SUSAN MYERS 2009. Birds of Borneo: Brunei, Sabah, Sarawak, and Kalimantan. Princeton University Press, 41 William Street, Princeton, New Jersey 08540, USA; e-mail Robert_Kirk@press.princeton.edu, website www.press.princeton.edu. 272 pp. ISBN 978-0-691-14350-7 (paperback). EUR 29.00.
QUENTIN PHILLIPPS & KAREN PHILLIPPS 2009. Phillipps' field guide to the birds of Borneo. John Beaufoy Publishing Ltd, 1 Blenheim Court, 316 Woodstock Road, Oxford OX2 7NS, UK; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, website www.johnbeaufoy.com. 368 pp. ISBN 978-1-906780-10-4 (paperback). EUR 27.50.
An extraordinary avifauna comprising a good deal of magnificently stunning, often geographically restricted species, makes the island of Borneo a popular destination among birdwatchers. The birds of Borneo by Bertram E Smythies and Geoffrey W H Davison (of which the fourth edition was published in 1999) is the standard reference on Bornean birds. It is however so sizable that it would require hiring a porter to take it along in the field. The plates have been published separately (A pocket guide to the birds of Borneo, compiled by Charles M Francis) but despite certainly having their charm, they are not on a par with what birders have become used to in recent field guides. Since its publication in 1993, A field guide to the birds of Borneo, Sumatra, Java, and Bali - the Greater Sunda islands by John MacKinnon and Karen Phillipps, has been the only available field guide for Borneo. This work has proven itself useful and still is the field guide for Sumatra, Java and Bali. It has, however, had a habit of being continuously out of print and only being sold second hand, at preposterous prices. Furthermore, the book possesses quite some distracting inaccuracies and occasionally drawings deviate from the truth to the point of being unusable. This guide has been in dire need of an update. Suddenly, there has been a shift from a shortage of reference material to an overabundance, with two new field guides appearing independently within a time span of mere weeks. It is only logical to compare these two guides in a single review. I will refer to these new guides as 'Myers' and 'Phillipps & Phillipps' throughout this review.
Illustrations are the most important aspect of any field guide. Both guides are graced by spectacular endemics on the cover. Especially 'Myers' sets the standard high, depicting the beautiful Blue-headed Pitta Pitta baudii and Blue-banded Pitta P arquata on the hardback and the paperback, respectively. Unfortunately, this turns out to be a letdown. Both books heavily rely on recycled plates from previous works. This, of course, does not have to be a problem, as long as the original material is of a sufficient level. But is it?
'Myers' practically only includes new material where it concerns Bornean endemics (including some subspecies). The remaining species are practically all taken from Craig Robson's A field guide to the birds of South-East Asia (first published in 2000); only the most inadequate ones have been redone. Some of the new drawings of endemics simply seem to have been rushed. The green broadbills Calyptomena, of which two are unique to Borneo, have not been done justice: a missed opportunity. And that Chestnut-crested Yuhina Yuhina everetti... Come on! On the other hand, the pittas Pittidae (a group well represented on Borneo, with three endemics) are very nicely done. Even the 'updated' drawings are not without their flaws. Rufous-collared Kingfisher Actenoides concretus looks very pretty now but the prominent buffy spots that dot the female's upperparts have simply been forgotten (even though this character is mentioned in the text). Long-tailed Broadbill Psarisomus dalhousiae is simply a disgrace. Luckily, the Greater Goldenback Chrysocolaptes lucidus looks much better now. Having a lot of different artists on board, each with their particular style, can be quite distracting, especially when multiple artists take on members of the same family. This is particularly noticeable for the frogmouths Batrachostomus. Furthermore, the quality of the drawings strongly fluctuates. The trogons Trogonidae are perfect but this new guide would have been a good excuse to redo the leafbirds Chloropseidae. And why have the terrible crow Corvus drawings been kept? A real blunder is the displacement of the drawings of two real Bornean specialties, Bornean Barbet Megalaima eximia and Temminck's Babbler Pellorneum pyrrogenys, with those of Blue-eared Barbet M australis and Abbott's Babbler Malacocincla abbotti (thus duplicating these latter two). Make sure you check if the correct drawings are at least included separately! This was not the case for the hardback copy I used for this review but it was for a paperback version I checked later (albeit only on a small and non-plasticized thus highly impractical piece of paper)! A choice which I am not happy about is the layout of 'Myers'; the drawing of each species is placed directly next to the accompanying text and map and only a few are depicted per page. There is a lot of 'white page' taking up precious space. Also, scale has not been taken into account sufficiently. No, Collared Owlet Glaucidium brodiei and Barred Eagle-Owl Bubo sumatranus are not of equal size! Furthermore, the impracticalities going hand in hand with having troublesomely similar species spread out over different pages (why not at least place these on the same page?) outweigh the benefits of having all the information per species together.
