Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Book review: Antpittas and Gnateaters

Antpittas and Gnateaters

Harold F. Greeney
Helm (Bloomsbury) | 2018
496 pp. | 18 x 24.7 cm | 24 colour plates, 250 colour photographs
Hardback | £50 / $65 | ISBN: 9781472919649

Just finished my review of Harold Greeney's magnum opus, to be published in Neotropical Birding 24...

Thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing for providing a review copy.

Published review below, PDF here.

This book is quite obviously a labour of love and, for anyone familiar with the author’s huge body of published work, it could never be anything but thorough. Harold Greeney is unashamedly a natural historian, a term that has regrettably become unfashionable in our modern world. This book does indeed read in places like a work of the Victorian era, with all the positive connotations that this implies, and venerable 19th and early 20th century names like Sclater, Godman, Salvin, Hartert and Hellmayr crop up repeatedly. The feel is maintained by the extensive excerpts from original descriptions that preface some of the species accounts, setting a tone of wonder and discovery that befits a group about which so much remains to be unearthed.
     Distributional information forms a major part of this work. Maps are a model of clarity, with base cartography showing national borders and major rivers upon which known ranges are carefully mapped. A very useful innovation is the inclusion of marked type localities. As Greeney is at pains to point out in the introduction, researching distribution “was one of the most time-consuming aspects of this work”. The maps are based on a vast compilation of records, comprising specimen data, publications, and voucher records held at archives such as xeno-canto (https://www.xeno-canto.org/) and the Internet Bird Collection (https://www.hbw.com/ibc). The half-a-billion records in the increasingly popular (and powerful) eBird system (https://ebird.org) have also been evaluated, with sight records employed cautiously, emphasising to eBird users the utility of supporting unusual records with voucher audio or visual material. In painstaking detail, sight records have routinely been verified by correspondence with the observers. The source of all records is provided; as the author admits, he did not want to condemn future revisers to repeat the process by obscuring the primary data beneath interpretative accounts. These data will be passed over by many readers, but for perhaps as many others they will be a gold mine to be exploited again and again. They are the sort of feature that sets this monograph apart from so many other similar titles covering other bird families, and their inclusion can only be applauded.
     We have established that the library and museum research has been extraordinarily thorough. But Greeney’s credentials as a field ornithologist are second to none. Texts are thoroughly underpinned by hard scientific data, but Greeney contributes much original observation of his own. For example, referring to Plain-backed Antpitta Grallaria haplonota, he relates “A pair that I observed in the foothills of Ecuador (chaplinae) appeared to increase song rates in response to darkening skies...”, a trait that will be familiar to anyone who has spent time with the species, for example, in Rancho Grande Biological Station, Venezuela, where its haunting song is a feature of the soundscape during misty hours. Indeed, much life-history information, such as nesting data, seasonality, plumage and moult, is here published for the first time. Some of this is recounted in a way that captures the naturalist’s joy at observing the events, such as Greeney’s personal account of a Tawny Antpitta Grallaria quitensis adult relieving its incubating mate on a snow-bound nest.
     Taxonomy follows the American Ornithological Society, with one minor departure in the recognition of Grallaria fenwickorum rather than G. urraoensis for Urrao Antpitta, in adherence to International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature regulations. The author recognises that some of the ‘species’ treated are therefore obvious species complexes, the component subspecies of which will in all likelihood, once the evidence is formally marshalled, be elevated to species level. Obvious examples are the Rufous Grallaria rufula and Tawny Antpitta G. quitensis complexes, which potentially comprise seven and three species respectively; the Sierra de Perijá taxon saltuensis of northeast Colombia and northwest Venezuela is perhaps the clearest case in point, originally assigned to G. rufula when described more than 70 years ago, with the remark that it “it seems possible that it may be a distinct species”. All seven current subspecies of Rufous Antpitta are illustrated and, since all 156 taxa recognised in the book are treated separately and in detail, disentangling the taxa in future will not prove too much of a challenge.
     With the sheer volume of information included here, it is no surprise that the odd minor error has crept in. The text states (p. 436) that the range of Slate-crowned Grallaricula nana “does overlap with Sucre Antipitta [G. cumanensis] in the east [of Venezuela]”, from which the crucial word “not” is missing. More seriously, subspecies labels have been incorrectly placed on the map for Plain-backed Antpitta Grallaria haplonota, surely a slip-up at the layout stage. But such things should not trouble us.
     Plates are of the high quality we have come to expect from David Beadle, and are a pleasure to peruse. In this case one definitely can judge the book by its (stunning Crescent-faced Antpitta Grallaricula lineifrons) cover. Photographs of live birds are provided for all currently recognised species, except for Elusive Grallaria eludens and Grey-naped Antpittas G. griseonucha, where specimens are substituted. Not surprisingly, given the author’s track record of publishing nest descriptions, many of the photos are of nests, nestlings or fledglings – all of which will be excitingly unfamiliar to many readers.
     This is one of the best-researched avian monographs ever published, and leaves little to desire in the coverage of its subject. In fact, it would scarcely be an exaggeration to say that everything we currently know about this group is contained within this book, so the only factor in deciding whether or not to acquire it is whether antpittas and gnateaters are of interest to the potential purchaser. Given the almost cult interest in these enigmatic cryptic birds, which to judge by the growing number of feeding stations is on the increase, I am confident that the book will sell itself.
Christopher J. Sharpe

Monday, 12 November 2018

Book review: Birds of Nicaragua: a field guide

Birds of Nicaragua: a field guide

Liliana Chavarría-Duriaux, David C. Hille & Robert Dean
Comstock (A Zona Tropical Publication) | 2018
480 pp. | 14 x 21.7 cm | 1332 colour illustrations, 9 colour photographs, 810 maps
Softback | £32 / $39.95 | ISBN: 9781501701580

Just finished my review of the handy new guide to the birds of Nicaragua, to be published in Neotropical Birding 24...

