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Birds of Thailand by Uthai Treesucon and Wich’yanan Limparungpatthanakij. Lynx and BirdLife International Field Guides, Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. ISBN 978-84-16728-09-1 (flexicover). 452pp

Review by Frank Lambert

Thailand is justifiably the most popular country for birdwatching in South-East Asia. From dramatic hornbills and colourful but skulking pheasants and pittas to one of the rarest birds in the world, Spoon-billed Sandpiper, the country boasts year-round interest. This new field guide will help you identify all 1049 species that have been recorded in the country to date, including the 20 species endemic or near-endemic to Thailand.

 
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NW Thailand is home to the rarely seen Hume's Pheasant (©Nigel Voaden)


The book starts with a useful 11-page introductory chapter that includes a section (Geographical Scope) that briefly describes the country’s geography and main topographical features as well as highlighting some of the important bird species that are associated with the various areas described. Reading this short section, one can begin to appreciate the incredible diversity of habitats and associated birds occurring in this remarkable country. Thailand is not only important for its numerous forest and wetland bird species, but also for very significant numbers of migrants, including many threatened shorebirds that winter or move through Thailand on passage.

 

Many waders pass through Thailand on passage, including commoner species such as Sharp-tailed Sandpiper and Terek Sandpiper (pictured here), as well as the Critically Endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper, which is regularly seen at certain locations.

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In recent times, birders visiting Thailand have primarily relied on Craig Robson’s Field Guide to the Birds of Thailand (2002) or Birds of Southeast Asia (updated in 2008). Robson’s excellent books, whilst comprehensive, are not very user-friendly. Not only do they lack maps but the most up-to-date of these two books includes all of the birds that occur in Thailand on plates mixed with species that do not occur in the country. This makes it a frustrating guide to use in the field for anyone who has little or no previous experience of the region. Ascertaining whether one is in range for a particular species, not to mention which species one might need to compare your bird with, means that it can take a lot of time to discover what you are looking at, or indeed, what field marks to look for. Hence this new Thai field guide, with an attractive design that includes clear distribution maps alongside the illustrations and text opposite the relevant plates, will be much appreciated by birders visiting Thailand.

 
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There is also a short description of Climate, and an introduction to the main habitat types. The next brief section highlights conservation efforts in Thailand and lists the currently recognised 66 Threatened species that occur. The next part of the Introduction is an overview of Birding Hotspots, of which 34 are described very briefly. The map here, repeated inside the back cover, shows the rough location of Birding Hotspots along with regional boundaries. A second map, inside the front cover, names major rivers and mountain ranges, but very few of the larger towns. Although it is a topographical map, it is a shame that there is no specific detail on altitude, and that no scale is provided.

The Introduction is followed by an essential two-page description of how to use the guide. Reading this section is important because this field guide includes separate accounts and illustrations for taxa that have been assigned to Subspecies Groups, defined here as “informal taxonomic units used in several recent world checklists to highlight seemingly monophyletic groups of taxa that at present appear to sit between the species and subspecies levels”. This novel approach will undoubtedly prove confusing to some users, even after reading the explanation of how these subspecies groups are defined. However, the treatment of taxa in Subspecies Groups will help keen birders differentiate between groupings of various closely-related taxa, presently treated as one species, some of which might be split in the future. As a result, this field guide has, for example, full accounts for five subspecies groups of White Wagtail that occur in Thailand (all of which are illustrated); two distinctive subspecies of Siberian Thrush that could potentially be split (“Siberian” and “Sakhalin”); two subspecies groups of Eyebrowed Wren-babbler (“Austen’s” and “Malay”); and three subspecies groups of Streaked Wren-babbler (“Burmese”, “Malay” and “Cambodian”).

 
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Another novel feature of the HBW and BirdLife International Field Guide series are QR codes. These are included for every species. Scanning the codes takes the reader to webpages of images, videos and sounds of the species involved, although it does not open the text of HBW and will not indicate if there are changes in taxonomy that have occurred after publication of the guide. To see such information, one must subscribe to HBW Alive. Also enclosed with the book is a card that carries a unique code enabling the free download of a full 41-page checklist of the birds of Thailand from the publisher's website. This is a very useful checklist, with a map showing birding hotspots and ten columns to fill in with birds you have seen. It also indicates which hotspots each species occurs in.

 
 
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The bulk of the book is of course devoted to the species accounts. Following the taxonomy of the HBW and BirdLife International Checklist of the Birds of the World, the species accounts include illustrations and maps for 1,025 regularly occurring species as well as separate accounts, illustrations and maps for numerous taxa in the Subspecies Groups mentioned above. Vagrants have a species account and are all illustrated, but do not have a map. Some “hypothetical” species, such as Steppe Gull Larus (fuscus) barabensis are described in detail and illustrated, but not all potential species are included in the guide; for example, Rufous-headed Robin Larvivora ruficeps could certainly turn up on passage but does not appear in this guide. Sarus Crane Antigone Antigone is treated as a Reintroduced species.

