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Birds of Argentina and the South-west Atlantic (2020). By Mark Pearman and Juan Ignacio Areta. Illustrated by Aldo Chiappe, Jorge Rodriguez Mata, Richard Johnson & Alan Harris. Helm Field Guides, Christopher Helm/ Bloomsbury, London. ISBN 9780713645798. 480 pages, 199 colour plates, 2,300 images. £40 (Hardback £60). (also published by Princeton University Press ISBN 9780691147697 US$40 paperback).

Review by Frank Lambert

I first met Mark Pearman in the windswept city of Ushuaia, with its picturesque backdrop of snow-covered mountains and the shores of the Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego in 1991. He was already somewhat of an expert on the birds of Argentina, and having birded all over this incredible country for the past 30+ years, he is certainly one of the best qualified people to have written this excellent guide, along with his co-author Juan Ignacio (Nacho) Areta, a knowledgeable ornithologist based at the Institute of Bio and Geosciences in Salta, northwest Argentina. On a subsequent visit in 2003, during a ‘clean-up’ trip of Patagonia, Mark and I were able to refer to most of the plates of this guide since much of the artwork had already been completed at that time, but it has taken another 17 years of research and refinement to get this work into the public domain. Argentina has long needed a high quality modern field guide, and with the publication of this guide, we finally have one.

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Birds of Argentina and the South-west Atlantic covers the whole of Argentina as well as the Exclusive Economic Zones that extend 200 nautical miles from shore, and hence includes some of the Fuegian islands that belong to Chile. The seabird-rich Falkland Islands and its EEZ is also included and it is worth pointing out that this field guide also covers all of the species known to occur in Uruguay, 93% of the Paraguayan avifauna, and 83% of Chilean bird taxa.

Argentina is an enormous country, something that becomes very apparent when confronted with the road sign in Ushuaia, informing you that the distance to La Quiaca (on the Argentina-Bolivia border) is 5,171 km. As a consequence of its size and latitudinal position, Argentina supports penguins in the south and subtropical rainforest birds in the north. The Andes extend the entire length of the country, from the Puna ecoregion at c.3,400m altitude (11,300ft) near the Bolivian border (c.22˚S) to the Patagonian forests that reach sea level in Tierra del Fuego, at c. 55˚S. with numerous peaks and volcanoes exceeding 6,000m altitude (c.19,700ft) along the way. On the eastern slopes of the Andes, there is a great diversity of habitats, including biodiversity hotspots such as the thorn forests of the Dry Chaco, the mid-montane Yungus Forests of the north west, and the high Monte Desert just to its south. In the eastern lowlands we find Espinal woodlands, the Pampas grasslands (now largely converted to agriculture), and in the south, the windswept plains of Patagonia, where numerous lakes dot the landscape. There are also large wetland areas, with associated natural grasslands in the northeastern lowlands, especially in Corrientes Province. In the extreme northeast there are subtropical forests in the region of Iguazu (Misiones Province), where the borders of Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil intersect. All of these mainland ecoregions have their own unique avifauna, as do the Falkland Islands, where the dominant terrestrial habitat is Heath and Tussock. The vegetation of all of these ecoregions, and others, are concisely described in the introduction to the book. 

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With so many distinctive habitats, arising because of the enormous altitudinal and longitudinal gradients, it is hardly surprising that Argentina has one of the most interesting and diverse bird faunas in South America. Although not as species rich as the more tropical countries of South America, where the Amazon basin has done much to enrich their avifauna, such as in Peru and Ecuador, Argentina nevertheless boasts a superbly rich and wonderful diversity of birds. The guide largely follows the taxonomy of the SACC (South American Classification Committee: Remsen et al. 2020), and hence differs in some respects from some other widely-used lists, such as those of HBW/BirdLife International or the International Ornithological Community (IOC).

Altogether, 1,085 naturally occurring species (and nine introduced ones) are covered in this guide, of which some 88% breed in the region covered. Whilst some 72% are sedentary, the remaining species are migratory, including many that are rarely recorded vagrants. The majority of those that migrate are ‘austral migrants’, moving entirely within South America, and only 6% are non-breeding visitors from North America. Many species are shared with adjacent countries, but 13 are endemic to continental Argentina and three to the Falklands. A further 12 species breed only in continental Argentina, whilst 17 more are near endemics, with c.90% of their ranges within the country. Endemics include the Chubut Steamer Duck, Sandy Gallito, Cordoba Cinclodes, White-throated Chacholote, Patagonian Canastero, Salinas Monjita, and Carbonated Sierra Finch (as well as likely future splits such as Sierran Meadowlark). The enigmatic Hooded Grebe, Dinelli’s Doradito, Hudson’s Black Tyrant and Cinnamon Warbling Finch are amongst those species that only breed in Argentina, whilst near endemics include Elegant Crested Tinamou, Austral Rail, Chocolate-vented Tyrant, Rufous-throated Dipper and Tucumán Mountain Finch. Falkland Steamer Duck, Tussacbird and Cobb’s Wren are only found in the Falklands. In the last few decades, a number of species once thought to be endemic to neighbouring countries have been found in the remoter border regions of Argentina, including Bolivian Earthcreeper, Chestnut-throated Huet-huet, Wedge-tailed Hillstar and sporadically, Slender-billed Parakeet. Moustached Turca presently a Chilean endemic, probably also occurs in Argentina, but this still requires confirmation.

