Birdwatch - February 2005

February 2005

Handbook of the Birds of the World (Volume 9: Cotingas to Pipits and Wagtails), edited by Josep del Hoyo, Andrew Elliott and David Christie (Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, 2004. 864 pages, 78 colour plates, 440 photographs, 809 distribution maps. ISBN 84-87334-69-5. Hbk, £110)

I could quite easily do this review in one word: sumptuous. But there's room for more, and anyway, I'd want to add in stunning, beautiful, breathtaking and invaluable, and possibly gorgeous. Reviewers of this series over the years have struggled to come up with new superlatives for each successive volume, and this reviewer is no different. How about fantuous? Or spectastic?

Volume 9 is the second to deal with passerines, and concludes the suboscine families, moving on to the oscines, all occupying the suborder generally agreed to comprise the most highly evolved of all birds. It also deals with the largest of the bird families, the Tyrannidae (tyrant flycatchers), numbering 429 species.

In fact the Tyrannidae threw up an interesting conundrum for the editing team. When John Fitzpatrick was working on the internal classification for the family, he noticed that one of the subdivisions that he intended to recognise did not have a formally proposed name. To rectify the situation in time for the 'Contopini tribe' of fluvicoline tyrant-flycatchers to be usable in HBW, Fitzpatrick wrote the formal description of the tribe for publication in this volume.

It seems somehow fitting that such a ground-breaking series should be the vehicle for the publishing of a new scientific name. The publishers stress that they checked with various experts to ensure that HBW met all the criteria, and that having the description written by one of the foremost authorities on the family, and having it refereed by two of ornithology's most prestigious taxonomists, are guarantees that all efforts have been made to ensure that the description has been correctly formulated.

HBW is increasingly influential in terms of taxonomic judgements, and Volume 9 includes several amendments which have a bearing on Western Palearctic species. The eremica race of 'Greater' Short-toed Lark is now considered to be the south-west Arabian race of Blandford's Lark, while Asian Short-toed Lark is now considered to be conspecific with Lesser Short-toed Lark. The diluta race of Sand Martin ('Bank Swallow') is raised to species status, Pale Sand Martin. Eurasian Crag Martin changes genus to Ptyonoprogne and the theresae race of that species is deleted, it now being considered monotypic. Rock Martin and Pale Crag Martin are merged into a single species, Rock Martin.

The cotinga family is among the most difficult of all to see. Thirty-five years ago, A F Skutch, at the time the most experienced observer by far of neotropical birds, wrote: "The cotingas known to me are all birds of the treetops. Some of the species which inhabit the lofty rainforest stay so consistently high in the high upper regions inaccessible to man, that one may hear their cries day after day yet hardly ever glimpse the birds themselves. No other family of birds in the western hemisphere present such great obstacles to study." And yet in this volume, the text, illustrations and photographs combine to shed light on even the least known species.

Collectively, the illustrations are truly a work of art. From the impossibly glamorous cocks-of-the­ rock or the blue and purple cotingas to the more down-to-earth (and more familiar) Meadow Pipit, each species is given the same level of care and attention, and the life of the bird shines from each plate.

The photography is equally stunning and revealing. Which species, for example, includes a 'moonwalk' in its courtship display? Two beautiful photographs illustrate the efforts of the male Red-capped Manakin, who extends his thighs to show off his yellow 'trousers' to best effect, and from his favourite perch performs his " ... piece de resistance, the hugely fetching backward slide which involves holding the head down, elevating the tail, and moving with short, rapid steps on stretched legs so that he seems to glide in reverse for 10-20 cms".

It is so hard to pick fault with this series which, as has been mentioned in previous reviews, even manages to make small improvements as it progresses. In the review copy, two pages of references of scientific descriptions had colour separation problems, but that aside, this really must be as close to perfection as a bird book gets and, if it didn't have pride of place in the office library, would look stunning, beautiful, breathtaking, invaluable, sumptuous and probably gorgeous on my shelves at home.

Nicholas Gould