Book Review — Birds of South Asia: The Ripley Guide, Volumes 1&2, 2nd Edition

by Praveen J
Birds of South Asia. The Ripley Guide (2-Volume Set)
Lynx Edicions
(L): Volume 1 (Field Guide) and Volume 2 (Attributes and Status)

Authored by Pamela C Rasmussen & John C Anderton, Published by National Museum of Natural History – Smithsonian Institution, Michigan State University & Lynx Edicions.

The two Volume Ripley Guide was a landmark publication in 2005 – it marked a new beginning in several aspects of sub-continental avifauna – splitting of geographical races into distinct species, use of sonograms to describe calls, redefining the region’s scope as ‘South Asia’, indicating autumn and spring migration routes in maps, creation of a regional checklist and a hypothetical list and many more. Understandably, the demand for the book made it out-of-print very quickly and the publishers had to come up with a second edition. Rather than a reprint, this was expected to be an updated edition adding all the novel information available on Indian Birds for the last seven years – however, as suggested by the senior author elsewhere – it is not a total revamp. Here, I try to highlight a potential user on the degree to which this update has been carried out – comparing it also with contemporary field guides in the market now – the new Grimskipps (Grimmett et al. 2011) and the still old Kaz. (Kazmierczak 2000).

Click here for a detailed review of first edition (BSA-1).

Click here for general highlights of the book and significant updates in the 2nd Edition including a preview of 9 pages of the book.

Production

The first thing you notice is that BSA-2 is a paperback as against the hardbound BSA-1. Hence, the field guide is less likely to remain in one bundle with extensive field use. However, this is also a personal choice as the weight will come down. I have been a great fan of hardbound Kaz. guide as it stood a lot of rough weather. Did the paperback choice reduce the cost for the buyer – not atleast for the Indian audience as the books are still priced up-market at 55 Euros. I wonder why Lynx has not taken the choice to market the field guide separately (say at 20 Euros). This will bring down the field guide at a more affordable price for the vast majority and will pit competitively against the contemporary field guides.

Species additions

Since 2005, a lot has happened in Indian Ornithology but adding all of them would have probably meant a lot of work. Hence, authors seem to have been quite choosy on what is added and what is not. Authors have grabbed every chance to add more species to the book – even at the very last minute. The photograph of Blue-and-White Flycatcher from Konkan taken in March 2012 (just 5 months before the book was out) made it into the book while the information on the range extension of Ceylon Frogmouth up till Konkan did not – both are information available online with photographs. I am still trying hard to find a convincing enough reason (of BSA quality!) for allowing entry of Sooty Falcon & Baikal Bush-Warbler into the regional list. Sooty Falcon has the same ‘Occurs’ text as in BSA-1 while the Bush-Warbler has the phrase ‘Winters casually in NE India (J. Eaton in litt. 2012)’ added. I noticed that James Eaton’s India list in surfbirds has an entry made in April 2012 for this species– but no further reference which could have given rise to a ‘winters casually’ remark. Classifying Eastern Marsh Harrier and Black-browed Reed-Warbler as hypothetical due to lack of specimen data in BSA-1 was a mistake – they have now rightly been entered into the regional list in BSA-2.

Interestingly, a full species account (& sketch) for ‘Great Nicobar Crake’ too exists (I wonder why it is not just ‘Nicobar Crake’ – it looks as if somebody is busy describing a Car Nicobar Crake also!). A more logical stand would have been to add this species as a footnote to the Andaman Crake’s account until a taxonomic investigation is complete. Though there has been a significant update to our knowledge on pelagic birds in the last two years, the only update seems to be the inclusion of the two new entrants to the checklist – the Band-rumped Storm-petrel (sighting from Maldives) and Long-tailed Jaeger (photographs from Sri Lanka). Hence, the most abundant Skua, the Parasitic Jaeger, remains a ‘vagrant’ to west coast and does not even qualify to have a map, the ubiquitous summer migrant Flesh-footed Shearwater is still ‘scarce & overlooked'(!), Swinhoe’s Storm-petrel does not even figure in west coast of India etc.