'Phillipps & Phillipps' re-uses many plates previously published in the aforementioned 'MacKinnon & Phillipps' and in A field guide to the birds of China from 2000, by the same authors. This is understandable, as Karen Phillipps again illustrates this guide. Having provided some critique on these plates earlier in this review, I am happy to say that in 'Phillipps & Phillipps', a lot of the oldies have been replaced. This especially includes those plates that would have benefitted most from an update, such as the often neglected raptors and shorebirds. And Buff-vented Bulbul Iole olivacea will actually be recognizable in the field this time! Still, there are plenty imperfections left. This would have been such a good occasion to redo the horrible frogmouths. The female Lesser Cuckooshrike Coracina fimbriata should have a barred throat. This gives it a totally different expression in the field; on the plate it looks almost like a different species. Although it is nice that a female Blue-banded Kingfisher Alcedo euryzona has been included this time, I would also have liked to see a female Whitehead's Broadbill Calyptomena whiteheadi depicted. And is that supposed to be a Scaly-breasted Munia Lonchura punctulata? A couple of plates have been poorly printed. This does not help in sorting out the tricky spiderhunters Arachnothera, and the awesome broadbills Eurylaimidae simply deserve so much more. Actually, colours seem to be a bit dull in general. The layout of the plates of 'Phillipps & Phillipps', presenting multiple species together, especially confusingly similar ones, is (of course!) the only way to go in a field guide. A nice touch are the occasional illustrations showing things like prey items and 'host plants' and even such elaborate drawings as a huge Koompassia trees harboring honey bee nests and the complex devices built to scare off ravaging flocks of Pin-tailed Parrot-Finch Erythrura prasina. Because these little details are not always referred to in the text itself, the idea falls a bit short. It is also good to see some drawings of nests; for the different 'nest-swiftlets' Aerodramus the way the nest is constructed is basically the only criteria to rely on for identification in the 'field'. Some species get special attention in the form of (extra) elaborate paintings, such as one which depicts the idyllic setting of a family of Bornean Ground Cuckoos Carpococcyx radiceus, peacefully feeding among Bearded Pigs Sus barbatus.
Text and distribution maps
There is a clear dichotomy in the kind of information both books provide. Basically, 'Myers' is very focused on being an identification guide, allocating most text to the species accounts. These present a dense summary of the necessary information, structured according to a clear format. Next to thorough descriptions of plumage for sexes and age classes, habitat and behavior get sufficient attention. The sound descriptions are quite elaborate, even presenting frequency and duration (although I wonder if it really helps in capturing something so complex as bird sound on paper). The text is really the highlight of this guide. In 'Phillipps & Phillipps', the species accounts are noticeably more limited; even how to distinguish between similar species hardly gets attention. This is a major shortcoming. A nice touch is that distinguishable subspecies (eg, resident and migratory form of Crested Honey-Buzzard Pernis ptilorhyncus) are given separate entries. On the other hand, 'Phillipps & Phillipps' also list quite some potential but not yet recorded vagrants. Visiting birders are mostly not after vagrants and the resident birding community will want to consult a book which actually discusses how to identify the 'little brown jobs', especially as the illustrations provided are simply inadequate. In other words, a waste of space. Whereas the introduction by 'Myers' is short and to the point (five pages), 'Phillipps & Phillipps' provides much more background (c 40 pages). Some of this text makes good reading, some of it does not. Furthermore, 'Phillipps & Phillipps' opted to provide a relatively extensive introduction to families. The strength of 'Phillipps & Phillipps' is that it provides you with a broader insight into the birds you are looking at. A striking approach is that the text is drenched with boxes containing tidbits of information on a variety of subjects (eg, 'mimicry of hawk-eagles by honey-buzzards and 'bird-pollination of flowers'). I like it. 'Myers' manages to save almost 100 pages compared with 'Phillipps & Phillipps' but it should be noted that 'Phillipps & Phillipps' still manages to be compact enough to take along in the field. Why such a brief book as 'Myers' has also been published as a hardback escapes me; it completely counteracts the whole idea of it being concise.
