The islands that make up Indonesia are extremely rich in bird life, a huge amount of which is endemic to whichever island they happen to be on. Yet, should you find yourself in one of these 'birders wet-dream' locations, you may find yourself challenged to identify what you see.
Indonesia has always been pretty poorly covered by field guides, especially away from the larger islands. Borneo has its two established guides (Phillipps' and Myers) but once you get away from 'The Land Below The Wind', things get patchy. A Field Guide to the Birds of Borneo, Sumatra, Java and Bali covers at least those areas in the title, but the most recent edition of that dates back to 1993. If those are not the islands you are looking for, your choices are even fewer. You pretty much have the option of one of the many generic South-east Asia field guides, which typically also cover Thailand, Malaysia and so on; A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Indonesia, which covers 960-odd species and is obviously a photographic guide (not everyone's cup of tea); or, you could try to find one of the coveted, very expensive copies of the 1997 Guide to the Birds of Wallacea: Sulawesi, the Moluccas and Lesser Sunda Islands, Indonesia.
Enter Birds of the Indonesian Archipelago, published by Lynx Edicions (of Handbook of the Birds of the World fame) and written collaboratively by the formidable team of James Eaton, Bas van Balen, Nick Brickle and Frank Rheindt. It covers 1417 species and almost the entirety of Indonesia (it does not cover West Papua, but that's normally lumped in with New Guinea field guides anyway), along with connected areas such as Malaysian Borneo and Brunei.
When this book popped up on my radar at the end of last year, it was immediately of interest to me. Not just because I love to buy and read field guides, which I do, but because birding in that part of the world is of particular interest to me. I resolved to buy it when it was published.
A few months passed and the publication date kept getting pushed further and further into 2016, and I started to fear another situation as is currently playing out with the Princeton birds of Australia field guide - which has been 'coming' for several years now - but I needn't have worried. The pre-sale special for the Indonesia guide was announced in October 2016 with a publication date of November, and I signed up.
A couple of weeks later and here I am, book in hand, and ready to put forth my first impressions of this pretty incredible volume.
The Physical BookTaking it out of its tight protective cardboard packaging and slipping off the plastic wrap, the first thing that hit me was 'Wow - this feels awesome!' the cover of the book (currently only available as hardback) has a smooth, matte finish which feels very high-quality, compared to the either grippy or slippery glossy finishes on some hardback bird books I own, that by comparison feel rather average. Although I don't expect them to fall apart anytime soon.
The cover design is quite interesting, with a spread of some species from within the book. Interestingly, I notice that a few of the species (Wallace's Standardwing, Maleo, Bare-eyed Myna) also graced the cover of the original Wallacea guide from 19 years ago. Coincidence?
The black and white background pattern gives it a rather sleek and professional air, more like an office/library reference book than something that you're supposed to drench in Sumatran rain.
Not that that will stop me.
Inside, the pages are a very nice-feeling, fairly glossy paper. This shows off the birds nicely, although it might raise some minor issues reading under bright lights or direct sun, as can be seen in my attempts to photograph the pages. Again, the high-quality feeling pervades.
Inside the covers, both front and back, are maps detailing the area covered by the guide - useful since, based on my family's reaction, the average person picking up the book in a shop probably has no idea what or where Wallacea (or, for that matter, either the Greater or Lesser Sundas) refer to. The inside front cover shows the Greater Sundas, from the tip of Sumatra in the west across to the edge of Sabah in the east. Inside the back cover is Wallacea, the area between Wallace's and Lydekker's Lines, which includes the eastern half of the Indonesian archipelago (the Lesser Sundas), Sulawesi, Halmahera, the Moluccas, and a couple of easterly island groups (Kai and Tanimbar). These maps are in no way meant to provide an idea of birding sites, they are there just to acquaint the reader with the basic geography of the region. However, the dotted red lines separating the island groups (say, the Moluccas from the Lesser Sundas), as well as the solid red lines defining the region covered within the guide, and the solid green lines showing Wallace's and Lydekker's Lines, are a nice and very useful touch.