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Several species for which evidence of occurrence is insufficient, such as Glacier Finch (White-winged Diuca-Finch) are also included, as are a few confusion species that occur close to the border, such as female Frilled Coquette (very similar to Festive Coquette). Eskimo Curlew and Glaucous Macaw, although almost certainly globally extinct, have their own species accounts and illustrations. In contrast, Black Rail has been removed from the Argentine list because the records almost certainly refer to Dot-winged Crake, whilst the historical record of Ocellated Piculet is deemed to have probably been a White-wedged Piculet.

The guide starts with a book plan, alerting the reader to the forthcoming ‘Volume 2’ of this guide, which will cover identification, natural history, distribution and taxonomy in far more detail. The present volume is first and foremost a field guide, and as such contains only a short introduction, and the bare minimum of information required to identify any bird that occurs in the region covered. The introduction starts with short sections that discuss the area covered, and geography and hydrology. Three maps accompany the introduction, one showing political boundaries, another showing topography, and the final one covering 16 ecoregions and the limits of the EEZ. As mentioned above, there is an introductory section that describes the ecoregions and their habitats, this being followed by a short section on migration and movements and an explanation of how to use the guide.

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The bulk of the book, comprising 199 colour plates, describes all of the species, and illustrates all except for a handful that are extremely unlikely to be observed, such as Amsterdam Albatross, Peruvian Booby, Belcher’s and Lesser Black-backed Gulls, and Scarlet Tanager. A few cryptic species such as Bolivian Woodpecker and Zimmer’s Tapaculo that are almost identical to other species, also lack illustrations. On the other hand, I noticed three species, Fjordland Penguin, Russet-winged Spadebill and Glacier Finch that are of uncertain status, but nevertheless have illustrations, presumably because they do likely occur in Argentina from time to time. There is even an illustration of a Titan Moth, which can be mistaken for a small hummingbird by the unwary. The standard of illustrations is excellent, and all the paintings are unique to this book. More than half this artwork was done by Aldo Chiappe, a very talented but not particularly well-known Argentinian wildlife illustrator, whilst Jorge Rodriguez Mata, another talented local artist, and Richard Johnson did the bulk of the remaining paintings (the plates done by the various artists are not credited in the guide, so I have listed them at the end of this review).

Research by the authors and others has shown that Rufous-banded Miner Geositta rufipennis should be recognised as two species, Trilling G. (r.) fasciata and Buzzing Miners G. rufipennis, and these two cryptic species both occur in Argentina, sometimes at the same localities, where narrowly parapatric. Both have a fully illustrated species account. The undescribed Iberá seedeater Sporophila sp. that occurs in Corrientes in October to March also has a full species account with illustrations, as does Siku Nightjar Systellura (longirostris) atripunctata, Fuegian Storm-Petrel Oceanites (oceanicus) chilensis and Azara’s Bittern Ixobrychus (exilis) erythromelas, all of which are likely to be recognised as full species in the future. All of these are examples of taxa that are briefly discussed in the 72 taxonomic notes located in an appendix at the end of the book. The authors themselves have done a considerable amount of taxonomic work during the period that they wrote this guide, splitting for example Patagonian Forest Earthcreeper and the endemic Monte Yellow Finch, and they are evidently still working on other taxa of taxonomic interest.

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The plates make very good use of space, unlike in quite a number of recently published field guides, with the birds labelled on the plates. The illustrations for the most part show plumages of adults and immatures where this assists with identification, and different subspecies where these can be differentiated in the field, and there are plenty of paintings of birds in flight where this is relevant. A significant number of illustrations also show parts of the vegetation that the particular bird may associate with, and the plants that have been illustrated are all listed in one of the appendices. Typical postures have also been used, something lacking in many guides, but sometimes a very good clue to identity.

