At the start of the year we looked forward to celebrating, in conjunction with the Linnean Society, the year of our 1,000th meeting since the inaugural meeting on 5 October 1892. We had planned two talks at the Society's premises: in June, by Prof. Jared Diamond, and in November by Prof. Jon Fjeldså. Alas the pandemic made these and also talks at the Barley Mow impossible. However, like many others, we have been converted to the benefits of Zoom and to date we have hosted two outstanding events. On 21 September Dr Beth Okamura gave our first Zoom talk on How birds shape freshwater biodiversity and on 16 November Prof. Jon Fjeldså deliver his presentation on The evolution of passerine birds explained. We are very grateful to them both for their willingness to work (and so successfully) in difficult and unfamiliar circumstances.
Whilst we missed the immediacy and companionship of live meetings, in both cases we attracted large audiences and from around the world, which given the Club's large overseas readership is very gratifying. We hope that we may return to something like normality next year, but I believe that even if we meet in person we will continue to Zoom future events. And as is now routine, both these talks are available on YouTube via the BOC site. We are now working on a programme of talks for 2021 and details will be published on the website.
I am very pleased to announce that we are being joined by Sarah Nichols, who will be taking over in early 2021 from Eng-Li Green as our website manager. Eng-Li has decided that she should limit her online work and is delighted that Sarah will be taking over from her. I am pleased that Eng-Li will nevertheless continue to work with Guy Kirwan on the Bulletin. Sarah has recently completed her M.Sc. on Biodiversity, Evolution and Conservation at Univ. College London and the Natural History Museum, London.
I am also delighted that Sarah will be organising and editing a blog. This is a new and important venture and any feedback would be gratefully received. The blog will appear quarterly in synch with the Bulletin. The content of the blog will include summaries of papers published in the Bulletin and posts on other issues in ornithology. It will be launched next month on the Club's website where the News section used to be.
The 997th meeting of the Club was held on Monday 21 September 2020 via the online medium of Zoom.
Dr Beth Okamura, Merit Researcher, Natural History Museum, spoke on How birds shape freshwater diversity. She began by posing the audience questions such as whether they had ever wondered how volcanic islands, garden pools and gravel pits develop a rich biota, or why rowan trees grow near pines. The answers to both in part involve patterns of bird visitations. That avian activities might help explain the widespread distributions of taxa that live in disjunct habitats was appreciated by Darwin, and this conundrum famously led him to examine the attachment and survival of recently hatched snails on ducks' feet. Beth took this as her starting point in considering how our understanding of dispersal of freshwater invertebrates has improved since. In particular, she focused on evidence for waterbird-mediated dispersal of colonial invertebrates called bryozoans (or ‘moss animals’) and their myxozoan parasites (‘slime animals’), freshwater animals that are poorly known but that have substantial ecological and practical impacts. Her explanation of this included illustrating how these unappealingly named animals serve as ‘model systems’ that demonstrate the profound effect of waterbird movements on the development and dynamics of freshwater communities, and consequent impacts on water supply and emerging fish diseases. The Club is deeply grateful to Beth for being willing to act as a ‘guinea pig’ in delivering her fascinating and unusual talk via the medium of Zoom.
The 998th meeting of the Club was held, in conjunction with the Linnean Society of London, on Monday 16 November 2020 via the online medium of Zoom.
