About Me

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Canberra-based naturalist, conservationist, educator since 1980. I’m passionate about the natural world (especially the southern hemisphere), and trying to understand it and to share such understandings. To that aim I’ve written several books (most recently 'Birds in Their Habitats' and 'Australian Bird Names; origins and meanings'), run tours all over Australia, and for the last decade to South America, done a lot of ABC radio work, chaired a government environmental advisory committee and taught many adult education classes – and of course presented this blog, since 2012. I am the recipient of the Australian Natural History Medallion, the Australian Plants Award and most recently a Medal of the Order of Australia for ‘services to conservation and the environment’. I live happily in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise surrounded by a dense native garden and lots of birds.

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).

luc said...

Hi Ian
I'm a Belgian birdwatcher, we will be in Australia in December 2018. We will stay in the Melbourne region but can take an other inland flight. Which regions and bird books would you recommend me? Two bird books will do?
Thanks in advance.
Luc Teugels

Ian Fraser said...

Hello Luc, and good to hear from you. I'm glad you're going to visit Australia, but it's hard to recommend regions without knowing how long you'll be here. It will be summer, so you won't want to go the central deserts. If you have time for just one trip, you should fly to Cairns in tropical Queensland - that will give you the best diversity of birds in a small area. From Melbourne you might also consider going to Tasmania, which is close to there. I would recommend Pizzey and Knight's Field Guide to the Birds of Australia, and Thomas and Thomas's Complete Guide to Finding the Birds of Australia; make sure you get the latest editions of each. I am happy to answer other questions if you like; email me at calochilus51@internode.on.net

Anonymous said...

I also found the index format irritating (not sorted by most significant part of the name). There is now a revised index available in electronic format. This index lists species under both their scientific name, and also under their common name, and common family name.
It is available here...

Ian Fraser said...

Thanks for this useful link (sorry I can't thank you by name). I didn't know about this, but have heard that they have seen the error of their ways and will correct it for the next edition - small comfort to the rest of us of course!

Anonymous said...

I'm a little surprised that this guide has received such good reviews. There are so many aspects of it (aside from the horrible index!) that make it hard to use. The images are definitely lovely and detailed, although as noted by others, often washed out. The washed out images are more of an aesthetic than functional problem, I think, at least in most cases. But given that the illustrations are the best part of the guide, it matters that the print quality is also good. The maps are too small to have the detail they have, and end up confusing. And why would the large map of Australia have so much ocean and so little detail on the mainland? As a visitor to Australia, it would be much better to know where the topography, rainfall, or habitat lies instead of how much ocean is between the mainland and some of the islands. Perhaps at least a couple of the dozen pages of heavy, illustration-grade paper that occupy a checklist could be used for other maps? Who uses their field guide for checklists these days, when they are so regularly revised? The use of the strange method of sizing birds is extremely unhelpful for all but those who already know some of the species so they can use common birds as an index to this new method. I would have liked the typical study-skin beak-to-tail metric to be included for those who at least know how to use this more common method. So after all these complaints, I'll add that I think there are some great features too. Wonderful, posture-specific images are one. The use of concise field marks written close to the illustrations are another. Many species in flight are useful.