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New & Forthcoming Bird Books - A chronological list of the most important world bird books published since 2007 or scheduled to be released in the next few years. Please submit any additions or corrections.
Spix's Macaw reappears at Curaçá, BA, Brazil
Sixteen years after the last known wild Spix's Macaw Cyanopsitta spixii was last observed in degraded forest east of Curaçá, Bahia, Brazil, a Spix's Macaw has again been seen in the vicinity, with identification confirmed by a video and audio recording. BirdLife, 24 June 2016. The origin of the bird is unknown, with speculation that it may be a released captive bird, or the bird seen throughout the 1990s that disappeared in 2000 (which would be my bet).
I went to see the last known bird in 1994 with Dave Sargeant and Rod McCann. We were fortunate that IBAMA gave us a permit to go look for the bird, and that Marco da Ré, who was in charge of the Spix's conservation project, was able to locate the bird for us on the third day of searching for it. Habitat restoration projects were well underway at Curaçá, including anti-goat fencing and the planting of native trees. Because of incredible goat overgrazing, unfenced seedlings rarely survived. By now, the habitat must be significantly better in places where goats have been excluded.
If IBAMA will give you a permit to look for the bird now being observed, the people of Curaçá and the hotel and restaurant undoubtedly will be thrilled once again to welcome birders to the pleasant town near the Rio São Francisco. At the praça on Friday night, Marco introduced us the "cowboys of the Spix's Macaw".
This may be the world's most desirable bird to observe in the wild, and it should be twitchable without causing disturbance. If you don't speak Portuguese, start studying NOW. The Pimsleur course of 90 lessons is an excellent place to begin. You probably will need to write to IBAMA in Portuguese for permission to look for the Spix's, and you will need to speak Portuguese to get around easily in Brazil.
Unless you are extremely lucky, you will need expert help finding the bird. The region is criss-crossed by unmarked dirt roads, some of which require a high-clearance vehicle.
July 3, 2016 - The paper field guide is obsolete.
I have seen the future of the bird field guide, and it is not a book. It is the Kindle version of Birds of Western Ecuador, A Photographic Guide, by Nick Athamas and Paul Greenfield (Princeton University Press 2016). This is a landmark in the ongoing changeover from heavy, paper field guides to digital guides read in the field on tablets and other portable devices. This guide's only weakness is its lack of painted color plates, but the photographs are mostly very good to excellent, and a new Birds of Ecuador illustrated by Robin Restall is scheduled for release later this year.
At home, I find it preferable to read the digital guide in landscape mode on my desktop computer. The text can be blown up to 150%, but that requires a lot of vertical scrolling. For full-page viewing, you will need a monitor support that easily pivots from landscape (horizontal) mode to portrait (vertical) mode. I use and highly recommend the Vivo STAND-V001B gas spring monitor arm clamped to a slide-out tray on my desk. My other monitor (a Dell) is on the included stand that pivots, though not easily.
Simply open the field guide in Kindle, then in Change Display Settings, change the Orientation of your monitor from Landscape to Portrait (flipped). Select Fit to Width from the zoom dropdown, then type in a slightly higher percentage (from 89% to 93% on my setup) to increase type size without losing content. Then select View>>Full Screen to replace the top nav with bottom nav that includes forward & back buttons.
For travel and field use, until folding or expanding tablets become available, ten-inch tablets offer the best compromise between screen size and portability. At this time, the fantastic display with DCI-P3 color gamut and "True Tone" on the Apple iPad Pro 9.7 is clearly superior to anything else available. I prefer the open, non-proprietary Android platform, but Samsung, the leading Android tablet producer, now offers nothing comparable to the display on the iPad Pro 9.7.
I bought the 256 GB version, which has enough storage capacity to take all the available reference works on any bird trip. (Speaking of reference works, Princeton University Press has released the new Birds of New Guinea handbook (supplementing the second edition of superb field guide) by Bruce Beehler & Thane Pratt on Kindle, so you can easily take this heavy reference with you on treks on the steep, slippery trails in the New Guinea highlands -- no scanning necessary.)
Field Guide Usability
The format of Birds of Western Ecuador offers excellent usability. Each page of text includes about four to six species accounts, with range maps in the left margin. Color photographs are on the next page. In many instances, illustrations of the last species on a text page are placed at the bottom of the text page. Thus, the illustration of a bird is only a click and/or scroll from its text.
The text font is Times New Roman, a popular book font but not ideal for digital viewing. A sans serif font such as Arial or Verdana would have been a better choice. As digital overtakes print, publishers should scrap the old conventions of paper publishing and choose what works best on a color screen.
Species headings are bold white text on brownish backgrounds, with a darker background for the species numbers. I endorse the practice of starting species numbers on each page at 1, since digital viewers are unlikely to become confused, and pages can't stick together. Also, single digits occupy less space on the plates than two or three digit species numbers.
