Gregory, P. 2017. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. Hardback. 464 pp. Price: €60,-.
The high costs and to a lesser degree concerns about safety (note that if you plan well, you should be fine) are the main reasons world birders postpone or even skip a trip to this extraordinary and intriguing area. In this context, it might be surprising that New Guinea’s birds are covered so well for travelling birders. But it's not. Not really. It’s simply one of the most fantastic birding destinations on the planet and therefore alone it deserves a good field guide… or two.
After the very good Birds of the Indonesian Archipelago (Eaton et al. 2016), Lynx published yet another field guide of which the artwork is based on the HBW series. While Indonesia was in desperate need of a new guide, New Guinea wasn't. The second, completely revised edition of Birds of New Guinea (Pratt & Beehler 2015) was published by Princeton only two years ago. In the introduction of the new Lynx guide, author Phil Gregory himself mentions that Pratt & Beehler (P&B) is excellent. So the fair question seems to be: is this new book even better? Does it truly add something?
Gregory has lived in Papua New Guinea for years before moving to Australia (where you might know him from the Cassowary House he and his wife Sue run) and has returned to the island often ever since. It'll be hard to find someone more experienced than Gregory, so he seems to be the right man for the job.
The scope of the new book is slightly different in two ways. First of all there’s a geographical difference. Gregory also included the PNG islands of the Bismarck Archipelago and Bougainville – an omission in P&B (note that Dutson (2011) also covered these islands). Therefore new book covers more species, around 900. No less than 460 of which are endemic, with 386 – often spectacular – endemics on the main island. Currently as much as seven endemic families are recognized, but with several species that seem to take odd positions within existing families, this number will certainly rise in the future. Yes, New Guinea is that good.
The second, more subtle difference is that the sole focus is bird identification. Of course you might say, it’s a field guide! Just like P&B! True, but P&B also offers a lot of (ecological) background information and therefore has a slightly wider scope.
Taxonomy mainly follows HBW
The taxonomical choices are interesting as they differ from the Indonesian Lynx guide. Gregory mentions he tried to avoid “field guide splitting” as much as possible, even in cases where future splits are highly likely (think: Collared Kingfisher or Little Shrike-thrush), though he did make a few exceptions (e.g. Tagula Manucode). The overall taxonomy mainly follows HBW – and vice versa. Earlier this year e.g. Western and Eastern Crested Berrypecker were not yet split in HBW Alive and the satinbirds were still included in the Birds-of-paradise instead of in their own, endemic family, but these and several other species are now updated and on par with the book. Following HBW means that species not (yet) recognized by other taxonomical authorities are included, like the four-way Pheasant-pigeon split, or the treatment of Western and Eastern Superb Fruit-dove as separate species. The common names mainly follow HBW, but there are some exceptions (e.g. Raja Ampat Pitohui instead of Waigeo Pitohui). Alternative names are fortunately included in the species accounts, though unfortunately not in the index: an omission found in many field guides.
The guide has the same structure and layout as the Indonesian guide. The introduction is short. The species accounts are on the left page, while the plates and maps are on the right. P&B is different in this respect: the species on the plates are numbered (instead of mentioned) on the right, with the species names, maps and some key features on the left. The full species accounts in P&B are at the back of the book. While trying to ID a tricky species, this results in turning pages in the field. The Lynx guide should therefore be somewhat easier to use. HBW artwork has no background (no surrounding habitat etc), which perhaps makes the plates less lively, but it also creates a visually “calm” book. The overall layout has one disadvantage: both the font size and most of the plates are small. No, I don’t need glasses, but on many pages this creates empty space – space that could have been used for bigger plates that show more detail, or – if necessary – longer species accounts. Furthermore, some similar species with overlapping ranges are not on the same page (e.g. Chestnut and Forbes's Forest-rails; Collared, Variable and Brown Goshawk), which would have been a better choice in my opinion. The index uses the complete common names, which is a choice I wouldn’t have made (so you’ll find Hooded Monarch under the ‘H’, not the ‘M’), but families are also included (crakes, crows etc) and this should allow a quick(er) reference. Otherwise the book is user friendly.
