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A FIELD GUIDE TO THE BIRDS OF EASTERN AFRICA (Second edition)
on 6 August 2009
In 1995 the first edition of this guide received mixed reviews. In many ways it was a step forward, providing a pocket-sized volume that illustrated 1487 species - not just from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, but also Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti and Socotra. However cramming up to 25 species on each relatively small page was never going to allow enough detail for this book to have a major impact, particularly when Birds of Kenya and Northern Tanzania by Dale Zimmerman et al was due to arrive just a few months later. Where the Collins guide did add value was in illustrating a significant number of species that other books ignored - such as those found in Ethiopia and neighbouring countries. It was perhaps for that uniqueness that many people bought it.
So after 14 years Collins have now decided to reissue this guide and there is an opportunity to update the text, the maps and illustrations and add in any new species that have occurred since the early 1990s. Unfortunately Collins have chosen not to alter any of the 96 plates even though there are a number of errors that have been identified. I find it amazing that they have decided to recognize these errors by referring to them in the text but not by correcting them on the plates! There are around twenty such notes in the updated text. Some are relatively minor errors such as the wrong eye colour (although surely easy to correct?), but others are more significant. For me it is simply not acceptable to reissue a field guide with illustrations that are known to be wrong. Take Grey Apalis Apalis cinerea as an example - the text reads "Upperparts all very dark brown, mantle slightly more grey (no buff-brown plumage parts as wrongly shown on plate)." There are plenty of such examples.
Taxonomy and nomenclature in the first edition followed early volumes of The Birds of Africa (itself sometimes at odds with modern thinking). With this new edition a number of names have been adjusted to reflect recent changes - for example some Serins are now Seedeaters or Canaries. Herring Gull Larus argentatus was listed originally and this has now been changed to Heuglin's Gull Larus heuglini, but is still described as Larus argentatus. It is shown with pink legs rather than green - another error that is mentioned in the text. Also this is still the only book I have that uses the name Sylvietta for what most people call a Crombec.
A number of species have been added to the East African list since the early 1990s but these have not been included. Similarly the discovery of Karamoja Apalis Apalis karamojae in the Masai Mara, Kenya is not mentioned. There are other examples where new information on distribution has been ignored. The first edition overlooked Southern Blue Waxbill Uraeginthus angolensis which breeds in Southern Tanzania. Now it is mentioned in the text but no illustration of it has been added.
For many people the value of the first edition was that it was the only modern field guide to include all the birds found in Ethiopia. Any time now Birds of The Horn of Africa will be published and that will become the book to take to Ethiopia. As a result this Collins guide has lost its uniqueness, and now with heavier guides appearing in softback the advantage of its light weight has been reduced too.