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WorldTwitch Book Awards 2003

2003 was another outstanding year for nature books. The long anticipated antbird volume of the Handbook of Birds of the World finally emerged and was even better than expected. Completely unexpected was the Natural History of Madagascar, which sets a new standard for comprehensive, single-country natural history surveys. A variety of important field guides, bird family studies, and bird-finding guides were published, including the first modern field guides for Chile and for much of Africa. With the usual disclaimer that I haven't seen every good book released during the past year and accordingly reserve the right to grant further awards if appropriate, here are the 2003 WorldTwitch Book Awards.


WorldTwitch 2003 Best Bird Reference Book

Josep del Hoyo, Andrew Elliott & David Christie (eds.) Handbook of Birds of the World, Volume 8, Broadbills to Tapaculos. 845 pages. 81 color plates plus 477 color photographs. Lynx Edicions 2003. US | UK | DE | FR | CA

This superb volume covers more than half of the suboscine passerines -- pittas, broadbills and asities in the Old World, and furnariids, woodcreepers, antbirds, gnateaters and tapaculos in the New World. It incorporates taxonomic revisions and new information discovered since the publication of Lambert & Woodcock and Ridgely & Tudor volume 2, along with color paintings of birds not previously illustrated. As always, the species accounts have been written by leading experts and incorporate the latest reports from the field. The family summaries are lucid and illustrated with excellent photographs, including rare photos of the possibly extinct Bahia Tapaculo and several newly-described species.


WorldTwitch 2003 Best Natural History Reference Book

Goodman & Benstead (eds.) The Natural History of Madagascar. U. of Chicago Press.Steven M. Goodman & Jonathan P. Benstead (eds.) The Natural History of Madagascar. Details. 1,760 pages. Color and black-and-white photos. University of Chicago Press 2003. US | UK | DE | FR | CA

This is an exceptional and comprehensive reference which enables any reader to obtain an overview and catch up with the latest discoveries and developments in Madagascar natural history. It is more than twice the size of the only other comparable country reference, Daniel Janzen's Costa Rican Natural History (University of Chicago Press, 1983). 140 pages are devoted to birds, including detailed accounts of poorly-known species such as Madagascar Serpent-Eagle and significant articles including "The Radiations of Passerine Birds on Madagascar" by Tom Schulenberg. While I may never read every page of this mammoth volume, opening it at random invariably turns up something interesting, from a new mouse named in honor of the late Karl Koopman, to the bizarre giraffe-necked weevil, to 201 endemic tiger beetles, to case studies of critical habitats.


WorldTwitch 2003 Best Bird Book - Africa (2 Awards)

Ian Sinclair & Pete Ryan. Assisted by Patrice Christy & Phil Hockey. Birds of Africa South of the Sahara: A complete illustrated field guide to the birds south of the Sahara. Illustrated by Norman Arlott, Peter Hayman & Alan Harris. Struik & Princeton University Press 2003. Details. 760 pages. Covers 2105 species with more than 2000 images on 359 plates. US | UK | DE | FR | CA

The authors have used the fine new edition of Birds of Southern Africa, winner of a 2002 WorldTwitch book award, as the basis for this field guide covering all of sub-Saharan Africa. For home study, Birds of Africa provides instant access to all African species, with acceptable to excellent color plates, range maps, and essential text. In the field, it fills in the many gaps between the regions for which modern field guides are available. Recommended by Jon Hornbuckle for use in Zambia.

Ber van Perlo. Birds of Western & Central Africa. HarperCollins & Princeton University Press. 384 pages. 2003. US | UK | DE | FR | CA

Ber van Perlo probably has painted more species of birds than anyone else over the past 15 years. This is by far his most impressive effort to date. Comparing this volume with his first guide, Birds of Eastern Africa (1995), the improvements are obvious. For example, awkward illustrations of warblers on plate 73 in Birds of Eastern Africa, such as Short-tailed Warbler, Hemitesia neumannni and Brown Parisoma, Parisoma lugens, have been replaced by much better paintings of the same species in Birds of Western and Central Africa. At least until the Borrow & Demey field guide comes out, this is the book to carry in the field in West Africa, while the heavy but authoritative Borrow & Demey Guide to the Birds of Western Africa remains in the car or hotel room.


