Many ornithologists already have the multi-volume Birds of the Western Palearctic or the Concise BWP on their shelves. This new work covers almost the same ground geographically, though adding Iran and all of Arabia and following national boundaries across Africa, but it differs in concentrating on specific and racial identification, ageing and sexing. It is a massive step forward in these areas from the days of BWP, as would be expected from two of the foremost experts in these fields. Breeding and behaviour are not included: this is not a comprehensive ‘handbook’ in the tradition of Witherby and BWP. With the help of more than 5,000 superbly presented photos and 400 maps, however, we can find the very latest information on plumages, moults, calls and measurements – and how to clinch a difficult identification. The authors encourage the use of moult patterns to age birds in the field or from photographs, while the biometric information is clearly aimed more at ringers and museum workers.
The photos and maps are all of very high quality and make these books fascinating to browse. Among the highlights for me are the inclusion of marginal species of which I was unaware, like Amethyst Starling, and vagrants such as Chestnut Bunting and Black-naped Monarch. A few established introductions, such as Red Avadavat, are helpfully included but not others – Red-billed Leiothrix, for example.
In their ordering of families, the authors reject all recent scientific advances and revert to the work of Voous in the 1970s, on the grounds that our knowledge of avian evolution is still incomplete. This puts, for example, wagtails into the first volume and corvids into the second, which many BTO members would no longer expect. In contrast to this conservative approach, they have independently reassessed species boundaries and the divisions between races, recognising no previous authority. This a step back from the global unity of taxonomic opinion that most birdwatchers eagerly await.I will certainly be consulting this book next time I encounter a passerine I can’t confidently identify. These pages comprise all the options, along with priceless hints and caveats and are – though apparently some photos have been miscaptioned – as comprehensive and authoritative as anyone could wish. Two non-passerine volumes are planned to follow at intervals of three to four years.