Maps

Among the three regional guides – BSA-1 has been least accurate (Kaz. was the best) in depicting current distribution status – quite understandably due the over reliance on specimen data for mapping distribution. Grimskipps made a huge decision to dump their original maps in favour of the ones by Kaz., hence their 2nd edition was a major step towards a unified field guide for the region. However, BSA-2 seems to have floundered that wonderful opportunity. The maps still depict incomplete or wrong regional status and some of the numerous examples, which more or less are also present in BSA-1, are as below.

  1. South India is not depicted for ‘Western’ Black-tailed Godwit which widely winters with some massive populations in the backwaters of west coast.
  2. Asian Dowitcher map is quite hypothetical – N. Tamil Nadu/S. Andhra coast is shown as its winter ground where there has been just a single recent record.
  3. Little Tern, one of the commoner coastal terns in the west coast – does not find such an indication in the maps (two ssps. depicted).
  4. Eurasian Bittern & Ruddy Shelduck maps indicate a lot more than actual status in South India.
  5. Black-headed Ibis map only shades a portion of its total range.
  6. Do we have any value in reproducing a map for the Pink-headed Duck ?
  7. Why do ‘Possible’ species like Tibetian Babax have a map while many other regional species does not have?

Some of the species with restricted range could have had the maps blown up – it is hard to decipher the maps of these species and I believe was a comment on BSA-1 itself.

BSA-1 was one of the first guides to plot separate maps for different wintering subspecies also. I wonder how much it has succeeded as the maps for feldegg & beema Yellow Wagtails even now are wholly restricted to north India – there are numerous photographs and ringing records of these subspecies from the south.

I always believed that a simple search in Oriental Bird Images would show the current distribution status of almost all the species. Quite true, that ill-documented sight reports are recipe for errors – however, excellent photographs should be good enough to plot reliable distribution maps.

References

References used post 2005 also don’t seem to be consistent. Indian Birds journal, where a lot of novel information was published on South Asian birds, does not seem to have been surfed well. Except for new species like Crested Tit-Warbler & Bugun’s Liocichla – nothing else seems to have been gleaned from there. Forktail is more consistently referred apart from the addition of Chestnut-cheeked Starling. BSA-2 also has Forktail updates like breeding of Long-billed Plover from Arunachal, Red-browed Finch from W. Bhutan, Green Peafowl updates (up-listed from hypothetical), etc. though the Andaman record of Blue-fronted Robin does not feature in the book. I believe the up-listing of Oriental Stork to the regional list was based on a Bangladesh record from Forktail. Molecular level work published in PLoS ONE for cryptic taxa like White-bellied & Nilgiri Blue Robins confirming their species level status does not find a mention. It is heartening on a personal front to see a note below montane Laughingthrushes of South India that ‘four species might be involved’. BSA-2 has adopted Strophocincla as genus name for these Laughingthrushes after Handbook of Birds of the World – however, not consistently, as Handbook of Birds of the World also has a few other Himalayan Laughingthrushes moved into the same genus – but BSA-2 stuck to the old genus for those species.

For existing species, new regional skins available post 2005 has not been examined or included – e.g. storm blown Christmas Is Frigate bird in ZSI, Kolkota. I was however surprised to note the ‘unconfirmed records from C. India’ under Large-billed Reed Warbler – if these were referring to the record from Kanha TR reported in Indian Birds, they are long back withdrawn providing ringing & measurement data (unlike the Kolkota records). I wonder why this should still figure in this book in this manner.

Plates

BSA-1 has not received unilateral praise for its plates in the past – probably the let-off was against the lead artist in the book – but these are again personal opinions and others might differ. This has continued into BSA-2 and hence readers should not expect anything remarkably different in BSA-2. As the real additions on top of BSA-1 have been very few, only a handful of illustrations were added and the number of plates remains the same. It would have been wise to remove the lacklustre illustrations like plate 9 (Herons in flight) from the book, I feel.

