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WorldTwitch Book Awards 2000
BEST BIRD BOOK OF THE 20TH CENTURY
At the end of the 20th Century, a new Golden Age of bird books was well underway. Unlike books published during the previous era of great bird books - the late 19th Century - the best of the recent works have been written by ornithologists and illustrated by artists with relevant field experience. Furthermore, the customers are more often people who hope to see the birds in the field than wealthy book collectors. So today, books and illustrations are judged by their content and accuracy, rather than by their bindings and pure artistry.
A variety of early to mid-20th Century books dealt with increasing competence with the birds of Europe and North America. They have been superseded by even better works, such as the brilliant Collins Field Guide for Europe and the voluminous Birds of North America, to name a couple of standouts. For much of the rest of the world, there simply were no adequate bird books of any sort until quite recently. One of the world's most important areas for endemic birdlife, equatorial west and central Africa still lacks a modern field guide, although at least most of the birds are now accessible at home in the magnificent and ongoing Birds of Africa set and in bird family treatises.
In most geographic areas, advances have been gradual, as books have leapfrogged ahead of the books of a few years earlier. In Malaysia, for example, the first four volumes of Robinson & Chasen's 5-volume set, The Birds of the Malay Peninsula, issued before WWII, presented a great deal of basic information about the birds of the Malay peninsula. Madoc's well-written field guide, drafted in a Japanese POW camp, made it possible to identify the common birds around Kuala Lumpur even without plates. Smythies' Birds of Borneo (1960) included the first set of reasonably good color illustrations of Malaysian birds, though lacking species not found on Borneo. Ben King's landmark Field Guide to the Birds of Southeast Asia (1975) unified nomenclature and presented concise (known) information useful in the field. Then Lord Medway and David Wells, in the concluding volume 5 (1976) of the set begun by Robinson & Chasen, reviewed the entire list of the birds of Malaysia, presenting much previously unpublished information based on extensive field observations and without the severe space limitations of a field guide.
But only in the past seven years have books become available combining useful color plates with descriptions and distributional and natural history information helpful in field identification: MacKinnon & Phillipps' Field Guide to the Birds of Borneo (1993), Jeyarajasingam and Pearson's Field Guide to the Birds of West Malaysia & Singapore (1999), and Volume 1 of Wells' Birds of the Thai-Malay Peninsula (1999), the second volume of which is forthcoming in or about 2002.
In contrast to Malaysia, there was no competent bird book for much of tropical South America, especially eastern Brazil and Peru, during the 60s, 70s and 80s, a period of explosive growth in foreign bird expeditions. de Schauensee's Guide to the Birds of South America (1970) at least presented a list of known birds with some comparative information based on study skins, but the first good field guide was Hilty & Brown's Guide to the Birds of Colombia, released in 1986.
South American birds not occurring in Colombia became easily accessible in print for the first time in 1989, with the publication of Volume 1 of the Birds of South America, by Robert S. Ridgely and Guy Tudor. Covering all the known oscine passerines of South America, it combined the best illustrations ever done of many birds with up-to-date distributional and identification details and something not often found in bird books - specific advice about where to observe rare or local species. Birds that had been mere names on a list to those without field experience suddenly sprung to life from the pages of a book.
Even more exciting was the publication in 1994 of Volume 2, covering the suboscine passerines, many of which are brown, green or gray forest birds subject to frequent misidentification. Now birders typically lug the two heavy volumes on trips to South America, at least to places like eastern Brazil that otherwise lack even a minimally competent field guide.
Thus, instead of the long series of gradual advances in the quality of bird books that occurred in Malaysia and such other places as South Africa and Australia, much of tropical South America benefited from one giant leap forward. Guy Tudor's plates are the best field guide plates ever painted for a tropical region of the world, and the text, mainly the work of Bob Ridgely, gives birdwatchers exactly what they need. In particular, the voice descriptions, many of which have been worked out by Ridgely, are so well transcribed that it is often possible to identify birds by voice simply by reference to the books.
While the great contemporary sets, such as Birds of the World, Birds of Africa, Birds of North America, Birds of the Western Palearctic, and HANZAB, are all important reference works, they are not designed to be taken on foreign trips or used for quick field identification. They belong in the reference library of any serious world birder. The family studies released in series by Pica Press, Helm, Oxford and other publishers are similarly useful as reference works, with only photocopies of excerpts ordinarily taken on foreign trips.
The excellent new field guides for the heavily birded temperate regions are fine, incremental improvements, but certainly not essential to finding and identifying the birds. And even the best contemporary field guides for other tropical regions seem deficient when compared with the Birds of South America. (I would, however, give a very strong honorable mention to Bruce Beehler's Guide to the Birds of New Guinea, which provided a similar great leap forward in field identification of the birds of New Guinea.)
WORLDTWITCH 2001 BEST BIRD-FINDING GUIDE
Books and reports titled "Where to find birds in ..." or "A guide to bird-finding in ..." range from photocopied trip reports with very specific birding information to books that furnish a general overview of the birds of the area of coverage. The best bird-finding guides are those that are beneficial at all the stages of a foreign birding trip: (1) learning about the country and its physical and political geography; (2) learning which birds typically occur during each season and in which habitats; (3) planning a trip, including transportation and accommodations; and (4) finding the specialities once there.
The winner of the Worldtwitch 2000 Award for Best Bird-finding Guide meets birders' needs during each stage of a birding trip, reflecting not only the ornithological and birding expertise of its distinguished authors but their experience in writing and publishing other highly regarded books, including Hadoram Shirihai's Birds of Israel (Poyser 1996) and the Handbook of Birds of the World (Guy Kirwan). James P. Smith is the founder of the Lotan bird reserve at Kibbutz Lotan and one of the most experienced bird guides in Israel, and Dan Alon is the Director of the Israel Ornithological Center.
What I most like about the two Israel guides is that they do not compromise in providing details about finding rare birds, although twitchers must comprise only a small percentage of the potential audience. Yet, with their attractive packaging, color plates and maps, the guides will appeal to those with only a casual interest in birds.
The emphasis clearly is on finding the rare birds and birds with restricted ranges. Toward the front of each volume is a section entitled "Timing your visit", which lists the key birds to expect during each month of the year. Maps of northern and southern Israel show the sites covered, and on successive pages, "zoom" views blow up the sites in greater detail, with numbered references to the text. Each of the sites is covered in detail by a separate chapter. A sub-caption below the chapter heading lists the sub-sites covered, and another sub-caption lists the target species likely to be found in the area.
Besides birding, the guides provide information about such practical matters as where to stay and how to get to town from the airport. They are illustrated throughout with superb color photographs of many of the special birds that make Israel an attractive twitching destination.
I concur with the authors' decision to divide the guide into two volumes. The increased cost is easily justified by the convenience of carrying slimmer volumes in the field. My one regret is that neither volume includes an index.