Saturday, September 25, 2010

Some nocturnal eye-candy

As a photographer with a passion for owling (going out at night to look for nocturnal species of birds and mammals), I was very excited to learn of the publication of an extremely ambitious new book — Nightjars, Potoos, Frogmouths, Oilbird and Owlet-Nightjars of the World by Nigel Cleere. Nigel was planning to put together a photographic guide of some of the most difficult species to photograph, no easy task! Much as I find them fascinating, I have always found nightjars, potoos and frogmouths much more difficult to photograph than my favourite group, owls. Since many nightjars are so difficult to identify, a book devoted to this group seemed like an absolute must for a night birder like myself. I was therefore very keen to see what it would look like.

This book indeed features some spectacular photography — images that make me green with envy! Of course, there are some very low quality images too, in many cases these being the only images available of certain extremely rare and seldom seen species. There are also some images of birds in the hand, which I personally prefer to avoid at (nearly) all costs, but which again were probably the only images available to illustrate certain field marks. In some cases images of museum specimens are used, which make comparisons against photos of live birds difficult but again there is really no choice.

Nigel’s text is minimal to say the least. The idea is to offer the viewer the opportunity to view multiple photographs of each species side by side to compare ID features and relevant field marks. Personally, I think this is a mistake for two main reasons. Firstly, although I absolutely love looking at bird photography, when it comes to identifying birds, I prefer illustrations. The photographs in this book show too many different states (e.g. live versus dead birds), postures, and lighting effects to permit one to compare apples with apples. In other words, I believe the book’s use for identification of this extremely difficult group would be greatly enhanced with much more discussion on how to separate species X from other similar species (each species has a section on “main confusion species” but I have found this text to be too scant to be useful and not cross-referenced to the photographs). Secondly, since many of the features are so difficult to see well, one finds oneself flipping back and forward between photographs looking at a particular feature on species X and species Y. The chosen layout is just not well suited to an ID reference, or at least is far less useful as an ID reference than some succinct text and/or drawings with or without arrows pointing at the most salient ID features. In short, the choice to make this guide so photo heavy has resulted in a superbly aesthetically pleasing book, almost a coffee-table style of book, except that not all photos were selected on aesthetic grounds (they were selected to cover every species and photo quality therefore varies considerably) but has severely compromised its utility. I have therefore found my colour photocopies of the plates of Handbook of Birds of the World to be more useful than this publication.

The beauty of a newly printed edition like this is of course having a single up-to date reference on the taxonomy of a difficult group. I have always found this type of book to be an extremely useful supplement to regular field guides for trips abroad. For example, before any trip, I consult K├Ânig’s Owls of the World and make notes on taxonomy, distribution, and salient ID features including song. I tried to use Nightjars, Potoos, Frogmouths, Oilbird and Owlet-Nightjars of the World for this purpose before my latest trip to Peru and found it to be woefully lacking for this purpose because the text was so scant that I did not find any information that I had not already found in other sources (I just got back from Peru so stay tuned for some exciting blog posts). Perhaps, this book would serve better for consultation after a trip when one could compares one’s field notes or photographs to the photos in the book.

I did find this book useful for its taxonomic treatment, though here again I would have liked more text, but other information criteria were so sparse as to severely limit the utility of this book. Most troubling though were the many inaccuracies that have crept into this publication. In particular, if one is going to use such a book as a reference, detailed information on distribution of species is critical. This book contains very scant text on distribution and the range maps are sadly so full of errors as to render them unusable. Here are just a few examples: The map of the Whip-poor-will misses huge chunks of the species range, for example in Manitoba where I live the range map for this species misses out hundreds of square kilometers of some of the portions of the range where Whip-poor-wills are very common. Many other species suffer similar woeful inadequacies, especially Asian species. Worst of all however are the glaring inconsistencies within the book itself, of which it only took me a quick perusal to spot several, e.g. the three images of Bonaparte’s Nightjar were all taken in Way Kambas National Park on the island of Sumatra but according to the range map Way Kambas is outside of the range of this sedentary species. Likewise the photograph of Blyth’s Frogmouth taken at Khao Noi Chuchi in Thailand falls outside of the range as drawn in this book and the photo of Blyth’s Frogmouth from the Genting Highlands was taken at a higher elevation than the altitudinal range given.

In summary, this book falls far short of the high expectations (admittedly, perhaps unfairly high expectations) placed on it. I will be using this book as a coffee-table book, to enjoy some of the delightful photography from time to time but I won’t be consulting it as a reference book – that niche still waits to be filled! I will say though that this book is extremely ambitious in scope and that the concept of a photographic guide to nocturnal species is well worth a dedicated effort. This book was years in the making and clearly a great deal of preparation has gone into it. Perhaps a revised edition with more emphasis on accuracy and a layout that permitted slightly more text would be all that is required.

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