Birdwatch - March 2004

March 2004

Latest HBW volume is a good as it gets.
Handbook of the Birds of the world (Volume 8: broadbills to tapaculos) Edited by Josep del Hoyo, Andrew Elliott and Jordi Sargatal. (Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, 2003, 845 p., 81 plates numerous colour photos And distribution maps, ISBN 84-87334-50-4. Hbk £110).

Is the best bird book ever published? Quite possibly. Perhaps no volumes including such attractive families as broadbills and pittas could fall to make a strong impression, but in fact these groups take up relatively little space and the majority of pages are devoted to the arguably less glamorous Neotropical groups of ovenbirds, woodcreepers, typical antibirds, ground-antibirds, gnateaters and tapaculos. These are all given the exhaustive treatment that has come to be expected from HBW , and we're looking at the fruits of some truly tenacious ornithological labours.

The majority of these birds occur in woodland, notably the often near-inpenetrable rain forests that are (still) such a feature of South America, and to provide such a quantity of information on identification, taxonomy and range about some species that can barely have been seen by more than a handful of people is a wonderful achievement. True, the words "nothing known" appear with some frequency in the sections on species breeding biology, but there's only so much even the most devout birding adventurer can unearth.

It's the plates covering these Neotropical families thet are so telling. Woodcreepers, for example might not appear the most the most thrilling group of birds to some (although they're a favourite of mine) and they are indisputably a testing bunch to identify in the field, but Ian Lewington's paintings should tempt anyone into a trip to South or Central America for them alone.

However, it's surely Hilary Burn's plates that assure the book a place in birding's hall of legends. The prospect of plate after of antibirds, antshrikes, antwrens and antvireos, many species of which are almost identical to many others, might have been daunting to some, but Burn's response has been awesome. Quite how much detail you'll be able to recall the next time you're grappling with a shape-shifting denizen of the forest floor is open to question, but it hardly seems to matter - just enjoy these plates for the works of art they are. A word of balance at this point - Burn does appear to have painted some of her birds too pale. Try to comparing for example the White plumed Antbird on plate 68 with the photographs of this stunning bird on page 476.

Read back trough the reviews of successive HBW volumes, and they tend to be a tad receptive. Oh, how we eulogise and how we struggle to say much the same thing but in different way. The photographs, the text, the know how it goes.

It would be nice to think that however monotonously adulatory they might be, book reviews are actually read by publishers. And there is indeed proof in HBW Volume 8 that such may be the case, a new style having been set for captions. In contrast to previous volumes, the English species names for photograph subjects appear in bold-a marked improvement on the previous style where it might be hidden in a very lengthy caption. Indeed, in some cases the English name was not included at all, or it might just be left for the reader to assume that it did actually apply to the bird in the picture. The scientific name would appear at the end of the caption, but it could be a pain matching it to it's English counterpart. So the seemingly impossible has been achieved -HBW has got better.

And to think it all started so disastrously for this edition when the first print run had to be trashed due to problems with colour reproduction. A time-consuming and costly mistake, but Lynx Edicions has the financial clout to ensure it could be overcome. And for that we should be grateful.

By David Mairs