Blockbuster will appeal to serious birders

By SciBooks 25/09/2013

Reviewed by Alison Ballance

REVIEW: Birds of New Zealand: a photographic guide
by Paul Scofield and Brent Stephenson
Auckland University Press 2013

RRP $59.99

Like many New Zealanders I take a strong interest in our country’s natural history, and if you’re talking about our terrestrial vertebrate fauna then you’re pretty much talking about birds. My bookshelves have a good representation of New Zealand bird guides from across the years, and Birds of New Zealand will be given a key spot.

cp-birds-of-nzThis is a 544-page blockbuster that covers ‘the identification of 365 bird species that occur naturally in the wild regularly within the New Zealand region, those that have established wild populations and all rare visitors’.

The authors are both professional ornithologists. Paul Scofield is senior curator of natural history at Canterbury Museum, and an authority on seabirds and palaeontology. Brent Stephenson is a bird photographer and birding tour guide, and most of the more-than-1000 photographs in the book have been taken by him. As you’d expect with such pedigrees, they’ve written a serious up-to-date field guide for the international birding community.

The scientific information is so current it has yellowheads (mohua), whiteheads and brown creepers together in the newly recognised endemic family Mohouidae, though the scientific paper formally reactivating this lapsed family has only just been published. Serious doesn’t mean dry, however, as this lively response to the ‘trans-Pacific friction [caused by] the existence of a Brown creeper in North America and the persistence of a lobby trying to create a single English name for each of the world’s birds’ reveals. The authors are of the decided, if somewhat parochial, opinion that ‘The North Americans can change the name of their bird’. Quite!

The species are arranged taxonomically, with sections on identification, vocalisations, separation from similar species, distribution, breeding biology, biometrics and taxonomic notes. The latter explain, usually in some depth, how the scientific name was chosen, and the derivation of both Māori and English common names. The sections on distribution are meticulous, listing every New Zealand island a species is found on, and every country from which introduced species originate.

This amount of detail will appeal to serious birders, but it’s also why I’m a little reluctant to recommend this book as first port of call to people who don’t already know something about birds. That, and the fact that the many photos – while stunning – are small and organised by species. For someone who knows nothing, or very little, about New Zealand birds, New Zealand birds online, which went live a few months ago, is probably the simplest first option, with its handy ‘identify that bird’ section, and photos that you can view at a large size on your computer.

The back cover suggests Birds of New Zealand ‘belongs … in every backpack’, but I think this hefty volume is too heavy for all except the most motivated birder to carry around in the field. However, the publisher’s website promises an ebook, and a Birds of New Zealand app with photos and calls for all the birds in the book, including regional variants, which should provide a very portable field interface.

If you have more than a passing interest in New Zealand birds, you will want to get this photographic guide as an essential complement to previously published material.  I do wish, however,  the cover had something other than the face of a kakapo on it. This is the fourth book in print – and the second book to be published this year – with a kakapo portrait on the front, and it’s getting repetitive and unoriginal. There are, after all, another 364 species that could have been used instead.

Alison Ballance is a zoologist, wildlife filmmaker, writer and producer and presenter of Radio NZ’s Our Changing World. Her 28th book  Kakapo – Rescued from the Brink of Extinction won the Royal Society of New Zealand’s Science Book Prize in 2011 featured a kakapo on the cover. 

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