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Book Review by Frank Lambert
Birds of Northern South America
Restall. R., Rodner, C. and Lentino, M. (2006). Birds of Northern South America: An Identification Guide. Volume 1. Species Accounts. Paperback 880 pages. ISBN 9780713672428. Volume 2: Plates and Maps. Paperback 656 pages; 306 colour plates and 2308 maps. ISBN 9780713672435 (Helm Field Guides). Christopher Helm, London & Yale University Press.
These two companion volumes were founded on the very useful and up-to-date checklist to the birds of the same geographical region that was published in 2000 (Rodner et al. 2000), and they adhere to the same high standard of attention to detail found in Robin Restall's (1996) book on Munias and Mannikins. Steve Hilty has described this book as "A brilliant and original work destined to become a classic reference for museum and field workers alike". I have to concur. Certainly, on recent trips to Guyana and Colombia, Volume 2 proved to be an indispensable book to have along.
For the purposes of this work, Northern South America includes continental Ecuador and Colombia, Venezuela and its offshore islands, Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana, the islands of Aruba, Curaçao, Bonaire, Trinidad and Tobago, whilst the maps also include Brazil and Peru north of about 5˚S: the cut off being a straight latitudinal line drawn eastwards from the southernmost point of Ecuador. Hence all of Brazil north of the Amazon and parts of northern Peru are included for the maps, but birds that occur only in Brazil or Peru are not illustrated or mentioned in the text (e.g. Allpahuayo Antbird Percnostola arenarum, Iquitos Gnatcatcher Polioptila clementsi). Nevertheless, the books can be used with caution in these parts of Brazil and Peru, and will prove very useful here.
The two volumes describe all breeding species, regular migrants and vagrants recorded in this area, which is an incredible 2,308 species. In all, there are about 6400 illustrations on 306 colour plates, depicting every distinctive subspecies and morph and the immature or juvenile plumage of many species. This is truly, therefore, a groundbreaking book. Flight illustrations are presented for those groups for which they are most useful; ducks, seabirds, raptors, nightjars, swifts and swallows. For parrots however, only a few are shown in flight.
Volume 1 primarily comprises the species accounts, but also has a brief introductory chapter with information on climate, vegetation, habitats, a general introduction to the avifauna and migration and a few paragraphs about bird conservation issues. The main text provides us with the latest thinking on taxonomy and nomenclature and for each species there are sections on identification (including comparisons with similar species, where relevant) and an overview of the subspecies occurring in the region and how they differ. These are followed by short descriptions of habits, habitat preferences and status, as well as relatively detailed information on voice. There is a 24-page bibliography and, even more useful for field workers, a discography that lists 51 published CDs that contain recordings of birds from this region and, for each species, a list of which CDs they appear on.
Both volumes contain a section that explains the taxonomy and nomenclature followed, describes the geographical limits of the region (illustrated with a colour map), explains important points about moult and ageing and has a well-organised section on how to use the guide. The latter explains the use of symbols used on the maps and the abbreviations used in citations and country names. Both volumes also contain a colour map that shows the altitudinal zones in the region.
Volume 2, entitled Plates and Maps, also contains the illustrations. These face the detailed maps, which show political boundaries and major rivers. Letters on the maps indicate which part of the species range is occupied by which subspecies; a feature that is extremely useful but lacking in many books of this type (and even in HBW; the Handbook of the Birds of the World!). Symbols under the maps indicate altitudinal range, status, abundance and threat status, as well as size. Key identification features, including, in many instances, succinct notes on behaviour and habitat preferences, are provided alongside the illustrations. Whilst the illustrations are not elegant or particularly life-like in many instances, and will not be liked by everyone, they are certainly adequate for identification purposes. Considering that Robert Restall is not a professional artist, it is a major achievement to have depicted so many plumages of so many species.
To check the accuracy of illustrations, I compared a random sample with photographs of birds from various volumes of HBW. There do appear to be some minor inaccuracies, but I found very few. For example, the photo of Tawny-faced Gnatwren Microbates cinereiventris cinereiventris in HBW11 shows a bird that lacks any buff on its vent, unlike in the illustration by Restall, whilst male White-bellied Woodstar Chaetocercus mulsant evidently can show significant amounts of green on its flanks, not just the breast side.
The maps appear to be relatively accurate, but there are certainly omissions. White-winged Potoo Nyctibius leucopterus, for example, occurs in Guyana at Iwokrama as well as near Iquitos in Peru, in white-sand forest of the Allpahuayo-Mishana Reserve. The maps do not reflect this, perhaps because there are no specimens from these sites. Several other species that occur in the Allpahuayo-Mishana reserve but are which are not shown as present on the maps are Grey-legged Tinamou Crypturellus duidae, Brown-banded Puffbird Notharchus ordii and Saffron-crested Tyrant-Manakin Neopelma chrysocephalum. Amazonas Antbird Percnostola (rufifrons) minor also occurs in this region, near where the Napo and Amazon Rivers meet, but this is not indicated by the map for this species. These omissions in the maps relate particularly to parts of the range outside of the main scope of the book, and perhaps simply reflect that the authors were concentrating less on the parts of Peru and Brazil covered by the maps.
I am sure that more experienced Neotropical birders will find faults in this book, but small mistakes creep into all works of this magnitude. Overall it is an extremely impressive and very valuable contribution to the literature on Neotropical birds and I would certainly recommend it to anyone interested in the region. In particular, if you visit the Guianas or Brazil north of the Amazon, this is really the only book available that you could take with you that contains good illustrations and relevant maps for all the species likely to be encountered. And since there are so many subspecies in the region, this book will prove very useful anywhere in northern South America.
Restall, R. Munias and Mannikins. 1996. Pica Press, Robertsbridge & Yale University Press.
Rodner, C., Lentino, M., and Restall, R. 2000. Checklist of the Birds of Northern South America: Pica Press, Robertsbridge & Yale University Press. WorldTwitch 2001 Best Bird Checklist.
Other Reviews by Frank Lambert