A review by Alan McBride
Birds of Melanesia: Bismarcks, Solomons, Vanuatu and New Caledonia, by Guy Dutson
Princeton University Press, 2011
448 pages, $49.95—softcover
A Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand, by Julian Fitter and Don Merton
Princeton University Press, 2012
288 pages, $24.95—softcover
On the first of my seven visits to New Caledonia, almost twenty years ago, I carried two coffee-table books. The photos were good, but the two volumes of Hannecart and Letocart’s 1983 Oiseaux de Nouvelle Calédonie et des Loyautés were a bit cumbersome in the field.
The latest release for the region is Birds of Melanesia by Guy Dutson. In a single volume, it features all the birds of Melanesia, including the Bismarcks, the Solomons, Vanuatu, and New Caledonia. Here, too, is useful information on the islands, their geology, climate, and vegetation, along with a short overview of Melanesian ornithology, birding etiquette, and the high levels of endemism that these islands offer.
An alarming number of those endemic species are in decline. Forty-nine (13%) of Melanesia’s resident species are globally threatened, including 45—fully 23%—of the 204 endemics. I hope that this book encourages birders to visit, not just to tally the rarities but also to engage with the islanders in their efforts to to reduce hunting pressure and habitat destruction.
The better birding sites are briefly described, and habitat photographs, some of them depicting recent shocking destruction, give the reader a sense of what to expect. The complete checklist is color-coded to indicate the islands or island groups where a given species occurs; this color coding is maintained throughout the book, and soon becomes second nature.
Notably missing are range maps for each species. Apparently the islands are considered
small enough to make maps unnecessary, but more precise information about distribution
could have been provided in some cases, even if only in the sections describing a species’ habitat. The gazetteer at the back of the book should help.
The book’s layout is practical, with the plates first and species descriptions following.
The plates are faced by a small text with a key showing the island or island group where each species is found. All of the covered region’s non-passerines are included in a single section, while the passerines are sorted into groups by their distribution on the various islands. I wondered about this at first, but after a week of searching, looking, and comparing, I have to say it’s a great move. It’s not too difficult to separate the pigeons, raptors, rails, etc., across the entire region, but dividing the passerines geographically
proves to be a master stroke: All of the tricky little forest dwellers on one island are shown with only the similar species found on that island, saving considerable time and frustration.
Additionally, this scheme permits an expanded treatment, in illustrations and text, of the subspecies found on the different islands. Whistlers, fantails, and many other island passerines are a kaleidoscope of plumages and vocal variations, and there are probably more splits coming up.
The birds are appealingly illustrated by Richard Allen, Adam Bowley, John Cox, and
Tony Disley. I like the fact that flying raptors are on the same plate as their perched counterparts. Not having been to all the islands, I can’t know how accurate the paintings of some of the lesser-known birds are; however, the illustrations of those I am familiar with look useful, accurate, and well laid-out—with the exception of the jaegers. The Long-tailed Jaeger always has a darker, triangular wedge on the secondaries, narrowing at the body and much more prominent and longer than on any Parasitic or Pomarine, where it covers only five to seven or so feathers. In addition, the details of frigatebird plumages and the unique wing structure of the Abbott’s Booby are not well displayed. A small error has the Australasian Grebe, correctly named in the text, labeled “Australian Grebe” on the plate.
I wish that there were a “quick” index on the back cover (and that every field guide had one).
By the way, for family listers, a quick vote of thanks to Yves Letocart is in order. His outstanding work over thirty years or so in the forests of New Caledonia, and in particular at the Parc de la Rivière Bleue, has led to a considerable increase in Kagu numbers, making that one relatively easy to find. The Kagus are still not entirely safe, thanks to rats, cats, etc., and as Dutson points out, it is worth reminding tourism organizations and village elders of the perils posed by these introduced predators.
