Birds of Central Asia: Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan
Birds of Central Asia is the first field guide to include the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, along with neighbouring Afghanistan. This vast area includes a diverse variety of habitats, and the avifauna is similarly broad, from sandgrouse, ground jays and larks on the vast steppe and semi-desert to a broad range of raptors, and from woodland species such as warblers and nuthatches to a suite of montane species, such as snowcocks, accentors and snowfinches. Birds of Central Asia includes 141 high-quality plates covering every species (and all distinctive races) that occur in the region, along with concise text focusing on identification and accurate colour maps. Important introductory sections introduce the land and its birds. Birds of Central Asia is a must-read for any birder or traveller visting this remote region.
"For a long time, there's been something of a gap in field-guide coverage across the Palearctic. Europe is well covered, while the Helm Field Guides Birds of the Middle East, Birds of the Indian Subcontinent and Birds of East Asia between them cover most of the rest of the region – with the exception of a gaping hole in the middle. This hole centres around 'the Stans': Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Afghanistan, sadly, is unlikely to be on many people's lists of countries to visit in the near future, but the wide range of habitats and varied avifauna of this vast Central Asian region has already attracted intrepid Western birders to sample the avian delights of countries like Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. Indeed, tour companies now lead birding groups to the latter country. Clearly, this field-guide black hole needed filling; step forward Birds of Central Asia.
The book follows the standard Helm Field Guide format: text and maps on the left of the spread page, illustrations on the right. The maps are clear and the text is short but informative, with key identification features highlighted. I particularly like the fact that every species account begins with a brief note on the subspecies found in the region, even if this note is simply "monotypic". The illustrations are, by and large, of good quality. There is some variability in their quality and style but seemingly not purely the result of a 13-strong illustration team; there's something quite unnerving about the Carduelis finches in plate 132 yet the wagtails and chats – credited to the same artist – are beautiful.
Birds of Central Asia has done more than just plug the geographical gap that previously existed on many birder's bookshelves. It's provided a guide for the region that is comparable in standard to Birds of the Middle East and will prove invaluable to any visiting birder. Indeed, it should also be of interest for many Western Palearctic birders since it provides a useful reference for many vagrants from the Near East. Even if this field guide had not been entering into a clear field, I'm quite sure the information contained between its covers would have trumped whatever was available already – as it happens, there are no alternatives, and that only goes to enhance the value of this book yet further."
- Stephen Menzie, www.birdguides.com, 06-03-2013
"Birds of Central Asia is the latest offering from the Helm Field Guide series, and covers all species recorded from the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, with their characteristically Palearctic avifauna, together with neighbouring Afghanistan where the Palearctic and Oriental regions meet; collectively, this is Central Asia as recognised by OSME. This neatly packaged, pocket-sized guide covers the 635 bird species that occur in this region, which has lacked a modern field guide for a long time.
Within the 33 introductory pages are the expected and obligatory offerings. Of greater interest is the chapter addressing the geography and biogeography of the region, which is neatly summarised in 11 pages and illustrated with two maps and 16 colour photographs. A two-page section addresses taxonomic updates to the Howard and Moore checklist (Dickinson 2003, Christopher Helm), which this book otherwise adopts. Most changes reflect splits of distinctive Central Asia races, although few distinctive races are lumped (e.g. Turkestan Tit Parus bokharensis now becomes a race of Great Tit P. major bokharensis).
In characteristic Helm style, the appearance, vocalisations and habitat preferences of all species reliably recorded are addressed in concise summaries which face the illustrations. A clear, colour distribution map is included for all regular species, illustrating the breeding and non-breeding ranges, plus arrows for migration routes and question marks for range uncertainties. The species are illustrated on 143 plates by 13 illustrators. Although many plates have been painted especially for this book, users familiar with previous Helm offerings will recognise some plates appropriated from preceding guides. Consequently, styles, accuracy of detail and aesthetic appeal vary considerably, which is understandable. What is not clear is why closely related species are not always taken from the same publication (for example the pipits, with one plate by Per Alström and two by Dave Nurney, showing very different styles and technical detail). On a personal level, I congratulate the publishers for getting the colour reproduction of Brian Small’s excellent reed and bush warblers (plates 90–94) extremely close to the original artwork.
For me, this book was always going to be about addressing the many exciting Central Asian races of familiar European birds. In this it has succeeded admirably and exceeded my expectations, with most distinctive races described and illustrated; the only omission I could find was the lack of an illustration for the distinctive plumipes race of European Nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus, which is a migrant through the region.
This is an excellent guide and one that is essential for any visit to the region. Central Asia provides a rich source for many vagrants to Europe, and this is a concise guide to the many iconic species and distinctive races that are highly sought after in Europe in late autumn. The appeal of this book extends well beyond its intended market and should be useful for anyone with an interest in Central Asia and its birds."