Map of Greater Sundas inside the front cover
The book is large, measuring 237mm x 166mm x 29mm by my measure, making it almost exactly the same size as Pizzey and Knight's Birds of Australia. The hard cover adds to the weight of the book, which is noticeable, but not restrictive.
Size comparison with Pizzey and Knight
The First BitOn opening the book, you're greeted first by a title page, and the names of the four authors. Immediately following this is exactly the same page, but this time with the contributing artists listed below the authors (and there are quite a few). I'm not sure why there was a need for both pages - they probably could have stuck in an extra page of information by just listing the artists on the first one.
Next is the index, which lists the sections of introduction and then lists the species accounts by family, Latin first followed by English in brackets. The ordering of the families is a little different to some older field guides, listing Ratites up front, followed by waterfowl, landfowl, cuckoos, swifts, nightjars and frogmouths, and so on. While it may take some people a little while to adjust to the ordering of the families, it is based on the latest available work in the taxonomic field and presents little difficulty to get used to after a few flick-throughs. The subject of the sequence of families, as well as genus arrangements and various aspects of species taxonomy, is well-discussed in a roughly four-page section at the beginning of the book. It's worth a read before you groan at facing a new layout.
Following the index, the acknowledgements and introductory sections make up "the first bit", as found in most field guides. The 16-page introduction covers a good range of topics, such as the geographic limits of the region covered by the guide, short sections on ecology of each of the covered island groups, conservation, an intriguing ornithological history of the region, the aforementioned section on taxonomy and a short introduction to the field guide's layout, explaining the colour-coding and markings on maps, the headings in the written species accounts, a series of helpful diagrams showing the topography of birds, and explanations of the abbreviations used throughout.
The Good BitHaving worked through the text-rich introduction, you arrive at the bit you actually want the book for (and the bit you're most likely reading this for): the species accounts.
The first page of species shows us how this whole section is going to work. On the left page, bold block-coloured sections separate the text into family groups, each followed by a brief description of the family's common traits, followed by the species themselves.
The amount of text for each species varies from a very short paragraph (Southern Cassowary) to almost a full column (Oriental Honey-buzzard), but in general the information is concise. The breakdown of information itself is discussed in the introduction, but since this write-up is aimed at those who have not yet bought or seen it, the information essentially comprises:
- A general indication of abundance and the area the species is found, for example Aus (Australasia), Phil (Philippines), as well as general habitat (and altitude, where applicable)
- Taxonomy, giving information on subspecies both inside and outside the region covered
- Short, basic descriptions of the species as adults (by sex where applicable) immatures/juveniles, and eclipse/nuptial plumage where applicable.
- Identification notes for those species that are easily confused with others
- Description of the bird's call
- Alternative names
The end of each species account is marked clearly by solid red lines, and the next species introduced in bold red lettering, making it practically impossible to accidentally start reading the next species text as part of the former's, a problem I've surprisingly had from time to time in other guides. The language used throughout is pretty simple to understand, making quick reading on the go nice and easy.
In summary, the text accounts are what you'll need and no more, simply due to the constraints of size and practicality in the field. That said though, all of the sections of information listed above are covered to completion - you're not left asking "but what about..." after reading a species' vocalization section, for instance. They've included only the essentials, but they've got those essentials covered.
The species names themselves are worth mentioning. The use of very recently updated taxonomy means that some species are given different names to what a reader might, perhaps, be used to. This caught me out a couple of times while I was flicking through for the first time and saw species I recognised with unfamiliar names. Names like "Jay Shrike" (known to me as Crested Jay), and "Sahul Pitta" covering what I know as the Red-bellied Pitta complex (down to species level, for example substituting "Papuan Sahul Pitta" for "Papuan Red-bellied Pitta") can easily confuse readers who have been using older names for extended periods of time, and this is not helped by the layout of the rear index, which I'll get to in a bit.
Another, more minor thing that bugs me a little bit is the consolidation of names that I normally hyphenate (e.g. Honey-buzzard) into a single word (Honeybuzzard). This in no way hinders my ability to use the book to identify the bird, and honestly it doesn't even bug me that much, but it's something I noticed.
