A Photographic Guide to the Birds of India and the Indian Subcontinent, Including Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives.—Bikram Grewal, Bill Harvey, and Otto Pfister. 2002. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ. 512 pp., 1047 color photographs, 807 maps. ISBN 0-691-11496-X $29.95 (paper).
I am not much enamored of photographic field guides. True, they provide realistic images of the subjects, but they are less successful at highlighting subtle differences and often fail to portray a sufficient range of postures and phenotypic variation. This recent entry into the field guide fray, from Princeton University Press's burgeoning field guide empire, fails to convert me. Don't take me wrong, it is an excellent guide overall …for a photographic guide. The book presents photographs of 797 (over half) of the species of birds that occur within the broad and complex region covered by the book. Many of the photos are superb, and it is truly impressive that the authors actually obtained images of all 797 species, and nine additional subspecies, some of which are very difficult to photograph let alone photograph well. Nevertheless, examples of my disillusionment with this type of guide include the mottled-brown-on-mottled-brown photo of the Jungle Bush Quail (Perdicula asiatica, p. 49), which illustrates little beyond the species' crypticity. Photographs of the Snow Partridge (Lerwa lerwa, p. 44), Chestnut-winged Cuckoo (Clamator coromandus, p. 100), Nilgiri Wood Pigeon (Colomba elphinstonii, p. 130), Common Snipe (Gallinago gallinago, p. 151), Grey-headed Lapwing (Vanellus cinereus, p. 175), Rusty-flanked Treecreeper (Certhia nipalensis, p. 318), and Mountain Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus sindianus, p. 352) fail to show much of diagnostic value. Some truly poor images include a very blurred Falcated Duck (Anas falcata, p. 64), a presumably nonbreeding-plumaged Pheasant-tailed Jacana (Hydrophasianus chirurgus, p. 165), which is not labeled, and an extremely blurry Gould's Shortwing (Brachypteryx stellata, p. 279). The introductory sections include information on ornithological history, regional geography and climate, habitats, bird movements, avian breeding ecology, and conservation issues. Accompanying each photograph is a colored range map, symbols indicating abundance and conservation status, and brief information on description, voice, habits, and distribution. Appendices include a glossary, fairly extensive bibliography, useful addresses in the region, and a species list. While conventional photography's uses in field guides are limited, a field guide that creatively integrates digitally enhanced photographs and high-quality drawings could be impressive. The bottom line is, next time I go to the Indian subcontinent, I'll more likely bring Grimmett et al.'s (1999) Birds of India (see below) rather than this book.
Birds of India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives.—Richard Grimmett, Carol Inskipp, and Tim Inskipp. 1999. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ. 384 pp., 153 color plates, 1200+ color range maps. ISBN 0-691-04910-6. $29.95 (paper).
Birds of Nepal.—Richard Grimmett, Carol Inskipp, and Tim Inskipp. 2000. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ. 288 pp., 110 color plates. ISBN 0-691-07048-2. $29.95 (paper).
These are two more installments of the Princeton Field Guide series, otherwise known as the “Field Guide Lite” series. Like other books in the series, they are condensed versions of more in-depth, authoritative field guides; in this case the 888-page “A Guide to the Birds of India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives” (1998, Princeton University Press) by the same authors. Although condensed, these two books achieve the high standards one expects from Princeton University Press field guides. All species are illustrated in well-executed color plates with sufficient attention to detail to ensure that diagnostic characteristics are clearly visible and the various pertinent morphs (e.g., sex, subspecies, age) are represented. The larger book (21.5 × 13.5 × 2.2 cm) has range maps for all 1300 species, although they often are not on the same page as the illustration or description, an awkward but space-saving necessity. Unfortunately, the Nepal book lacks range maps for the 760 species covered; this detracts some from its usefulness, but does make for a smaller (21.5 × 13.5 × 1.6 cm), more travel-friendly book. Captions are brief, but contain information on status, descriptions, size, and habitat. Bird names are provided in English only. Introductory material in each book covers habitats, conservation, migration, and climate; the books also contain lists of bird-oriented organizations, short bibliographies, and glossaries. Tables highlight diagnostic characteristics for hard-to-distinguish groups such as larks and Acrocephalus warblers. Useful to the beginning birder, Birds of Nepal has a short section that describes each bird family (and sometimes tribe). These two books are excellent for casual bird enthusiasts and serious birders making short visits to the regions covered; however, the more serious bird student would be better served by the in-depth information available in the larger and more expensive 1998 volume.
A Field Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka.—John Harrison. 1999. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. 234 pp., 48 color plates, 318 color range maps, 2 black-and-white maps. ISBN 0-19-854960-1 $65.00 (paper), ISBN 0-19-854960-X $120.50 (cloth).
Birders in Sri Lanka will much appreciate finally having a modern, comprehensive field guide to the birds of this exotic island, which is half the size of Alabama. Any island that has wild Peacocks (India Peafowl [Pavo cristatus]), Malabar Pied Hornbills (Anthracoceros coronatus), and Asian Paradise Flycatchers (Terpsiphone paradisi) is worth visiting. This book provides well-drawn color illustrations of all 426 species officially recognized as occurring in Sri Lanka and Adams Bridge, the series of islands extending north of the island. Twenty-three species are endemic to this tropical island, including Green-billed Coucal (Centropus chlororhynchos), Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush (Myiophonus blighi), Chestnut-backed Owlet (Glaucidium castanonotum), and Yellow-fronted Barbet (Megalaima flavifrons), and all are illustrated. The color drawings, by Tim Worfolk, often show different views of the birds and include sex, season, and age-specific plumages when appropriate. The color range maps, which are on the page facing each plate, are small and lack much detail, but do provide a general sense of each species' range. Descriptions of each species are in a separate section and are more detailed than the brief text accompanying each drawing. They include description, voice, status and distribution within Sri Lanka, and worldwide range. Bird names are provided in English only. Introductory material is disappointingly brief, providing very scant details on Sri Lankan geography and ornithological history. The book provides a useful list of 20 locations recommended for wildlife viewing and some bird species of interest at each. The map showing altitude and national parks is so rudimentary that I am surprised it was printed twice. It would have been much more useful if it showed habitats, major landmarks, and perhaps locations of birding hotspots discussed in the text. All in all, however, this book will be extremely valuable in the field and may also be a useful reference because it concerns an area otherwise uncovered in a single modern field guide.