Field Guide to the Birds of Colombia (3rd edition)

3 mei 2020  ·  David Spelt  ·  1191 × bekeken

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Colombia was the only available dedicated guide for Colombia, but with all the taxonomic changes it has become hugely outdated.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  Restall's Birds of Nothern South America published in 2006 became a good alternative but it has also become fairly outdated and desperately needs an update.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.

Third edition
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).

David Spelt


Lieven De Temmerman  ·  4 mei 2020  07:59, gewijzigd 4 mei 2020  13:33

First and foremost: thanks for this review! I once did a book review and I must say I found it hard work. It's not easy to make a balanced comment on a field guide, when you have mixed feelings (happy it's on the market, a bit sad if you find obvious mistakes). Regarding the critique on the drawings, I find the Colombia guide an easy target: overall, the drawings in this guide look less sharp than the birds in the field. I would compare the drawing style to Van Perlo, but I have to admit, after using Van Perlo's Brazil guide, I found that Van Perlo guide actually very very usable. The main advantage of McMullan's guide is still its compactness, and the fact that it's taxonomically relatively very up-to-date thanks to the updates in the editions. Some field guides I really appreciate (like the Birds of Peru) are only updated every 10 years it seems, while McMullan has 3 editions in the last 10 years (approximately). I tend to see McMullan as a guide for those who have experience seeing S-American birds elsewhere (Brazil, Ecuador, Peru - Venezuela sadly still in deep trouble), but it's a difficult and confusing book when Colombia is your introduction into S-American birding, and you only have this book. For Flycatchers, I agree the drawings are very poor. Whenever I have to ID a Colombian flycatcher, I grab the Ecuador / C-America field guides (or even the ones from Peru and Brazil, especially for Amazonian birds). The antpittas are poor, too (do they still seem so unbalanced?), but they have the advantage of separating them by sound and range. Antbirds are poor and not very helpful, but again, sound is probably the best ID feature. Regarding Multicolored tanager: I have the first edition and the yellow back/neck is clearly visible, and the turqoise-blue uppertail coverts as well, so I do not understand that critique? I also don't see that many problems (I know I lowered the bar for the drawings in this guide when I say 'not that many'! )with the drawings of Black-and-white vs. White-winged becards: the color of the back (black vs grey). I have more problems with the drawings of hermits, parrotlets, piculets, greenlets, vireos, thrushes, wood warblers and especially woodcreepers... :-)

David Spelt  ·  4 mei 2020  19:57

@Lieven: many of the woodcreepers, piculets, hermits and vireos have actually been redrawn for the previous (second) edition and are generally in better shape now compared to the first edition. Some of the antpittas indeed still look weird (or unbalanced you may call it) like the puffbirds. Given the larger number of improvements that were made for the previous edition I had just hoped that this new edition was again a major step forward with regards to the quality of the plates (especially for the ones that have not received any updates since the first edition) but this is unfortunately not the case. Multi-coloured Tanager was redrawn for the previous edition but apparently something went wrong there and it somehow got worse. Strangely, this error has not been corrected for this new third edition. Anyhow, if you only own the first edition of this book it is definitely worth to update to the latest edition.

Jildert Hijlkema  ·  7 mei 2020  21:41

Based on this review, it seems worth waiting for the upcoming release from the unsurpassed publisher Lynx (without advertising).

Most birders now have the time to wait...

Redmar Woudstra  ·  8 mei 2020  08:40

@Jildert: I sincerely hope that Lynx guides will be more than "just" the HBW-prints recycled and re-ordered. Although the added species information will be useful, I was not convinced by their guide in Indonesia. What was especially hampering was the lack of different plumages, especially juvenile and female birds. While the artwork in McMillan is bad, I found it pretty useful in the field, also because of the size of the book.

I then still prefer guides with a set up like Birds of Peru or Birds of Southern Asia: lot's of plumages, combined with good to excellent artwork!

Lieven De Temmerman  ·  8 mei 2020  09:35

I largely agree with Redmar, but just this remark: Some countries, like Colombia have more than 1 ssp. occurring, especially with the Andes separating many ssp. and future splits that occur only in the North-west or east of the Andes in the Amazon / llanos, but also some Santa Marta / Choco / Andean ssp.

At the same time, I see the (already impressive) database of drawings collected by Lynx expanding with more and more subspecies, as can be seen on the "birds of the world website". 

So I predict that future Lynx guide will have the main advantage depicting all available ssp., a feat that hardly ever happened in other field guides, with some notable exceptions like the (in my opionion) excellent "Birds of South Asia" by Rasmussen and Anderton. Lynx will have that advantage that it can recycle ssp. drawings for many countries and keep adding new drawings of ssp., while single country field guide authors / drawers have to specifically draw a ssp. for only 1 book. 

Redmar Woudstra  ·  8 mei 2020  09:58

@Lieven: That's very good news! And I totally agree with your statement on all the ssp. in Colombia: it is especially necessary to show ssp. there!

Not only do I hope they improve on ssp plates, but also on different plumages. 

My feeling for the Birds of Indonesia (although there is no other option) was that the information was very good (I would have liked more detailed maps though, e.g. Sulawesi only for an endemic), but that if this would be their modus operandi, recycling the plates of HBW feels like a "cash cow".

Jan Hein van Steenis  ·  8 mei 2020  11:11

I'd prefer a single guide with a modern set-up (plates, text, map in one place) and great plates for each Neotropical country (good examples: Central America, Peru, Chile). Van Perlo's Brazil guide is actually OK, but "great plates" he will never really manage and it's taxonomically outdated (but depicting the same bird four times would be a bit silly).

In Colombia, you'll still have to take the Bird of South America (Passerines) + Birds of South America (Non-passerines) along with this annotated checklist [at least it doesn't take up space]. Just don't make the mistake of getting Restall, which will leave you more confused than you should be anyway!

China should be the prime target for a good field guide though.

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