- Peter Kennerley, www.britishbirds.co.uk, 06-03-2013
"There are very few areas of the world left without a good field guide, but the vast area of Central Asia was one of them. For years, birders visiting Kazakhstan and the other less-birded countries in the region have had to reply on either the excellent, but very outdated, Field Guide to Birds of the USSR (Flint et al. 1984) or a combination of a European field guide and the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent (Grimmett et al., now in a 2011 edition). So now we finally have this long-awaited book. It will instantly become the standard field guide for birders visiting the region, but it will also be of considerable interest to many birders who never visit the area it covers, because many Central Asian species occur as vagrants to Europe. For this reason, the plates on larks, warblers and shrikes, for example, will be of particular interest.
The book follows the format of recent Helm Field Guides with, after the usual introduction, a section on Geography, with some attractive photographs, and another on Organisations in the covered countries. The plates are opposite the species' texts and, for most species, range maps. The latter are quite detailed despite being small, although, for such a vast area (Kazakhstan alone is the 9th largest country in the world), it is difficult to be really precise in such small maps.
The most important part of any field guide is, of course, the plates, and in this book they are generally of a very high standard, with very few errors. Most of the plates can be described as superb and, in particular, I would like to mention the excellent plates of the thrushes, robins, chats and redstarts. I would however,draw attention to the illustrations of several species or groups of species which are at variance to my knowledge; of the variable wheatears, only the illustration of the female of the capistrata race shows a slight brownish hue to the ear-coverts (in my experience, winter males, females and immatures of the picata race all show quite noticeable rusty ear-coverts); the underparts on all the larger pipits appear rather too buffy; the illustrations of plain and Brandt's mountain finches are somewhat misleading from my experience (plain mountain finch generally has a completely buffy head and underparts, with darker brown streaks on the upper breast and pale fringes to the feathers on the lower breast and belly; the species also has distinctive reddish-brown eyes; according to Clements, Brandt's is called black-headed mountain-finch – although black-faced would be a better name; the whole face is black, fading into brown behind the eye, which continues right down to the mantle; the throat is off-white, with the earth-brown breast scalloped with grey, with the scalloping increasing progressively right down to the vent); also, the Asian rosy finch illustrations appear too "black and white" (the wings are more of a silver grey/white and there is a buffy supercilium behind the eye, which wraps around the ear-coverts; in fact, the text even states "buffy supercilium behind the eye"); on the next plate, both the trumpeter and the Mongolian finches appear too pale (trumpeter finch should be much redder and Mongolian finch has more pink around the head and on the breast); finally, the illustration of wryneck looks seriously anaemic.
I will not discuss the common names used as these vary according to authorities (I wish they were standardised!), but the taxonomy in the book is very interesting. Daurian and Turkestan shrikes would have been firmly split from Isabelline Shrike a long time ago if it
were not for the vexed question of the "karelini" form. This book conveniently considers this form to be just a hybrid of Daurian and red-backed shrikes but, in my experience, the hybrids between these two species do not look at all like "karelini". The situation with the large grey shrikes is even more interesting. I am assuming that the two forms of northern grey shrike, mollis and sibiricus, are included with the North American races and that excubitor and horneyeri are considered to be the only two races of great grey shrike. The problem then becomes that the two races of Asian grey shrike split from southern grey shrike, pallidirostris and aucheri range all the way from South Sudan to northern Kazakhstan; surely Asian (or steppe) grey shrike should be a monotypic species, with aucheri remaining within southern grey shrike? This also leaves in limbo the funereus form of grey shrike which occurs in eastern Kazakhstan and is not mentioned in the book; as this is a "barred" form, is it to be included in northern grey shrike? Finally, the splitting of the highly migratory Indian sparrow from house sparrow is long overdue, as is the splitting of the highly disjunct population of desert sparrow into Zarudny's sparrow; both are adopted here.
A few other minor points came to my attention whilst reviewing the book: although Henderson's ground jay is illustrated and mentioned as it vagrant, there is no mention of it being a former breeder in the Zaysan Basin of eastern Kazakhstan. Long-tailed rosefinch is stated as being rare; it is indeed a rare breeding species, but it is a localised scarce winter visitor, mostly in Kazakhstan.
Notwithstanding any of my above comments, these are minor issues. This book is an essential addition to any birder's bookshelves – for anyone who has visited or is visiting the region or indeed, is interested in birds that may occur as vagrants to Europe. Finally, to include Afghanistan in this book is a very bold and welcome move. The authors and artists are to be heartily congratulated."
- Vaughan Ashby, Birding World 25(11), December 2012
Manuel Schweizer, Raffael Ayé, and Tobias Roth are a trio of ornithologists from Switzerland, based at the University of Berne. They are experts on the birds of Central Asia, with considerable experience in the field. Among their many achievements was the discovery of the breeding grounds of large-billed reed warblers in Tajikistan.
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