American Birding Podcast



The Essential Tool for Birding Australia

A review by Chris Benesh

The Australian Bird Guide, by Peter Menkhorst, Danny Rogers, Rohan Clarke, Jeff Davies, Peter Marsack, and Kim Franklin

Princeton University Press, 2017

566 pages—softcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 14737

Few places on Earth are as well saturated with field guides as Australia. The first modern attempt , Neville Cayley’s pioneering What Bird Is That?, published in 1931, was followed forty years later by Peter Slater’s two-volume Field Guide to Australian Birds, which set the standard until the mid-1980s. Since then, guides by Slater, Pizzey, Simpson, and Morcombe have dominated the market in turn, most of them appearing in several revised editions over the years.

In spite of the advances shown by each, all of those titles have also had significant shortcomings—in illustrations, in layout, or in content. Now, though, after years of work by several of Australia’s most talented birders, The Australian Bird Guide ushers in a new era.

One thing immediately apparent is the high quality of the new guide’s illustrations. The layout, modeled on the gold standard set by Svennsson, Mullarney, and Zetterström’s Birds of Europe (published in the UK as the Collins Bird Guide), will be familiar to anyone who has used that book. The birds are depicted on the recto page in standardized positions, facilitating quick comparison of similar or related species; the illustrations are annotated with terse comments about identification. Range maps are placed at the lower edge of the verso page, below the prose species accounts.

The guide’s clear organization extends to its introductory sections on mapping and distribution, bird identification, molt, and topography. Any birder who has been paying attention knows that we are in a period of great upheaval in the arrangement of higher-level taxa— orders, families and genera—and of considerable disagreement about species limits. The authors circumvent these problems by choosing utility over taxonomy. They arrange the plates “pragmatically,” by biome (marine, freshwater, and terrestrial), then adopt a taxonomic sequence within each grouping. Seven pages of the front matter tackle the subject of taxonomy in an Australian context, and a complete checklist, following Version 5.4 (2015) of the IOC World Bird List, is found in the back matter.

There have long been two distinct taxonomic authorities in Australia, one led by Les Christidis and Walter E. Boles, the other by Richard Schodde and Ian J. Mason. Christidis and Boles rely heavily on modern genetic studies in their taxonomic decisions, while Schodde and Mason have depended more on morphologic comparisons. These two bodies have reached different conclusions in some cases, and the resulting uncertainty in species limits has sometimes stirred great debate in the Australian birding community. The Australian Bird Guide follows an eclectic blend of these two authorities.

The Australian Bird Guide has chosen to maintain the Lesser Sooty Owl as distinct from the Sooty Owl, the Morepork as distinct from the Southern Boobook, and the Tasmanian Scrubwren as distinct from White-browed. It splits the Naretha Blue Bonnet from the Blue Bonnet and recognizes both Eastern and Western Ground Parrots. The Gilbert’s Honeyeater makes it in, despite being a very recent split from White-naped Honeyeater, as does the Kimberly Honeyeater, split from the White-lined Honeyeater. The authors resurrect seven species of quail-thrushes; this is the first major guide to illustrate an as yet undescribed Atherton Tableland population of the Spotted Quail-Thrush. The Silver-backed Butcherbird of northern Australia, sometimes considered a subspecies of the Gray, is treated here as a full species. Green and Spotted Catbirds are maintained as full species. The Paperbark Flycatcher is considered distinct from the Restless. A female of the recently described, cryptic Western Whistler is illustrated; this was formerly considered conspecific with the Golden Whistler.

Such splits are balanced by a number of lumps. The various Barnardius parrots are treated together as the Australian Ringneck, and the various Crimson Rosellas are also considered a single species. The authors lump the Tasmanian Masked Owl with the Australian Masked Owl, and they retain the Little/Gould’s minutillus/russatus bronze-cuckoo complex as a single species. The Australian population of the Collared Kingfisher, now regarded by Clements and the IOC list as a full species, Torresian Kingfisher, is mentioned as such only within the Collared Kingfisher account. The Papuan Pitta is maintained as part of the Red-bellied Pitta. The Western Fieldwren is again placed within the Rufous Fieldwren, differing from most recent treatments of this complex. The authors also take a conservative view of the Helmeted Friarbird, treating the Queensland population yorki as a subspecies rather than as a full species, the Hornbill Friarbird, treatment by the IOC. The Mallee Whipbird is classified as a subspecies of the Western Whipbird (see quibbles, below). The three widely separated populations of Crested Shrike-Tit are maintained as one species here, a view unpopular among many Australian birders.

What sets this guide apart from the others that have come before it? The quality of the illustrations is generally excellent. The treatment of seabirds is exceptional, perhaps the best provided by any general guide to any region. The shorebirds receive far and away their best treatment yet in an Australian context.

Australia is not a land of many identification challenges, but the Acanthiza thornbills can cause headaches at times, in large part because of their poor or incomplete treatment in earlier books. The Australian Bird Guide should finally bring some clarity to the subject, particularly in sorting out the Inland, Chestnut-rumped, and Slaty-backed Thornbills of the dry country, and in distinguishing Slender-billed from Buff-rumped Thornbills. While our eyes are naturally drawn to the gaudy male fairy-wrens, this new guide should clarify the identification of females and dull-plumaged males. I was impressed by the treatment of Pachycephala whistlers and the Australian Corvus, two other groups that are often poorly illustrated. A few plates strike me as a bit off, but nothing that would steer one away from the correct identification. In particular, the Tregellasia and Poecilodryas robins strike me as disproportionately large-headed.

While I am overall blown away by the high quality of this guide, it has some weaknesses. First and foremost, the book is huge. It is an essential tool for the visiting birder, but it will put a dent in one’s baggage allowance. Hopefully, in time we’ll see it appear in eBook format or as an app.

Some other, miscellaneous quibbles include, for starters, the poor treatment of the Fuscous/Yellow-tinted Honeyeater complex. The situation is complicated in the contact zone adjacent to the Wet Tropics of Queensland, and the northern subspecies of Fuscous, subgermanus, is not illustrated. Notably paler and more yellow-faced than the nominate subspecies, subgermanus is frequently confused with the Yellow-tinted by visitors. One author proposes that there are another one or two undescribed populations in this region.

The Western Whipbird account does not note the vocal differences between subspecies. The range map is so tiny that I had to get out a hand lens to see all four subspecies represented.

The Cicadabird complex in Australia is still shrouded in mystery. Birds found here apparently sing three song variants. Like previous guides, The Australian Bird Guide makes mention of two, a fast and a slow song; it states that popular belief, still untested, holds that the fast song may belong to the subspecies tenuirostris, while the slower song (there are actually two slower songs) belongs to the northern subspecies melvillensis. No mention is made of a third song type, heard in the Wet Tropics around Cairns. Given that this messy complex extends far beyond Australia, it may be beyond the scope of this guide to offer a resolution.

All of these quibbles are minor, and this is certain to be the field guide of choice for years to come. The Australian Bird Guide sets a standard that all field guides to every region should strive to meet.

Currently based in Tucson, Arizona, Chris Benesh has been guiding birding tours for Field Guides Incorporated since 1987. Over the past twenty-six years, he has spent nearly two years of his life birding Australia, which he considers one of the greatest places on Earth. 

Recommended citation:

Benesh, C. 2017. The Essential Tool for Birding Australia [a review of The Australian Bird Guide, by Peter Menkhorst, Danny Rogers, Rohan Clarke, Jeff Davies, Peter Marsack, and Kim Franklin]. Birding 49.6: 65-66.