Miles McMullan. Field Guide to the Birds of Colombia (3rd edition). 2018. Rey Naranjo Editores, Carrera 4 N. 54A 10, Bogotá, Colombia. 432 pp. ISBN 978-958-8969-77-0 (paperback). Price: €48.95.
Colombia is a prime destination for many birders. More than 1900 of bird species have been recorded thus far – about 20% of the world’s bird population. For a long time, Hilty and Brown's A Guide to the Birds of Colombia was the only available dedicated guide for Colombia, but with all the taxonomic changes it has become hugely outdated. Also, with its massive 1.3kg it was quite heavy for use in the field (in fact, at the time many birders decided to cut out all the plates and just carry these). Restall's Birds of Nothern South America published in 2006 became a good alternative but it has also become fairly outdated and desperately needs an update. Furthermore, Restall's book with just the plates was also rather heavy (1.4kg) for use as a field guide. The aim of the authors of the book under review here was to provide an up-to-date and compact field guide that is easily carried and consulted in the field and provide observers the tools they mostly need for identification.
This is already the third edition of the Field Guide to the Birds of Colombia. With just 14x21cm, the current edition is still about the same small size as the previous edition (13x21cm). Weight has gone up from just 630 to 750 grams. Print quality seems to have improved slightly. Whereas images of birds often appeared a bit oversaturated in the previous edition this is less notable in the current one.
With the increasing number of birders visiting Colombia, the knowledge about the occurrence of many species has improved considerably. This edition includes updates on the occurrence and distribution compared to the previous edition of 2014 and according to the authors there are about 150 new illustrations. The differences with the 2014 edition are minor however. Side-by-side comparison reveals that some of the scythebills and woodcreepers are shown in slightly different positions but in general the drawings have remained largely the same. Despite being a bit larger than its previous edition, some of the plates have actually been downsized for this edition. This seems mainly due to some additional white space between species. Pages may therefore now seem a bit less busy than the previous edition. At times, however, the editors have been trying to squeeze too much information on a single page (the tody-tyrants have become really small now). It is obviously a trade-off when trying to put so many different species in a single portable book.
The previous editions lacked a good index, only giving a page range for every species group (e.g. tanager or antwren). This made it at times rather difficult to find the exact bird one was looking for. In the current edition there are now sub-entries to list the individual species for some of the larger groups such as the antbirds, antwren and antpittas. This has not been done for all groups consistently, however. It would have been worth the few extra pages to have a complete index that lists all the species individually.
This edition has been updated to account for the latest taxonomic updates by now following AOC-SACC (2018). The list of taxonomic updates since 2006, when Restall's book was published, seems almost endless, which even more emphasizes the added value of having an up-to-date field guide for any country in this part of the world. The book under review here includes the more recently described species such as Antioquia Wren, Tatama Tapaculo and the controversial Urrao Antpitta. Also, the split of Blossomcrown into Santa Marta Blossomcrown and Tolima Blossomcrown (both endemic to the country) are taken into account. The same can be said of the split from Long-tailed Antbird into Santa Marta, Klages's East Andean and Streak-headed Antbird (all four present in Colombia), just to mention a few.
Popular alternative names such as those used by IOC are now clearly mentioned in the text and marked in bold-face. This is for instance the case for Green (Lesser) Violetear, Paltry (Mistletoe) Tyrannulet and Tricoloured (Choco) Brushfinch. This is particularly helpful for birders using one of the IOC-based registration apps.
The plates are drawn by Miles McMullan. It must have been a huge effort for him to draw all the species and he should only deserve praise for this. The drawings in this third edition are still of varying quality though, and the improvements to the previous edition seem to be minor.
The hummingbirds are generally shown in natural positions with a fair amount of detail and the plates of the newly described species of helmetcrest are really a joy to look at. There are flight images for many of the raptors and even the North American warblers are shown with their various plumages.
However, some of the antpittas and puffbirds are drawn with weird unnatural proportions and have not been updated yet. Also, the plates of colorful species such as the Tanagers do not seem as shiny and crisp as one would expect these to be and some of the important field marks are not always visible. For instance, the quite obvious cinnamon-buff undertail coverts of both Metallical-green and Blue-browed Tanager are not depicted and not mentioned in the text. The drawing of the endemic Multicolored Tanager is in fact really poor. The large lemon-yellow patch on the mantle and upper back is completely absent in the drawing of the male. Furthermore, the uppertail coverts should have been glistening turquoise-blue instead of plain dull green. The female bird is not shown at all although it is in fact quite different from the male. This bird really deserves a better drawing, especially because it is such a strikingly beautiful endemic and a target for many birders visiting the western part of the country.
Although never really becoming an issue for the Tanagers, since these remain fairly easy to identify, the lack of key identification points does, at times, become an issue for the more difficult groups such as the antbirds and the flycatchers. For instance, the drawings of the male White-winged Becard and Black-and-white Becard appear almost identical and it is not mentioned how one could distinguish between them. Black-and white Becard is in fact much paler whereas the white margins on the wing-coverts of White-winged Becard should have been drawn much bolder. The drawings of the many antbirds are quite small and with only the very few descriptive notes one may easily get confused. For example, how to distinguish between Pearly and Amazonian Antshrikes? Unlike in the previous edition, it is now at least mentioned that Pearly has very large white wing spots but this still has not been properly reflected in the illustration. The bird is still shown with many inconspicuous small white spots rather than a few bold ones. Moreover, Pearly has a distinctive pale eye which is not visibly illustrated or noted either.
The maps are quite helpful and clearly distinguish between migratory and resident birds. Up-to-date altitude ranges are included in all maps, which is quite useful. Species with a limited distribution are highlighted by using arrows pointing to their exact location on the map.
The authors have managed to publish a very portable easy-to-carry-around pocket-sized guide to the birds of Colombia. In spite of being in its third edition, however, this book is not flawless and it may be hard to identify some of the more difficult species using this book. I had hoped that this edition would have meant a bigger step forward with regard to the quality of some of the plates. In any case, though, the fact that this edition is up-to-date with the recent taxonomic updates is a unique selling point for this book compared to the other available field guides which are lacking those updates. This book is definitely recommended and it provides a very useful addition to the excellent birding app for Colombia (which is in fact based on Restall's book - see the earlier review on this website).