Monday, April 18, 2011

Birds of New Zealand, Hawaii, Central and West Pacific

Birds of New Zealand, Hawaii, Central and West Pacific
by Van Perlo, Ber
2011, 256pp, ISBN: 9780007287383

BASICS: hardcover; contains 95 mediocre quality plates containing 750+ species across the Pacific Islands; most birds have minimal text for descriptions and identification; a few words are given for the typical habitat and a very brief description is given on the vocalization; a small, sometimes ineffectual, range map is provided for each bird
REVIEW: In a manner similar to other bird books by the author, this book straddles an imaginary line between a field guide and an illustrated annotated checklist.  With its 95 plates, all 750+ species found in the central and western Pacific islands are illustrated in color.  The only notable island chains in the Pacific not included are the Solomons, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, and the Bismarck Archipelago.  In a field guide format, the plates are adjacent to the birds' names and their respective text.  However, the quality of the illustrations as well as the limited depth and amount of text is at the minimal end of the spectrum you'd
expect from a decent field guide.

The plates by the author/illustrator are not bad but, they do look incomplete; or, perhaps more accurately, hastily finished as if it was time to move on to start a new book for another part of the world.  It is readily apparent the artwork lacks fine, smooth detail. The artwork shows a rough, more generalized color patterning.  Although this method can be used to assist with the identification of the bird, it does not lend itself to to reliably identify the bird.  In fact, these are the roughest drawings I've seen in any of van Perlo's works.  These plates are starkly different from what the publisher touts on the back cover which is "…illustrated in stunning detail…".  The only thing stunning was the incongruity of that statement.

Even the author contradicts the publisher's claim.  On page 7, he understandably defends his artistic style by saying, "It is said that the painting in my books is 'a bit sketchy, somewhat fast and loose, not finely finished'".  He then counters with, "…painting each individual feather will give too much information unless the feathers form a pattern.  I also find it difficult to draw straight lines…when depicting the parallel primaries in a folded wing, or perfect circles when forming an eye…"

These plates will still offer some help to identify the bird; but, a confident identification would be more fairly credited to the fact that so many of the birds are island restricted and do not overlap with a similar species.  On the plus side, many different plumages are included to show genders, ages, and races.  The inclusion of extra paintings often creates a very crowded page with small illustrations.  As an example, one of the gull pages is packed with 44 illustrations in an area of only 6.5 x 4.5 inches.

The text for each bird typically consists of 2-4 lines that may address descriptions, or identification tips, or preferred habitat.  Identification material is not just very scant but is often absent for some of the birds.  Here are complete examples used to describe three different birds:

1) Atiu Swiftlet reads: "Somewhat contrasting paler underparts".
2) Red-necked Stint reads: "Note short bill.  Non-breeding plumage not safely separable from [birds] 48.7 and 49.5, 49.7 and 49.9".
3) Lastly, which plover do you think fits the following description:  "Small; appears slender and rather long-legged.  Without or with very narrow wing stripe."?

Although the number of species in this book (about 750) is less than some other field guides, the huge expanse of territory covered and the relatively few species to be found in a specific island group poses some logistical, if not frustrating consequences.  If you go birding in Tahiti, or Fiji, or Hawaii, you can expect to see maybe 30-40 species in a casual 5-7 day trip.   Anyone unfamiliar with an Amakihi or a Silktail is going to be a bit frustrated trying to leaf through the book to find either bird since the birds are arranged taxonomically and not by island group.

Each bird is accompanied by a range map.  Unfortunately, these maps are small (1 x 1.5 cm) with tiny geographic outlines and symbols.  The eastern half of Australia shown in the maps is only 3mm across.  The vast expanses covered by these maps can make many of these maps relatively ineffective.  The maps often show a constellation of dots representing a chain of islands.  One of those dots might be highlighted to show the bird's presence.  It is probably only the rare person who is geographically savvy enough to recognize which tiny dot is which island amongst the myriad of different island clusters.

Yes, this is the only bird book to illustrate all the birds of Hawaii, and New Zealand, and all the island groups between Pitcairn and Palau.  Alas, that is not necessarily a good thing, just as it would not be good to illustrate all the birds of California and of Denmark into one book, especially when accompanied by weak illustrations and minimal identification material.

This book will be handy to learn what birds exist throughout the Pacific but, I would not make it the single reference for a birding trip destined to one or two  island groups (e.g., Hawaii, or New Zealand, or Tahiti, or Samoa, etc.)  There are much better alternatives for those areas.  In fact, nearly any area of the Pacific has a better alternative book.  If you use this book, be sure to supplement it with one that specializes on the area(s) you will visit.  – (written by Jack at Avian Review with sample pages, April 2011)

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