WorldTwitch 2003 Best Bird Book - Australasia

Graham Pizzey & Frank Knight. The Field Guide to the Birds of AustraliaGraham Pizzey & Frank Knight. The Field Guide to the Birds of Australia. Edited by Peter Menkhorst. HarperCollins, 7th edition 2003 (1997). 576 pages. 6" x 9". ISBN: 0207198217. Annotations to the 3rd Edition. [The first two editions refer to a completely different book, Pizzey & Doyle 1980 & 1991 (Pizzey I), which had much more detailed texts but mediocre illustrations by Doyle. The third edition actually was the first edition of Pizzey & Knight (Pizzey II), published in 1997, while the fourth, fifth and sixth editions were reprintings of Pizzey II with corrections.] The seventh edition constitutes the first substantial revision to Pizzey II, with 26 revised color plates, nearly 500 revised range maps, and numerous changes to the text. Screen shot of plates by Andrew Isles Natural History Books. US | UK | DE | FR | CA

There now are four excellent guides to Australian birds -- Pizzey & Knight, Morcombe, Simpson & Day and Slater. Morcombe, a large format guide, contains the most information and offers outstanding usability, but the color plates would rank last among the four books. Nearly as large as Morcombe, Pizzey & Knight has the finest illustrations and the most detailed distributional information. Slater is the smallest of the four and for that reason the book most birders carry in the field, while Simpson & Day falls in the middle, with excellent color plates in a field guide for people with large pockets. New editions of all four guides with new or revised color plates have appeared or will appear in 2003-2004.

Frank Knight's superb color plates are reason to acquire this book, even if you have no plans to travel to Australia. For the new edition, color intensity was deliberately increased. Overall, the brighter plates are even more attractive than the lighter plates in the "third edition", though unavoidably some dark birds are now too dark. The revised maps in the 7th edition take into account the results of the New Australian Bird Atlas (2004).


WorldTwitch 2003 Best Bird Book - South America

Jaramillo. Birds of Chile.Alvaro Jaramillo. Birds of Chile. [Also covers the Falkland Islands and South Georgia.] Illustrated by David Beadle and Peter Burke. 240 pages, 96 color plates. Helm & Princeton University Press 2003. US | UK | DE | FR | CA

This is the best field guide published thus far to the birds of southern South America. It should enable most birders to identify all or nearly all the land birds that regularly occur in Chile, which is far enough south to limit the number of confusing tyrannids and nondescript hummingbirds. The facing plate text is succinct, and additional taxonomic information is included in an appendix. As in the case of all other Neotropical bird guides, the material on gulls and tubenoses is simply not adequate for identification of all forms. However, the author clearly made the appropriate decision as to where to draw the line on coverage of seabirds, all of which cannot be identified with 100% reliability using any existing book. I would question the description of the voices of Metriopelia as "silent", as a song of Black-winged Ground-Dove has been recorded and is included on Birds of the Ecuadorian Highlands by Krabbe et al.


Worldtwitch 2003 Best Bird Book - Central America

H. Lee Jones. Birds of Belize. 317 pages plus 56 color plates by Dana Gardner with facing plate text. View sample plates on Dana's website. University of Texas Press & Christopher Helm 2003. US | UK | DE | FR | CA

Belize has become one of the most important tropical ecotourism destinations, but until now there was no field guide dedicated to its birds. While Howell & Webb's excellent Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Central America (Oxford 1995) covers Belize, the regional guide is quite heavy and includes many species that do not occur in Belize. Birds of Belize is about two-thirds the size and weight of Howell & Webb. It simplifies identification by omitting species not found in Belize and provides detailed distributional information and range maps for Belize. I particularly appreciate the multiple voice descriptions for many species, which in some cases represent different calls and in others different individuals' attempts to describe the same call.


WorldTwitch 2003 Best Bird Book - North America (2 Volumes)

Brian K. Wheeler. Raptors of Eastern North America: The Wheeler Guide. 437 pages. 540 color photographs. Princeton University Press & Poyser 2003. US | UK | DE | FR | CA
Brian K. Wheeler. Raptors of Western North America: The Wheeler Guide. 544 pages. 603 color photographs. Princeton University Press & Poyser 2003. US | UK | DE | FR | CA

Brian Wheeler has assembled an outstanding collection of color photographs of North American hawks, showing a great variety of alternative plumages. A caption under each photo describes the field marks illustrated. The accompanying text is crammed with useful facts, including extensive identification information, and multi-color maps for each species show seasonal distributions.

There is substantial overlap between the two volumes, mainly in the color plates. However, you will need both volumes for coverage of all North American species. Since these are reference books, it would have made more sense to prepare a unitary work and divide it into two sequential volumes for enhanced usability.


WorldTwitch 2003 Best Bird Book - West Indies

Herbert Raffaele, James Wiley, Orlando Garrido, Allan Keith & Janis Raffaele. Birds of the West Indies. 216 pages, 94 color plates. Helm & Princeton University Press 2003. US | UK | DE | FR | CA

Travelers to the West Indies will appreciate this compact field guide, which has been extracted in substantial part from the authors' comprehensive guide. The field guide adds new and improved illustrations, all arranged opposite essential facing-plate text. The single island endemics have been moved from appended plates into the main order. Common names have replaced numbers on the plates, greatly enhancing field usability. Range maps are included for some, but not all species. It would have been useful to include bolded island abbreviations for birds without range maps or geographical common names to facilitate ruling out impossible species at any locale.