I noticed quite some sloppy mistakes in both books without really looking for them. 'Myers' uses the header 'range & status' twice in the introduction text, being completely off the point in one case, Cinereous Bulbul Hemixos cinereus is erroneously listed as a Borneo endemic two times and falconets Microhierax are referred to as Falco. And that was just the introduction. The species accounts seemed to be more in order. Still, Crested Serpent Eagle Spilornis cheela is allotted an enormous range in size. Now I have never heard a Storm's Stork's Ciconia stormi call but does it really make a cow-like sound? Given the description as krauu, an 'r' having been misplaced seems to be a more likely scenario. In 'Phillipps & Phillipps', the size for Lesser Coucal Centropus bengalensis is way off (an inherited error from 'MacKinnon & Phillipps'?). Two drawings of White-crowned Forktail Enicurus leschenaultia are noted as 'a' and 'b'. They represent a juvenile and an adult bird but this is not explained anywhere. The call of Black-throated Wren-babbler Napothera atrigularis is prominently stated as a pitfall for Rail-babbler Eupetes macrocerus and several pitta species. Given the lack of resemblance, this struck me as odd. These are merely examples of the errors encountered. Of course a little mistake can slip in here and there but these are so conspicuous that I wonder if anyone has even bothered to proofread the text before either book went to print. I am afraid that if one would really scrutinize these books, many additional inaccuracies would come to light.
I soon gave up checking distribution maps: these are hopeless. In 'Myers', it seems that a can of purple paint has been kicked over across the Blue-banded Pitta map. This highly sought after jewel is apparently present everywhere? If only! This mistake has been made for more species. The maps for Malaysian Honeyguide Indicator archipelagicus and Yellow-rumped Flowerpecker Prionochilus xanthopygius show sudden, sharp distribution boundaries. This is just plain wrong. The situation in 'Phillipps & Phillipps' is not much better. The maps of Crested Fireback Lophura ignita and Crestless Fireback L erythrophthalma have been swapped. The distribution of Long-tailed Broadbill is highly exaggerated. And Eastern Barn Owl Tyto javanica (in both works still treated as T alba, by the way) has apparently managed to colonize the entire island in mere years? The suggestion that all mountainous species are also present in the south-east of the island seems overconfident. Once again, these are just some examples of errors I noted. A nice aspect in 'Phillipps & Phillipps' is that the maps of endemics are presented in a different color, making their geographical restriction to Borneo clear at a glance.
