/ 25 November 2016

​Twitchers can tick off superb field guide lifers

Lammergeier or baardaasvoël? Whatever name is used for it
Lammergeier or baardaasvoël? Whatever name is used for it

There are many rare birds, but guidebooks about them are not scarce. Birders — and nature lovers of a simpler, less rarefied kind — could be said to have a glut of field guides. But that can’t be a bad thing in a country where dubious environmental impact assessments and mineral “rights” trump environmental concerns, allowing rapacious mining and extractive practices to proceed apace.

Despoliation of nature and with it the death of habitat are but tiny pricks on the corporate conscience. The rest of us, however, should care deeply. As Shakespeare has Hamlet observe, “there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow”.

In one of those peculiar twists, Sappi, responsible for vast stretches of green deserts (plantations of thirsty pines), sponsors one of the finest field guides, Newman’s Birds of Southern Africa. Sasol funds birding books too, including several editions of Sasol Birds of Southern Africa, and its logo appears on the front jacket of the recent Guide to Birds of the Kruger National Park by Warwick Tarboton and Peter Ryan (Struik Nature, October 2016).

Truly, “there’s nowt so strange as folk”. Free-wheeling, free-spirited environmental activists might think of it another way, as being akin to Al Capone founding a home for the widows and orphans of policemen killed in the line of duty.

Newman’s Birds, the life’s work of ornithologist and artist Kenneth Newman, was taken to a 10th, commemorative edition in 2010 by his daughter Vanessa, with Struik the publisher (and continuing Sappi sponsorship). Newman had died in 2006.

What I love most about Newman’s are his illustrations and his uniquely simple bird-identification system, a genius distillation of knowledge, observation and love for his subjects.

As an illustrator, Newman is a nonpareil. Other guidebooks have artists technically better, but with less affinity for birds. Still others have expert ornithologist illustrators who, however, lack those intraspecies insights that characterise Newman.

Before I get pelted by twitchers each championing their favourite guidebook and artist or artists, let me add that there are no bad South African bird field guides or bird artists. It’s fascinating to compare the representations and depictions, which are often superior to photographs because in each artwork there is a particular spark between illustrator and subject; there’s a hint of fulfilling time spent in one another’s company; a meeting of species and minds that is somehow more pronounced than in even the best photos.

And the guidebook format has a cramping effect on photographs. Typically 200mm x 120mm to 125mm, they can’t do justice to dramatic avian photography with all its patience, nerve, technical proficiency and the Cartier-Bresson capturing-of-the-moment, when eye and finger and frame come together in an instant for an instant.

Large-format handbooks and companions (often coffee-table specimens) are where photography takes flight. Though there are excellent photos by the authors throughout Guide to Birds of the Kruger National Park, the large-format book allows for a visual experience that is almost the next best thing to seeing the real live birds. In this field I have to hand the gold to The Ultimate Companion for Birding in Southern Africa by Peter Ginn and Geoff McIlleron (published and sponsored by The Unlimited, 2014).

Ginn and McIlleron collaborated on The Complete Book of Southern African Birds, published in 1990. Almost a quarter of century later, they pooled their knowledge, field notes and pics, and drew in 18 of their bird expert peers, to produce a two-volume giant hardback set that lives up to its billing as “a unique and easy-to-read format that can be understood and enjoyed by anyone, bird-watcher or beginner alike”.

The Ultimate Companion has remarkable and revealing photographs of birds rising, soaring, swooping, gliding, hovering, flocking, landing, dunking, swimming, fighting, preying, playing, hunting, fishing, feeding, resting and pairing off. Add to those a wide range of anecdotes and wisdom, and a reader-friendly text.

Specialists — and here birders and twitchers are much in evidence — sometimes resort to jargon and a stream of scientific words that are shorthand for them but exclude, deliberately or unintentionally, the eager tyro. The most knowledgeable and wise, however, don’t do this — and that is at the heart of Ginn and McIlleron’s (second) magnum opus.

All profits from the book will go to the Unlimited Child, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to early childhood development in crèches. So, far from seeking kudos to assuage corporate conscience and fulfil so-called corporate social responsibility, this book derives from the common good for the common good — of both humankind and the bird kingdom. A warning: at 335mm x 255mm, and with high-quality paper, each volume is weighty; a two-hand book might be a more apt appellation.