My initial excitement on the publication of A Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand by Julian Fitter and Don Merton was tempered by the realization that this is a “photographic guide,” not what I would necessarily term a “field
guide.” The book is crammed with much useful information, although I wonder about the half page of text devoted to the Kakapo, which is described as “extinct in the wild.” I would guess that every birder still hopes to see a flightless, nocturnal parrot in the wild, and New Zealand has enough wild places left that it still may happen. Don Merton, who died in April 2011, devoted considerable energy to Kakapo preservation, and we have him and his teams to thank in part for the fact that that species is still with us at all.
Another major beneficiary of Merton’s conservation activities has been the Black Robin of the Chatham Islands. This species was down to five individuals in the 1980s, only one of them a female. Thanks to the recovery plan created by Merton, there are now over 200 Chatham Island Black Robins. It’s a shame that he did not live to experience the publication of this book.
I am uncertain about the value of photographic guides in the field, but they certainly have their merits in the research stage, before a birder arrives in a new locality. There can be nothing better for getting a feel for a country than a set of decent photographs from known localities.
When it comes to birds, of course, a lot depends on the species being studied. For instance, a good photo showing the salient characteristics of a shorebird can be of critical value, whereas an equally high-quality image of a seabird on the ground at its nesting burrow can be entirely useless.
New Zealand is the place for seabirds and shorebirds, and the book devotes half of its 288 pages to those groups, including, of course, the penguins for which New Zealand is so famous. Seabirds, however, are probably the most difficult of birds to treat in a photographic guide unless there are good shots of the bird in flight from above and below and the identifying features are clearly pointed out. It is also important to place similar species together: for example, it would be better here to have shown the Shy and White-capped Albatrosses on the same page and to have moved the distinctive Chatham Island Albatross to the same page as Buller’s. The seabird pages here would also be more helpful if the location of the images had been given.
There are some misidentifications. The Black-faced Cuckoo-Shrike looks like a Little or White-bellied Cuckoo-Shrike (the black should extend behind the eye on the immature Black-faced); again, it would be helpful to know where this photograph was taken. Some of the Lesser Frigatebird photos are of Greater Frigatebirds, while one of the Great-winged Petrel images is in fact a Gray-faced Petrel.
The text in this conveniently pocket-sized guide is well written. One does have to get used to such New Zealand names as White Heron for Great Egret. Maori names are also frequently used in New Zealand. “Kakapo” and “Kea” need no introduction, but some others used here are unfamiliar. Maori, common, and scientific names are all included in a single index; a separate list of Maori names, with notes on local bird folklore, would have added to the book’s interest and usefulness.
The many islands that make up New Zealand are home to many distinctive populations of widespread species. Have a look at the island versions of the various pipits and parakeets, for example: Good stuff! The book also shows all the introduced species for which New Zealand is now infamous and a number of vagrants from New Zealand’s “offshore island,” Australia.
There is a useful preamble to New Zealand and an explanation of various choices made in the writing of the book. I wonder why the “Gibson Method” for aging albatrosses was included, as that scheme, though still in use by some, is quite old by now. Following it here will lead some observers to dismiss as age classes some birds that are now known to be distinct species; a “young Wanderer,” for example, will more likely be an Antipodean Albatross.
The guide also offers notes on specific birds found on various islands or reserves; a list of national parks; references to bird tour operators, conservation groups, and wildlife organizations; and a bibliography and glossary. I’m not sure why UK tour operators are represented by three companies while none at all are listed from the US.
Sadly, New Zealand is the world leader in species loss, with over 50 extinct species. The two-page list at the back of the book makes for some chilling reading: There are ten lost species of Moa alone.
When all is said and done, this is a little book of excellent quality that will prove useful for many visitors and residents alike.
-Alan McBride, an Australian currently in the EU/UK, will go anywhere for a bird and a photo. A prolific writer and photographer, McBride’s work appears in books, site guides, and popular and professional natural history journals the world over. In a previous life, he was a business consultant in advertising, sales, and marketing, and still dabbles for a fee.
McBride, A. 2013. Oceania and Beyond [a review of Birds of Melanesia, by Guy Dutson, and of A Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand, by Julian Fitter and Don Merton]. Birding 45(5):66.