The text is limited to a succinct description of status (e.g. N lowlands, partial austral migrant (mainly Sept-Mar) for Striped Cuckoo), followed by longer texts on identification and voice descriptions. The colour distribution maps (based on ten different templates) are located alongside the relevant text and portray known ranges in considerably more detail that most field guides. Where relevant, species texts are linked to specific taxonomic notes in an appendix. For a small number of taxa that can be challenging to identify, there is additional identification information in the appendices. Hence, for the eight species of pipit that occur, there is a table that compares key features, as well as sonograms depicting their songs. Sonograms for a select set of species (crakes, tapaculos and some tyrannulets) are also shown where this is a key aid to identification. Drawings of the nests of a selection of furnarids and icterids (New World Blackbirds and Orioles) are provided on Plates 200-202; such nests are conspicuous and can alert the observer to the presence of particular species even before seeing or hearing them.

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A quick perusal of this book shows the remarkable diversity of species to be found in Argentina and the southwest Atlantic, Many of these species are highly sought-after, such as southern-cone and southern Andean specialties that include Horned Coot, Spectacled Duck, Kelp Goose, Hooded Grebe, White-bellied Seedsnipe, Fuegian Snipe, Magellanic Plover, Austral Rail, Striated Caracara, Chucao Tapaculo, Magellanic Woodpecker, Fuegian Cinclodes, Band-tailed Earthcreeper, and Patagonian Tyrant, to name a few. In the Chaco region, where natural habitats are facing a devastating onslaught of agricultural development, we find alluring species such as Quebracho Crested Tinamou, Black-legged Seriema, Spot-winged Falconet, Chaco Eagle, Spot-backed Puffbird and Dinelli’s Doradito. On the northern borders, one can find many species that also occur in southeast Brazil, Paraguay and adjacent regions, such as Ringed Teal, Black-fronted Piping Guan, Long-trained Nightjar, Araucaria Tit-Spinetail, Spotted Bamboowren, Ochre-breasted Pipit and Yellow Cardinal. With such a long coastline, the region also supports large numbers of littoral and oceanic birds, and in particular, visitors to the shores of the south-west Atlantic are treated to numerous species of seabird, including Imperial and Rock Shags, Olrog’s and Kelp Gulls, diving petrels, albatrosses, steamer ducks, petrels and storm petrels, and, on the Falkland Islands themselves, land birds such as Ruddy-headed Goose, Tussacbird and White-bridled Finch as well as five species of penguin.

Clearly, Argentina has a lot to offer any birder, and in particular, I have always thought that Argentina not only has a very exciting set of birds and habitats, but it is arguably the best country to start in if you are new to South American birding. Although bird diversity is generally not as high as in many parts of South America, most of the key neotropical families are represented, and one is rarely overwhelmed by the large fast-moving mixed-species flocks regularly encountered in countries like Peru and Ecuador, or the dozens of confusing hummingbirds that can frustrate birders new to the region. Furthermore, some of my favourite neotropical birds can be fairly easily seen in Argentina, such as James’s and Andean Flamingos, Red-legged Seriema, Great Grebe, Magellanic Plover, South American Painted-snipe, Dolphin Gull, Burrowing Parrot, White-throated Treerunner, Straight-billed Reedhaunter, Scimitar-billed Woodcreeper, Rufous-throated Dipper, Strange-tailed Tyrant, Chocolate-vented Tyrant, Crested Gallito and Black-throated Huet-huet, and I for one am very much looking forward to birding in Argentina again and using this excellent guide. Indeed, I am confident that this book will now become the field guide of choice for anyone birding in Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, as well as the Falkland Islands.

Scientific papers mentioned above

Remsen Jr., J.V., Areta, J.I., Bonaccorso, E., Claramunt, S., Jaramillo, A., Pacheco, J.F., Robbins, M.B., Stiles, F.G., Stotz, D.F. & Zimmer, K.J. 2020. A classification of the bird species of South America. American Ornithological Society.

Art credits (inadvertently omitted from the book)

Aldo Chiappe: Seriemas, waterfowl, guans, flamingos, storks, raptors, falcons, rallids, pigeons, nightjars, owls, potoos, swifts, woodpeckers, all passerines except for tyrant flycatchers and six small groups as listed below.
Jorge Rodriguez Mata: Rheas, tinamous, cuckoos, hummingbirds, trogons, motmots, puffbirds, kingfishers, toucans, tyrant flycatchers, becards, wrens, pipits, traditional tanagers.
Richard Johnson: Penguins, seabirds, waders, skuas, gulls & terns.
Alan Harris: Grebes, herons, ibises, vultures, parrots, thrushes, mockingbirds.

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