When I found out Princeton was coming out with the first comprehensive field guide to the birds of these three islands, my first thought was “finally.” Aruba, Curacao and Bonaire have desperately needed a book like this one for a long, long time. They are (or were) one of the last areas of the Western Hemisphere not covered by a field guide….when I say field guide I don’t mean it was one that was necessarily good, however.
You might be thinking that this is a pretty random book for this blog’s inaugural review. Had I not had very close family friends that visit the islands, I might agree with you. See, very close friends of ours (the Ghiorzis) visit Aruba at least quarterly every year. I have been kindly invited to join them a handful of times and know I’ll someday take them up on their offer. Knowing that I’d one day visit, I embarked on a major project a couple of years ago. As you know, no field guide to the islands existed back then, and good resources were scarce. Thus I decided to create my own field guide and site guide to the island of Aruba. Just a couple of months ago, I looked back on all 80 slides and knew that it would be an incredible resource to have when visiting then islands. It still will be a great resource, but it will be pretty nice to have a field guide to an island whose airport receive 1.7 visitors in 2005…you know there are a few birders in there!
The introduction begins with a nice summary of the islands’ geological and human histories as well as a bit about their climate. We are then introduced to the general flora and fauna of the islands and then the avifauna. The next few pages are occupied by the ever-present “How to use this book” section, followed by a few illustrations of bird topography. Between the intro and plates, is a section on the islands and their birding sites (a nice surprise), with a separate map (labeled) and description for each island.
We then reach the plates, which follow the commonly used description (no range maps) and distribution on left, illustrations on the right. Each species receives a short description “with key identification features highlighted in bold italics,” followed by descriptions of voice, habitat and status and distribution, plus alternate names (not present for every species). Length is provided in centimeters and wingspan is given for a limited number of species.
The plates are done by Robin Restall, whom you may be familiar with as the author of Birds of Northern South America. The book claims to have nearly 1,000 illustrations, many of which are taken from his other book.
The plates are then directly followed by a short appendix that lists a few occasional escapes that may be encountered. A handy checklist to the birds of the island follows. Each island is contained in a separate column with an added column for GTS (Globally Threatened Species) whose IUCN Red List code is marked. The book wraps up with a bibliography and index.
I should add that this book has a sharp European flair to it, with all measurements in centimeters and a few words spelled differently (i.e. Tricoloured Heron).
Pros, Cons, Summary:
-Every species, no matter how rare, receives illustrations of all plumages and subspecies that occur (or might someday) on the islands. This is especially helpful as we still have a cloudy avian knowledge of the islands and it is useful for every visiting birder to have as much information as possible while there.
-Descriptions and other text in the plate area is generally good and to-the-point.
-It’s nice to know each species’ name in the local tongue (provided in the plates)
-The section on the islands and their birding sites is a nice addition
-This book is small and compact and is definitely useable in the field
-Don’t expect the illustrations in the plates to be on par with any of our North American (illustrated) field guides. Most generally leave a lot to be desired and some are just plain awful (plate 16 for example). Oddly enough, the passerine illustrations are superior to those of all the non-passerines in this book and many are quite decent. Still, you won’t get a lot of enjoyment out of the plates.
-On the back cover, this book claims to be the “First-ever comprehensive field guide to the birds of the Lesser Antilles.” This book does not even cover the geographical Lesser Antilles which extend roughly from the Virgin Islands to Grenada. Furthermore, even if this book did cover the Lesser Antilles, Birds of the West Indies by Raffaele et. al is a very comprehensive resource to the region. Aruba, Curacao and Bonaire are commonly known as the “Netherland Antilles.” Perhaps this is what the authors were referring to?
-I see no reason why measurements should not be in inches also. Sixty-one percent of the visitors to Aruba’s airport in 2005 were American, and there is no reason why the majority should have to do the conversions.
-Although I noted that the section on the islands and their birding sites is a nice addition, it really does leave a lot to be desired. It is quite short for each island (around half of a page) and there is not much information of what birds (especially the islands’ specialties) are present at the sites. Perhaps a later addition could add just a few more pages and be a fairly good combined field guide/site guide.
-A few grammatical mistakes are present, and a few sentences in the intro and appendix seem totally unnecessary and unhelpful
Please don’t be fooled into thinking this book is worthless due to the fact that I listed more negatives than positives. I tend to do that. In short, this book is a must for any serious birder visiting these three islands and likely all one will need for bird identification. The illustrations and descriptions do their job and shouldn’t present any problems and there are some nice, helpful tidbits scattered around. I look forward to using this field guide myself one day.