To many, the most venerable of South African bird books is of course Roberts. The seven successive editions of Roberts Birds of Southern Africa and the initial Roberts Bird Guide form their own canon and now, with the publication of the second edition of the Guide, there is an innovative volume to set alongside the initial The Birds of South Africa by Austin Roberts, illustrated by Norman CK Lighton (South African Bird Book Fund, 1940). This new guide is by Hugh Chittenden, Greg Davies and Ingrid Weiersbye (new illustrations), published by the John Voelcker Bird Book Fund. It follows Chittenden’s 2007 first edition.

Field guides tell you quickly and concisely what the bird is and looks like; scientific and common names; size; where it’s found; plumage differences arising from gender, age and season; status (endangered or not); and perhaps how it sounds and flies. Handbooks can elaborate on all those and then some; they are the Encyclopaedia Britannica macropaedia entry to the field guides’ micropaedia Britannica.

The new Roberts Guide has many unique selling points. Its dimensions, at 210mm x 140mm, make it much wider and a little taller than a Sasol or Newman’s guide (and a little heavier too). It has scores of telling new portraits by Weiersbye to add to the old friends we know, done by Graeme Arnott, Andrew Barlow, ACV (Tony) Clarkson, Ronald Cook, Penny Meakin and Chris van Rooyen.

Telling males from females becomes easier given the extensive notes on the differences, amplified by seasonal and age variations pointed out where applicable in the more than 240 annotated colour plates. Status, habitat, call and food are part of each entry.

Particularly enjoyable are the pithy notes on eating habits: in other words, digestion digested.

To accommodate all this has meant crowded left-hand pages (the other side carrying the colour plates). Every now and then the reader feels a little cramped; the serif typeface for entries might add to this effect (sans serif is used for species header-entries).

But that’s a possibly idiosyncratic quibble. The guide has the latest distribution maps, and breeding and seasonality bars. It is a commodious compendium, a fine example of a co-operative at work.

Imagine listening voluntarily to a lecture about a topic of great interest to you: that’s the second Roberts Guide.

Set against that is the singular vision of an ornithological iconoclast: Newman’s is like having a conversation with another mind.

The monograph that is Guide to Birds of the Kruger National Park is not that far removed from those two fine holdalls. Customised for a visit to the park, and so slimmer and lighter than a general field guide, there’s a bonus in that it has a use beyond the Kruger, where 500 of the almost 1 000 bird species in Southern African have been recorded. Given that 500 is more than half the bird life in this region, there’s a chance that winged visitors to upcountry gardens might be found here. For use in the park itself, there is the boon that its distribution maps are based on actual sightings there.

At R320 for the hardcover and R280 for the flexicover Roberts and R250 for the Kruger book, these are very affordable. Either Roberts Bird Guide or Guide to Birds of the Kruger National Park would make excellent Christmas or anytime gifts. An even better idea would be to give both to a birder or would-be birder.

Fallen sparrows aside, why should non-birders and non-would-be-birders care? A chilling comparison between Newman’s X and Roberts II is this: in 2010, Vanessa Newman could write that the lammergeier (bearded vulture) had an estimated South African population of more than 250 pairs. In 2016, the Roberts compilers list the same Gypaetus barbatus, the baardaasvoël, as critically endangered, with about 200 pairs.

I cherish the ancient name lammergeier, German for “lambs vulture” (they don’t hunt lambs), which gives an idea of the size and strength of this, the largest European bird of prey.

Ever the lammergeier, just as for me louries will always be louries, never turacos and grey go-away birds; Muriel Spark’s The Go-Away Bird and Other Stories excepted. Adopting global bird-naming conventions used by the International Ornithological Congress has seen the 2010 Newman’s and the Roberts guides change many long-held, traditional common names.

So seek not the Rameron Pigeon — it’s become the African Olive-Pigeon while remaining Columba arquatrix; the scientific names for birds using Latin and Greek haven’t flown away.

In classical legend it was a lammergeier, mistaking the bald head of the Greek playwright Aeschylus for a rock, that dropped a tortoise on the shiny dome. In fact, Aeschylus died rather less suddenly at Gela in southern Sicily.

As Roberts II records of the bearded vulture: “Often drops bones in flight on to rocky ground to break them.” A lammergeier, a tortoise, a great tragedian’s head: those are among the many reasons that we should care about birds and their world, which is ours too.