Birds of the Middle East


When news of a second edition of Porter and Aspinall’s Birds of the Middle East was announced, my initial reaction was that the first edition still holds its own and remains an essential piece of kit on all my trips to the region – was there a real need for a second edition? Inevitably, this new edition will be judged against its predecessor – already far-and-away the best field guide to the region in question.

The two authors have extensive experience. Richard Porter has been synonymous with the birds of the Middle East for half a century and Simon Aspinall has lived in the UAE for the best part of two decades. Written descriptions have been enhanced since the first edition, and are comprehensive for all species. A particularly useful addition is the use of bold text to highlight key features for each species. An acid test for any publication would be unstreaked Acrocephalus warblers, and I was impressed at the depth of text for these tricky creatures. The information evidently combines the authors’ field experience with cross-referencing from other sources (such as Svensson) to deal with primary projection minutiae.

Some 820 species are documented, 100 more than in the first edition. The region covered stays the same – Cyprus, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, the Arabian Peninsula and Socotra – so the additional species are due to an increase in vagrants, impressively including records to spring 2010, along with more progressive taxonomic treatment (so, for example, Socotra Buzzard has been split).

Sequencing has inevitably changed too, with the adoption of Dickinson’s ‘gamebirds first, ducks second’ order and the old Voous order brushed aside. All species (except vagrants) are given clear status maps; these have been extensively revised and now show breeding range, wintering and passage distributions – the first edition only showed breeding ranges.

With a trio of artists at the top of their profession – John Gale, Mike Langman and Brian Small – the 176 colour plates are inevitably of the highest quality. Many are retained from the first edition, although there has been some re-working based on enhanced knowledge. European and Oriental Turtle Doves look more similar, as they should, while the plates of the larger terns are infinitely more useful. The new edition also feels less cluttered, with no more than six species per plate; the main text is now opposite the images, further increasing the usability of the book. 

Gull aficionados will find the large white-headed gull section vastly improved – new illustrations deal with seven species, and tables to summarise identification features and moult strategies are innovative and a definite enhancement on the first edition.

I am not a fan per se of including species that have yet to occur within the region, although I can see the benefit of including ‘Continental Lesser Black-backed Gull’ Larus fuscus intermedius to increase observer awareness. Asian Dowitcher, Güldenstädt’s Redstart and Great Rosefinch are still retained from the first edition, despite having never been recorded reliably within the treated region. But this little grumble aside, you are looking at a typically high-quality Helm field guide.

To summarise, this book is essential to anyone visiting the region and contains a mine of contemporary information; we should feel privileged to have such an excellent field guide to aid any perplexing identification issues. Now the only task that remains is to translate this second edition into Arabic so that local birders will be able to benefit and further their own interest in their regional avifauna.

Tech spec

Birds of the Middle East by Richard Porter and Simon Aspinall (Christopher Helm, London, 2010).

400 pages, 176 colour plates, plus numerous maps.

ISBN 9780713676020. Pbk, £29.99.

Available from Birdwatch Bookshop

First published in Birdwatch 221:46 (November 2010).