If you can't find a bird in the species accounts, don't panic. Simply jump to Appendix I: Species Not Included, starting at page 425. I was shocked that the extent of deforestation and seafood factory farming have reached a point that Boat-billed Heron, Agami Heron, Harpy Eagle, and White-crowned Manakin are on the list of Extirpated and Possibly Extirpated Species and likely gone from the Pacific Slope of Ecuador.
Due to space limitations, the species accounts provide essential information for field identification but not much more. Some useful site suggestions are included, such as Pale-breasted Tinamou and Ochre-bellied Dove occasionally visiting feeders at Jorupe Reserve. Since any bird book can be scanned and loaded into a tablet, most birders are likely to have additional resources available in their devices, though not in an easily usable format.
As an example of helpful, distinguishing details, see the Double-banded Graytail account (p. 228): "Gray-mantled Wren (p. 332), which can occur with it in forest canopy, lacks the superciliary and wing bars, and has a barred tail (usually the key feature when looking up at the bird from far below). Behavior also differs: Gray-mantled Wren tends to creep along branches, while Double-banded Graytail clings to leaves, gleaning insects from them."
Photographs of Note
I had forgotten how closely immature Black-and-Chestnut Eagle resembles Crested Eagle until seeing the excellent photo of a soaring immature S. isadori at page 79. As the authors advise, "any sightings of Crested Eagle in W [or elsewhere where S. isadori occurs] should be carefully documented and, if possible, photographed."
Nick Athamas's spectacular photo of Sapayoa looks like an African Broadbill in shape and size, though of course not in plumage. See this article in the July 2016 Auk about the breeding biology of Sapayoa in Panamá. It builds a hanging nest like a Broadbill, as you can see from the authors' photographs.
Field Work Needed
The authors note that the voice of the Colombian Crake is known only from the distress call of a mist-netted bird.
Field guides need to be designed to work as well on screen as Birds of Western Ecuador. Hopefully authors and publishers will study the design and borrow liberally. Without substantial reorganization, most existing field guides will not adapt well to digitization.
Meanwhile, many birders are scanning books in their libraries for reference during trips. Scans of individual pages of a lengthy book are not particularly user friendly, but they're the only way to take most books along on a bird trip. In addition, useful material available online needs to be downloaded in advance, since Internet access away from the cities in many countries is often nonexistent or slow. HBW Alive is an essential reference, but you might not be able to access it when you need it the most.
Kindle and pdf versions of books work well cross platform, and modern software takes into account the need to allow the user to place them on multiple devices. However, there are digital products that don't work cross platform and try to prevent purchasers from using all their hardware. An example is the digital edition of Pizzey & Knight, Field Guide to the Birds of Australia, 9th edition (2013). The digital edition is available in Windows, Android, and IOS (Apple) versions, but it is not cross-platform, and it forces you to accept 2-device only licensing, which is absurd in 2016. I have a Windows desktop computer, a chromebook, an iPad, and an Android smartphone. I should only have to pay once for a digital version that will work on all my hardware, like pdf or Kindle ebooks. Even if I had an all-Windows lineup of devices, I could only use this product on two of them!
Other Ecuador Resources
Birds of Passage - Ecuador - Great blog about a birding road trip from California that got as far as northern Ecuador. It's loaded with useful stakeouts and has me thinking about some quick trips, such as a Bearded Wood-Partridge weekend twitch at their spot in Veracruz. Unlike most extended bird trips, they had a 4WD vehicle and were not constrained by the limitations of public transport.
July 3, 2016 - Digital recorder update
The Stith Recording website reports that a replacement for the Marantz PMD661MkII digital recorder is forthcoming.
The Nagra Seven digital recorder has been out for about two years. With a humidity spec up to 99%, it would appear to be ideal for use in the humid tropics. I haven't read any feedback about it from bird recordists and would be interested in user experiences. Stith are promoting it as part of their high end bird recording package, together with the Sennheiser MKH70, which I have been using for many years and highly recommend. If you get this setup, you should order a Sennheiser MZA14-P48U power supply to avoid battery drain and a pigtail cable from the power supply to recorder so that you can record the second channel at a lower level.
I haven't moved to digital yet but may do so in the near future. A major concern is the apparent difficulty of immediate playback with a digital setup. Using the old Sony TCD5ProII cassette deck with a Sony TCM-5000 on top of it, I can record a bird, pop the cassette out of the ProII and into the TCM-5000, insert another tape in the Pro II, and play back on the TCM-5000 while recording on the ProII to capture any sounds made during playback. In two notable instances, Slender-billed Scimitar-babbler and Sumatran Wren-babbler, the birds gave amazing, explosive vocalizations during playback only that I was unable to capture without the two-deck setup that I later adopted on the advice of Davis Finch.
Perhaps a digital solution would be to use a recorder like the Nagra Seven with a hot swapable microSD card along with a playback device such as a FiiO M3 or X1 digital player that plays wav files and has a microSD card slot, with a Radio Shack external speaker.
First Guianas Field Guide Coming Soon (?)