A review by Steve Rooke
Birds of Central Asia
by Raffael Ayé, Manuel Schweizer, and Tobias Roth
Princeton University Press, 2012
336 pages, $39.50—softcover
ABA Sales / Buteo Books 13583
Almost a quarter
of a century after the breakup of the Soviet Union, tourists are flocking to the manmade
and natural wonders of the Silk Road. Birders were especially quick to recognize
Central Asia’s potential, and Kazakhstan has become a very popular destination
in recent years. Up until now, though, we have been hampered by the lack of a
good, up-to-date field guide. While V. E. Flint’s 1984 Birds of the USSR was thorough in its coverage, that book had its
limitations, and so we made do with bits and pieces of other guides covering
the periphery of the Central Asian region. The new Birds of Central Asia has been long anticipated, and its arrival in
the Helm/Princeton series is much welcomed.
Covering the six
“stans”—Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and
Afghanistan—Birds of Central Asia
features 618 species in a relatively slim volume. Constructed on what is now
the almost standard field guide format, the book includes the usual
introductory chapters, including a brief but useful introduction to the
region’s geography and biogeography, illustrated with photos that, if nothing more, serve to demonstrate how incredibly varied and stunningly scenic Central
Asia is. A short section on taxonomy and nomenclature details the
authors’ departures from their primary authority in such matters, the third,
2003 edition of The Howard and Moore
In the body of
the book, the text for each species faces the relevant plate, which is as it
should be. Almost every species has a small distribution map giving the reader
a reasonably good idea of the bird’s range.
include a list of old, undocumented, or doubtful records; I am not sure why the
Oriental Plover, well photographed in the north of Kazakhstan in 1990, is not
included here or described in the main text. There is also a brief discussion
of gull identification and of the molts and aging of large raptors.
Overall, Birds of Central Asia is a well-produced,
compact guide that lives up to the standard set by Helm and Princeton field guides.
The plates are the first thing anyone looks
at in a new field guide. A mix of painters and styles—13 artists are
represented here—can compromise the visual unity of a field guide, but Birds of Central Asia maintains a reasonable
uniformity across its 143 plates. The quality of the plates is generally very
good; a significant number are taken over from other guides, and some readers
will recognize them.
There are a few
shortcomings. Some species appear to be very washed out. The
illustrations of the Saxaul Sparrow, for example, look very bleached, and do
not really convey the smart, snappy appearance of that species, which is much
more accurately depicted in the cover illustration. The Wryneck and some of the
doves are also unusually pale. In other instances, some of the colors are too strong; look at the very bright red on the grebes, for instance.
disappointed to see one of the region’s truly special endemics, the Pander's
Ground Jay, represented by just a small (and out of scale) illustration, almost
as if an afterthought. Dwarfed by a huge magpie on the same plate, this
species, I suspect, was painted especially for the book and then added to a
plate from another source. The text’s account of the ground jay is also disappointingly
brief. Although it does mention the very
isolated and hard-to-see Kazakh race ilensis,
nothing is said of the plumage differences between the nominate race and the
darker, larger ilensis with its more
extensive breast mark.
On the first of
the sparrow plates, the House Sparrow is much too bright, especially on the
cheeks, which are actually quite gray. The female Zarudny’s Sparrow is, to my
eye, also much too strongly marked; although the female of this species is
patterned basically like the male (unlike her plain North African counterpart),
she is much paler and more washed out than shown here. These are small points,
though, in what is generally an excellent collection of illustrations.
These days, after the illustrations, it is
the taxonomy of any new guide that is subjected to the greatest scrutiny. In an
age of rapid and often radical change, this branch of our hobby inevitably
poses challenges for authors—and for us mere birdwatchers as we try to keep up.
Birds of Central Asia follows Howard and Moore (2003), with some deviation where
the authors found it appropriate. As has long been urged by Central Asian ornithologists,
the migratory taxa once assigned to the House Sparrow have now been split as
the Indian Sparrow. It is also pleasing to see the Central Asian counterpart of
the Desert Sparrow finally accorded full species status and named in honor of the
great Ukrainian ornithologist Nikolai Zarudny. This population, which occupies a very
restricted range, is in desperate need of the further study that its elevation
to species status should encourage.
The Asian Desert
Warbler is split from its North African cousins, and the guide includes the
recently rediscovered Large-billed Reed Warbler; that species’ breeding range has been placed in the southern portions of Central Asia, but it could
be more widespread than currently believed, a good reason for birders to pay
closer attention to all those Blyth’s Reed Warblers. The Booted, Sykes's, and Eastern Olivaceous Warblers are moved from Hippolais to Iduna, an innovation (following Howard and Moore) that may be harder for some of us to come to terms with. The
Indian Golden Oriole, perhaps overlooked by some visitors in the past, is also
listed as a full species. Sadly, there is no suggestion of a split for the regional population of the Crimson-winged Finch.
There are some "losses." Birders who have
visited Central Asia in the past will discover that they have “lost” both the Turkestan
Tit, placed within the Great Tit complex, and the delightful Yellow-breasted
Tit, to be found among the Azure Tits.
Anyone who has birded
the semi-steppe deserts has seen many Lesser Short-toed Larks—or so we thought.
Because Howard and Moore assigns the Central Asian taxa heinei and leucophaea not
to that species but to the Asian Short-toed Lark, the Lesser does not appear in
the book at all, a bit of a shock to those of us who have been entering it on
our checklists for the past 20 years. At the same time, the guide’s
taxonomic introduction tells us that (frustratingly) unpublished data suggest
that heinei and leucophaea are in fact distinct from the Asian Short-toed Lark,
either belonging to the Lesser Short-taoed Lark after all—or forming a separate
species of their own. In their Birds of
Kazakhstan (2007), Arend Wassink and Gerald Oreel call “the status of Asian
Short-toed Lark in Kazakhstan…uncertain” and note that “recent trips to the
supposed breeding range in Kazakhstan did not result in finding any”; until
this complicated situation becomes clearer, it might have been better simply to leave
us with the plain Lesser Short-toed Lark.
Birds of Central Asia treats two populations of the Isabelline Shrike as
separate species, the Turkestan and the Daurian Shrikes. Over the years, I have
seen a bewildering array of Isabelline Shrike plumages in the region, some of
which are sometimes referred to as karelini. This guide tells us that such birds are probably the
products of hybridization between Turkestan and Red-backed Shrikes, an
explanation that I feel oversimplifies the situation: I am not sure that anyone
knows for sure the origins of karelini. Similarly, the treatment of the large gray
shrikes will raise a few eyebrows; here too, the book could be accused of
simplifying the true picture.
But simplification may, of course, be
exactly what is needed in the complex and often confusing world of taxonomy,
and perhaps this book is to be applauded for coming down off the fence on some
issues—even if it does not happen to land on the side you are on. If nothing
else, it will prompt debate.
Whatever your taxonomic views, there is no doubt that this is a valuable and much-needed book, one that very
neatly fills a hole in the bibliography of Palearctic birding and has instantly
become the standard guide to the region.
Rooke is the Managing Director of Sunbird, and leads tours for that company and for WINGS to Vietnam, Georgia, Cyprus, Central Asia, South
Africa, and Ethiopia. Rooke has a wide
range of interests outside of birding, not the least of
Rooke, S. 2013. A New Standard for the 'Stans [a review of Birds of Central Asia, by Raffael Ayé, Manuel Schweizer, and Tobias Roth]. Birding 45(2):65.