Herzog, S.K., R.S. Terrill, A.E. Jahn, J.V. Remsen, Jr., O. Maillard Z., V.H. Garcia-Soliz, R. MacLeod, A. Maccormick, and J.Q. Vidoz, 2017. Asociación Armonía, Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia. Paperback, 492 pp. Price: approx. $65.00.
Before the introduction
Let me get this straight: the main reason to review this book is to make you, dear reader living far away from Bolivia and wanting to buy this field guide, envious. While I have Birds of Bolivia on my coffee table, you are craving for screenshots, reviews, first-hand opinions and, if you are very lucky, maybe a quick look. In your wildest dreams, you have this book under your pillow but that probably won’t happen before it’s more widely available.
The book has been hard to find because it has been printed and distributed in Bolivia, and the steep price to ship copies overseas effectively keeps the books quite firmly within that fabulous bird-rich, land-locked country that is Bolivia. One could argue field guides are most useful in their home country -it’s meant to be used in the field after all!- but that won’t be much of a consolation for intrepid overseas birders struggling to prepare a visit.
So you wonder how I got my copy? Long story short, I was lucky to have my middle man in Lima, Peru, where some field guides ended up by coincidence through a visiting Bolivian 'ornithologista' (I think I spelled that right). Quickly after Middle Man’s visiting family returned to Europe, a package was delivered at my door. Obviously, this is a one-off occasion, but there is still hope that negotiations between the authors and some big publishers will result in a second print somewhere in North-America and/or Europe.
While nearly the whole world is covered with either regional or national field guides, Bolivia sadly missed one until very recently. Fortunately, this huge land-locked country with the 6th richest species list of any country, has now been covered up to a standard that many expect. But what standard exactly? As this book has been long awaited and overdue, its existence alone would be, for most, enough reason to buy it without hesitation. In this review, I will try to evaluate whether this book is a ‘first’, or a first and definite field guide.
I am kind of a guidebook collector, but most of all a world birder. So I try to collect a field guide for every country or wider region. Based on all the guidebooks I have, I evaluate them with two goals in mind: How good are they to prepare/study the birds before and after any visit to a country (coffee table use), and how good are they to ID birds in the field? Considered a benchmark by many are Birds of Europe by Svensson et al. and, for South-America, Birds of Peru by Schulenberg et al.
So what is on my coffee table, again? A 492 page field guide, with an short 16-page introduction and 220 plates to drool over (later more about that) and an index. The size of the book is a not super-compact, but a fairly common 16.5 x 24cm (between A4 and A5). The authors have clearly thought well about the format and this is probably the sweet spot in terms of portability vs. size of text and illustrations. Other guides (Europe, Peru) use 14x20cm which is close to A5 and for me a bit more handy without compromising text and illustration size too much, but I’ll probably think differently when I am older and near-sighted! The book seems to be sturdy and has good quality shiny paper that will not absorb water too rapidly. The binding is a bit clumsy and uneven at the spindle, but that is about the only comment I can make.
What exactly is on the plates seems easy enough: all the bird species that have been observed in Bolivia. Talking about species, I should start with a quick note about taxonomy, and I (lazily) quote: “The species-level taxonomy and nomenclature of birds used here follow the South American Classification Committee (SACC) of the American Ornithologists’s Union”. Some examples may clarify this for IOC / HBW / Clements followers: Ruddy Duck (SACC) is split and goes under the name of Andean Duck in Bolivia. This is elegantly solved by naming it “Ruddy (Andean) Duck Oxyura (jamaicensis) ferruginea”. Lineated Woodcreeper, on the other hand, is still treated as one species by HBW while it is split by SACC in 4 species, amongst others Rondonia and Inambari Woodcreeper (and IOC and Clements). This is named Rondonia [Lineated] Woodcreeper Lepidocolaptes (albolineatus) fuscicapillus (note the square brackets). In this way, anyone has the relevant info for his / her taxonomy and so this book will stretch its expiration date a bit longer than some guides not mentioning these splits or distinctive subspecies. The authors have tried to illustrate all of these splits and color morphs, and they succeeded fairly well in this aspect.
