Review of The Birder’s Guide to Africa by Michael Mills

16 november 2017  ·  Bernd de Bruijn  ·  2131 × bekeken

Mills, M, 2017. The Birder's Guide to Africa. Go-away-birding. Available at, €38,50. 

Authored by one of the most knowledgeable birders on the African continent, my expectations of this book were high. Before opening it, I was thinking along the lines of the brilliant Southern African Birdfinder (by Michael’s colleagues at Birding Africa) but now for the entire continent.... surely it would be impossible to cover all 68 territories in a certain level of detail? With 543 pages and 1,177 grams, the book is still within field guide dimensions. Before we move to the contents though, a little bit more about the author. Michael Mills is a free-lance bird guide (and one of the top guides at Birding Africa), ornithological researcher and conservationist. A very keen observer, he has made many interesting discoveries, duly published, most notably in the African Bird Club Bulletin. He has a passion for birding off the beaten track, and having done so all over the continent, he can speak with some authority about even some of the remotest places. So, high expectations indeed!

The first glance was a bit of a surprise: the country accounts actually only cover about 100 pages! These are followed by family accounts (150 pages) and species accounts (about 240 pages). Not a continent-wide ‘Birdfinder’, then? Given that we have field guides and bird handbooks, wouldn’t it have been preferable to simply refer to those and allow more space for information on countries and sites? First impression aside, now for a closer inspection, starting on page 1. And these first pages are quite simply superb. First, the author places the different types of birders into categories (world listers, balanced, budget and explorers). Then a number of criteria - such as bird endemism, safety, cost, opportunity for exploration – are calculated for each country. Next, weighted scores are given for these criteria for every birder type. For example, world listers receive a high score on bird endemism, whereas explorers score low here; balanced birders score high on safety and ease. With this numerical information ‘heat maps’ of the continent are prepared for each type of birder, allowing you to see which countries are best visited. Fantastic! For world listers, Madagascar obviously comes first, whereas explorers should venture into the DRC. For balanced birders, South and Eastern Africa are good. This exercise is both smart and fun to read, apart from being very useful! What’s more, comparitively little-visited countries like Cameroon and Malawi receive high scores – sparking interest to visit other places than the more well-known ‘safari’ countries.

While rather concise, the country accounts are very good. With another smart calculation, Bird Importance Scores are provided, giving every country a rank, as well as several categories of key species. This includes the very latest splits, potential splits and endemic subspecies. This alone is very useful and cannot easily be found elsewhere. This is followed by brief birding information (sites, rain patterns, when to visit), general info and further reading. The country resources on the African Bird Club website are a good complement to this book. Personally, I would have preferred a little more information on sites and perhaps itineraries.

The family accounts are, as the author calls it, ‘a celebration of the riches of African birding’. I couldn’t agree more: 142 of the 238 bird families in the world are found in Africa – about 60%! Each family is illustrated with one to three photographs, with info on the number of species. Many of the pictures are stunning and show little-photographed species. To my personal taste, the tendency to show most birds in full frame makes these pages a bit boring; a little more attention for composition and feel for the habitat would have greatly added to the atmosphere. It isn’t coffee table-book quality and it does feel a little bit like too many objectives are attempted for one book. That is not to discredit the photographers. Most pictures are by Tasso Leventis, a keen birder and one of the major contributors to bird research and conservation in Africa. But I feel some space taken by the family accounts might better have been awarded to ‘Birdfinder’-type information in the country section.

This is mitigated though by the species accounts, covering a staggering 2,792 species. For each, the status is given, combined with an ‘easiness rate’ – another great concept! – subspecific information and both useful and authoritative guidance on where best to see it. This is a fantastic overview, impossible to achieve from studying national or regional field guides. It also helps greatly in devising visits, timing and itineraries, maximising the chance to see your target species. Finally, there is a comprehensive literature list as well as contacts for websites, e-mail groups, BirdLife partners and apps.

Any birder intending to visit Africa should get this book; there is a lot of information you will not easily find elsewhere. For birders without concrete plans, get it also – you will want to go! This book provides excellent guidance to birders in an up to date, well-presented and often innovative way. To my mind, the single biggest achievement of this book is that is sheds ornithological light on so many African countries that have long been in the shade of the well-known destinations (which are still worth a visit too!), opening up a whole ‘new frontier’ for birders from abroad.

Bernd de Bruijn


Bram Vogels  ·  26 december 2017  12:50

I bought this book partly based on this interesting review. Without a doubt there are interesting pages in the book, not at least the first pages with the comparison of all the countries. Besides that it is probably extremely difficult to fit all the information of this massive continent in one book. I have not very extensive experience in Africa, I birded so far in only four countries. But because I was planning trips to two other countries (Ghana and Uganda) I was very interested in the book. So I can only comment for people who have basic travel experience in Africa and what you learn from the book:

-        The first pages are very interesting to pinpoint directly some interesting countries, in my opinion an interesting view. Because I use HBW I can make target maps very easily which take into account my lifelist, but the book gives an extra dimension based on safety, endemism, etc…

-        The country accounts mostly have long lists of ‘target’ birds. I think these target lists are to extensive. It starts with the species which are top targets for the country or the country is one of the two best spots to see it. These lists are not too long and basically the most important targets for a country. The possible splits are also very interesting, but the very long list of ‘other’ targets is too long. For Ghana this contains species like Violet Turaco, Blue-bellied roller, Senegal parrot, Yellow-crowned gonolek, Vieillot’s barbet, etc… Species which are easily seen in other countries, so no need to stress them in these country lists.

-        The family accounts comprise almost 50 pages and this adds in my opinion nothing to the book. It is very superficial, the pictures are good, but the pages are way to crowdy and there are quite some pictures where the feet or the bill is partly lacking, etc, just to fit as many pictures as possible on a page.

-        Species accounts: the information per species for easiness etc is relevant to get a feeling which species to focus on. A species can be an endemic and very easy to see, or have a large distribution but very hard to see. So that’s a good thing, but the species information is very limited. For quite some species which are targets for me in for instance Ghana is only indicated ‘forests in the south of Ghana’. That’s actually nothing new when your targets are mostly upper guinean forest species… Besides that a lot of vagrants are included, but I suppose no one is planning a trip to Africa to look for Earasian wigeon, White-breasted waterhen and Sabine’s gull.

So it is an interesting read, a good overview, but if it is very helpfull to really plan a trip for a country is doubtfull. I suppose it was better to cut in the country accounts, skip the family accounts, focus the species accounts on the relevant targets in Africa by skipping the vagrants and expand the species accounts or add more information about the sites in the country accounts. I don’t think I will take this book with me on vacation, but surely use it to get an overview for coming trips. So if you buy it, don’t do it with the wrong expectations it is definitely not a where to watch with detailed descriptions.

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