Monday, April 10, 2017

Birds of India - A Photographic Field Guide - A Review

After five visits to India and one to Sri Lanka I never tired of Indian subcontinent, the landscapes, its people or its birds. I did however become weary of the interminable flights of 22 hours door to door with unwanted stop overs in the Middle East. So even though flights to India are nowadays more direct I restrict holiday/birding trips to three or four hours on an aeroplane where I can bird the same day. 

A new field guide reminds me of what I am missing by not returning to India. With a great deal of time, money, luck plus a whole series of local guides with specialised knowledge, I might eventually see 13% of the world’s birds as portrayed in the book. 

Reviewed today is a book first published in 2016 in India by Om Books, “A Photographic Field Guide to the Birds of India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh”, now given a wider audience by Princeton University Press and on sale at $45 or £37.95. The authors of Birds of India are Bikram Grewal, Sumit Sen, Sarwandeep Singh and Nikhil Devasar, four experienced and well-travelled birders and photographers. 

Birds of India - A Photographic Field Guide - Princeton Press
Trying to fit almost 1400 species into a single field guide is surely a well-nigh impossible task. With 792 pages, 4,000 colour photos and 1,300+ maps the authors and publishers have made a valiant effort but the book has a number of key failings. The major problem and perhaps to be expected is the sheer usability. Weighing in at almost 1.5 kg and nearly 2 inches thick, this is a heavy volume to lug around for any length of time and is more at home on a table top.

 Birds of India - A Photographic Field Guide - Princeton Press

Introductory pages by Carol and Tin Inskipp give a fascinating overview and history of ornithology in India and its immediate neighbours, the several pages illustrated with evocative thumbnail sketches. We are also reminded how the protection of wildlife has a long tradition in the history of the region and continues today in large areas of special protection in parts of India, Bhutan Nepal and Sri Lanka.

Birds of India - A Photographic Field Guide - Princeton Press

Unfortunately other parts of the book do not live up to this initial excitement and anticipation. From the Introduction the reader is plunged straight into the species accounts via the barest of a Contents list or even a brief explanation of the pages that follow. 

The taxonomy and nomenclature used is not described, whereby a summary of at least the families of the birds and the order in which they appear in the ensuing pages would be of great value to a reader new to India. As it is the pages appear to follow Inskipp et al of 1996 by using the order beginning partridge, quail, pheasant etc first, followed by ducks, grebes etc, etc. Rather confusingly the information about species contained in the book is held in not one, but two checklists, both of which are at the end of the book. The first checklist follows the classification and nomenclature of Birds of South Asia; The Ripley Guide of 2012, while the second and more modern one of 2016 follows the Howard and Moore Complete Checklist of Birds of the World. 

Almost as an afterthought, advice on how to use the book’s maps is contained in three lines at the foot of the Introduction, while the maps themselves are both small and often difficult to interpret or occasionally missing.

Birds of India - A Photographic Field Guide - Princeton Press

While there are many fine, even stunning photographs within the book, their use is inconsistent and often unnecessary, especially so when a single full page photograph takes up space that could be used to show the variation of age or sex within the same species. The lack of explanation and picturing of such normal variation is both notable and striking in many pages where it highlights the difficulties of producing a purely photographic field guide. The natural inclination of most bird photographers is to picture the conspicuous male while sometimes neglecting portraist of the mostly drab looking female or autumnal juvenile.  The inclusion of different plumages and age classes is a “must” for any field guide, especially so when a birder is faced with the unfamiliar species they might find In India.

Birds of India - A Photographic Field Guide - Princeton Press

Also lacking in Birds of India is a range of photographs of birds in flight, especially raptors and waders, in particular the difficult family of accipiters where a fleeting glimpse of a bird in flight is often the most a birder can expect. 

Having been rather critical of this book I must emphasise its many valuable points cantered around the top-class and sometimeds superb photography. Birds of India will remain with me as a comparative reference guide that contains very many high quality images, a book that that will slip easily into my birding library. 

In fact I recommend it as handy comparative reference guide, perhaps alongside a traditional illustrative guide, in this case another Princeton guide - Birds of India by Richard Grimmett, Carol Inskipp and Tom Inskipp.  I reviewed  this earlier guide on Another Bird Blog on March 4th 2012.

Stay tuned for more news, views and reviews from Another Bird Blog.

Linking today to Stewart's World Bird Wednesday.


David Gascoigne said...

Great review, as always, Phil. I had always intended to go to India, but I doubt that I will make it at this stage in my life.

Linda said...

Wonderful post about this book, Phil! The photos and illustrations are beautiful! Thank you so much for sharing.

eileeninmd said...

Hello Phil, sounds like an awesome field guide for India. Thanks for sharing the review! Happy birding! Enjoy your day and the rest of the week!

June Caedmon said...

Thanks for the review, Phil. This is what I love about social media. I get to see so many beautiful birds on IG and blogs, etc. that I will never see I.R.L. Have a wonder-filled week!

Les Fous du Cap said...

Très beau livre ;-)
Céline & Philippe

A Colorful World said...

So many birds in India! Interesting review of a guide that apparently could be better.

Kay L. Davies said...

Birds of India...that must be a very thick book, Phil. I was just commenting on Rajesh's post about the seemingly infinite number of Indian temples, etc., he finds to photograph because India is such a large country, but it never occurred to me to think of Indian birds. Tigers and other wonderful beasts, yes, but birds no. Just teaches me I must expand my horizons.
I hope you and Sue are well. Hugs to one another from me.

Anu said...

Interesting post. Thank you.

Lowcarb team member said...

I've not visited India.
I'm sure there are so many varieties and colours of birds to see as well as other wonderful creatures.

Interesting to read your review.

All the best Jan

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