A whole team of illustrators worked on this book. The pitfall is that different styles of drawing are notable throughout the book, and some readers may or may not like certain styles. I prefer a clean but detailed drawing but that does not necessarily implicate that birds from such drawings are easier to ID in the field. For example, the flycatchers look a bit too clean compared to Birds of Peru, and I am pretty sure they are harder to ID in the field than they appear to bear clear differences in the book! Some plates appear to be a bit pale and washed out (e.g. tyrannulets) and not very saturated (e.g. most hummingbirds).
This can be attributed to the print, or maybe they are a bit paler in Bolivia but I don’t think so. Other plates, such as dabbling ducks and Mountain-tanagers are suffering from too much contrast and oversaturated colors, but this never really gets in the way. There are also plates that look really sharp, e.g. woodcreepers. For birds with sexual dimorphism (think antbirds) females are consequently illustrated so in the field one should not suffer from the ‘I couldn’t ID the bird but it is probably the female’ syndrome. Birds on most plates are facing right which is convenient for comparison. In total, the book is not a homogenous piece of art but rather a mix of different styles. Most importantly, the quality of drawings is up to standard and at first sight, most birds I know well from Peru seem to be drawn pretty spot on and in natural positions. Illustrations are not separated visually on the plates, but plates aren’t too busy as each page holds 6-8 species, maps and descriptions. This is very similar to Birds of Peru.
The text is concise and always the same in structure, which makes for easy reading and comparison between species. First, the occurrence, habitat and broader biogeographic region of a bird are discussed. Next come behaviour and niche in habitat. Third, the most important plumage / topographic ID characteristics are mentioned, mostly in comparison with similar species. Finally, the song / voice is described. Next to the name is the size of the bird and at the end of the text some abbreviations indicate in what provinces, altitude and adjacent countries the bird could occur. Endemic birds are indicated as such.
Last but not least alongside the illustrations and text, there are maps. The biggest asset of the maps is the quality of the data. Herzog and Maillard have done a pretty decent effort that merits a bit of explanation (future field guide authors: pay attention!). First of all, they systematically gathered field data for the country. While this looks like an obvious thing to do, it takes years to build up a good database for a country as large and underwatched as Bolivia. Second, after they compiled a gridded map with observations, they added layers such as elevation and vegetation. In this way, scarcely visited areas without observations are either included or excluded from the range. For example, standard distribution maps would show that wide-spread Amazonian species are present in the Beni Savannas while the maps of Herzog and Maillard exclude those zones based on vegetation. The drawback of this level of detail in the maps is the learning curve to interpret the maps, especially when only a part of the country is visualized on the map. The maps are not always obvious by someone who doesn’t know the shape and location of e.g. the Andes in Bolivia. It would have been handy to indicate the Andes and some reference points like rivers or big cities on the map.
At the very end of the book there is a part that is often overlooked until one is really using the book in the field: the index at the end of the book starts just after the plates and is split in a Latin and English version. Birds are sorted based on the species group name (e.g. Flycatcher comes before Tanager) and subsequently, all birds with suffix 'Flycatcher' are summed which makes it easy to find the bird you are looking for, at least in the field guide!
In some ways, this field guide reminds me a lot of Birds of Peru by Schulenberg et al: it has more or less the same plate lay-out with 6-8 species per plate, it has concise, clear texts written with field use in mind, and text + maps are opposite of the illustrations. Those illustrations are obviously the eye-catcher in every bird guide, and in this case, they differ in style but not necessarily in quality, which is up to standard and comparable to e.g. Birds of Peru. The introduction is well-written, the decisions regarding taxonomy are well-thought, and the range maps are really more than you could wish for from a country so severely underwatched as Bolivia. I hope this review not only made you envious and convinced you to buy this book once it is available, but also makes you longing for a trip to this fascinating country. If so, I hope we see each other in one of the coming years, preferably while admiring mouthwatering species such as Black-hooded Sunbeam, Blue-throated Macaw, Masked Antpitta and Palkachupa Cotinga.
Lieven de Temmerman