Taxonomy

The practice of splitting before formal publication has continued in BSA-2 also – Walden’s Scops-Owl (Andaman race of Oriental Scops-Owl) is one such. Hence, it might not win hearts of people who believe in formal publication before accepting the split in a book. Thick-billed Flowerpecker is scheduled to be split in the near future with the eastern race being called Modest Flowerpecker (what is not modest about the nominate race?!). We have a new Western Ghat endemic as per the book – the Malabar Flameback (split from Greater Flameback). The foundations for this split were laid in BSA-1 itself and did not come as a surprise. I was expecting the same for Lesser Yellownape, but that did not happen. Coral-billed Scimitar Babbler is now split into Black-crowned Scimitar & Phayre’s Scimitar occurring in the hills on both sides of the mighty Brahmaputra, Siberian Stonechat which was otherwise a recognised species elsewhere but not in BSA-1 finally gets it due status, the widely wintering Blue Rock-Thrush should now be referred to as Asian Rock-Thrush but the wintering distribution of the new Blue Rock-Thrush is not known (breeds in Ladakh etc.), split of the Fork-tailed Swift into many with regionally relevant Blyth’s & Salim Ali’s Swift has been accepted here too, Barbary Falcon; Legge’s Hawk-Eagle are full species in BSA-2, Tropical Shearwater is now recognised as the breeding birds in Chagos Is (previously treated as nicolae race of Audubon’s Shearwater) – the last few are either published or accepted elsewhere (e.g. IOC). Some of the tentative splits (indicated in square brackets) in BSA-1 also got accepted in BSA-2 as full species (e.g. Desert Whitethroat, Ceylon Scimitar-Babbler). All these should bring in additional focus to their conservation.

With respect to lumps, Southern Grey-Shrike is back into Great Grey Shrike, Coal Tit includes Spot-winged Tit, Turkestan Tit is included along with the old Grey Tit which is now called Cinerous Tit – and finally the large white-headed Gull is revamped again with all of different species returning as races under Larus fuscus.

There is also a sizable genus level update for several species and hence a lot to relearn for the ornithologists who are more comfortable with Latin names. For a birder, Spotted-Eagles are no longer Aquila, they are Clanga – while Bonelli’s is an Aquila. But, these can also be followed from species name updates published by IOC.

Summary

If you do not own a BSA-1 and you were waiting for a re-print, then BSA-2 is a wonderful opportunity to fill that void in your shelf – you do not need to read this review for that ☺. If you already have BSA-1, then BSA-2 is just a lukewarm update to BSA-1 and may not be worth the steep price.

Given a choice in the current context, a good companion for the Grimskipps – 2nd Edition is the 2nd Volume of BSA ‘Attributes and Status’. Much of the morphological & plumage information available in BSA Vol. 2 is not present anywhere else and is a must have for a serious birder in this region. Perhaps, you should have the Vol. 2 in your car and use the Grimskipps in the field – that should be an ideal combination for now.

Unlike the previous editions of Grmiskipps & BSA, the 2nd editions are surprisingly similar in the usage of common names and hence far less confusing for a birder to use the books interchangeably. Apart from the new changes mentioned above, a quick scan could not spot any significant differences in common names except minor items like Ceylon Frogmouth (BSA) vs SriLanka Frogmouth (Grimskipps). However, the taxonomic order used in both the books are different – Grimskipps starting with Quails & Pheasants while BSA starts with Grebes & Divers – and the art of getting to the right plate quickly is hampered. If someone volunteers to create a combined index for families (preferably, Grimskipps Page No, BSA Vol 2 page no), sticking it up at the inside covers of Grimskipps should do the trick. There is already one for the Grimskipps available in BirdForum by Robert (K Furrer, I believe).

About the author

Praveen J
Praveen J is an amateur bird-watcher from South India and moderates the e-group KeralaBirder. He has co-authored the book 'Birds of Kerala - Status and Distribution' and is currently an Associate Editor of Indian Birds journal. His interests are in long term monitoring of birds of the Western Ghats, wetlands and the Arabian sea using volunteer-based networks.

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