world of birding. Each of the current field guides has been criticized about minor inaccuracies. In some cases the criticism has been justified, and publishers have issued reprints correcting errors such as inaccurate distribution maps and misplaced labels. The Complete Guide to Finding the Birds of Australia has not completely escaped the critics, and errors of detail such as the species expected on pelagic trips in certain months, or names of vessels, have been identified. Just as no single field guide describes all possible plumage variations of every species, it is unreasonable to expect a single, portable volume to contain all the location details for every site considered important by local birdwatchers across the nation. One book cannot be everything! This one is comprehensive in that it gives possible sites for seeing every Australian bird species, and it gives detailed instructions for many of the more elusive birds. This is an important addition to the collected knowledge of Australian birds, and a volume that it is easy to justify adding to any collection.