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A Subject Information Assessment – 10,000 Birds


Australia has a lot of birds. The “Working List of Australian Birds, v.4,” published by BirdLife Australia lists 2,016 birds, but that includes subspecies (add extinct, domestic, failed introduced & non-confirmed birds and you have 2,106). The latest edition of the Clements Checklist that I could find, last modified in August 2022, lists 965 species (a little more manageable!), including 355 endemics, 28 introduced species, 6 extinct species, and 77 globally threatened species. And the eBird Illustrated Checklist for Australia, which probably best represents what birders could reasonably hope to see, lists 868 species (19 needing photos). Australia has also been blessed with many excellent bird identification and field guides.

I recently visited Australia (Yay!) and of course visited several bookstores and noted at least five different field guides, including the massive identification guide I reviewed back in 2017, The Australian Bird Guide by Peter Menkhorst, Danny Rogers, Rohan Clarke, Jeff Davies, Peter Marsack, and Kim Franklin. This guide has since been published in a revised edition (CSIRO, 2019) that thankfully includes a more complete index, but which is not available through its U.S. publisher and distributer, Princeton University Press. I was happy to find a spin-off of The Australian Bird Guide in a Melbourne bookstore: The Compact Australian Bird Guide by Jeff Davies, Peter Menkhorst, Danny Rogers, Rohan Clarke, Peter Marsack, & Kim Franklin. I had heard about this book before my trip, but it had not been published in the United States or Europe yet. Here are my thoughts about the guide based on using it in the field at the tail end of my trip and using it to identify the many birds I photographed in the Northern Territory and Victoria.

Australian bird books on the shelf of a small independent bookstore in Melbourne. (I confess, I was really photographing my friend R. Bruce Richardson’s book, An Australian Birding Year, reviewed for 10,000 Birds by Dragan, and wondering why they didn’t have his newest title, More Australian Birding Tales, just out in Australia. But,I did capture the range of field guide titles even a tiny bookstore in Australia offers.)

The first thing that occurred to me when I saw The Compact Australian Bird Guide was, “It’s so small and light! How did they do that?!” Because The Australian Bird Guide is massive, an over three-pound, 6.8 x 9.75 x 1.6 inch, 566-page tome that I dare not put on a high bookshelf (the revised edition is 576 pages long). The Compact Guide (which I’m going to call this book for convenience) weighs less than one pound is 4.8 x 7.9 x .5 inches in size*, and 252-pages long. The big book (2017 edition, let’s call it the ABG) covers 747 breeding residents or regular migrants, 29 introduced species, and 160 vagrants, a total of 936 species (I’m assuming the revised edition includes a few birds that were missed because of the cutoff point, I don’t have it in hand). The Compact Guide covers “all bird species that are resident or regular visitors to the Australian mainland or Tasmania, and seas within a day’s reach by boat” (p. viii). It does not include vagrants or birds found only in Australia’s outer, less-visited territories. I counted 708 species accounts, including several brief ones for birds like the recently split Graceful Honeyeater, and birds with limited distribution that look and sound almost exactly like a related bird, for example Black-throated Whipbird. The guide is oriented towards birders who want to easily identify birds in the field and especially for new birders. The editors encourage advanced birders to use it in conjunction with the ABG, with its wider coverage.

There are three to four species on each page, for the most part. There are a couple of species that demand more description, Crimson Rosella for example, with its three highly variable morphological groups, and Australian Masked Owl, with its variability in size and plumage, and that space is allocated. (I did wonder if the fact that these are charismatic species influenced this decision.) Each species account includes common and scientific names; size (in centimeters); distribution map; brief text description covering distribution, main identification features, and habitat; succinct description of voice, including transcription of sound; and illustrations with notes on age, sex, and identification characteristics. There is also a code denoting how easy the bird is to find and observe in the field, within the distribution area–full circle for very easy down to empty circle for very difficult, with quarter-circle increments in-between. The authors note differences and updates from the ABG in the Introduction: taxonomy is based on IOC v.11.1 (January 2021) and common names are based on those recommended by BirdLife Australia, which means some differences with the larger book; the detailed measurements which were such a prized part of the ABG, are replaced by a single length measurement; only distinctive subspecies are illustrated and shown on distribution maps. The authors also state that distribution maps have been updated and illustrations have been revised and new ones drawn where needed.

