07/10/2011
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Field Guide to the Birds of Macaronesia

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This is the second field guide to cover the fascinating avifauna of Macaronesia (the Azores, Madeira, Canaries and Cape Verde Islands), a region boasting no fewer than 22 endemic species and 60 endemic subspecies, according to this author. It comes after Tony Clarke’s Birds of the Atlantic Islands, published by Helm in 2006 and following a similar remit. The new work is up to date to the end of 2010, but is smaller in format and has 27 fewer pages. It is available only in hardback, a binding I personally find better suited to the reference shelf than the field.


In comparison with the larger guide, the species accounts here seem to average a little shorter, but there is not too much difference. The new book uses smaller type so has the potential to include more information, but in a few places this is a missed opportunity – for example, on page 290, the Blue Chaffinch account occupies less than half a page and the rest is left blank.


After an explanatory introduction, the text for each species in the main section covers identification, voice, status/habitat and, where relevant, taxonomy. All of this appears in an account opposite figures of the same species, unlike Clarke’s guide, which has plates facing summary identification comments and then a more detailed text section. The new book is rounded off by the Sociedad Ornitológica Canaria’s official checklist of all Macaronesian bird species.


In the main, the identification text ranges from good to adequate, and it should be sufficient to identify most birds routinely encountered in the islands. Where it tends to be weak is in the minutiae and separation of some more difficult species and/or plumages.


To test this I turned to gulls, always a good benchmark for field guides, and found a few errors; examples include incorrect plumage details for atlantis Yellow-legged Gull, the wrong orbital ring colour for European Herring Gull (usually yellow, not red) and no mention whatsoever of brachyrhynchus Mew Gull, the Nearctic form of Common Gull (here called Mew Gull) which in the Western Palearctic has only occurred in the Azores, and which is increasingly split as a full species.


My quibbles about the text are also reflected in the plates. Overall, the artwork is of a very high standard, and a number of the figures are among the best you’ll see anywhere. Some are reproduced from the same publisher’s superb Handbook of the Birds of the World (HBW) and the line-up of contributing artists is impressive, but unfortunately they do not cover all plumages or ages. As an example again, gulls are shown only as adults or as adults and first-winters, and there are no juvenile terns.


Similarly, only eight out of 70 wader species are illustrated in juvenile plumage. Some 22 of these are Nearctic in origin and appear mainly in autumn, but only one – Spotted Sandpiper – is portrayed in juvenile plumage. And single breeding adult figures for Short-billed and Long-billed Dowitcher will not aid field identification in a Macaronesian context; in contrast, three different figures of each, including ‘juvs’, are usefully depicted in Clarke.


The landbirds are more successful and more representative of the plumages likely to be seen. Particular favourites of mine include the kingfishers and the wood-warblers –Canada and Hooded Warbler, for example, seem almost alive on the page. In a few instances, a markedly different, more ‘scratchy’ illustrative style depicts taxa such as the different Goldcrest forms, additional pipit and wagtail sketches, and the assorted tubenoses for which these islands are so famous; some of these figures are more pleasing to the eye than others.


Overall, though, despite some gripes, this is an attractive and useful guide; I suspect it might also presage more Lynx field guides derived partly from HBW content. Used in conjunction with other works on the region’s birds or as a reference to their status, this book should prove popular with the growing number of resident and visiting birders in the Atlantic islands. In this respect I was intrigued to learn from the book of two new organisations, the Macaronesian Bird Club and the Macaronesian Institute of Field Ornithology; the website given for both (www.birdingmacaronesia.com) is not up and running yet, but could prove an interesting future development.


Field Guide to the Birds of Macaronesia. Azores, Madeira, Canary Islands, Cape Verde by Eduardo Garcia-del-Rey (Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, 2011).

341 pages, 150 colour plates and 230 distribution maps.

ISBN 9788496553712. Hbk, approx £24.78.