BASICS: hardcover; 2011, 256pp; contains 95 mediocre quality plates containing 750+ species across the Pacific Islands; most birds have minimal text for descriptions and identification; a few words are given for the typical habitat and a very brief description is given on the vocalization; a small, sometimes ineffectual, range map is provided for each bird
Similar to other bird books by the author, this book straddles an imaginary line that separates a field guide from an annotated checklist with illustrations. With its 95 plates, all the 750+ species found in the central and western Pacific islands are illustrated in color. The only notable island chains not included are the Solomons, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, and the Bismarck Archipelago. In a field guide format, the plates are adjacent to the birds' names and their respective text. However, the quality of the illustrations along with the limited depth and amount of text is at the minimal end you'd expect from a decent field guide.
The plates by the author/illustrator are not bad but, they do look incomplete; or, perhaps more accurately, hastily finished as if it was time to move on to start a new book. The artwork definitely lacks fine, smooth detail. Instead, it shows a rougher, more generalized color patterning that can be used to assist with the identification of the bird; but, not always to a reliable identification. In fact, these are the roughest drawings I've seen in any of van Perlo's works. These plates are starkly different from what the publisher touts on the back cover which is "...illustrated in stunning detail...". The only thing stunning was the incongruity of that statement.
Even the author contradicts the publisher's claim. On page 7, he understandably defends his artistic style by saying, "It is said that the painting in my books is 'a bit sketchy, somewhat fast and loose, not finely finished'". He then counters with, "...painting each individual feather will give too much information unless the feathers form a pattern. I also find it difficult to draw straight lines...when depicting the parallel primaries in a folded wing, or perfect circles when forming an eye..."
These plates will still offer some help to identify the bird; but, a confident identification would be more fairly credited to the fact that so many of the birds are island restricted and do not overlap with a similar species. On the plus side, many different plumages are included to show genders, ages, and races. The inclusion of extra paintings often creates a very crowded page with small illustrations. As an example, one of the gull pages is packed with 44 illustrations in an area of only 6.5 x 4.5 inches.
The text for each bird typically consists of 2-4 lines that may address descriptions, or ID tips, or preferred habitat. Identification material is very scant and is absent for some of the birds. Here are examples of descriptions for three birds:
1) Atiu Swiftlet: "Somewhat contrasting paler underparts".
2) Red-necked Stint: "Note short bill. Non-breeding plumage not safely separable from [birds] 48.7 and 49.5, 49.7 and 49.9".
3) Lastly, which plover do you think fits the following description: "Small; appears slender and rather long-legged. Without or with very narrow wing stripe."?
Although the number of species in this book (about 750) is less than some other field guides, the huge expanse of territory covered and the relatively few species to be found in a specific island group poses some logistical, if not frustrating consequences. If you go birding in Tahiti, or Fiji, or Hawaii, you can expect to see maybe 30-40 species in a casual 5-7 day trip. Anyone unfamiliar with an Amakihi or a Silktail is going to be a bit frustrated trying to leaf through the book to find either bird.
Each bird is accompanied by a range map. Unfortunately, these maps are small (1 x 1.5 cm) with tiny geographic outlines and symbols. The half of Australia shown in the maps is only 3mm across. The vast expanses covered by these maps can make many of them relatively ineffective. These maps often show a constellation of dots representing a chain of islands. One of those dots may be highlighted to show the bird's presence. It is probably only the rare person who is geographically savvy enough to recognize which tiny dot is which island amongst the myriad of different island clusters.
Yes, this is the only bird book to illustrate all the birds of Hawaii, and New Zealand, and all the island groups between Pitcairn and Palau. But, that is not necessarily a good thing, just as it would not be good to illustrate all the birds of California and of Denmark into one book, especially when accompanied by weak illustrations and minimal identification material.
This book will be handy to learn what birds exist throughout the Pacific, but I would not make it the single reference for a birding trip destined to one or two island groups (e.g., Hawaii, or New Zealand, or Tahiti, or Samoa, etc.) There are much better alternatives for those areas. In fact, nearly any area of the Pacific has a better alternative book. If you use this book, be sure to supplement it with one that specializes on the area(s) you will visit. - (written by Jack, shown with sample pages at Avian Review, April 2011)
I've listed several related books below...
1) A Field Guide to the Birds of Hawaii and the Tropical Pacific by Pratt
2) Hawaii's Birds (6th ed., 2005) by Hawaiian Audubon Society
3) A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Hawai'i by Denny
4) Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand by Heather/Robertson
5) The Reed Field Guide to New Zealand Birds by Moon
6) Birds of the Chatham Islands by Aikman
7) Birds and Bats of Palau by Pratt
8) Oiseaux du Fenua (Tahiti) by Gouni (ISBN 9782951190054)
9) South Pacific Birds by du Pont
10) A Guide to the Birds of Fiji and Western Polynesia by Watling