Birds of the West Indies Norman Arlott. Harper Collins. 2010. 240 pages, 80 colour plates, plus species distribution maps. Hardback £29.99.
For fifty years Collins published James Bond's book of the same title. A trailblazer in its early days it fell well behind when Helm produced a book of the same name in 1998. That in turn has been repackaged as well, and now you can buy cut-down books on a number of the main islands. So has Collins missed the boat? I think not, but this book does suffer from somebody's desire to keep the book to a particular size and absolutely no bigger than that - which is a shame.
Norman Arlott's illustrations are of birds facing left in a perched position (except wildfowl that are swimming and seabirds and swifts that are in flight). There are additional flight images of raptors, gulls and swallows. I don't mind this standardised layout as it allows for easier comparisons to be made. I like the illustrations which are clear and pleasing to the eye.
The jacket advertises that the book "features over 450 species". Well in fact there are 80 colour plates and these illustrate 632 species. The author has made great efforts to include everything on the Caribbean list (excluding Trinidad and Tobago). All accepted vagrants have been illustrated - even if seen just once in the 1950s. This restricts the space made available for other species where several races occur between the islands. So American Kestrel is shown as two races, rather than the five that actually occur in the West Indies. Admittedly the plumage differences between some of these are quite small, but if I were the one directing the painting priorities, I'd be including these races rather than an illustration of a bird that was seen once many years ago.
Also I was surprised to see taxonomy that is now out of date with both the IOC and Clements listings. The author treats Adelaide's Warbler as one species rather than three (the races subita and delicate having been split off as Barbuda Warbler and St. Lucia Warbler respectively). Barbuda Warbler is not illustrated.
Alongside the illustrations is a minimal text of around 60-90 words. After the English name (sometimes accompanied by the American equivalent), latin name and length there are very short "field notes" which are designed to give key tips to aid identification rather than any detail. Some of these are disappointing - for example "Regularly seen soaring. Juvenile underparts heavily streaked, tail pale grey with darker bars" is not going to be good enough to separate Red-tailed Hawk from other raptors. There are also short notes on voice, habitat and distribution. While this latter section is correct for distribution of regular visitors I noticed a number of errors in the listings for vagrants. For example Bulwer's Petrel is listed by mistake for Barbados, Ringed Kingfisher is omitted for Grenada and ditto Willow Flycatcher for Cuba. Red Avadavit is shown as resident in Dominican Republic (it is a vagrant). These errors could have been avoided and appear to be based on mistakes in other publications rather than the official checklists of the region.
There are 502 colour distribution maps for regularly-occurring species. These cover a massive area of 2500km x 1700km in an actual area of 5cm x 3cm, so while they are OK for medium-sized islands such as Puerto Rico, they are poor for the tiny Lesser Antilles. Despite the tiny scale I noticed Ruddy Quail-dove and White-crowned Pigeon incorrectly shown as occurring on Barbados and Red Avadavat shown as resident in the Dominican Republic (where it is accidental). Today's birders expect maps to be more precise, so it simply is not good enough to show a bird like Blue Mountain Vireo as occurring throughout Jamaica when it is in fact only in the mountains above 500m.
While the colour-coding works well for land-based species the maps for many seabirds are rather unclear. The choice of a particular shade of violet to depict potential presence at sea in the non-breeding season has made it very hard to see the outline of even big islands like Cuba and Hispaniola. There are also errors - such as Great Northern Diver being described in the text as a migrant along the north coast of Cuba (where it is a vagrant) and then shown on the map as "resident". Also shearwaters are shown as being present in the non-breeding season when in fact the majority of sightings are actually in the spring and summer.
In summary it is a real shame that this book contains errors in the text and maps. I really like the illustrations which surely are the reason that anyone buys a field guide. This book will easily fit into your pocket, but given the minimal text you'd be advised to take other reference books with you in order to provide the descriptive detail on plumage that most birders expect.
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Bought this book because I'm going to Cuba in September after buying The Birds of Cuba book I thought I'd buy this book too it's a nice book with great illustrations and its not a huge book either would fit nicely in a pocket.
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