Prof. Jon Fjeldså, Professor in Biodiversity at Copenhagen University, where he is also in charge of the bird collections of its Zoological Museum, spoke on The evolution of passerine birds explained. Based on his research spanning many decades, Jon explained that classifying birds from morphology has never been easy, and resolving the evolutionary relationships among passerine birds has proven especially challenging. Since the emergence of molecular systematics, many traditionally defined songbird groups, such as ‘flycatchers’ and ‘warblers’, have been revealed to involve multiple independent lineages of birds with similar lifestyles. Scores of members of these former ‘umbrella’ groups are now viewed as ancient relictual lineages, and the number of accepted passerine families has increased dramatically, by 40%. Although generating a ‘taxonomic mess’—a growing pain resulting from the shift from similarity based taxonomy to taxonomy representing evolutionary relationships—these new relationships also lead to biogeographic insights spanning the globe. His talk revealed novel perceptions and interpretations about the generation of avian diversity and variation over time, and demonstrated that the complex worldwide pattern of bird species diversity was driven by relatively few life-history shifts and geographic expansions. However, despite the immense progress recently made in our understanding, the talk concluded by highlighting remaining problem areas in resolving the passerine tree of life, where further progress requires more and better data. As Jon emphasised, the age of exploration must continue! This was an overview of real scope and detail, in which Jon was kind enough to highlight both the past and the continuing relevance of research published by the Club's Bulletin since its inception in 1892. Those interested in learning more will be pleased to know that a comprehensive volume co-edited by Jon, entitled The largest avian radiation: the evolution of perching birds, or the Order Passeriformes (Lynx Edicions), will have been published by the time you read this.
Given the uncertainty surrounding the timescale of the current Covid-19 pandemic, details of forthcoming meetings in 2021 will be announced online via the Club's website: https://boc-online.org/meetings/upcomingmeeting, or follow the Club's Twitter (@online_BOC) and Facebook accounts ( https://www.facebook.com/onlineBOC). Be sure to keep an eye on them!
Kirkconnell, A., Kirwan, G. M., Garrido, O. H., Mitchell, A. D. & Wiley, J. W. 2020. The Birds of Cuba: an annotated checklist. BOC Checklist Series 26. British Ornithologists' Club, Tring. 472 pp, 32 pp of colour photographs. ISBN 978-0-9522886-7-1. £44.99.
Those familiar with the BOU, now BOC, checklists will know what to expect in this new publication. The series is renowned for publishing benchmark summaries of the status of each species in a particular country or region. The word ‘checklist’ might be an example of quintessential British understatement: these checklists represent portable compendia of museum specimen and sighting data, and many of the species accounts in The birds of Cuba run to more than a page of concise, informative, densely packed type. If you wish to know the status of a given species, how many records there have been, their geographical spread, or who obtained them, therein lies the answer! If you need to determine which subspecies occur, or if you are delving into a nation's ornithological history, then such a checklist is typically the best starting point. Caribbean ornithology has been the fortunate beneficiary of five previous checklist titles, each an ornithological milestone that has earned its niche in the regional bibliography. This checklist of the birds of the largest and most diverse island will surely take its place among them.
The authors' names will be familiar to those with an interest in the birds of the West Indies, and their individual credentials are impressive. They have accumulated decades of combined field experience, hundreds of publications and a track record of working on similar projects. Jim Wiley's A bibliography of ornithology in the West Indies (2000) is a regional researcher's Bible, Garrido and Kirkconnell's field guides to the birds of Cuba (2000, 2011) are the standard national references, and Birds of the West Indies (Kirwan et al. 2019) is the equivalent for the region. Nevertheless, or perhaps because of that, the task under review has taken the best part of three decades. The extent to which the literature has been reviewed can be judged by the number of bibliographic references, which extend across 58 pages. In passing, the 46 contributions of ‘the doyen of Caribbean ornithology’ (Parkes 1989), James Bond, take up a double spread. In addition to these published and unpublished sources, museum specimens and observational records have been diligently compiled, and more than 350 individual collectors and observers are cited as a result. Evidently, many of the specimens in both Cuban and the principal foreign museums were personally checked and verified by the authors, who visited every collection holding more than 100 specimens of Cuban provenance.
The content of the 386 species accounts follows and augments that of previous checklists. It comprises sections on global distribution, Cuban records (the meat of the work), breeding data, and as near a comprehensive list of museum specimen holdings as is possible. Where taxonomic differences or points of interest arise they are treated in an additional section. On that subject, taxonomy broadly follows the AOU Check-list of North American birds and supplements, with departures where evidence points to a more convincing arrangement. So, for example, Cuban Nightjar Antrostomus cubanensis, Cuban Kite Chondrohierax wilsonii, and Cuban Palm Crow Corvus minutus are all treated as endemic species.
