Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne
16 Sep 2020
Written for Paperback
In terms of infrastructure, Malaysia is one of the best tropical countries in the world to go birding in. Within an hour of arriving at the capital Kuala Lumpur, one can take a taxi and travel in comfort on good roads to reach the cloud forests of Fraser’s Hill or to visit the Taman Botani near the capital which still has remnant dipterocarp forest. On some of my visits to Malaysia, I have also visited the Malaysian state of Sabah which is on the island of Borneo. Therefore, I have needed a field guide for Peninsula Malaysia and another for Borneo. A key advantage of this book is that as it covers political Malaysia, all 829 species recorded in Peninsula Malaysia and Malaysian Borneo together with Singapore are now in one book.
The field guides I have used before are A Field Guide to the Birds of Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore
(by Allen Jeyarajasingham and Alan Pearson) and A Field Guide to the Birds of Borneo, Sumatra, Java and Bali
(by John MacKinnon & Karen Phillipps). Both of them are excellent with good introductory material and I will hold onto them as no single field guide can be everything a birder needs. However, there is no doubt that the new book by John Beaufoy Publishing has the huge advantage of convenience by making available a single field guide for both Peninsular Malaysia and Malaysian Borneo. Another aspect I like about the book is the inclusion of good geographical maps of Peninsular Malaysia, Singapore and Borneo on the inside cover pages, with the key reserves marked. This is supplemented with maps and text on the key birding sites for each of Peninsular Malaysia, Malaysian Borneo and Singapore. The accompanying site guide text although brief provides a good thumbnail summary on logistics, the birds and types of habitat. This section is one of the strengths of the book as it helps as a trip planner whether it is on a first visit or a return trip.
The front sections also carry useful introductory material on the types of forests which are useful as for some visiting birders it may be the first time they are encountering forest types such as Peat-swamp forests and Heath forests. The bulk of the book (pages 38 – 370) is taken up by the species accounts which are in the now-standard format of a plate of illustrations with facing text. The text includes brief family accounts which means even a casual bird watcher will notice that the Bornean Bristlehead is the only species in a family that is endemic to Borneo.
The three authors are some of the best known ornithological personalities from the region with many years of field experience and many publications to their credit. The plates are by Dana Gardner, a prolific illustrator of books. The illustrations are somewhat stylised and may not be to everyone’s taste. It is possible that beginners may like the simpler style which tends to accentuate the identification attributes compared to the photo-realistic school of illustration which has come to dominate field guide illustration. In the latter school, the illustrated birds are lifelike and difficult species can be off-putting to beginners. Even if the stylised format is accepted, there are some illustrations in this book which I feel could be improved in future editions because the jizz is not right or more accuracy is needed for some of the difficult species. However, for almost all of the species which are confined largely to Asia, the plates are satisfactory. Furthermore, there are plenty of monographs and identification papers for help with difficult species such as pipits and leaf warblers.
Where they differ, the males and females are illustrated. With species such as waders, gulls and terns, summer and winter plumages are shown. Juvenile plumage is also illustrated. There are useful additions such as the tail patterns to distinguish Pintail, Swinhoe’s and Common Snipe and another example is the illustration of juvenile, male and female of the Great and Lesser Frigatebirds. Raptors, gull and terns are shown in flight as well, which is very useful as very often only flight views are obtained. With a few birds, subspecies are also illustrated. Despite a few reservations noted before, it is clear that much thought and effort has been put into making the plates ID oriented and useful.
On the whole, the text and plates together result in a book that is a useful addition to the identification literature to the region. Together with the fact that it covers all of the birds found in the political unit of Malaysia and Singapore in one book and with useful maps and details on where to go birding; this book will be a popular choice of a field guide for visiting birders and locals.