There are many nice touches to help users learn what they need to know quickly for bird identification: ‘Quick guides’ to tube-noses, terns, shorebirds, and  raptors; a page on how to differentiate “aerial insectivores” (swifts and swiftlets, swallows and martins, woodswallows); and a comparison of the heads and bodies of the five egret species found in Australia. I like that the illustrations, although necessarily cut back in number, still include illustrations of birds in flight and occasionally in their habitat or a typical posture. A great deal of care has clearly gone into configuring the illustrations so that as many as possible are included without sacrificing design or clarity. The Emu-Wrens, for example, with their long, stiff tails on their tiny bodies, are shown with their tails brushing up against and even in front of the other Emu-Wrens pictured in their species accounts, but never distracting from the other images.

The species accounts are also necessarily condensed or, as the editors write in the introduction, “distilled.” The Masked Lapwing species account offers one example of how this works out. Here’s the page from the Compact Guide, followed by the pages from the ABG (the first from publisher publicity material, the second scanned as well as I could):

copyright@ Text—Peter Menkhorst, Danny Rogers and Rohan Clarke 2022; copyright@ Illustrations–Jeff Davies, Peter Menkhorst and Kim Franklin 2022

copyright@ Text—Peter Menkhorst, Danny Rogers and Rohan Clarke 2017; copyright@ Illustrations–Jeff Davies, Peter Menkhorst and Kim Franklin 2017

The authors did a great job fitting as many illustrations as possible into the small canvas, cleverly showing a head instead of a full body to illustrate the difference between Masked Lapwings in tropical northern Australia and the rest of its distribution area. The distribution map, about the same size as the one in ABG, looks larger here, a trick of perspective maybe, but much easier to examine, positioned in the middle of the species account instead of at the bottom of the page and outlined in black. The Compact Guide map, however, does not include the subspecies distribution shown in the larger book. Much less text information is in the ABG, much of it about plumage details and subspecies differences. Similarly, the illustrations don’t include those of hybrids. Voice description is condensed from a long (for voice) description to a succinct couple of lines, so we don’t get the plaintive, but I’m sure accurate: “their volume and frequent repetition does not always delight insomniacs” (p. 136). The ABG also offers much more information on Masked Lapwing habitat and behavior, including their presence on park lawns, where they forage for food away from water, their gregariousness when not nesting, and their array of aggressive behaviors in territory defense, all of which I can attest to having seen them practically everywhere in the Northern Territory and, to a lesser extent, around Victoria.

One of the many Masked Lapwings I saw in Darwin, northern Australia. The northern subspecies, Vanellus miles miles, has larger lappets and no black shoulder band. They were omnipresent in Darwin, I even saw one in the middle of downtown. 

Masked Lapwing is a very easy bird to identify, so there is a question about how the Compact Guide works in the field when trying to identify trickier birds, like Honeyeaters, a family totally new to many North American birders. I found it extremely easy to use in the few days I was able to take it out in the field without a guide. The small size makes it easy to browse, my favorite way of using a field guide, and the illustrations, while populating a large proportion of each page, are configured so that each species is distinct. Text supports the illustrations; the authors know that this is the primary way users will use the guide.

It’s easy to find unfamiliar species using more formal finding systems. The “Visual Quick Reference to Bird Groups” is extremely handy and helped me figure out that a bird I photographed with a curved bill and striped chest is a Honeyeater, not a Cuckoo. This is a replication of the visual aid found in ABG, only spread out over the inside front cover and an additional page because of the smaller page size. I did find some of the page references confusing, and I think it’s because the thumbnails used to denote bird groups are not always the first species shown for that group. It probably would be easier for us Australian bird novices if the first bird was shown, for example Trumpet Manucode for the Bird of Paradise/Riflebird group rather than Magnificent Riflebird, but not as visually stunning.

Visual Quick Reference to Bird Groups (showing 2 pages out of 3) copyright@ Text—Peter Menkhorst, Danny Rogers and Rohan Clarke, 2022; copyright@ Illustrations–Jeff Davies, Peter Menkhorst and Kim Franklin, 2022

There is also an “Alphabetical index to bird groups” in the front of the book, indicating in text where you can find albatrosses, dotterels, fairy-wrens, shorebirds, whistlers, etc. I find myself using both indexes as I attempt to identify my photos, the visual reference to initially identify possible bird groups (sometimes harder than you may think, so many curved bills and cryptic plumages!) and the alphabetical index to remind myself of the possibilities. (Of course, this is me; people have their own instinctive ways to use these finding aids, some preferring the visual, others the text.) The Compact Guide does include a decent index, which the first edition of the ABG did not (a better index was afterwards made available through the publisher’s website and, I assume, included in the revised edition). Birds are indexed by scientific and common name, and common names are listed by species’ core name–for example, ‘Banded Honeyeater’ is listed as ‘Honeyeater—Banded’ rather than ‘Banded Honeyeater,’ as it was in the first AGB edition. Pages are also color-coded for major habitat (marine & coastal, freshwater, land). And there is still a map of Australia, showing its states and surrounding seas, on the inside back cover.

