The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Book Review - A Bumper Year for Bird Books


Reviewer - Paul Salt and John Tarlton

This year has seen the publication of not just one book about the birds of Ethiopia but three. Each of these three books has a different purpose: one is essentially an illustrated checklist, one is a field guide, and the last an atlas. Each in their way is useful and an ardent birder might well wish to own all of them.

A Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern Africa by Ber Van Perlo (published by Collins) was originally published in 1995 as an illustrated checklist, and that is what this revised version essentially still is. It is physically the smallest and lightest of the three books and a reasonable size for carrying on safari; it would drop comfortably into a pocket. It covers the widest area (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia and Somalia, including Socotra Island) and as a consequence has to put limits on the amount of information it can include.

Although the simplest of these books it could, nonetheless, be very useful in the field to jog the memory and its basic notes and simple illustrations may be enough to help pin down an identification. The notes contain only the essential identification details that most field guides print in italics (but not the full descriptions you would expect elsewhere) and the illustrations are simple but honest in their attempt to show the important details. There is, inevitably given the size available, a broadness of sweep to the distribution maps and it would be wise to check a more detailed authority where that is practical. The scientific nomenclature appears to be lagging a little too, particularly with regard to recent changes in classification.

Birds of Eastern Africa. Ber van Perlo. Collins Field Guide; Collins, London 2009.
Paperback ISBN: 9780007285112
302 pages
128 x 192 mm
96 colour plates; numerous maps
Price £25

Birds of the Horn of Africa by Nigel Redman, Terry Stevenson and John Fanshawe (published by Christopher Helm) is a physically larger book. In common with many of the regional guides it is perhaps a little too bulky for a pocket but it would be very much at home on a car seat or even in a backpack. The geographical range covered is Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia and Socotra. The more limited range covered and larger size means that it can pack in much more information and provide much larger illustrations and it would make an excellent guide to take on a trip. The authors have taken advantage of recent research to present a really up-to-date field guide.

The layout is very ‘user-friendly’. Information about a species is all available on one double spread, with the written description and distribution maps on one face and the excellent illustrations (by John Gale and Brian Small) on the other. This avoids the need to cross-reference from one part of the book to another and the decision to put the species names on the plates is helpful too. It makes it unnecessary to cross-reference even from one side of the page to the other. This does mean the distribution maps have to be small and, partly because the mountains ranges have been indicated in grey, smaller areas of distribution don’t always stand out clearly. However, this is a small flaw in an excellent book which we feel fills a long-standing gap.

Birds of the Horn of Africa: Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia and Socotra. Nigel Redman, Terry Stevenson, and John Fanshawe. Illustrated by John Gale and Brian Small. Helm Field Guides; Chrisopher Helm, London 2009.
Paperback ISBN: 9780713665413
496 pages
216 x 140 mm
213 colour plates; numerous maps
Price £29.99

The Birds of Ethiopia and Eritrea: an atlas of distribution by John Ash and John Atkins (also published by Christopher Helm) is by far the largest and heaviest of these three books and the only one in a hard cover. It is a book for the study or home rather than the field trip — though it is easy to imagine wishing one did have it on a trip. This is a bird atlas and is not a field guide and so it is concerned with the distribution of species and not with their identification. It consequently doesn’t have species descriptions or illustrations (other than a gallery of very clear photographs of many of the endemic species).

This is a book for the serious birder and for those dealing, directly or indirectly, with such matters as conservation and land management. It is thoroughly researched and is packed with useful and interesting information. It needs to be of this size so that it is possible to see the sections (each covering half a degree of latitude by half a degree of longitude) into which the map is divided. It is possible to see this clearly and it is especially useful when coupled with the extensive gazetteer that means the user can accurately pin down their position on each map. The bulk of the book is taken up with these maps but the rest contains copious information dealing with topography, geology, vegetation, climate and so on. There is even space for sections on the history of birding in the region and information on bird and wildlife conservation. The extensive bibliography is an additional bonus, typical of the thorough research behind this atlas.

Birds of Ethiopia & Eritrea. John Ash and John Atkins. Chrisopher Helm, London 2009.
Hardback ISBN: 9781408109793
456 pages
246 x 189 mm
16 pages colour photos; numerous maps
Price £45

The essential difference between these three volumes is clearly evident, especially to anyone wishing to dig deeper into this subject. For example, with Ethiopia in mind, a comparison of specific endemic species such as the White-tailed Swallow or Prince Ruspoli’s Turaco would easily emphasize the style and degree of information available. At the same time, this quick exercise would pinpoint the exponential increase in information about Ethiopia’s birdlife which has become available over the past 15 years. This inevitably leads to greater awareness of the need for conservation of species and habitats, and the need to maintain Ethiopia as a prime destination for birdwatching. Society members who have revisited Ethiopia after many years will have noticed severe land degradation and loss of wildlife in areas such as the Rift Valley and Awash National Park. Throughout the country, the rise in population is putting relentless pressure on natural resources. With climate change looming, there is no doubt that threats to the environment are increasing, but books such as these can do much to help the conservation movement.

All in all a bumper year for those with an interest in the birds of Ethiopia. If you already have a copy of the Collins Guide we wouldn’t recommend upgrading to the latest edition, but if you’re planning a field trip we think the Helm Guide is a must. And if you have a strong interest in birding it would be a shame not to have the Atlas — perhaps you could put it on your Christmas list.

Paul Salt has visited Ethiopia over many years as an executive of Yumo Tours in Addis Ababa, organizing safaris and birding tours.

Jon Tarlton’s work has taken to him Africa many times and he has birded widely throughout Africa including two trips to Ethiopia. He is a member of the African Bird Club.

First Published in News File Winter 2009

Opinions expressed in the articles are those of the authors and not necessarily the views of the Society.
Information is offered in good faith but the Society does not warrant the status or reliability of the information contained.

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