Birds of Central Asia

OUR VERDICT: For those of us who have been visiting this region for many years, the long-awaited publication of this excellent guide is to be welcomed.

Following the collapse of the old Soviet Union, travel in much of Central Asia became considerably easier and birders were quick to realise the potential of the Silk Road, with Kazakhstan in particular becoming a very popular destination. However, until the arrival of this new book we had little in the way of relevant field guides to assist us.

Concerning itself with the six ‘stans’ – Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan – this new guide features some 618 species in what is a relatively slim volume. It follows the almost standardised field guide format, with introductory chapters including a brief but useful one on geography and biogeography, illustrated with photos demonstrating how varied and stunningly scenic the region is.

In the main section of the book the text faces the plates, which is as it should be, and each species has a distribution map which, although quite small, does serve to give a reasonably good idea of range. Overall we are presented with a well-produced and compact guide that is a joy to leaf through, and up to the high standard we have come to expect from Helm.

The guide’s 143 plates use work from 13 different artists. The standard of plates is generally very good, with a significant number being taken from existing works which I am sure readers will recognise. There are some shortcomings, and I was struck by how much some species appeared very washed out – Saxual Sparrow, for instance, looks very bleached and does not really convey the smart, snappy appearance of the species (in fact the cover illustration of that bird is much more accurate). I was disappointed to see one of the special and endemic birds of the region, Pander’s Ground Jay, given scant coverage, being relegated to a small illustration dwarfed by a ‘giant’ Magpie, which I think most people know how to identify! There are a few other minor issues with the depiction of some species, but these are small points in what is generally an excellent collection of illustrations.

The taxonomy follows Dickinson (2003) in The Howard and Moore Complete Checklist of the Birds of the World, but with some exceptions that may raise a few eyebrows. It is pleasing to see that the Central Asian form of Desert Sparrow has finally been given species status and named in honour of Nikolai Zarudny, the great Ukrainian zoologist – this form has a very restricted range and is in desperate need of further study, so elevating it to species status will hopefully encourage that. But there are also some losses. People who have visited the region before will be dismayed to discover they have ‘lost’ both Turkestan Tit, which this guide places within the Great Tit complex, and the delightful Yellow-breasted Tit, which is found among the Azure Tits.

Anyone who has visited Central Asia’s semi-steppe deserts will have also seen many Lesser Short-toed Larks. Dickinson lists the taxa found in Central Asia (henei and leucophaea) as belonging to Asian Short-toed Lark, so Lesser does not feature in the book at all. Looking at the warblers, I am sure many will find the replacement of Hippolais with Iduna hard to come to terms with, and the treatment of both the Isabelline and large grey shrike groups is certainly going to spark discussion – which is perhaps better than no discussion at all.

But all that aside, for those of us who have been visiting this region for many years, the long-awaited publication of this excellent guide is to be welcomed.

  • Birds of Central Asia by Raffael Ayé, Manuel Schweizer and Tobias Roth (Christopher Helm, London, 2012).
  • 320 pages, 141 colour plates, numerous distribution maps.
  • ISBN 9780713670387. Pbk, £35. Birdwatch Bookshop: from £31.99.