Conservation issues are amply covered, with an optional comments section covering, for example, global and national conservation status according to, respectively IUCN and the national Red List categories of the Libro Rojo de los vertebrados de Cuba. In some cases, the accounts themselves present information not readily available outside Cuba, which makes the texts for Zapata Rail Cyanolimnas cerverai or Cuban Ivory-billed Woodpecker Campephilus principalis bairdii invaluable, usefully updating the thorough work of Threatened birds of the Americas (Collar et al. 1992).
Arguably more important than adding additional species is the task of weeding out inadequately documented records. The authors have performed a vital service in examining afresh the evidence for inclusion of 26 of such ‘unconfirmed species’, and have set the record straight by dismissing, for example, the extraordinary published claims of Palearctic species Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis, Eurasian Blackcap Sylvia atricapilla and White-winged Snowfinch Montifringilla nivalis that had found their way on to some national and even regional checklists.
Introductory material that might simply have been a formality to be passed over en route to the species accounts proves to be fascinating, rigorous and not easily found outside this publication. It begins with a history of Cuban ornithology containing brief sketches of the colourful characters who devoted their lives to the pursuit of knowledge, from those, like Gundlach, who are still widely recognised today to fascinating figures not so familiar outside the archipelago like Felipe Poey or José Hernández Bauzá. The long history of home-grown and resident naturalists and ornithologists emerges clearly, right through to the present-day ranks of active guides, park guards and biologists like Pedro Regalado and Nils Navarro. At the same time, it is striking how many leading ornithologists from US museums—among them Cory, Chapman, Barbour, Peters, Bond, Vaurie, Morton—were motivated to undertake field work in Cuba during the 19th and 20th centuries. Sadly, as the story is told, the frequent deterioration, destruction and loss of so many irreplaceable specimens and even entire collections becomes all too apparent; poignantly among them a Gundlach specimen of the extinct Cuban Macaw Ara tricolor—the sole example held in Cuba—that I had the good fortune to see while working at the Instituto de Ecología y Sistemática in the early 1990s. The sections on geology, geography and vegetation are similarly well-compiled primers, while the treatment of zoogeography and fossils, reviewed by William Suárez, is exemplary. A 22-page gazetteer is a vital aid in pinpointing localities mentioned in the text. Inserted into the middle of the book is a pleasing selection of photographs that depict, among other things, most of Cuba's endemic and speciality species, including historic specimens of extinct and Critically Endangered birds.
Publication of this survey is timely. International interest in Cuba has increased considerably over the past decade and, prior to the ongoing pandemic and current (though now expiring) US presidency, visitor numbers were growing rapidly at the same time as the old political impediments crumbled. There was therefore no better time for a full stock-take of distributional knowledge to succeed the Catálogo de las aves de Cuba published in 1975 (Garrido & García Montaña 1975). Forty-five years on, Orlando Garrido is a co-author of this new book, which is fittingly dedicated to another co-author, the ornithological giant Jim Wiley who sadly died during the final revisions of the manuscript. It is to be hoped that many future ornithologists, both amateur and professional, will find themselves in the happy position to make use of this fine tribute.
Beehler, B. M. & Laman, T. 2020. New Guinea: nature and culture of Earth's grandest island. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, NJ & Oxford, UK. 375 pp, c.200 colour photographs. ISBN 978-0-691-18030-4. £25.
This is a beautiful and authoritative overview but also a fundamentally accessible one, both in price and content. Belying its ‘coffee-table’ design and format, it combines the best of both worlds. Bruce Beehler is a veteran of c.50 visits to New Guinea, and co-author of both of a recent field guide to the region and a taxonomic handbook worthy of most superlatives (reviewed in Bull. Brit. Orn. Cl. 136: 221–222), while Tim Laman is one of the authors of a stunning photographic survey of the birds of paradise and a regular contributor to National Geographic.
Subtitled ‘Earth's grandest island’, a perhaps arguable but certainly not unsubstantiated claim, New Guinea is both ‘painfully’ remote for most of us and culturally ‘beyond our ken’. I suspect that most people around the world, if forced to encapsulate their knowledge of this poorly known part of Australasia, would respond with birds of paradise and scantily but ornately dressed tribespeople. Beehler & Laman escort us on journey that simultaneously underscores and alters our perceptions.