The taxonomy of Asian birds is lagging behind with the rest of the world and this could have dire consequences from a conservation perspective. But also purely from the perspective of a world-listing birder, presenting the latest insights is important. Therefore, I decided to discuss taxonomy in quite some detail. A big pro in both works is that the taxonomy is progressive; these books are very up to date indeed! Good to see the recently discovered (or actually re-discovered) White-faced Plover mentioned, boldly accompanied by the scientific name Charadrius dealbatus, even before the exact phylogenetic relationships of this morphologically quite distinct bird have been resolved. The omission of drawings (the only Bornean record stems from as recent as June 2008) and 'Phillipps & Phillipps' confusingly using the vernacular name 'White-fronted Plover' can be forgiven. Other super-fresh information concerns the taxonomical disaster posed by Grey-breasted Spiderhunter Arachnothera modesta and Streaky-breasted Spiderhunter A affinis. Birders often report both species on a single trip to Sabah but based on data still in the process of being published (but available in the MSc thesis by Cheryl L Haines), only the latter is now known to occur. Streaky-breasted, to make matters more confusing, used to be regarded as an endemic species 'A everetti' in the past but has recently been lumped with birds from Java (which does not feel right to me...). Such novelties as Pale-faced Bulbul Pycnonotus leucops, Bornean Forktail Enicurus borneensis and Bornean Swiftlet Collocalia dodgei are all included. Only 'Myers' has taken the leap of splitting off the distinct Bornean Black Magpie Platysmurus aterrimus from Black Magpie P leucopterus but 'Phillipps & Phillipps' at least makes note of this potential treatment. A revision of the Banded Pitta P guajana complex (of which the distinct form P g schwaneri occurs on Borneo) has not been anticipated upon. Something for the second editions?
Both guides treat Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher Ceyx erithaca quite differently but both recognize two species: Black-backed Kingfisher 'C erithaca' and Rufous-backed 'C rufidorsa' Kingfisher. 'Phillipps & Phillipps' suggests both occur and discuss extensive intergradation on Borneo, which is generally regarded as evidence to treat them as conspecific. Consequently, in 'Phillipps & Phillipps' the two extremes of the cline are illustrated to represent the two forms (unfortunately showing 'erithaca' only from the front!). 'Myers' mentions recent (non-cited!) molecular studies suggesting that all Bornean dwarf kingfishers are 'rufidorsa' but that these birds are highly variable in coloration. 'Myers' depicts an individual representing 'rufidorsa,' which basically looks like 'erithaca' in al respects except for its rufous back (so with dark forehead, neck patch, coverts and scapulars). The treatment of 'nest swiftlets' Aerodramus also shows distinct approaches by both field guides: 'Myers' includes the light-rumped off-shore island populations with Edible-nest Swiftlet A fuciphagus, whereas 'Phillipps & Phillipps' consider these to belong to Germain's Swiftlet A germani. The data required to choose between such mutually exclusive hypotheses is simply not available yet.
There are also some controversial splits mentioned. For example, 'Myers' recognizes Northern Boobook Ninox japonica. Despite species status not generally accepted yet, this may well be realistic. On the other hand, the future of Brown-streaked Flycatcher 'Muscicapa williamsoni'as a species is grim, yet its dubious status is not even mentioned. 'Phillipps & Phillipps' still considers Gould's Bronze Cuckoo 'Chrysococcyx russatus'as a valid species but after recent publications on cuckoos (for example by Robert B Payne) have rejected this view, this treatment has become untenable. The recognition of Mulu Short-tailed Babbler 'Malacocincla feriata'is based on very scant data and it seems farfetched to boldly state it as more than a possible subspecies. Phillipps & Phillipps' mentions the possibility that the mountain subspecies vaga belongs to Bartel's Wood-Owl Strix bartelsi instead of Brown Wood-Owl S leptogrammica. Although more thorough research is needed to confirm this, it is good that birders are notified of the possibility and can keep an eye out (or an ear).
'Myers' sticks with a traditional use of vernacular names whereas 'Phillipps & Phillipps' pushes through some rigorous changes. This basically involves forcing the term 'Bornean' in the names of several endemic species. In some cases this can be said to be advantageous, such as using Bornean Ibon instead of Pygmy Ibon for Oculocincta squamifrons as it is not the only small 'ibon'. I find myself neutral about Bornean Oriole Oriolus hosii or Bornean Flowerpecker Dicaeum monticolum. But why replace White-fronted Falconet Microhierax latifrons with Bornean Falconet? If range should be included in its name, then 'Sabah Falconet' would be more to the point. The traditional name Bald-headed Laughingthrush for Garrulax calvus captures the weird character state expressed by the subject perfectly and opting for Bornean Laughingthrush introduces unnecessary confusion, as this species is not the only Laughingthrush endemic to Borneo (Chestnut-hooded Laughingthrush G treacheri is another). Fortunately, 'Phillipps & Phillipps' do provide alternative names if in regular use (although no mention of Bald-headed Laughingthrush!). Unfortunately, 'Myers' has decided on the use of 'White-tailed Flycatcher' for Cyornis concretus - presumably as this is the vernacular name adopted by the International Ornithological Congress (IOC). The Bornean subspecies does not even possess white in the tail and the other members of Cyornis are designated as 'Blue Flycatchers'. Although C concretus is probably an outlier in its genus, the neutral Dark Blue Flycatcher used by 'Phillipps & Phillipps' is more appropriate.