Arguably, the most important part of a field guide is not the text but the plates. And the maps. But the plates come first. Here, the guide has you covered - the illustrations in this book are mostly the same beautiful paintings used in the Handbook of the Birds of the World, although apparently hundreds of new illustrations were produced specifically for this volume.
As listed in the front of the book, illustrations were gathered from quite a long list of artists for inclusion, and this is where a lot of field guides find trouble. For example: the Birds of New Guinea (Second Edition) field guide (Pratt and Beehler 2014), used illustrations from both John C. Anderton and Szabolcs Kókay. Kókay's illustrations were simply fantastic - detailed, lifelike and accurate. Anderton's, by comparison, are a very different style of art - almost sketchlike with rough edges, flatter colours, less detail, and lower accuracy. One only has to look at the rendition of Australian Magpie to become a little suspicious of relying too heavily on the other Anderton illustrations for jizz and fine ID.
This is not a problem faced by Birds of the Indonesian Archipelago. While I can't profess to have studied every single one of the 2500+ illustrations closely and judged each on accuracy and detail, I can say from a slow leaf through that nearly all the paintings appear detailed, accurate, well-finished and show bright (within accurate) appealing colour. There is inevitably variation from artist to artist, but as usual, when using multiple illustrators, artists change between families, not species. The Green-magpies are a different artist to the Nuthatches, for example, not a different artist between Common and Bornean Green-magpie. This helps keep identification reliable. The differences between artists, though noticeable, does not seem to detract from the plate's usefulness in field ID, as it might with the PNG book. While some paintings are smooth (such as the Thrushes), and others (Green-magpies for instance) are more highly detailed, as according to the artist's style, both are perfectly usable in the field.
Now, I said nearly all the illustrations are good. It's inevitable that in any field guide, there will be a couple of plates that are a little bit dodgy, and this guide is no exception. From my rather brief look through, plates that jump to mind are the Eclectus Parrots, which do not give much indication of the brightness or sheer vibrancy of this species (and the jizz of the female riedeli subspecies seems a bit weird, though I haven't seen that subspecies in the flesh), and the owls.
I'm generally pretty lenient with the illustrations of owls and frogmouths in field guides. In fairness, they are among the most difficult birds to draw. I tend to just go with the flow and use what I can, understanding that the nocturnal section of most guides is pretty dodgy. Or just downright awful, like the frogmouths in Phillipps' Bornean field guide. This field guide is a little bit of a mixed bag, but in general, much better than some I have come across. The Tyto owls look a little boof-headed, and the Ninox owls sport stunned-mullet facial expressions, but these are easily worked with, and in terms of the ID features, really not bad at all. And the Scops-owls, large owls and Frogmouths are stunning.
Owls are very hard to draw...
But some are harder than others!
Posing is something that I find quite important with field guide illustrations. A bird's pose is often the very first thing used in identifying it to family level (along with shape, size and 'feel', it's part of the bird's jizz). The degree to which artists play around with posing varies wildly between field guides. For example, Simpson and Day's Birds of Australia put nearly all their birds in behavioural poses (feeding or hanging off trees), which I liked as it gives some representation of how you're likely to see the bird in the field. By contrast, Pizzey and Knight's Birds of Australia put almost all their birds in classic, standardized, side-on postures.
Birds of the Indonesian Archipelago is something of a compromise. The illustrations vary between simple side-on portraits and back-and-front views, and the posture and posing of the birds conveys accurately (at least, in the species I am familiar with) how you might expect to see one perched in the field. There's a fair amount of variation in the head angles of birds too, facing slightly toward or away. Although not usually helpful with ID, this does help bring the plates to life a bit, which is nice to see. Raptors and Swallows are illustrated in flight from below, and seabirds are shown in a variety of flight positions including side, above and below (as well as various angles).