Thanks to Cornell University Press for providing a review copy.

Published review below, PDF here.

Nicaragua has long been in the shadow of its neighbour, Costa Rica, partly due to decades of political instability fuelled by proxy war. During the last century, grouped with El Salvador and Honduras, it was often overlooked by travellers and birders, or given a wide berth. It still slips under the world-listers’ radar simply because it has no endemic species. This is a terrible shame since the country has so much to offer, arguably more than any other in the region. It holds the largest continuous block of tropical forest north of Amazonia, habitats that are better preserved than those in neighbouring countries, a respectable 750+ species of bird (vs 925 for Costa Rica) and is the Central American country where exciting new discoveries can most realistically be expected. Without a doubt, the lack of a modern field guide has not helped the country promote its avian riches. Now that has been remedied, first by a pioneering 2014 bilingual guide (Martínez-Sánchez et al. 2014; on which Liliana Chavarría-Duriaux was a co-author), and now by this Zona Tropical offering.
     The guide covers 763 species, with full accounts accorded to every species that is known to have occurred, including vagrants such as Pacific Golden Plover Pluvialis fulva, Black-capped Petrel Pterodroma hasitata and Tawny-collared Nightjar Antrostomus salvini. An appendix provides shorter text and thumbnail illustrations of 43 species that are likely to be found in future, or whose claim to form part of the avifauna rests on a single sight record, thus helping future-proof the book to some extent. Some sight records have apparently been rejected on available evidence, as with a March 2014 sight record of Sinaloa Martin Progne sinaloae, although for this species whose winter range is unknown (quite possibly Amazonia), it would seem at least plausible that it might migrate through Nicaragua. Taxonomy follows the American Ornithological Society; differences with the increasingly popular Clements and International Ornithological Congress lists – much favoured by eBirders and world-listers respectively – are not mentioned, but neither are they difficult to determine.
     All information pertinent to a species is provided on a single page spread, making the guide quick to use in the field. The book itself is slightly larger (about 2 cm taller) than Zona Tropical’s popular Costa Rica predecessor (Garrigues & Dean 2007), which puts it on the borderline of what might be called a ‘pocket guide’, but it is otherwise fairly similar in style and layout, all wrapped in the identical type of standard soft cover.
     Text is concise, albeit a little longer than that of its Costa Rican counterpart, and clearly emphasises characters for field identification. Care has been taken to describe distribution, status and seasonality in sufficient detail for critical use. Descriptions of voice are always idiosyncratic, and in some cases I am not sure my ears are quite attuned to those of the authors. For example, I have trouble matching the description of a “rhythmic 4-phrase song” for Pale-vented Pigeon Patagioenas cayennensis with the classic ‘Santa Cruz’ mnemonic that my brain ascribes.
     The 2014 Nicaragua guide lacked maps, relying instead on range descriptions. This Zona Tropical guide breaks new ground, with large, colour-coded maps that permit the instant narrowing-down of possibilities. Despite their size, the maps are rather broad-brush, doubtless reflecting the resolution of the information the authors had at their disposal, especially the paucity of museum collections made in Nicaragua; their source is not specified beyond “years of field research”.
     Robert Dean’s plates originally appeared in Garrigues and Dean (2007), but there are many new illustrations depicting females, birds in flight, tail patterns and so on. All boreal migrants are illustrated, cutting down on the need to carry a North America field guide. As users of previous guides featuring Dean’s work will know, the paintings are well-suited to the purpose of practical identification, showing diagnostic field marks.
     Zona Tropical publications have made a niche for themselves with a series of well-produced field guides to Central American biota, and this latest addition will occupy a prominent place in their portfolio. I very much hope that birders will be persuaded to visit Nicaragua, and tour companies will eventually welcome it into the suite of orthodox tour destinations. With the appearance of this handy guide, crafted with love as well as expertise, there should be no excuse.
Christopher J. Sharpe 

Garrigues, R. & Dean, R. (2007) The birds of Costa Rica: a field guide. Miami FL, USA: Zona Tropical.
Martínez-Sánchez, J., Chavarría-Duriaux, L. & Muñoz, F. J. (2014) A guide to the birds of Nicaragua/Nicaragua – una guía de aves. Magdeburg, Germany: Verlags KG Wolf.

Saturday, 10 November 2018

Birds of Vietnam goes to press

Birds of Vietnam, the second title in the Lynx and BirdLife International Field Guides series has gone to press. More details can be found on the book's Lynx webpage. Sample page spreads are available for download too. This pioneering publication is the first ever field guide to the avifauna. The new flexicover version is available at a discount and with free worldwide shipping until 20 December. More information to follow soon...

Friday, 10 August 2018

Lynx and BirdLife International Field Guides at Birdfair

Lynx Edicions is launching the Lynx and BirdLife International Field Guides series at Birdfair. If you're going to be there, come along to our stand for a chat with two of the ornithologists in charge of this collection: Guy Kirwan on Saturday and me on Sunday. More information here.

Friday, 27 July 2018