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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation.

Monday, 1 May 2017

New Australian Bird Guide review

This is a 'special', ie out of sequence, posting to bring to your attention the publication of a new and very high quality Australian bird field guide, a fairly momentous occasion. The publisher is the publishing arm of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). This is Australia's peak scientific research body and publishes a large body of scientific material, much of it aimed at the public. Some of it is of restricted interest and would be unlikely to find a commercial publisher otherwise; this book does not fit that category. The review below is one I wrote for a different forum.

The Australian Bird Guide
Peter Menkhorst, Danny Rogers, Rohan Clarke, Jeff Davies, Peter Marsack, Kim Franklin
CSIRO Publishing. 576 pages. RRP A$49.95

It’s been a while since I recall so much anticipation for an Australian natural history book. Of course a lot of it has been whipped up by CSIRO, and quite rightly and understandably – this is a project years in the development, and they have invested a huge amount of money, and potentially prestige, in it. It has run over deadline at least twice, and I suspect well over budget, as it was necessary to engage an extra artist to complete it. Yes, CSIRO has commissioned artists (and I assume authors), a most unusual situation; this is a luxury normally enjoyed only by established novelists (and perhaps you do detect a hint of envy here, but it is minor and wry – I fully understand why they’re doing it!). Moreover they have engaged the services of a publicity firm (again, a first in my memory) to market it, and are hosting a major launch in Melbourne, which is usually left to the author’s choice and resources. All this is to emphasise that clearly CSIRO has a huge stake in this book, and believes it to be justified – note the very boldy challenging title! 

But is it, and could it be? After all, this is now the fifth Australian national bird guide in print, which I believe is a unique situation, though the US may be another exception. Moreover all the existing Australian guides are adequate, and two of them (Pizzey and Knight, and Morcombe) are very good, P and K being excellent. I confess that my initial response was scepticism, but I am being won over; indeed it would take some time in the field with both this book and one’s current preferred guide to make an objective call and of course I’ve not yet had that opportunity. It seems to me that in part this tome combines the strengths of the two guides I’ve mentioned – the illustrations are at least the equal of Frank Knight’s and the text is comprehensive like Pizzey’s, while the plates allow us to scan down the page in columns and compare, where appropriate, juvenile and non-breeding plumage of similar species for example, as per Morcombe. (Of course the text isn’t as lyrical as Pizzey’s, but he was one of a kind.) 
My apologies - to you and to Peter Marsack, the artist - for this poor reproduction.
I am scanning it at home and obviously don't want to press down too hard on the spine!
In the book the illustrations are glowingly clear.
While I don’t doubt that aficionados could detect the subtly different styles of the artists, I do doubt that normal punters could – the change from one to another appears seamless. Peter Menkhorst, the lead author and eminent Victorian zoologist, is very well credentialled, having inter alia edited the next two editions of Pizzey and Knight after Graham Pizzey’s death; his co-authors have very good claims too. I have commented on the artists, who are less likely to be familiar to readers, though in Canberra Peter Marsack (who painted all the passerines) is well-known and highly respected.

Other strengths are more subtle and will, as I’ve suggested, emerge in time. Tellingly the authors claim to have monitored on-line bird discussion groups over the past decade – an enormous job – to glean what birders regarded as ‘problem’ groups, and focus on clarifying them. While a field guide can never be fully up-to-date (on the day of the launch someone will doubtless report a new vagrant record from Ashmore Reef) this guide is comprehensive up to November 2015, which is as good as it’s possible to get. Unlike previous guides, vagrants are included in the ‘main’ part of the book, allowing for comparisons. Maps are very nuanced, which means it will take a while to memorise their codes, but they’re useful. Having the taxonomy based on the IOC list is a good idea, because they update their taxonomy on line every three months, explaining it clearly; it’s as close as a book can probably get to keeping up with the changes that are inevitably unfolding. And Leo Joseph’s essay on relationships and taxonomy of Australian birds is both illuminating and accessible.

See apology above re quality of scan...
Weaknesses, or at least queries? They are few. I was somewhat surprised to see that the order of families and even some species is not strictly according to any accepted list (such as the IOC) – that is they don’t appear in the order in which we believe they evolved. I actually like having that evolutionary context, but perhaps it’s not the role of a field guide to provide it, and indeed it is offered in an IOC-guided check list at the back of the book. Then I read that it is intentional; they have used a ‘pragmatic’ approach to offer species ‘likely to be encountered together’ to be placed together in the book. I immediately thought of What Bird is That?*, but fortunately it’s not that pragmatic! If I’m looking for say the pigeons, in a hurry, I’ll probably get huffy the first time, but I’ll get over it. I’ve mentioned the nuanced maps, but such nuance will inevitably be blurred by the unavoidable scale of the maps (roughly 1:140 million by my estimate!). Range delineations in the text (as per Pizzey) would be ideal, but their absence is probably space-determined. 

My only real, and I think supportable, grumble is the index; it starts with Abbott’s Booby, so you get the picture. Surely most people want to start by looking up ‘booby’, ‘honeyeater’ etc? I think this will cause much annoyance in times to come, which the book overall most certainly does not deserve.

This book will, I am sure, become a classic over time and I suspect that many birders visiting Australia and buying a guide for the trip will turn to this. Many more of us will add it to our shelves, and in time will find ourselves also turning to it more and more. Good luck CSIRO – I think you deserve it, and I wasn’t sure I’d be saying that when I first heard of the project.

*What Bird is That? by Neville Cayley, was the first 'modern' Australian bird field guide, published in 1931. It lumped birds together entirely according to habitat, and entirely independently of taxonomy. We roll our eyes now at this, the crowded and somewhat washed-out plates, and lack of maps, but it supported and guided generations of Australian bird watchers.

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Matthew Frawley said...

Thanks for the review, Ian.

Ian Fraser said...

Thanks Matthew, good to hear from you.

Flabmeister said...

There has been some mention on birding-aus of washed out images. The first mention of this appeared to be a printing fault affecting a few pages in all copies. A second post has reported a different set of pages and suggests checking purchased copies carefully.

The indexing daftness is of curse ubiquitous.

Anonymous said...

Just received my long anticipated copy and am gutted to find that there washed out pages! Page 239: Kestrel & Brown & Black Falcons; Page 243: Barn, Grass and Masked Owl. What to do, these pages really can't be used for effective ID? Has anyone sent copies back? Am keen to know. A bit disappointed.

Ian Fraser said...

You're right - and I confess I missed these in my initial perusal. It sounds as though you're not the only one in this situation, and of course you should contact the publisher for their response.

Andrew Bell said...

The pages you mention 439 and 243 are fine in my copy, you may just have been unlucky with your sample. Mine has some too lightly (for my taste) printed pages in the passerines, but no problem for ID purposes. Great book, I suspect there is a market though for a slightly larger print coffee table version, I think many of us will struggle a little with the print size in poor light as we age. (Not as much as with the Illustrated Checklist of Birds of the World though).