Birds of East Asia

By: Jesper Hornskov
Posted on: 01 Jan 2010First Published: January 2010 issue of Birdwatch magazine

It is potentially a red letter day when a field guide covering all the birds of one’s local patch appears after a 22-year wait.

I opened Birds of East Asia with trembling hands – surely it was not going to be a let-down of seismic proportions like MacKinnon and Phillipps’s A Field Guide to the Birds of China (OUP)? It isn’t – in short, from now on it will probably be sheer folly to go birdwatching in the region without it.

Clearly written by someone who has spent considerable time in the field, the guide deals with 985 species known from China’s coastal provinces, Manchuria, Taiwan, Korea, Japan and Russia/Siberia as far west as 116 degrees east, as well as 19 which “may occur” and 46 potential vagrants. The book has 528 pages, of which plates account for 236, with the text and distribution map for each species handily opposite the plate. A final plate of probably extinct species rounds off the guide, and there is a checklist listing each species’ status in the main areas of the region.

A total of 14 artists have contributed, the standard varying somewhat, and this is aggravated by uneven reproduction – illustrations range from the highly satisfactory to the not so good, with some scale problems. It is fortunate – given how many species are included – that Hans Larsson’s gulls and Alan Harris’s raptors fall firmly into the former category. On the other hand, the main illustrator, Dave Nurney, is in some cases quite far off the mark when it comes to 'jizz' and proportions.

Particularly poor is the illustration of Chinese Babax, a characterful, quite widespread mainland species of babbler, which may as well have been shown in black and white. His style lacks the consistency to quite pull off the demanding Phylloscopus warblers, and he is guilty of inaccuracies that could have been avoided had he read the text which accompanies his plates. An example is the very pale versus dark iris colour of Lesser and Greater Necklaced Laughingthrushes – essential to their separation, and mentioned, though underemphasised, in the text; in the plate, both sport an entirely wrong, compromise-brown iris.

With books intended for field use, size, weight and durability are all important. In this case, I like the size, but perhaps as much as 20 per cent fewer pages might have sufficed, if the text have been pared down and some of the plates been made to accommodate more species. Even users appreciative of the species-per-plate ratio may feel that less verbose text might have been a bonus, as it would have allowed a larger font size. As it is – unless you are wearing an exceptionally large coat – this is far from being a pocket guide, but the binding seems satisfactory for field use.

Explicitly subscribing to the taxonomic view that the Asian avifauna is considerably overlumped relative to other regions of the world, the author has adopted some often still controversial innovations, but as the text is designed to allow users to distinguish virtually all identifiable taxa, this isn’t a problem. Even hardnosed listers are well served, the plates regularly depicting most of the not-yet-split forms, though neither the two Chinese subspecies of Long-tailed Tit, nor the puzzling lydiae form of Pallas’s Reed Bunting, are shown. One error is that the subspecies minor is not treated with Common Reed Bunting, but with Pallas’s Reed Bunting, a possible cause of the latter being wrongly credited with having the tsiu call.

Few will find much to disagree with in the English names chosen. Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler is used, not the oft-ridiculed ‘Rusty-rumped Warbler’. Chinese Hill Warbler is preferred for Rhopophilus pekinensis which, despite the text specifically mentioning a grey supercilium, is depicted with a white brow (no doubt on account of the inappropriate name used for it elsewhere, ‘White-browed Chinese Warbler’).

Thoughts on these names are helpfully shared by Brazil in the introduction, which also includes the usual preliminary subchapters. The ‘How to use this book’ section is adequate even for newcomers to birdwatching, with a masterful ‘Avian topography and terminology’ spread, and a useful 15-page ‘Key to families’.

This book will be of great interest to anyone taken with the birds of the Palearctic, not just to birdwatchers based in or visiting the region. It is certainly an opportunity for migration enthusiasts and rarity hunters in the Western Palearctic to dream about the potential vagrants at the opposite end of Eurasia.

So, despite some flaws – highly recommended!

Tech spec

  • Birds of East Asia by Mark Brazil (Christopher Helm, London, 2009).
  • 514 pages, 236 plates, numerous maps.
  • ISBN 978 0713670400. Pbk, £29.99.
  • Available from Birdwatch Bookshop.

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