If there is one constant in the world of ornithology today, it is that taxonomy and distribution are constantly undergoing revision, and new field guides are required to keep abreast of lumps and splits, and changes in the range of many species. More than sixty new species are covered in the second edition of Birds of the West Indies. It is significant to note that many of the vagrants are increasingly not birds from Eastern North America that have simply erred or overshot their migration, but are species from Europe and Africa, some of which are appearing with a degree of regularity.
There is an immediate allure in simply looking at the front cover of this book, with such iconic West Indian species as Streamertail, Jamaican Spindalis and Cuban Tody featured. One is immediately drawn in!
The guide starts with all the usual features one expects to find in a field guide, covering geography, distribution, bird topography and instructions on how to use the book. All too often this section of a field guide is skipped over, but it should always be read thoroughly for it often contains information germane to that guide.
I was pleased to see a section on the perils that birds face and the slippery slope towards extinction for some species with critically low numbers. It is one thing for these species to be in peril from natural events such as hurricanes (the intensity and frequency of which have been exacerbated by human activity), but when a decision is made to bulldoze the last stand of trees a species needs for survival, it is a wanton, unacceptable, arrogant act. A new conservation ethic needs to become the order of the day. The list of endangered and critically endangered species makes for sobering reading.
The species section is pleasingly arranged with range maps and descriptions on the left and illustrations on the right. The information provided is well done, with enough information to identify the bird not only by morphology but with other clues to aid in the task. For example, for Magnificent Frigatebird - "Chases other seabirds to rob prey. Does not land on sea surface". These points are very helpful to someone encountering a species for the first time - or for the experienced observer for that matter. The behaviour of a bird can often lead to correct ID before the bird is even seen well.
I was not familiar with the illustrators but they have done a fine job, and the book is visually attractive.
It seems to me that this field guide does what all good field guides should do. Generally one acquires the field guide in anticipation of a visit to the area, and the images of the birds, most of which are strange, new and exotic, fuel the excitement of the trip ahead, and lets the birder know what he or she can hope to see. Many happy hours are spent with a good guide before ever setting foot on the area it covers.
I have had the good fortune to visit many of the islands of the West Indies, but maybe I need to start looking for a good deal on flights to see a few more island endemics! There are still places to explore!
Birds of the West Indies - Second Edition
Herbert A. Raffaele, James W. Wiley, Orlando H. Garrido, Alan R. Keith and Janis I. Raffaele
US$24.95, £22.00 - 9780691180519 - 288 pages - 5.25 in. x 8.5 in.
Publication date: 16 June 2020