An example of a plate where posing makes all the difference
Both sexes are illustrated in sexually dimorphic species, although if the difference between them is restricted to a small area of the bird, usually only that area will be illustrated (for example, head-only portraits of some female Tailorbirds, where the extent of facial markings is the only difference).
Given the number of subspecies present in the covered area, it is no surprise to see them illustrated as well. As with sexes of the same species, if the area of difference is restricted then so is the illustration. But it's nice to see the Red-bellied (I'd better get used to saying "Sahul") Pitta complex, for example, fully illustrated.
All the plates are labeled with the species, subspecies (where applicable), and sex.
This is one of those guides where the maps are on the plate, rather than next to the text account. I both like and dislike this - while the layout makes matching map to illustration easy, I do not feel it makes it any easier than if it was with the text. I also feel it makes the plate page messier, and restricts the space, making the illustrations smaller, which I'll go into in a second. Yes, it would also lessen the amount of information able to be put on a text page, but I'm of the opinion that in the field, plates matter more than text.
The species distribution maps all show the same area, even if the range in question is restricted to one tiny island (in those cases, it is indicated by an arrow). I personally prefer this to maps that zoom right in on that speck of land, as for someone new to the region, it can be hard to get your bearings with the position and shape of each island. The maps are colour coded for resident, breeding visitor and migrant birds.
The size of the illustrations is my biggest gripe with this book (so far, having not used it in the field yet). While most are a usable size, some - such as the Falconet species, are simply minuscule, and honestly offer very little practical use in the field. There's something to be said for scaling species relative to each other on a plate, but when the species figure gets down to the size of a 5-cent piece, I think it's time to re-evaluate the primary purpose of illustrating the species in the first place, which is surely to aid in field identification. The same problem is evident throughout the book, and often on plates where really there is enough room to enlarge them, such as the raptors on page 173.
Falconets really are tiny!
An example of a plate where illustrations could have been scaled up
One final, though smaller, issue I have with the plates is the amount of planning put into the layout, with respect to identification. What I mean by this is, there are some cases where high-confusion species aren't on the same page as one another, making the reader flip back and forth over and over to work out an ID. This both adds to the wear and tear of the book, but also adds often-critical time to clinching the ID, and adds to user frustration. One example of this is in the Spiderhunters, where Spectacled and Yellow-eared are on different pages. While these two species aren't that hard to separate once you get your eye in, it's the people who are getting their eye in who need the field guide most!
One final thing to note - and this is neither a plus nor a minus from my perspective, but it's worth mentioning - is that in this book, presumably to save space, a new family of birds will be introduced directly after the last. Many field guides introduce a new family on the next page, to help establish boundaries between families. I think in this case it's fair enough to flow straight from one to the next
given the sheer number of species covered, and the change is clearly marked, so it's unlikely to cause any confusion.
The EndingBehind the species accounts lurks an extensive bibliography, which is nice to see, and finally the rear index. There is only one index, unlike some guides which have one for Latin and one for English, meaning that scientific names and common names are mixed together. I prefer this layout, as often I'll go straight from looking up an English name to a genus name.
Interestingly however, the English names are alphabetically by species, not by family. There is no entry in the index, for instance, for 'Woodpecker', but every Woodpecker species is entered by its full common name (Buff-rumped is in B, Grey-and-buff is in G). While there is nothing wrong with this per se, it does make things a little difficult if the species name you're looking for has changed from what you're used to - refer back to Jay Shrike v. Crested Jay.
Comparison and ConclusionIn terms of alternative field guides, really there are none. As I said in the beginning, other field guides either only cover small areas of the region - and not all of the region is covered by these restricted guides - or are very old, out of print and cost several hundred dollars for a used copy. In my eyes though, that's okay. This guide is everything you are likely to need, from information to plates, and considering the effort that went into putting it together, it comes at a very reasonable price and in a beautiful package. Like any field guide it has its shortcomings, but aside from the smaller species figures, these are fairly minor and can be worked around.
I'm very much looking forward to seeing how good it is in the wilds of Sulawesi at some point!!
Birds of the Indonesian Archipelago is available directly from Lynx at this link: