Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Review: Birds of the West Indies by Norman Arlott

Recently I received a copy of Birds of the West Indies by Norman Arlott for review. This new guide is in the Princeton Illustrated Checklist series, which are basic guides designed for use in the field. Birds of the West Indies covers over 550 bird species found on the Bahamas, Greater Antilles, Lesser Antilles, and a few other islands associated with those chains.

Illustrations are painted and reproduced at a size large enough to see key identification points. For most species, the guide includes one or two plumages, either breeding and non-breeding or male and female in breeding plumage. In some cases additional plumages are shown, either to add a non-breeding plumage for a sexually dimorphic species or to illustrate significant subspecies. Raptors, large seabirds, some gulls, swifts, and swallows are shown in flight. Other than those exceptions, birds are only shown from the side, facing to the left.

Bird illustrations are grouped onto 80 color plates with field notes for each species on the facing page. The notes include information about behavior, voice, habitat, and distribution. They generally do not discuss field marks or visual characteristics. Because of space constraints, there are sometimes quite a lot of species on a plate. On plates that include flight depictions or multiple plumages, the resulting jumble could be confusing if the illustrations were not numbered.

The guide includes range maps, placed in a separate section following the plates. I have mixed feelings about this arrangement. The benefit is that this allows the editors to fit more bird images onto each plate while still including a visual depiction of the distributions. To that extent, it may reduce the size of the guide somewhat. However, maps in an appendix are cumbersome to use in the field, especially considering that the species notes do not reference a page number for the range map. Since distribution is treated in the notes for each species, I feel that the range maps as presented are redundant and less useful than they could be.

Birds of the West Indies by Norman Arlott should make a useful field reference for a birder visiting the Caribbean. The guide is light and fits into a pants pocket, which make it easily carried into the field. Some compromises are needed to achieve such a small size, but the guide should help with most identifications. A birder planning more intensive study of Caribbean avifauna should use Herbert Raffaele's more complete guide, a guide for an individual island, or a combination of bird family guides.