Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne
2 Mar 2021
Written for Hardback
This book is an essential reference to serious birders and listers who live in the region, even more so for those who go birding across the region traversing national boundaries. An enormous amount of information is condensed in this book to cover the 1,148 species recorded in the region up to the date of publication. There are two introductory sections: the first titled ‘About this book’ explains aspects such as the choice of English names, which are mainly based on the IOC list and the quantitative parameters for definitions such as ‘Extreme Vagrant’ and ‘Vagrant’. There is a helpful list of geographical definitions so that the reader is left in no doubt over which political boundaries are encompassed by terms such as Asia Minor and the Levant. The first part of the ‘Introduction’ section begins with a review of the literature on which geographical area should be defined as the Western Palearctic. Botanists and ornithologists have different ways of making this assessment and even ornithologists cannot agree amongst themselves. Therefore, a practical and workable compromise has to be made. The next part of this introductory section briefly discusses the avifauna, noting that the Western Palearctic is home to 87 ‘true’ endemic species. Finally, the impact of the continual reassessment of taxonomy is noted, especially with ongoing work on molecular genetics. A helpful map of the region is also included showing the political boundaries of the countries.
The systematic list which is the bulk of the book (pages 25 to 251) follows a modern taxonomic treatment and clearly delineates scientific orders and families. There are three main categories of information: Other Names, Taxonomy and Distribution. The inclusion of ‘Other Names’ is useful not just where popular name variations exist, but this category works with the ‘Taxonomy’ category to elucidate details on subspecies which are recorded in the region. The account of Taiga Bean Goose Anser fabalis on the very first page of the systematic list being such an example. The ‘Distribution’ category is typically the most extensive because of the enormous geographic area covered and the need to state the statuses of a species and its subspecies within those boundaries. The inclusion of subspecies, some of which may be one of passage migrants, vagrants, or regular migrants, makes this a challenging section in which to bring together information in a coherent manner. Nevertheless, this has been handled brilliantly and a good example would be the section on the Canada Goose. Although it is a naturalised bird in Britain and is common in town parks, it remains of interest to birders as genuine vagrancies of subspecies from North America continue to occur in Britain and elsewhere in the region and present identification challenges.
This annotated checklist is the type of book that a keen birder will keep within easy reach on the bookshelf. For example, a birder in London may react to a tweet announcing the presence of a Yellow-browed Warbler Phylloscopus inornatus. A quick check in the Annotated Checklist will illuminate that this was once considered conspecific with Hume’s Warbler P. humei. The latter with two subspecies, although the extralimital mandellii is possibly a new species. Oh yes, one can always search the internet, but to save time, a book such this represents an expertly filtered and condensed compilation which is a useful first step before launching an internet browser. Thus, although not a field guide by any means, for keen birders and listers this volume will have a lot of utilitarian value for regular reference.
The end sections (pages 243 to 335) list the endemic birds, omitted species, a simple checklist of the species with a tick box and 34 pages of references in small font. The entire book is in black and white which is fine for an annotated checklist. However, the austere style is a departure from the usual design ethos of Lynx Edicions to liven up even more technical publications by the use of colour. A summary of national list totals is presented with Britain (603), France (577) and Spain (560) in the lead. Also in the 500 club are Iran (549), Italy (548), Israel (538), Germany (533), Oman (527), Saudi Arabia (517), Morocco (510), Netherlands (510), and Sweden (508), providing some hints on where to plan your birding holidays in the region. I believe the British list is in pole position due to certain factors. Firstly, the British Isles are well suited in providing landfall for vagrants from North America who have been blown off course by storms. Secondly, Britain will rank very high in terms of expert observer hours lavished per square kilometre. If the country lists were arranged by the number of species that are regularly recorded in a year, the ranking will be different.
The Western Palearctic is a diverse region in terms of physical geography, the plant and animal communities and human factors such as social, political, cultural and economic factors. Some parts of the area remain inaccessible due to wars and political regimes that are wary of foreigners. If international politics was left to birders, there would just one Federation of the Western Palearctic with political and economic union, permitting safe and visa-free birding across the region. Sadly, birding is not a driver of world peace and birders will have to settle for the thousand-plus species recorded, turning up within their radius of travel.
In the annotated checklist to birds of a few decades ago, a discussion on taxonomy and distribution was largely based on when and where a hunter or ornithologist had shot a bird. Birding has morphed over the years with an increasingly cerebral element. Who could have imagined a few decades ago that serious birders would be poring over the results of mitochondrial DNA analyses? The modern birder is now a composite of ingredients: obsessive, adventurer, lover of the outdoors, and curious intellectual. A book like this is no bad thing if it further motivates you to keep connected with an instinctive bond for the nature we have, even if takes a tweet tagged #londonbirds drawing attention to a Russian White-fronted Goose in Hyde Park to provide you with the extra motivation of a subspecies tick for the patch list, year list, life list or whatever, to venture outdoors on a cold winter’s day. Over and above its utilitarian value to birders and avid listers, it is an important work of reference on the avifauna of a large area of this wonderful planet.
Was this helpful to you? Yes No