This lavishly illustrated book comprises 18 chapters, covering among other subjects ‘history’, ‘geology’, climate, ‘biogeography’, plants, invertebrates, fish, reptiles, mammals, birds (of course), ‘paleontology’, ‘people’, and ‘the future’. A typical chapter covering a biotic group, for example mammals, provides a simple yet informative overview of the families found in New Guinea (including separate coverage of non-natives), with adjunct comments on (in this case) traditional hunting practices, extinctions, and potential future threats. References are eschewed in the text, but a footnote at the start of each chapter briefly lists some of the keynote works used to prepare that section, which the more interested reader can then pursue via the endpapers. The family details for birds are, unsurprisingly, especially detailed, but rather than attempt an overall survey of diversity commence with a general introduction to the geography and ecology of the avifauna, then provide summaries for three keynote families, birds of paradise, bowerbirds, and honeyeaters, before rounding off with the story of the discovery that the feathers and skin of Hooded Pitohui Pitohui dichrous are toxic, something which was well known to the region's peoples, but only recently elucidated by Western science.
Although rather more even than just a general natural history book, two other chapters should make especially interesting reading for serious birders. The first, that on history, takes us through the early voyages of discovery, the colonial period (British, Dutch, and German), the major expeditions engaged in collecting natural history, some of the institutions harbouring important holdings of specimens, as well as laboratories and research stations currently or recently active, together with some future directions for biodiversity investigations. The illustrations and text highlight that field research was and is tough. This reader, at least, would have welcomed more images of the trailblazers, in terms of Western knowledge, although I still struggle to divine whether the young Ernst Mayr half-smirks at the camera in shyness, assuredness in his future, or merely as a result of his having adopted a not entirely comfortable perch, in that famous 1929 photo. The second of my two choices, entitled ‘In the field’, paints an illuminating picture of the difficulties both in arranging and executing field work in what remains one of the most remote forests in New Guinea, on the Foja Mountains. Over the course of three visits, Beehler and colleagues collected many new taxa, among them at least two birds, with other ornithological novelties still to be described (see Beehler et al. 2007, 2012, Beehler & Prawiradilaga 2010).
Even if, like me, you have never set foot on Earth's grandest island, but you share a passion for wild and poorly known places then this book represents an introduction to one such treasure trove, and as already mentioned at an extremely competitive price.
Robin Wilfrid Woods MBE, FLS (1936–2020)
Falkland Islands ornithology suffered an immeasurable and irreplaceable loss when Robin Woods died on 8 August 2020. He will be remembered for his unrivalled ornithological knowledge especially, but also for his deep understanding of the islands ecology, and his lasting contribution to nature conservation there.
Robin was born on 20 October 1936 in Croydon, Surrey, and grew up in Norbury. His interest in natural history was encouraged by his mother and grandmother and, for his sixth birthday, his father gave him a copy of The Observer's book of British birds. Aged 11, Robin wrote to the National Ringing Committee offering to ring sparrows in his loft and, if this ‘would be any use’, requesting a supply of rings. To his disappointment, he was told tersely that they could not send rings ‘to anyone as young as you are’.
After completing O-levels at Mitcham Grammar School in 1953 Robin had to provide another income for the family. He trained as a scientific assistant for the Air Ministry Meteorological Office, and in 1956 volunteered for a post in the Falklands. Part of the appeal, he told me, was that little had been published on the birds of the archipelago. He arrived in Stanley in December of that year. In his spare time Robin gathered information through his own observations, photography, ringing and tape recordings, as well as, critically, from talking to islanders. His natural demeanour with people, inquisitive mind and ability to make meticulous notes were ideal for the role. In 1957 he met Anne, a teacher working in the Senior School for the Colonial Education Service; they married in 1958.
