on 13 February 2011
In size and feel, this book is closest to the Helm volume on Sylvia Warblers, and similarly it is also an impressive tour de force. At the outset the authors deserve praise for tackling such a challenging group of genera which contain some of the most secretive species in the world! The families covered are Locustellidae, Acrocephalidae and Cettiidae - 112 species in 13 genera, of which 21 are on the British List.
The 42 colour plates by Brian Small are grouped together at the front of the book. These really are excellent, with usually just one or two species per page and a selection of distinctive races being shown with brief descriptions on the facing pages. The main species texts are really comprehensive, giving detailed accounts of structure and plumage and comparisons with similar species. Vocalisations are described and sonograms are shown, although - rather like the text - they are a bit on the small side! In contrast the colour distribution maps are superb - being large and clearly annotated to show the ranges of each race for both breeding and winter distribution. These ranges are also described, as are the choice of habitats. Movements, breeding habits, behaviour and moult are all treated in separate sections, as are in-hand measurements, which are also accompanied by diagrams of the wing formulae. A section on taxonomy and systematics allows for an explanation of recent changes. In my view it would have been helpful to include here the various names that readers may encounter when reading about the species elsewhere. Good colour photographs are included for all but the most obscure species, and helpfully these are positioned at the end of each species text. No detail has been spared in presenting information. The various appendices give information about the type localities and synonyms for each species, as well as body measurements based on fieldwork and museum specimens.
In creating this book the authors have taken advantage of molecular analysis based on DNA comparisons. These studies have turned some of our understandings upside down. For example, research strongly suggests that two accepted races of Aberrant Bush Warbler are in fact races of Sunda Bush Warbler. Also who would have thought that Grasshopper and Lanceolated Warblers were not closely related? It appears that that they are seated in different clades, and Grasshopper Warbler is actually more closely related to Chinese Bush Warbler - and therefore is likely to be a Bradypterus and not a Locustella!
A number of these taxonomic issues are discussed in the introductory chapters. The authors have adopted a pragmatic approach and have been flexible in deciding the scope of the book to ensure the inclusion of the most challenging genera. Among their decisions is the adoption of Iduna as a sister genus to Acrocephalus for four species usually accepted as being in the genus Hippolais (Eastern and Western, Sykes's and Booted Warblers), while Thick-billed Warbler is put in the genus Phragamaticola. Similarly Chestnut-headed Tesia is on its own in the genus Oligura. The recent splitting up of Spotted Bush-Warbler is only partly followed, with the authors recognising the creation of Baikal Bush-Warbler (Bradypterus davidi), but not West Himalayan Bush Warbler (Bradypterus kashmirensis). Similarly Anjouan Brush-Warbler (Nesillas longicaudata) is lumped into Madagascar Brush-Warbler.
When it comes to the use of English names, the choice stays fairly close to the IOC List, although occasionally the Clements name is favoured instead, and on some occasions the authors have adopted names that are used by neither - such as Kinabalu Bush-Warbler (for Bradypterus accentor) and Kiritimati Warbler (for Acrocephalus aequinoctialis). One species that followers of Clements will find missing is Victorin's Scrub-Warbler. Although treated as a Bradypterus in that list, it has been renamed as Victorin's Warbler by IOC and placed in the genus Cryptillas next to the Crombecs and Longbills in the family Macrosphenidae. Those who are interested in the choice of races will again have plenty to discuss - although space does not allow details to be listed here.
It would be a mistake to think that there is little left to learn about these Old World families. For example, how did we overlook the Large-billed Reed Warbler? Identified from a single specimen collected from India in 1865, it was 140 years before it was detected again - and yet since 2006 three have been trapped in Thailand. Similarly Timor Bush Warbler was described from two specimens collected in 1932, and then not seen again. But just a year ago it was rediscovered in good numbers, while nearby on the island of Alor this or perhaps another species has now been discovered. Recognising that the relationships between the species in this book will probably change before a second edition is printed, the authors have wisely included an appendix which summarises some of the likely revisions likely to result from recent research. For example Little Rush Warbler and Evergreen Forest Warbler are both likely to be split into several new species, while Javan Bush Warbler and Russet Bush Warbler may be lumped, as may also Styan's Grasshopper Warbler and Middendorff's Grasshopper Warbler.
An amazing amount of work has gone into this volume, and it certainly gets my personal "book of the year" award.
on 10 November 2011
I bought this volume from Amazon almost a year ago (in December 2010), though haven't reviewed it before simply because it's not the kind of book that you read in its entirety; it is a work of reference and thus its worth is only revealed in the longer term.
I have now consulted the guide on several occasions - for species seen in western Europe and southern Africa - and in every instance found that the text answered my questions and expanded my knowledge; no more can be asked of a work of reference. I found the maps very clear and the photos informative, though in the case of the latter I would have liked a few more.
My only real criticism concerns the plates (42 in number), though in this I appear to be in a minority (as all the reviews of the book I've read so far praise them highly - so my view will seem heresy to some...). To my eye, and based on those species with which I am most familiar, the plates seem a bit wooden and certain species don't look quite right; in my opinion they aren't in the same class as the identification plates produced by bird illustrators such as Lars Jonsson or Killian Mullarney. Having said that, they would have been more than adequate as plumage maps except for the unfortunate fact that the colour printing isn't of the highest quality, so that many of the plates appear far too dark - a black mark to the publisher for allowing such a key work of reference to suffer in this way.
Despite my feelings about the plates, the comprehensive text makes this book well worth the money and simply indispensable for anyone with an interest in this group of birds.
on 14 December 2012
This is an excellent and extremely detailed reference book. As with other Helm guides the book is in two sections, the first giving a brief precis of each bird opposite the illustrations which, in most cases, show a number of variations in plumage. The second section gives in depth accounts of each species including identification, song and call (with sonogram), distribution, habitat, breeding, detailed description including wing formulae and in-hand measurements for ringers. This section also includes photo images which compliment the illustration in the earlier section. There is as much detail as you could hope for here and probably a bit more! This book is a must for all keen birders and ringers.