The same six authors and illustrators listed for The Australian Bird Guide are listed as the authors and illustrators of The Compact Australian Bird Guide, all experts in their fields, most also identifying themselves in their bios as birders as well as ornithologists and artists. There is, however, a slightly different order, with Jeff Davies first, followed by Peter Menkhorst, Danny Rogers, Rohan Clarke, Peter Marsack, and Kim Franklin (these five are in the same order as in the ABG). I’m thus assuming that Davies was the lead in ‘distilling,’ and updating the large, 576-page ABG into this handy field guide. There is nothing in the book (or on the Internet) explaining the editorial process, which is a bit surprising considering the ABG had a chapter devoted to how it was constructed. I’d love to know more. Jeff Davies is one of the three artists who worked on The Australian Bird Guide (and by extension this guide). He is a wildlife artist and illustrator who prepared for this job by working for ten years as chief artist on the multivolume Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic Birds (OUP), contributing over 236 color plates–2,434 images–of non-passerines. The other two artists are Peter Marsack and Kim Franklin, both of whom also contributed to the HANZAB and other notable wildlife projects. The three writers are Peter Menkhorst, a zoologist at the Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research, Victoria who has written and edited field guides on Australian birds and mammals; Danny Rogers, a waterbird ecologist at the Arthur Rylah Institute who worked on many of the plumage sections of the Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic Birds; and Rohan Clarke, Head of the  Ornithology and Conservation Management Research Group at Monash University and author of the book Finding Australian Birds: A Field Guide to Birding Locations (CSIRO Publishing). Clarke has written an online guide, “Best Birdwatching Sites in Australia for Fledging Bird Nerds,” for CSIRO Publishing as a free bonus to the publication of the The Compact Bird Guide.

The Compact Australian Bird Guide fills a niche in the crowded Australian identification guide world–an up-to-date, well-designed, finely illustrated birding field guide that can actually be used easily in the field. I think the closest competitor, in terms of print and portability, is The Slater Field Guide to Australian Birds, second edition, a slim, 343-page volume covering 750 species. Slater, however, was last updated in 2009. Another competitor is Pizzey and Knight Birds of Australia, a digital app that can be used on an Apple or Google platform. This is based on the excellent The Field Guide to the Birds of Australia by Graham Pizzey and Frank Knight, but on the 8th, 2007 edition, not the 9th, 2013 edition, according to the app notes. I used the digital guide on my Australia birding trip and loved it. It is, however, very expensive ($30 to $50), and though it appears to be updated from the 8th edition, I’d like more information on when and how updates will take place. Also, this is an app and I know many birders prefer paper.

There is the question: The Australian Bird Guide or The Compact Bird Guide–Which title do I buy? Which title do I take to Australia? If you have the resources, I say both (and hopefully you can get The American Bird Guide in the revised edition). The books complement each other, The Compact Bird Guide as the portable, succinct guide for field identification, The American Bird Guide as the encyclopedic guide providing in-depth details and images on plumage, behavior, habitat, vocalizations, and subspecies, useful for preparation for travel and additional information once one gets home. I think most birders from North America traveling to Australia will find The Compact Bird Guide an excellent traveling companion, though I know there are birders out there who won’t be happy with anything less than the big book. It’s your birding journey, you make the decision, and the wonderful thing is that, once the Pocket Guide to Birds of Australia, the PUP, North American title, is out this coming February, we will all have a choice.


* Measurements done using my own ruler and scale, which interestingly differ slightly from catalog measurements.


The Compact Australian Bird Guide (Australian)/ Pocket Guide to Birds of Australia (N.A. & S.A. title)/Australian Bird Guide: Concise Edition (European title)
By Jeff Davies, Peter Menkhorst, Danny Rogers, Rohan Clarke, Peter Marsack, & Kim Franklin
Australia Publishing Info:
CSIRO Publishing, flexiback, 264 pages, 198 x 120 mm, August 2022, ISBN: 9781486312245
$ 34.99 AU

European distribution through Bloomsbury Publishing, ISBN 9781399406291, £25.00

North & South America publishing info (from catalog):
Princeton Univ. Press, hardcover, 256 pages, 4.75 x 7.75 in., Feb. 2023, ISBN:
9780691245492
Illus: 240 color plates. 700 maps.
$27.95 U.S.

 



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