American Birding Podcast



A Welcome Leviathan of Text and Images

A review by Dominic Mitchell

Handbook of Western Palearctic Birds: Passerines, by Hadoram Shirihai and Lars Svensson

Christopher Helm, 2018

2 volumes–1,281 pages, boxed hardcover

ABA Sales–Buteo Books 14873

Birders in Europe and the adjacent areas of North Africa and the Middle East have been well served with ornithological literature over the years. In particular, the ground-breaking nine volumes of the Handbook of the Birds of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa (1977–1994)—better known as Birds of the Western Palearctic (BWP)—and the updated two-volume Concise Edition of the same work (1998) documented in unprecedented detail the identification, status, distribution, habitats, habits, and all-round ecology of every species recorded in the region. Moreover, their plumages were also illustrated in a bar-raising series of plates.

When the BWP series came to an end, Hadoram Shirihai was already hatching plans for a “more popular photographic guide” to the region’s birds, shortly enlisting Lars Svensson as coauthor. Some 20 years later, their labors have borne fruit with the publication of this new two-volume leviathan. Although its title echoes that of BWP, the content is much more closely focused on identification, plumage variation, and taxonomy.

Before critiquing the new book, I should disclose a minimal interest, in that Shirihai and Svensson’s volumes—henceforth HWPB—include a few of my own photos. I also helped the lead author source other images, and supplied information on the status and occurrence of some vagrants based on work I conducted for my Birds of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, published by Lynx Edicions in 2017.

A necessary first step for any author setting out to write about the birds of the Western Palearctic is determining the geographical limits of the work. Unlike in the Americas, there is no standard definition of the region’s boundaries, particularly its southern border. I used a more expansive “greater” Western Palearctic, which includes Iran and all of the Arabian peninsula; Shirihai and Svensson do, too, but their southern boundary has withdrawn even farther north than in BWP, taking what they describe as a “pragmatic and birdwatcher-friendly” approach to political boundaries. Thus, northernmost Mauritania, a key destination for more adventurous birders for some years, is excluded here, but, paradoxically, the Sudan-administered Egyptian territory of Gebel Elba is incorporated for the first time into their definition of the Western Palearctic.

In their introduction, Shirihai and Svensson stake out a position on avian taxonomy, aiming for “a sensible balance” between a conservative approach and wholesale acceptance of the latest developments. This goes somewhat against the regional grain of increasing alignment with the major world avian taxonomies, such as eBird/Clements and the IOC World Bird List. The difference between HBWP and those lists is most marked at the subspecies level, with about 15 percent fewer subspecies recognized here.

A few new species are listed, including the Arabian Lark, separated on size, plumage, and especially DNA from its erstwhile African conspecific, the Dunn’s Lark. Among other splits are the Basalt Wheatear, previously revealed by Shirihai to be more than just a black morph of the Mourning Wheatear, and the Blyth’s Wheatear, the regional representative of a three-way split of the Variable Wheatear. As the authors say, there is “hardly… a more controversial taxonomic case in W[estern] Palearctic ornithology.” Many birders will be pleased to see that the Levant and Saharan scrub warblers, Eastern and Western subalpine warblers, Northern and Seebohm’s wheatears, and Great and Turkestan tits are also split.

But there are losses to offset the gains. The Hume’s and Desert whitethroats are lumped with the Lesser Whitethroat, the Yellow Wagtail has not been divided into Eastern and Western, and the two distinct populations of the Blue Chaffinch on Gran Canaria and Tenerife remain lumped, in contrast to the major world taxonomies. The Maghreb Lark, recently split by eBird/Clements and the IOC from the Crested Lark, has been returned to that species.

Remarkably, the Arabian Accentor is considered a subspecies of the Radde’s Accentor, and there’s no Lesser Redpoll, which is retained within the Common Redpoll. Most controversial of all is probably the subsuming of the only endemic British species, the Scottish Crossbill, under the Common Crossbill—a departure from Svensson’s own treatment of this duo in the Collins Bird Guide.