In 1961, on the small, uninhabited Kidney Island, c.16 km north-east of Stanley, Robin and a friend discovered a pair of Great Shearwaters Ardenna gravis in a burrow; the first proof of the species' breeding in the Falklands. Robin also inspired several small-scale but far-reaching ringing projects. Together with Roddy & Lily Napier of West Point Island, Robin and Anne ringed 3,000 young Black-browed Albatrosses Thalassarche melanophrys in 1962–63. Some of them were recovered just a few months later off the coasts of Brazil, Angola and the Cape of Good Hope. A Sooty Shearwater Ardenna grisea ringed in Stanley in May 1962 was found 28 days later, drowned in a fishing-net in Barbados, having flown at least 9,000 km; the first North Atlantic record of a Falklands shearwater.
Robin left the Falklands in 1963, being posted to RAF Lyneham, Wiltshire. In 1965, he resigned from the Meteorological Office, searching for more challenging and satisfying employment. Alongside his parental and work responsibilities, Robin retrained as a psychologist. He studied for A-levels, then gained a degree, teaching certificate and post-graduate diploma. The family moved to Devon in 1974 and, for the next 21 years, Robin worked as an educational psychologist for the county council, mainly with children in care.
Robin drafted his first book while in the Falklands: The birds of the Falkland Islands (1975). With a foreword by Sir Peter Scott, it was the first comprehensive bird guide to the islands. In 1980, Sir Peter asked Robin to serve on the Advisory Council of the newly established Falkland Islands Foundation. The UK-based foundation merged in 1991 with the Falkland Islands Trust, its Stanley-based counterpart, to form Falklands Conservation; Robin was a founding trustee and later became UK Deputy Chairman, UK Chairman and Vice President.
He first revisited the Falklands in 1983 to study passerines. Robin told me that the Falklands War and images in the news of places he held dear encouraged him to return. Increased public awareness of the islands brought more visitors and greater interest in wildlife. Additions to the species list prompted Robin to write Guide to birds of the Falkland Islands (1988). During his 1983 visit, he initiated a ten-year survey of breeding birds, gathering data and knowledge from islanders, visitors and the military. He collated and analysed the resulting 5,800 breeding records and, with Anne, wrote Atlas of breeding birds of the Falkland Islands (1997).
Following early retirement in 1995, Robin visited the Falklands during the austral spring / summer in most years. His work with Falklands Conservation included surveying Striated Caracaras Phalcoboenus australis (Fig. 1), excavating subfossil bones from a peat bog, undertaking botanical surveys, eradicating rats from islands, restoring tussac Poa flabellata, developing plans to safeguard Cobb's Wren Troglodytes cobbi, and writing many reports and articles. I was fortunate to travel with Robin on two of his visits; he was great company, always generous with his knowledge and had a wonderful sense of humour.
In 2005 he was elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London and in 2008 awarded an MBE in recognition of his services to nature conservation in the Falklands. True to Robin's character, he chose to receive his medal at Government House in Stanley with his friends, rather than at Buckingham Palace.
Arguably, his most significant publication is The birds of the Falkland Islands: an annotated checklist (2017). Robin collated 60 years of knowledge, not only in the 259 species accounts, but also in describing the geography, weather, climate and habitats of the Falklands, the history of local ornithology, human impacts, palaeornithology, and data from more than 4,000 museum specimens. It is an essential reference for anyone interested in the islands' natural history.
Robin found time to publish on other subjects too. Examples include a study of the 1:50,000 DOS Falklands maps resulting in a list of at least 780 (rather than the frequently quoted ‘about 200’) islands in the archipelago (1986); Flowering plants of the Falkland Islands (2000) (his collection forms the basis of the Falklands National Herbarium); Birds and mammals of the Falkland Islands, written with Anne (2006, 2018); and a description of a subfossil yet new species of extinct caracara Phalcoboenus napieri (Emu 2016). He also contributed to A visitor's guide to the Falkland Islands (2001, 2005) and Important Bird Areas of the Falkland Islands (2006). His final publication was a detailed account of bird ringing in the Falklands since 1949 (Falkland Islands J. 2018). It says a lot about Robin that in this paper he paid tribute to the contributions by many others to our understanding of the Falklands avifauna.
