Birdwatch - January 2007

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Birdwatch
January 2007

Another giant step for birding

  • Handbook of the Birds of the World Volume 11, edited by Josep del Hoyo, Andrew Elliott and David Christie (Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, 2006).
  • 800 pages, 55 colour plates, 343 photographs, 733 distribution maps.
  • ISBN 849655306X. Hbk, £138.

TIME TO REACH for the thesaurus again. S for superlative. Are there any that haven't been used to describe this set of books, which now reaches volume 11 and which, if anything, gets even better with each passing edition? It's no lie to say that every time the latest volume is delivered to the Birdwatch office, there's a queue just to be able to hold it and gaze at its pages (or is that just too weird?).

Dr Cagan Sekercioglu of California's Stanford University, in his introductory essay, warns that while we know more about the earth's avifauna than any other comparable taxonomic group, what we do know is "deeply frightening" and that birds are "clearly serving a function analogous to the canaries that early coal miners took underground with them". Down the pits, the canaries would exhibit signs of distress or keel over when poisonous methane was in the air. Now, they are warning us of potentially devastating and lethal changes in the environment. "Birds are telling us that we are darkening our own futures and the prospects of our descendants. It is high time we listened to them," writes Dr Sekercioglu.Volume 11 tackles Old World flycatchers to Old World warblers. Recent research suggests that the chats, which were treated in HBW10 as the subfamily Saxicolinae of Turdidae, may in fact be closer to the Old World flycatchers, and also that the members of the genus Sylvia, which give the name to the Old World warbler family Sylviidae, are actually babblers, as opposed to warblers. Although the authors have decided not to adopt the recent proposals, to avoid confusion for readers, the changes have in fact been accommodated in part, by reshuffling the sequence of families within volume 11. As a result, Muscicapidae is now placed immediately after Saxicoiinae, while the genus Sylvia now comes immediately before the babblers.

For a work on this scale, it is amazing how up to date HBW manages to be. Volume 11contains three taxa described in 2006, including a new species of batis, Dark Batis, found in central Tanzania, which was due to be described in the Journal für Ornithologie in October 2006, around the time this volume went to press. You just can't get more timely than that, and HBW continues to be at the forefront of scientific discovery.

Another example of this is the photograph of a Large-billed Reed Warbler, which was trapped and ringed in Thailand in March 2006, and which was the first of its species to be recorded since it was originally collected in northern India in 1867.

Its taxonomic treatments will certainly attract attention. Among the warblers, for example, Green Phylloscopus nitidus, Greenish P trochiloides and Two-barred P plumbeitarsus are all given full species status, while Small Whitethroat Sylvia minula and Hume's Whitethroat S althaea are separated from Lesser Whitethroat S curruca, as are Marmora's Warbler S sarda and Balearic Warbler S balearica from each other. In contrast, Orphean Warbler S crassirostris and Desert Warbler S nana remain lumped.

Acknowledging the difficulty of knowing which volume covers a particular group or species, the authors recently launched a fully searchable free access online global index for the HBW series (see www.hbw.com), which should simplify the process considerably.

As always the plates, in this volume by Norman Arlott, Hilary Burn, John Cox, Ren Hathway, Ian Lewington, Douglas Pratt, David Quinn, Chris Rose, Brian Small, Jan Wilczur and Tim Worfolk, are stunning. Even plate 33, or as a friend put it, "A sight to fill most African birders' hearts with dread, a plate of cisticolas", is amazingly detailed, though the differences in the 25 little brown jobs depicted are, in the main, slight.

Not all of the species covered are 'LBJs', of course, and some of the more spectacular representatives of the bird world are also featured in this volume, among them the paradise-flycatchers. The superb photography beautifully captures some of the behavioural traits which make these birds so fascinating. The photos in volume 11 are never less than excellent, and depict the full range of behaviour, from feeding and drinking to preening, copulation and nesting. And some are just funny, as in the photo on page 210 of a Willie Wagtail in Australia, perching on the hip of a Red Kangaroo.

At last, however, I have managed to find a complaint! HBW is too heavy. I had to carry volume 11 in a rucksack across London and out to Oxford, and I lost around 6 lbs in sweat in the process. The search for perfection continues.

Mind you, despite the weight, I would carry HBW to John O'Groats and back to have it in my library. It would be more than worth it for this masterpiece

Steve Hay