Taxonomic treatment above the species level is certainly not stuck in tradition either. 'Myers' is most up to speed. Mountain Tailorbird Phyllergates cucullatus is mentioned not to be a tailorbird at all but actually belonging to Cettiidae (itself a recently erected family). Similarly, Erpornis and the Shrike-babblers Pteruthius are properly noted as Old World representatives of the vireos Vireonidae. No firm position is taken on the weird relationships of woodshrikes Tephrodornis, flycatcher-shrikes Hemipus and philentomas Philentoma but they are at least acknowledged as 'something else' and are for the moment treated as genera incertae sedis. 'Phillipps & Phillipps' simply seems to have given up on passerine systematics and does not appoint half of the species to families. Both works pay credit to the uniqueness of the Bristlehead Pityriasis gymnocephala and recognize it as a distinct, endemic family Pityriaseidae, although 'Phillipps & Phillipps' still gets the bigger picture of the family's relations wrong. On the other hand, 'Myers' apparently has not read the latest piece on the relationships of Rail-babbler. Although many such new insights have now been made available to birdwatchers visiting Borneo, these cases are only the tip of the iceberg. Breaking up the broadbills by allocating the 'green broadbills' in their own family Calyptomenidae would do justice to the hyperdiversity contained in this under current treatment highly artificial grouping. Alas, the endemic genus 'Chlorocharis' is no more and Mountain Blackeye should be subsumed into Zosterops (as Z emilae). And the Pygmy Blue Flycatcher 'Muscicapella hodgsoni' has been known to belong in Ficedula for a while now. It could be argued that field guides are not the place to deal with the complexities of systematics but if the decision is made to cluster species into families, one might as well aim to be up to date. The species sequence in 'Myers' is not in line with either major world lists or recent scientific insights, causing totally unnecessary confusion. The more traditional approach by 'Phillipps & Phillipps' is then to be preferred.
Basically, both books leave me with the feeling that they could have been so much better. Using suboptimal plates published before instead of producing fresh ones simply comes across as being cheap. This apparent budgetary restriction makes it all the more ironic that precious resources have been split across two simultaneous attempts. Furthermore these works seem rushed ('Myers' especially so). The inaccuracies mentioned before are mere examples; I came across many more myself and most likely missed plenty additional ones. Could competition for being published first have negatively influenced the production process? And was the simultaneous emergence of two different field guides a blessing in disguise?
Despite this harsh criticism, these books are a major improvement. Although it is obvious that the last has definitely not been said on the taxonomy of the Bornean avifauna, these field guides at least bring the discussion into the 21st century. The next generation of birdwatchers visiting Borneo is certainly better off with these books. But which title should they bring along? Considering the rehashing of old material in mind, 'Phillipps & Phillipps' clearly adds more to 'MacKinnon & Phillipps' than 'Myers' does to 'Robson'. But what if neither of these 'oldies' are on your shelf? I personally enjoyed 'Phillipps & Phillipps' most because of the broad scope of the information provided but for just going into the field and putting a nametag on the birds you encounter, the focused approach of 'Myers' is more suitable. How unfortunate that some poor choices (layout, sequence) make 'Myers' considerably less practical than it could have been. Still, I think most birdwatchers will prefer the drawings in 'Myers' over those in 'Phillipps & Phillipps'. It is not possible to conclude this book review with a pronounced 'top choice' and I have to suffice with a recommendation to bring both books. Not because these books are both brilliant pieces of work but because together they contain the basis for a single, good guide on Bornean birds.