Robin's contribution to Falklands ornithology, conservation and education, and help to raise awareness of the Falklands and their wildlife, is immense. His legacy of publications testifies to this and to his love of the islands. He is survived by Anne, sons Alan and Martin, and four grandchildren. He will be greatly missed by his many friends and colleagues across the world.
I am very grateful to Anne and Alan Woods for their help in compiling this tribute.
In a recent paper (Sagot-Martin et al. 2020, Bull. Brit. Orn. Cl. 140: 218–298) a call in a recording (WA 3300894) was identified as a Swainson's Flycatcher Myiarchus swainsoni, which served as one voucher for the inclusion of this species in the Rio Grande do Norte state list. In fact, the vocalisation concerned involves a very similar call of Silvery-cheeked Antshrike Sakesphorus cristatus (see similar recordings in Minns et al. 2010. Birds of Brazil / Aves do Brasil. DVD-ROM. Ed. Avis Brasilis, Vinhedo). As other vouchers are available of Swainson's Flycatcher (e.g., WA 2981660, a sound-recording in which the bird concerned was seen), the misidentified record has no effect on the species' inclusion in the list. However, all other records demonstrate that Swainson's Flycatcher is present in Rio Grande do Norte only during March–August (the austral winter).
I am grateful to the following, who have reviewed manuscripts submitted to the Bulletin during the last year (those who refereed more than one manuscript are denoted by an asterisk in parentheses): Jorge Avendaño, Norbert Bahr, Tim Birkhead, K. D. Bishop (*), Murray D. Bruce (*), Donald Buden, Carlos Camacho, Oscar Campbell, Alice Cibois, Anthony Cizek, Nigel Cleere, Kristina Cockle, J. Martin Collinson, Thiago Costa, Marco Aurélio Crozariol (*), Normand David, Carla Dove, J. P. Dumbacher, Guy Dutson, James Eaton (*), Trevor Ellery, Andy Elliott (*), Elise Elliott-Smith, Steven D. Emslie (*), R. L. Flood, Juan F. Freile (*), Peter Garson, Cheri Gratto-Trevor, Harold F. Greeney, Steven M. S. Gregory, Ben Haase, William Hilgartner, Steve Hilty, Steve N. G. Howell, Julian Hume, Alvaro Jaramillo, Sebastian Jiménez, Ron Johnstone, Leo Joseph, Chris Kehoe, Daniel F. Lane (*), Alexander C. Lees, Gabriel Leite (*), Ethan Linck, Wayne Longmore (*), Curtis A. Marantz, Manuel Marín, Jochen Martens, Gerald Mayr, Jeff Marks, Michael Mills (*), Tong Mu, Fábio Olmos, Jente Ottenburghs, José Fernando Pacheco, Marco Pavia (*), Vítor Piacentini (*), Thane K. Pratt (*), Robert Prŷs-Jones (*), Pamela C. Rasmussen, Piero Ruschi, Richard Schodde (*), Edwin Scholes, Thomas S. Schulenberg, Paul Scofield, Chris Sharpe (*), Frank D. Steinheimer, Fernando Costa Straube, Claudia Tambussi, Christophe Thébaud, Lazaro William Viñola, David R. Wells (*), Iain Woxvold, John van Wyhe, and Kevin J. Zimmer.—The Hon. Editor
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Since volume 137 (2017), the Bulletin of the BOC has been an online journal, published quarterly, that is available to all readers without charge. Furthermore, it does not levy any publication charges (including for colour plates) on authors of papers and has a median publication time from receipt to publication of five to six months. Prospective authors are invited to contact the Bulletin editor, Guy Kirwan (GMKirwan@ aol.com), to discuss future submissions or look at http://boc-online.org/bulletin/bulletin-contributions. Back numbers up to volume 136 (2016) are available via the Biodiversity Heritage Library website: www.biodiversitylibrary.org/bibliography/46639#/summary; vols. 132–136 are also available on the BOC website: http://boc-online.org/
BOC Occasional Publications are available from the BOC Office or online at firstname.lastname@example.org. Future BOC-published checklists will be available from NHBS and as advised on the BOC website. As its online repository, the BOC uses the British Library Online Archive (in accordance with IZCN 1999, Art. 22.214.171.124).