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Birds of Belize. 2023  by Steve Howell and Dale Dyer. Princeton Field Guides, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford. Flexicover: 304 pages. ISBN: 9780691220727. 13.4 x 20 cm. 116 color plates.

Review by Frank Lambert
(photos by Nigel Voaden)

Birds of Belize is a useful addition to the growing number of field guides to Central American countries. Birds of Costa Rica, by the same authors, is another book in the Princeton Field Guide series, and, not unreasonably, both these book use many of the same plates and illustrations, as well as sharing parts of the text. Additionally, many of the paintings by Dale Dyer are the same or very similar to his illustrations in Birds of Central America: Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama (Vallely & Dyer, 2018, Princeton). Paintings of course do not lose their value over time if they are accurate.

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Lesson's Motmot, one of many wonderful Central American endemics that can be seen in Belize

Birds of Belize covers about 540 breeding and regularly occurring resident and migrant species that are found on the mainland and within inshore waters up to 30 miles out. The Species Accounts also includes some of the rarer occurring species, such as American Bittern, but the majority of these are relegated to an Appendix for ‘Rare Migrants, and Vagrants’ which has about 80 species. This includes a few for which there are no documented recent records (e.g., Mallard, Manx Shearwater, ‘Atlantic Black Noddy’), as well as species that are mentioned in literature, or by eBird without convincing documentation (e.g., Virginia’s Warbler, Green Parakeet).

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Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, another Central American endemic occurring in Belize

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As with the Costa Rica guide, the front flaps have a Key to Species Range Maps, and Pictorial Contents (an illustrated index to assist in finding the correct page quickly), which extends from the flap onto to the next couple of pages. As with most modern field guides, the maps are embedded with the text, opposite the plates. It is also worth mentioning that Birds of Belize easily fits into a backpack or a large pocket.

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The 18-page Introduction includes the expected section on 'How to Use This Book', including a simple map, with a grid, that shows main population centres. There is also a thorough description of how to use the Range Map, and how they were created, including an explicit warning to passionate users of eBird that 10-20% of records therein that are documented by photos or sounds have been misidentified for numerous species that occur in Middle America.

The Introduction also includes a list of abbreviations used in the guide, and explains some of the terms used, especially those that describe habitats. The section on Geography includes a topographic map that shows mountain ranges and names major rivers. Climate and Habitats are also described briefly, with 14 colour photos depicting a selection of the habitats. A page of text then describes the taxonomic approach taken by the authors.

Northern Collared Trogon (in Mexico), one of the splits adopted by Birds of Belize

Howell has based the taxonomy of Birds of Belize on the freely available IOC World List (2021) which is now used by millions of birders. However, a quick perusal of the species in the book shows that Howell has expressed his own opinions on taxonomy throughout the guide, by including a significant number of splits that are not yet recognised by IOC. The explanatory Taxonomic Notes at the back of the book provide the context and reasons for these proposed splits. Given that Howell is a fanatic field worker, and an expert on the birds of Central America, he is likely to be proved correct in most of his taxonomic views in the long-term.  

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For many of the splits or proposed splits in this guide, changes in English names provided are not so dramatic, and parenthesis are used to denote which taxa a particular species is split from. Hence, species headings are user-friendly in that it is easy to figure out what the split relates to, with species heading such as ‘Richmand’s [Vaux’s] Swift, Northern Collared Trogon’, ‘Tropical Ringed Kingfisher’, ‘Mesoamerican [Greenish] Elaenia and ‘Plain [Cabanis’s] Wren’. Not every change is a split, however, with Birds of Belize and Birds of Costa Rica both treating Cabot’s Tern as Sandwich Tern. Experienced Neotropical birders will likely already be aware that the taxonomy for many of these species is in flux.

Cabot's Tern (this bird photographed in Mexico) is treated as Sandwich Tern by Howell and Dyer.

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Each section within the Species Accounts for families, species groups, or in some cases even genera, begins with a succinct paragraph relating to the overall identification features to look out for, preferred habitat types and, often, helpful facts about nests or age and sex differentiation. Individual species accounts mostly start with a very brief statement about the species, such as ‘Rarely seen hawk of humid Forest.’, ‘The common small crake of Belize, heard often but rarely seen’, or ‘Fairly large woodcreeper of cloud forest and humid pine-evergreen forest...’ before providing concise but pertinent information on habitat and behaviour. Details of important plumage and behavioural identification features then follow, with ‘cf.’ to draw attention to similar-looking species.

Common Squirrel-Cuckoo is described as 'Spectacular and familiar...Mainly at mid-upper levels, where can be surprisingly difficult to see; hops and runs along branches and amid foliage a little like a squirrel...'

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The gorgeous Yellow Warbler (pictured here) is one of many North American migrants that can be seen in Costa Rica in the winter, or during passage. Resident Yellow Warblers are now treated as a separate species 'Mangrove Warbler' and are fairly easily distinguished using this field guide.

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This presentation of the species accounts is very readable. The species identification text is sufficiently detailed but not overly long, being followed by a brief description of Sounds (more detailed than in many guides) and a short sentence on Status, including details of global distribution, such as ‘Mexico to nw. Ecuador’. Species’ distribution maps, alongside the text, show no topographical features, but there are gridlines to help locate the area since these are also shown on the more detailed topographic map in the Introduction. The maps appear reasonably accurate, although I am not an expert on Belize.

The striking Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, found only from Mexico to nw Colombia, is fairly common in Belize

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Dale Dyer has done a superb job with the paintings. The attention to detail is obvious, not only in respect of plumage, but also in capturing relevant life-like postures throughout. Dyer’s style is very soft, and easy on the eye. Species, ages etc. are clearly labelled on the plate, but there are no arrows to draw attention to key identification marks. One minor error is that paintings of female and male White-whiskered Puffbird are mislabelled, so should have been reversed, although most users will likely spot this anyway.

The hummingbird plates by Dale Dyer are particularly pleasing

Some birders will wonder what the advantage of taking this guide to Birds of Belize is vs Birds of Central America (Vallely & Dyer, 2018, Princeton), which not only covers Belize but also six other countries. Personally, I would much rather have a guide that deals only with the birds in the country I am visiting, since it doesn’t contain extralimital species that might cause confusion. Furthermore, the text and taxonomic insights provided by Howell are certainly advantageous in this era of rapidly changing bird taxonomy.

Belize is not a country that stands out as a major birding destination, since it lacks endemics, but this guide will helpfully draw attention to this interesting county. Northern parts of the country host a significant number of Yucatan birds, whereas the avifauna of the south remains to be fully documented. As an excellent, lightweight guide, I would predict that Birds of Belize will become the preferred guide for serious birders visiting this small but under-watched country.

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