None of these decisions is necessarily wrong—the authors have simply interpreted the research differently (and often more cautiously) than other authorities. But a strong case can be made for not muddying the waters with such significant unilateral decisions at a time when different taxonomies are increasingly falling into line with each other.

The English names used here may also occasionally raise eyebrows. The great majority are familiar and unproblematic, but the exceptions include Chinese Martin, unnecessarily coined in place of the widely used Gray-throated Martin, and Isabelline Warbler, inherited from the Collins Bird Guide in place of Western Olivaceous Warbler but in my experience yet to be adopted in practice by anyone. That lumped Maghreb Lark is here called “Atlas Lark,” which raises the question, why coin an alternative name when there is a perfectly good moniker already in use?

Overall, though, the information in HWPB is clear and accessible. Vol. I, covering larks to Old World warblers, has an extensive introduction setting out the book’s layout and scope, with sections on species taxonomy, subspecies, sequence, nomenclature, English names, photos, and maps, followed by a detailed breakdown of the information presented in the species accounts. A glossary and gazetteer are followed by an informative five-page section on molt and aging birds in the field. This is followed by lists of general references and of passerine families. Vol. II, treating Old World flycatchers to Emberiza buntings, features the same front matter, but the discussion of molt and aging there is adapted to reflect the families and species considered in that volume, such that photos of Bramblings replace the Eurasian Blackbirds of Vol. I.

The species accounts form the bulk of both volumes. They average two or three pages, with just a single page devoted to some vagrants and up to seven pages dedicated to more complex and variable species. A summary box and, where relevant, a range map introduce each account, with the text then broken down into sections analyzing identification, vocalizations, similar species, aging and sexing, morphometrics, geographic variation and range, taxonomy (as needed), and additional references for the species in question.

The balance between text and photos is excellent. The large format of HWPB is ideal in this respect, allowing high word counts for what are often complex texts, yet maintaining enough space for the images to be aesthetically pleasing and to reveal critical detail. This is an unrivaled collection of images—in excess of 5,000 photos, by more than 850 photographers—showing the region’s birds in all their plumages alongside detailed captions. There are, for example, no fewer than 33 images of the Black Redstart (including several hybrid Black x Common Redstarts), while the four species of chiffchaffs are covered in a total of 14 pages, with 19 photos of the Common (including the Siberian subspecies tristis), nine of Mountain, 11 of Iberian, and six of Canary Islands, all accompanied by thousands of words of detailed text on these confusing and closely related leaf warblers.

The rarest 85 species, with nine or fewer records in the region, are dealt with in separate sections at the end of each volume rather than in systematic order. Though this means that the more regularly occurring species form the uninterrupted “meat” of the book, it also results in, for example, the White-eyed, Yellow-throated and Philadelphia vireos appearing 238 pages after the rare but regular Red-eyed Vireo. Old World flycatchers, pipits, chats, rosefinches, Emberiza buntings, New World sparrows, swallows, thrushes, and warblers from both sides of the pond are among the other families divided in this way; it doesn’t facilitate direct comparison. Unfortunately, the rare vagrants of the second volume appear to have been indexed before the 30-page introductory section was added, as all the page numbers are off by 30 pages (the Daurian Starling account is listed on p. 557, for example, rather than the correct p. 587).

The two volumes are beautifully presented in a lavishly illustrated slip case, on the front of which is a flying Basalt Wheatear, Shirihai’s “signature species.” The more than 1,200 identification-focused pages and 5,000-plus photos covering 493 species compare very favorably with the passerines volume of the Concise Edition of BWP, which had 698 pages with 222 painted plates (but no photos) and a much more wide-ranging text. Even at the retail price of about $190, serious birders with an interest in the region will want to have HWPB on their bookshelves; hunt around and you should be able to find a lower price. This outstandingly accomplished and comprehensive work sets a new standard that other regions will doubtless now look to follow.

Dominic Mitchell has birded all seven continents and has traveled particularly widely in his home region, the Western Palearctic. He wrote the acclaimed
Birds of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East: An Annotated Checklist, founded Birdwatch magazine, and sat on both the Portuguese Rarities Committee and the council of the Ornithological Society of the Middle East.