Field Guide to the Birds of East Africa
by Terry Stephenson and John Fanshawe
Published by T & A D Poyser
Field guides are getting better and better. It's hard to imagine how one could improve on the Collins Bird Guide for Europe or the Sibley Bird Guide for North America and now with the launch of this new guide for East Africa we can claim to have almost perfect coverage of the three most popular birding areas of the world.
The first thing you notice about any field guide is the artwork. In regions such as this which have over 1300 species there has been a tendency in the past for publishers to squeeze 20 or more species on a plate or conveniently omit illustrations of females and immatures. In this case Poyser have wisely chosen instead to show 5 or 6 species on a page and to feature all major plumages and races. As a result there are 287 plates showing 3400 images, presented in the same format as most European field guides with text and maps on the page facing each plate. This will make the book wonderfully easy to use and certainly not lacking in terms of the quantity of illustrations. But what about the quality?
As soon as you open the book you'll realise that the standard of artwork is exceptional. The plates by John Gale and Brian Small are as good as you'll find in any field guide. Whether their plates are as good as those in the Collins Bird Guide by Killian Mullarney or Dan Zetterström is a matter of opinion. Some will say these are even better! The plates by Norman Arlott don't come to life in quite the same way but they portray the plumages perfectly well and don't detract from the overall quality of the book.
The text is also of an unusually high standard. The format of 5-6 species per page gives enough room for a decent-sized paragraph on each species, especially when the font size is quite small. This means the text is quite full and manages to cover the identification in various plumages, plus notes on distribution/likelihood and descriptions of songs and calls, without resorting to hieroglyphic abbreviations. In general the text looks admirably thorough and the formula of highlighting the most important features in italics makes it very easy to use. Looking carefully for evidence of detail on birds I know well, I was disappointed that the Thekla Lark notes made no mention of bill shape and the description of Ringed Plover call as 'pweeoo' didn't ring true but lots of other descriptions were beyond criticism.
If you are planning a trip to Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda or Burundi this is now unquestionably the most valuable book you can buy. And if you aren't yet planning a trip there this is the perfect book to get you dreaming.