Melanesia is one of those regions that most experienced birders would have some trouble pinpointing on a map. In fact before I picked up this book I did not realise I'd visited the area already! It covers some 108,000 sq km with many islands, although dominated by the Bismarcks and New Caledonia. Most of these arose from submarine volcanoes and are generally steep and bird-rich, although some are coral atolls and are relatively poor in birds.
This book is the first field guide to cover all of Melanesia and it features 501 species, of which 377 are resident. Significantly 204 of these are endemic to the region. Helm did produce a much smaller field guide in 1999, but that just covered the Solomons, Vanuatu and New Caledonia - so this new work covers an additional 139 species.
In pure geographical terms, Melanesia often includes continental New Guinea, but this book just covers the islands which could perhaps be referred to more precisely as Island Melanesia. A series of maps clearly shows those areas that are included: Admiralty, St Matthias and Bismarck islands off New Guinea, the Solomon Islands including Bougainville and Temotu (Santa Cruz), Vanuatu and New Caledonia.
The layout is the typical Helm format of text facing illustrations by Richard Allen, Adam Bowley, John Cox and Tony Disley. These are absolutely superb, and although there are around eight species per page, the book does not feel crowded. Many of the plates are arranged by island group for convenience, although this takes a while to get used to at first. The text here simply describes the main identification features, although ignores voice. Sub-specific differences are also noted here.
I am often disappointed when field guides do not include maps, but here the author uses a series of 14 distribution bars in six different colours to indicate status on each island grouping. This is a great idea and works really well. Only extreme vagrants don't benefit from this. The same information is displayed in the introductory chapters by use of a very useful table that spans 14 pages. There is also a five-page gazetteer.
The back half of this book is devoted to more advanced information on each species, with detailed descriptions, comparisons with similar species, voice, habits, conservation status and range. The author uses the IOC names as his framework, but also gives alternatives, as well as the French name and a local name where the species has a very restricted range.
Additional chapters provide useful information about each of the island groups, together with background on the habitats and climate and conservation. One might imagine that being remote, these islands would face few conservation threats. In fact 13% of the resident bird species are listed as globally threatened - and importantly that relates to 23% of the endemic species. The main problems that need to be addressed are forest loss and the introduction of alien predators.
This is one of the best field guides I have seen in recent years. Given the significant challenge of being comprehensive (for example the Solomon Islands archipelago consists of over 900 islands!) it makes everything really easy to understand. It incorporates all of the features that you need and has been produced at a price that compares very favourably.