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Birds of Greater Southern Africa by Keith Barnes, Terry Stevenson and John Fanshawe. Helm Field Guides series. Bloomsbury, London. Soft cover: 640 pages. ISBN: 978139940322. Also available as eBook. 21.6 x 14.0 cm

Review by Frank Lambert

Birders visiting Southern Africa have had a fairly large selection of reasonably good field guides to choose from for many years, but this new guide is of a much superior quality than those of the past. Furthermore, as well as covering the traditional area that previous guides have covered (southern Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Lesotho and Eswatini), this new guide covers the entire ‘Greater Southern Africa’ region (GSA), so it also includes Zambia, Malawi, and northern Mozambique. Few birders visit Malawi (although I can attest to the fact that it is a great birding destination) or Mozambique, but Zambia is increasingly seen as a great birding destination, and this book will be indispensable for those who visit. Perhaps it is a shame that it does not also include Angola, but Nik Borrow, Ron Demy and Michael Mills are putting the final touches to a new guide to Angola as I write, so that country will soon have its own field guide too.

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The highly specialised Cape Rockjumper is just one of the many endemic and near endemic bird species that can be found on a visit to Greater Southern Africa. Photo ©Lars Petersson.

Covering such a large region, with 1,170 regularly occurring species, and with 272 colour plates, this book is a relatively thick field guide, with 640 pages. That said, it is still lighter than the 766 page Birds of Africa South of the Sahara (Ian Sinclair and Peter Ryan, Struik Nature, 2010), a field guide that I lugged around Zambia and Malawi on trips to those countries. Birds of Greater Southern Africa is almost identical in size to Birds of East Africa, and indeed two of the authors are the same, as is the publisher. Hence it shares many of the same illustrations, and parts of the text on identification and voice for shared species are more or less identical, with minor revisions where required. The section on Status and Habitat for each species has of course been reworked for this book.

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The guide is beautifully illustrated by John Gale, Brian Small and Faansie Peacock, whilst almost all the maps and digital manipulation of the plates was done by Julie Dando, someone who is rarely mentioned in reviews, but has played such an important part in producing the bird books published by Bloomsbury over the past 25 or more years. Most seabirds and all landbirds on the mainland are covered in 268 plates, but there are an addition four plates at the back of the book (flagged as Appendices) which cover the Southern Penguins and Island Endemics, including for example Eaton’s Pintail, Kerguelen Tern, and Gough Island Finch.

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West African Tern should be sought on the coast of Namibia. Photo ©Frank Lambert.

As with Birds of East Africa, the illustrations are opposite the relevant distribution maps and species account text, so this is a very user-friendly field guide. The text is short but excellent, with identification criteria supplemented by habitat and other key information. The distribution maps are arguably a little too small to show ranges accurately, but typical of many other field guides that cover large regions. The maps include country boundaries, some of the main rivers and the tallest mountains are shaded.

Unlike some recent field guides, this book only uses one base map for most species (the exceptions are all pelagic species such as penguins, petrels and albatrosses). This means that the range of localized endemics (such as Botha’s Lark, Victorin Warbler, Namuli Apalis, and Chaplin’s Barbet), or species that occur in the GSA area at the very edge of their global range (such as West African Tern, Black-collared Bulbul, Angola Cave Chat, Spot-throat, Forest Double-collared Sunbird, and Mountain Yellow Warbler) appear as small to very small marks on the map. In the digital age, however, this does not really matter because it is easy to use, for example, eBird, to find out more about the range of any species prior to embarking on a trip, or indeed, often whilst birding

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The stunning Forbes's Plover is one of the spectacular shorebirds occurring in Greater Southern Africa. Photo ©Nigel Voaden. 

Overall, this field guide covers 1,171 species that are known to have occurred in the region, plus one species (Greater Spotted Eagle) that is strongly suspected to occur. This remarkable total is approximately half of the bird species that are found in Africa south of the Sahara (Birds of Africa South of the Sahara covered 2,129 species that were recognised at that time). Some possible splits are highlighted, such as Black-chinned Quailfinch (subspecies fuscata), which occurs in NW Zambia.

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'Black-faced' Quailfinch, which just sneaks into Greater Southern Africa in northwest Zambia is a potential future split from Quailfinch. Photo ©Frank Lambert.

The 37-page Introduction starts with an explanation of the taxonomy followed, which derives primarily from the HBW/BirdLife checklist, but also takes into consideration other sources, including more recent peer-reviewed papers. As a result, the taxonomy followed will differ from that of the ever-evolving IOC or indeed, the most recent iterations of the HBW/BirdLife list. Indeed, it is impossible to write a field guide nowadays without some taxonomic changes occurring after publication

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Red-backed Shrike is one of the more widespread Palearctic migrants to spend the winter in Greater Southern Africa. Photo (immature) ©Nigel Voaden.

Other sections in the Introduction include one on ‘Landscape, Topography and Habitats’, usefully illustrated with several excellent colour maps, and with detailed descriptions of 21 habitat types, from Fynbos to ‘Gusu’, ‘Mushitu, mavunda and thicket’, ‘Inselbergs, koppies and cliffs’ and ‘Habitation and cultivation’. A good proportion of the species occurring in GSA are only visitors to the region, whilst some move within the region. This is discussed in a rather brief section entitled ‘Seasonality, Nomadism and Migration’.

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Common Grasshopper Warbler is one of the species on the 'Vagrants Watchlist' that seems likely to occur in the region but has not yet been detected. Photo ©Nigel Voaden

At the end of the book, there is a ‘Vagrants Watchlist’, which includes descriptions and illustrations for 26 species that could potentially occur in continental GSA. These are mostly easily-overlooked species that are often difficult to identify, such as Caspian Gull, Common Grasshopper Warbler and Semicollared Flycatcher, but others are relatively easy to identify if you are at all familiar with the species, and provided good views are obtained, such as Kermadec Petrel, Eastern Imperial Eagle. Upland Sandpiper and Masked Shrike.

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Vultures in Africa have been declining rapidly, so that some species, such as the huge Lappet-faced Vulture (centre) are now considered to be Critically Endangered or Endangered. Photo (Senegal) ©Frank Lambert. 

Also included is a ‘Checklist of birds of the Southern Ocean islands’ which includes vagrants that are not in the field guide; a list of endemic and near endemic bird species that occur in Greater Southern African; and a list of Globally Threatened species. There are also maps of each country that shows Important Bird Areas (IBAs) that have been designated by BirdLife International, many of which are protected areas. These maps (the only ones that were not produced by Julie Dando), are very simple, which is a great shame since it would have been easy and very useful to have included topographical features and larger rivers.

Without doubt, Birds of Greater Southern Africa will surely become the go-to field guide for anyone visiting any of the countries it includes, and it will also potentially prove useful to anyone fortunate enough to join the Atlantic Odyssey, which visits some of the remote island groups within the section of the Southern Ocean covered in this guide. I for one intend to take this book (or an eBook) on my upcoming trip to those islands, as well as on a planned trip to Zambia. I am really looking forward to using it in the field!

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