Saturday, 13 September 2014

Book Review: The Ultimate Companion for Birding in Southern Africa

This book is a masterpiece, but my initial reaction on hearing about this book for the first time was definitely “Not another birdbook!” as South Africa may be one of the most prodigious countries for producing bird books or updates to bird books, given the per capita number of bird watchers in the country.

In fact, I may never have purchased The Ultimate Companion (as I shall call it) if I wasn't pushed by a moral obligation to support local authors Peter Ginn and Geoff McIlleron, both sterling characters and veterans of the South African bird watching world. One could argue it isn't technically a new book at all – but rather an update to The Complete Book of Southern African Birds published when I was only 9 years old, and probably the most note worthy of Peter's many books. Also somewhat importantly, we aren't talking about one book – The Ultimate Companion is two volumes; the first dealing with Ostriches to Swifts, and the second Trogon to Buntings.

However, I am incredibly impressed with the result. The sleeve states “The most spectacular collection of southern African bird photographs ever assembled” and this is true. Geoff is an accomplished photographer and, together with his son Andrew,  they have selected the 1400 photos from 145 photographers that illustrate all 960 bird species ever recorded in the subregion. If ever there was a work celebrating the beauty and glory of birds, this is it.

Many bird book species' accounts start with descriptions, usually the bit you skip to get to stuff like habits, habitat use or other clues to identification. For the most part, the Ultimate Companion skips the useless description and gets straight into an interesting species account. These are conversational in style, full of interesting species-specific factoids and in so doing brings something new to the bird book scene. Each account is written by a species expert e.g. Peter Ryan for pelagics, Rob Little for game birds, and Richard Dean for arid-zone specialists. This leads to an interesting, almost conversational-style approach, but since there are no references, some information is expert opinion rather than established fact. It does make the reading of this book from cover to cover a potentially pleasurable option for anyone with the time, interest or inclination to do so.

The distribution maps have been prepared by Michael Brooks at the ADU, University of Cape Town, and are based on current information from the Southern African Bird Atlas Project. As such, they are as accurate as one can get and a great improvement from the subjective shading found in many historic field guides. However, rather annoyingly they are not provided for all species.

The only thing misleading about this book is the title: a 'companion for birding' when we think about books is something like a field guide that slips into a pocket or backpack. These books won't: they are huge – in size terms they are comparable to the definitive works on southern African ornithology – Roberts Birds of southern Africa 7th edition and The Atlas of Southern African Birds volumes one and two. This size does justice to the detailed photographs, but you'd never take a book of this size (and this price) into the field. To overcome this, the book also comes with a free ebook intended for use on portable devices while in the field. However, it is unlikely to replace the standard Sasol or Newman's field guides which offer better comparisons between tricky species, and which better illustrate juvenile or immature plumage. That places this book somewhere between the genre of coffee-table book (which it is) and field guide (which it is less).  

My subjective score: 9/10 and synopsis: this would be a much appreciated gift to anyone interested in birds or birding. If you are coming to South Africa to bird for the first time, there are other bird guides I'd recommend, but The Ultimate Companion is the prize I'd sneak into my hand-luggage from Duty-free on the way home to show off to friends back home.

The book's official website:

Front covers and box (to the right)

The Ultimate's back covers

Example of central illustration and text

1 comment:

  1. What is the bird on the front cover of each volume? I can find the photographer's name, but not the bird's name.Please help! It is a beautiful book, just got it yesterday. Bought a copy for my brother, too.


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