16 Jun 2018
Written for Paperback
A new guidebook for birds of Japan in English has been a real necessity for many years now. The previous English language books since 1985 have not matched the Wild Bird Society of Japan's volume of that year. Mark Brazil, the highly respected bird expert has stepped up to the plate with this new volume. Unfortunately, he hasn't quite delivered. Firstly the new book is a paperback and it is the kind of paperback that needs a cover. By itself, it wouldn't last as a field guide being too flimsy to survive. For a book sold as a field guide, this is not acceptable – such a book at least needs to be a hardback. The second big issue with the volume is the complete lack of Japanese bird names. Nowhere in the species descriptions is there any Japanese name. For a birder wishing to communicate with Japanese nature reserve staff or Japanese birders, this is a serious omission. The 1985 guide contained not only Japanese names in the species descriptions but an index of Japanese names. This feature would have been far more useful than the 'essay' on Japanese geography, climate and biogeography included in the introduction. This quite frankly is a waste of space. Another dubious feature is Appendix 3 – Species likely to occur in Japan in the future. This does not mention as a possibility the Turkey Vulture, for example, which I saw and photographed in Chiba this year. Speculation of this nature is merely padding and adds nothing to the volume.
For the plates Brazil has borrowed heavily from other Helm publications; Kennerley and Pearson for reed and bush warblers and Alstrom and Mild for pipits. This in itself is not significant but the difference in illustration style does jar. However, with the illustrations, there are a trifle too many vagrants and accidentals for comfort. It is really not necessary to have a whole page on pelicans, a very rare species in Japan when you only have one illustration of a Japanese tit a highly significant endemic. Other drawings to watch out for are the male Eurasian wigeon, the Narcissus flycatcher (it is not as orange as depicted) which also lacks a drawing of the juvenile phase. The Goldcrest drawing can also only be described as disappointing but in general, the illustrations are accurate and well drawn. Once again the focus needs to be on the birds birders are more likely to see not the rarities. The Japanese bush warbler drawings also need to be expanded – two are nowhere near enough and the Korean bush warbler was an unnecessary inclusion. Why the Black swan was included in the main body is also questionable as is the bunting section. There was no need for so much on the Ortolan (an extremely rare vagrant) and the 'Masked bunting' is not a familiar designation for the 'Black faced bunting'.
Descriptions are generally accurate apart from the surprising omission of the breeding population of Tiger shrikes in Niigata (both observed and photographed). Once again though the knowledgeable reader gets an impression of too much focus on the peripherals and not the centre. So a much-needed updating of the previous guides but a bit of a curates egg. The author needs to sit down and to think what birders actually need from a guide of this sort. What has been delivered covers more species but in layout and style falls short of the previous guides.
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22 Jul 2018
Written for Paperback
With this new book, Mark Brazil has maintained the high-quality standard of all his previous works on the Japanese Avifauna. Published just under 10 years after BIrds of East Asia (Helm), some will find this book a little redundant, but in reality, much work has been done to update the "Japanese" section of the book.
The "look and feel" of Birds of Japan is similar to Birds of East Asia, as the format, presentation, general layout and illustration pages are from the same editor, Helm, but going down to details much has actually changed. For instance:
- In the illustration department, although Birds of East Asia had generally good quality drawings, some where noticeably substandard, Ducks or Herons spring to mind (Swinhoe's Egret in BoEA was a monster, and Japanese Night Heron quite terrible too...), and these have been replaced by much better quality illustrations, giving to the new book illustration pages a more uniform look. In some cases additional illustrations have been added on a given species, whether it is to depict a different plumage (juvenile...) or a different taxon when several taxa of the same species occur in Japan. In the end, nowadays there is only so much you can expect from a guidebook when it comes to illustrations, as there are so many possible variations of the same species depending on age, sex, wear, moult etc... But at least you want the drawing to represent the bird structure accurately, bill, general shape, primary projection, tail, etc... and on that account Birds of Japan illustrations are doing a good job and correct all the few glaring mistakes that were found in BoEA. To mention a little inaccuracy though: in the 3 species of the Arctic Warbler complex, borealis is certainly not that dark above compared to examinandus and xanthodryas, that would be too easy! And annoyingly, the illustrations for examinandus and xanthodryas have seemingly been inverted, xanthodryas being the bird with (generally) the yellow wash on the underparts (description in text is correct though).
- Mark Brazil has updated the taxonomy since BoEA publication and introduced new species that have been split, generally following HBW position. The list of such splits is the following:
- Snow's Guillemot/C. (columba) snowi (from Pigeon Guillemot), not split by HBW and IOC/Clements.
- Ryukyu Green Pigeon/T. (formosae) permagnus and Taiwan Green Pigeon/T. (formosae) formosae, replacing former Whistling Green Pigeon, following HBW but IOC/Clements keep both species lumped.
- Pryer's Scops Owl/O. (semitorques) pryeri (from Japanese Scops Owl), split by HBW but not by IOC/Clements.
- Owston's Woodpecker/D. (leucotos) owstoni (from White-backed Woodpecker), split by HBW but not IOC/Clements.
- Owston's Tit/S. (varius) owstoni (from Varied Tit), split by HBW, IOC and Clements.
- Orii's Tit/S. (varius) olivaceus (from Varied Tit), split by HBW, IOC and Clements.
- Ishigaki Tit/P. (minor) nigriloris (from Japanese Tit), not split by any major list.
- Arctic/Kamtchatka/Japanese Leaf Warbler//P. (borealis) borealis/examinandus/xanthodryas (from Arctic Warbler), split by HBW, IOC and Clements.
- Ryukyu Flycatcher/F. (narcssina) owstoni (from Narcissus Flycatcher, a split already proposed in BoEA), split by HBW but not IOC/Clements.
- Okinawa Robin/L. (komadori) namiyei (from Ryukyu Robin), split by HBW but not IOC/Clements.
- Eastern Blue Rock Thrush/M. (solitarius) philippensis and Western Blue Rock Thrush/M. (solitarius) pandoo from Blue Rock Thrush/M. solitarius, not split by HBW and IOC/Clements.
- Masked Bunting/E. (spodocephala) personata (from Black-faced Bunting), split by HBW but not IOC/Clements.
Also note that Brazil places the newly described iriomotensis taxon within Scaly Thrush (Z. dauma), so in effect 3 species of the Z. dauma/aurea complex occur in Japan according to this treatment (this is consistent with IOC, but not with HBW/Clements...).
All these splits are generally considered welcome by Japanese birdwatchers, and IOC/Clements are expected to follow HBW and Mark Brazil on these at some point, with the exception of Blue Rock Thrush (identical vocalisations and occurrence of intergrading), and a little caveat on Snow's Guillemot, a yet poorly known species/taxon which in Japan is mostly seen in winter, and separation criteria with the other taxa of columba are not completely clear yet (the illustration of C. snowi in winter plumage also somehow contradicts my little knowledge on the species/taxon, as I would have expected less/no white on the upperparts and head...).
As a conclusion, I believe Birds of Japan is overall a great work and an indispensable tool for birders with an interest in Japan. If you already own Birds of East Asia you might opt for passing on this book, but if you have the 25 pounds in the pocket and a little space on the bookshelf, I think it is a good buy.
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