Species accounts and maps
The species accounts are relatively short, but they are thorough and to the point. I can only take my hat off for the amount of relevant information Gregory has summarized. They do not only adequately deal with the main characters or differences between similar species, but also provide useful info on range, subspecies and taxonomy. The accounts do not include ecological information like nesting and food, a main difference with P&B that I mentioned before. The habitat descriptions are short, though relevant for visiting birders. The ever important altitudes are mentioned, and explain whether birds are – say – canopy dwellers or skulking on the forest floor, if they are solitary or join (mixed) flocks etc. A very strong point is that subspecies are thoroughly covered – more so than in P&B (e.g. seven Little Shrike-thrush taxa against three in P&B). Oddly, the depicted subspecies is mostly, but not always mentioned on the plates (e.g. in Goldenface a ssp. with yellow – and not orange – underparts is depicted, but the ssp. (group) is left unmentioned). I like that the maps are right next to the plates since this too allows a quick reference in the field. They mention whether species are endemic (a feature often lacking on maps!), or if the migrants are of austral or Asian origin. I compared the maps of both books for three species groups and they appear to be similar. P&B suggests slightly more detail, but one may wonder if that reflects the true situation in a country that is largely under watched away from the classic birding sites. For recently described species the maps in Gregory are perhaps a trifle better, and the newly proposed and the “HBW splits” now of course have their own maps.
A sad truth for authors is perhaps that field guides are only as good as their plates. Though the artwork was made by no less than 25 artists (as opposed to two main and two minor artists in P&B), the general standard is good to downright excellent. As in the Indonesian guide, new artwork was commissioned, though again it's not mentioned how many new plates were added, and for which species (groups). It's unclear whether these are (already) added to HBW Alive: I checked a few dozen species and found no differences. There are only a few plates that are less good. The jizz of the Long-tailed Shrike seems off and the swifts could have been much better. Just like in the Indonesian guide, not all species in this sometimes difficult group have plates of both the upper and underparts. But these really are exceptions. Oh boy, there a so many mouthwatering plates. Feline Owlet-nightjar, Papuan Logrunner, Chestnut-backed Jewel-babbler and the Melidectes species are just a few examples of paintings that I'd like to have as art on my wall!
Birds of Paradise and bowerbirds
In a review about New Guinea, the birds of paradise (BoP) cannot be left unmentioned. The plates in P&B were good, but the ones in Gregory are simply stunning. They are both a joy to watch and highly functional. Some astrapia's and 'plumed' BoP hybridize. The existence of these hybrids is mentioned in the text, but hybrid features – let alone plates – are lacking, just like in P&B: this could have been a distinguishing feature of this book. A strong feature in P&B is that it includes plates of the famous displays, which are unfortunately lacking here – nor are they described. This underlines the focus of this guide: identification. More or less the same applies for the bowerbirds: the superb plates in this guide are of an even higher quality (Fawn-breasted has an amazing amount of details!) than in P&B, but in the latter guide there's a beautiful plate with the bowers of all species, which is lacking here. So as far as these two striking families are concerned, let's call it a draw.
Every area holds species groups that cause ID headaches. On the whole, they are better covered in this book. Take the Meliphaga group within the honeyeaters. Again the plates are excellent, while they are IMHO too sketchy in P&B. The structural differences between Puff-backed, Graceful, Elegant and Mimic Honeyeater for instance are much more evident, and the descriptions are just a bit more to the point. With this book I think I would have struggled less with the identification of silent birds than I did with P&B. And this is just one example, but it applies to most families (e.g. take a look at the scrubwrens and mouse warblers).
So where does this leave us? P&B is a good book, with good plates and it works well in the field. However the species accounts in the new guide – though shorter – seem to be just a little bit more to the point which, combined with the plates that in general are also better, is important for the difficult species groups. Furthermore more plates of subspecies are included. This guide should also be a bit more user friendly in the field. With the PNG islands of Bougainville and the Bismarck Archipelago included, it's also a more complete guide. On the other hand, in P&B the plates are larger and show habitat in the background. It includes valuable plates of bowers and displaying BoP. Furthermore P&B gives more ecological background information and has a much longer introduction. But when it solely comes to field identification, I'd say that Gregory's book is a touch better.
So if you have to choose one book for a trip and your main focus is ID, I'd pick this excellent new guide. But since you're bound to spend a ship load of money on a New Guinea trip anyway, and P&B also has a lot to offer, I advise you to buy them both. It’s worth it. It was tricky to publish a field guide for an area that was already covered by a good book, but Gregory managed to pull it off.
PS Slight hint to Lynx Edicions: if there's one major birding destination that is in desperate need of a new guide, it must be China!
Dutson, G. 2011. Birds of Melanesia. Bismarcks, Solomons, Vanuatu and New Caledonia. Christopher Helm, London.
Pratt, TK & B M Beehler, 2015. Birds of New Guinea. Second Edition. Princeton University Press
Vincent van der Spek