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Until relatively recently, birders visiting Thailand sought two taxa believed to be endemics, but they are no longer treated as valid species in this book: Siamese Partridge (Arborophila diversa - still recognised by IOC) is considered a subspecies of Chestnut-headed Partridge A. cambodiana in the taxonomy followed here, whilst “Deignan’s Babbler” has been shown to be conspecific with Rufous-fronted Babbler Cyanoderma rufifrons.  Another of Thailand’s other “famous” species, Gurney’s Pitta Pitta gurneyi whilst here treated as a “Very rare resident”, evidence strongly suggests that it is already extinct in Thailand. Other extinct species include Red-headed Vulture Sarcogyps calvus, White-rumped Vulture Gyps bengalensis, Giant Ibis Thaumatibis gigantea, White-shouldered Ibis Pseudibis davisoni, and probably Black-necked Stork Ephippiorhynchus asiaticus and Black-bellied Tern Sterna acuticauda. Furthermore, the most enigmatic of all the bird species from Thailand, White-eyed River Martin Eurochelidon sirintarae, is almost certainly globally extinct.

 

To its shame, Thailand’s record for conservation of nature and natural resources is particularly poor, and without increased conservation efforts, this seems likely to lead to more extinctions in the country: amongst birds, Helmeted Hornbill Rhinoplax vigil and Storm’s Stork Ciconia stormi are species that sadly seem destined to become locally extinct in the not-too-distant future.

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Despite these losses, there are plenty of fantastic destinations and birds to see in Thailand. Indeed, recent splits have resulted in two ‘new’ Thai endemics: Turquoise-throated Barbet Psilopogon chersonesus (split from Blue-throated Barbet P. asiaticus) and Rufous Limestone-babbler Turdinus calcicola (split, along with Greyish Wren-babbler T. crispifrons from Limestone Wren-babbler). Altogether, 20 species are considered to be endemic or near-endemic.


As with Robson’s South-east Asia guide, and other guides published by Lynx, the text font is very small. Some users may find this a nuisance in poor light conditions, but presumably this is necessary if all of the text is to appear opposite the plates in a book of this size.

In all, there are nearly 2,200 illustrations, mostly originating in the Handbook of the Birds of the World (HBW) series, and a total of 30 artists contributed to this guide. The illustrations are pleasing to look at, and most seem to be sufficient for identifying the birds that they depict. With so many artists, the style and quality of the illustrations vary significantly, although this doesn’t necessarily matter. What is perhaps more important to point out is that the illustrations are not always shown to the same scale on the same plate. For example, on one plate, several species of partridge are shown to be almost as large as a female Green Peafowl Pavo muticus, which is clearly not correct. This could easily be rectified with a simple line indicating a difference in scale.


Furthermore, it is a pity that some very similar looking species do not appear on the same plate, which seems rather odd. These include Greater White-fronted and Eastern Greylag Geese, Double Zitting and Golden-headed Cisticolas, Horsfield’s and Abbott’s Babblers; Yellow-browed and Mandelli's Leaf Warblers and Radde's and Dusky Warbler., whilst Martens’s, Grey-cheeked and Grey-crowned Warblers appear on a different plate to the extremely similar Alström’s and Bianchi’s Warblers.

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Although some new artwork has been included in this field guide, there is still room for improvement. It would be useful, for example, to add more paintings of immature birds or of birds in flight in some cases: for example, hornbills are often only seen in flight but none of the thirteen species are illustrated in flight here. Also, there are very few illustrations of immature gulls or gulls in flight, and indeed, several species are depicted only as adults at rest. This clearly won’t help with the identification of vagrants that are likely to turn up in immature plumages.

The maps are nicely presented, surprisingly detailed, and easy to use. Sitting right next to the illustration of the bird, these colour maps give the user an instant idea of where the bird occurs, and whether it is resident or not. The attention to detail in the maps suggest a high degree of accuracy, but mistakes in books like this usually only become apparent when using the book in the field.

The text itself is succinct and adequate to identify the majority of birds that one might encounter. It is nicely laid out, and very straightforward to use, and includes information on habitats and altitudinal limits, as well as a section on similar species where relevant. It also includes alternative names where appropriate. The text for each species starts with a clear statement about the status of the bird in Thailand, such as “Uncommon to fairly common resident”, which is one of the most important facts to establish when first identifying any bird in the field. Thai bird names are also provided for all species, and also appear in a separate index.

 
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Birding in the Thai Peninsula with friends in 1980

 

Overall, this is a very impressive and very welcome field guide, and the two Thai authors and those who helped “prepare” the text (Alex Berryman, Christopher Sharpe, Guy Kirwan and Tim Marlow and) should be congratulated on producing an excellent book. Whilst it does not have such detailed text as that in Robson’s guides, it does have the significant advantage of excellent maps, and if you are only going to Thailand, you will not be confused by all the other species (those that don’t occur in Thailand) that are crowded onto the plates in Robson’s Southeast Asia guide.

[for more photos by Nigel Voaden click here]

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