The additional illustrations include endemic subspecies, such as the distinctive and threatened Bahamas race of Greater Antillean Oriole, now split from Black-cowled Oriole. Some of the illustrations could be improved; see for example Plate 82, where the Eastern and Western Chat-Tanagers have different shapes, postures, proportions and bills. However, so few species occur in any particular spot in the West Indies that the possibilities for confusion are minimal.


WorldTwitch 2003 Best Bird Book - Asia

Richard Grimmett & Tim Inskipp. Birds of Northern India. 320 pages. 119 color plates. Helm & Princeton University Press 2003. US | UK | DE | FR | CA

This regional guide has been extracted from the authors' huge subcontinent guide. As in the other regional field guides to South Asia by the same team, the bird paintings have been enlarged substantially from the original book, and the species accounts have been reduced. As a consequence, this book is much easier to use in the field than the heavy subcontinent guide. Birds of Northern India covers all of northwest India, from Gujarat across to Uttar Pradesh and points north, and at this time would be the most useful field guide to carry in Pakistan.


WorldTwitch 2003 Best Bird Family Books (2 Awards)

Pipits and WagtailsPer Alström & Krister Mild. Illustrated by Per Alstöm & Bill Zetterström. Pipits and Wagtails (of Europe, Asia & North America). 496 pages, 30 superb color plates, 240 color photographs, 298 sonograms, 36 maps, 89 text figures. Helm & Princeton University Press 2003. US | UK | DE | FR | CA

This is one of the finest of the bird family books. Like Sylvia Warblers, the premier example of a family treatise, it covers a limited number of confusingly similar species in great detail. World birders will also appreciate the color illustrations and photographs of the newly-described Mekong Wagtail.

Ewan Urquhart. Illustrated by Adam Bowley. Stonechats: A Guide to the Genus Saxicola. 320 pages. 14 color plates and more than 100 color photographs. Helm 2002 and Yale University Press 2003. US | UK | DE | FR | CA

Stonechats also follows the successful format of Sylvia Warblers, covering a few species, the Saxicola chats, in great detail with plenty of good illustrations. It should facilitate field identification of all or nearly all of the confusing forms. Thus, for example, the author provides a 14-item checklist of "Main identification criteria of Siberian Stonechat compared to European Stonechat" and 10 pages of information on the poorly-known Jerdon's Bushchat of Asia.


WorldTwitch 2003 Best Bird Finding Guides (2 Awards)

Simon Harrap & Nigel Redman. Where to Watch Birds in Britain. 624 pages. Helm & Yale University Press 2003. US | UK | DE | FR | CA

This is a reorganized and expanded new edition of Birdwatching in Britain: a site-by-site guide (1987). The authors present essential information on what they consider to be the most productive and readily accessible birding sites in Britain, with maps, directions, and bird lists. Unless you are absolutely certain of your itinerary, it probably would be a mistake to travel to the UK armed only with more detailed, local site guides. If, for example, you learn from local twitchers that the best current spots for birds on your "want list" are in counties other those covered by the local site guides you happened to bring, it will be most helpful to have the countrywide book available for reference. (For almost guaranteed Black Grouse, illustrated on the cover, follow the directions on page 453 to Langdon Common during lekking season.)

Adrian Thomas & Peter Francis. Best Birdwatching Sites in Sussex. Buckingham Press 2003. 192 pages. UK | DE | FR | CA

Buckingham Press has produced a superb site guide for Sussex -- located on the coast directly south of London -- in the same format as last year's award winning site guide for Norfolk. While Sussex would not be a first choice destination for a birding trip to England, it is quite convenient when traveling to London on business to stay near a suburban station in Surrey or Sussex and commute by train to London Bridge Station. Some of the sites covered by this guide could be birded in early morning before heading for the City. In addition, during breeding season one could go out at night for Nightjar in Ashdown Forest, which is not far from the Surrey border.

Bo Beulens has posted a more detailed review, with which I wholly concur.


WorldTwitch 2003 Best Value Natural History Book (2 Awards)

Jeffrey C. Miller & Paul C. Hammond. Lepidoptera of the Pacific Northwest: Caterpillars and Adults. FHTET-2003-3, December 2003. U.S.D.A. Forest Health Technology Enterprise Team. 324 pages. Side-by-side color photos of caterpillars and adults of 239 species. Free. Request copies from rreardon [at] fs.fed.us.
John Stein, Denise Binion & Robert Acciaviatti. Field Guide to Native Oak Species of North America. 165 pages. USDA Forest Service 2003. Covers 50 species, with illustrations of the leaves, bark and acorns, and range maps showing occurrences by county. Free. Details.

WorldTwitch 2000 Book Awards
WorldTwitch 2001 Book Awards
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WorldTwitch 2004 Book Awards


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