Book Review: Birds of Venezuela by Steven L. Hilty

Birds of Venezuela
by Steven L. Hilty, principal illustrators John A Gwynne and Guy Tudor, 2002.
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press (USA and Canada) & London, UK: A & C Black (UK and Europe).
878 pp, 67 colour and black-and-white plates, 44 colour habitat photographs and over 1380 maps.
US$55 / UK £40.

Buy it now

The long awaited revision of the 1978 field guide to the birds of Venezuela is finally in print. This should be cause for celebration in itself, yet curiously the modernising of the guide to the world's sixth largest national avifauna seems to have attracted far less publicity than the arrival of Birds of Ecuador not much more than a year earlier. Perhaps billing the book as a 'second edition' is the cause, detracting from the fact that this is a magnificent, ground-breaking new publication rather than a simple up-date of its predecessor.

As the first modern field guide to a South American avifauna, the original Birds of Venezuela was a milestone in Neotropical ornithology. Naturally, in recent years it had begun to show its age due to a combination of improvements in field guide presentation, the growing number of new species recorded in the country, and cumulative taxonomic changes. Even so, it was still a remarkably useful field guide owing to the quality of Tudor's plates and the exhaustive distributional information contributed by William H. Phelps. However, despite a second Spanish edition with an appendix of new species by Miguel Lentino, published in Caracas in 1994, the guide was due for on overhaul. The task was taken on by Steve Hilty, well known as a leader of tours to Venezuela and better recognised as author of the authoritative Birds of Colombia, itself one of the foremost identification guides to a tropical avifauna.

The product is a second edition in name only, perhaps owing to the use of many of the original plates and presumably in recognition of the tremendous contribution of the previous edition to our knowledge of Venezuelan birds. To all intents and purposes this is an entirely new field guide. In the first place, the new guide is twice as thick as its predecessor and the text is much more closely packed. The new book weighs in at over 1.8 kg (4 lbs) and is similar to the field guide volume of the Birds of Ecuador in dimensions and format. Nearly 100 new species are now treated, taking the country total to 1,381. Far more species are illustrated and more use has been made of colour plates, though eight black and white plates have been retained to depict flying raptors and swifts. We now have a total of 67 plates compared with the previous 53 - a 24.5% increase.

Twenty-five of the plates are entirely new with beautiful artwork, primarily by John Gwynne. The new plates cover a range of taxa, with cracids, owls, nightjars, toucans, tanagers, Fringillidae, Emberizidae and icterids particularly well served. A further four have been adapted from Birds of Panama7 and one from Birds of Colombia. The remaining 37 are Tudor plates (and one by Gwynne) from the original Birds of Venezuela, some of which have been slightly modified. Not all of the modifications to the old plates are appropriate. For example, the addition of a dark malar stripe to the Black-banded Woodcreeper Dendrocolaptes picumnus now leads to confusion with Strong-billed Woodcreeper Xiphocolaptes promeropirhynchus, while the dark ear coverts are still not depicted. Essential plates treating groups poorly represented in the first edition include Sophie Webb's perched nightjars in colour with thumbnail flushing birds, a new flycatcher plate which adds missing Myiarchus and Elaenia - though the Elaenias, and particularly the White-fronted Tyrannulet Phyllomyias zeledoni, are amongst the least successful illustrations in the book - and a nicely painted set of thrushes.

The previously lifeless and inaccurate vireos and greenlets are now very helpfully laid out and the Emberizidae finch plate provides welcome comparative paintings of seedeaters. Though less of an identification challenge (except for Euphonia), the tanagers have been treated with five superb new plates which really do the family justice. For simple visual appeal Sophie Webb's owls and potoos (Plate 25) and John Gwynne's exotic hummingbirds (Plate 31), toucans (Plate 35) and larger cotingas (Plate 51) are hard to beat, particular because many of them replace monochrome or otherwise inferior illustrations in the first edition. It would have been beneficial to have comparative illustrations of snipes in colour and perhaps a plate of flying parrots. And, as is the case with most Neotropical field guides, boreal migrant shorebirds and warblers are still only partially depicted, so a companion field guide to North America will prove useful for those unfamiliar with birds of the Western Hemisphere.

The aesthetic quality of the new plates is superlative and perhaps makes the reproduction of the 1978 Tudor plates a little drab in comparison, despite their artistic and scientific virtues. They have generally reprinted well, though acquiring a very slight graininess and loss of colour saturation at times. Some of the dark plates from the earlier edition have been reproduced a shade lighter to bring out more detail, as in the case of puffbirds and jacamars (Plate 33), woodpeckers (Plate 36) and antpittas (Plate 42) and most flycatchers. With the added brightness, the Ocellated Tapaculo Acropternis orthonyx now really looks to be worth all that effort! Conversely, one or two plates, like the manakins (Plate 44), have darkened somewhat.

Surprisingly, the publishers did not take the opportunity to correct some of the obvious errors on the 1978 plates in the light of current field knowledge: on the Tyrannidae plates for example, the erroneous crest on Mouse-coloured Tyrannulet Phaeomyias murina and the uncharacteristic postures of White-banded Tyrannulet Mecocerculus stictopterus, Greenish Elaenia Myiopagis viridicata and some of the Bristle-Tyrants Pogonotriccus and Phylloscartes tyrannulets. All in all though, the old plates have stood the test of time and will certainly serve the user well in the field. Indeed, some might go as far as to say that the original Tudor plates are actually superior in accuracy to the recent additions.

The page facing each plate is taken up with a legend that carries condensed identification notes. These are similar to those in the first edition, but a little more concise. In some cases, the information has been compressed to enable all, or nearly all, of the legend information to appear on the facing page, rather than being continued overleaf. This has solved the inconvenience in the 1978 edition of having to flick between pages to comprehend the three consecutive flycatcher plates 28-30, while keeping a finger in the text at the descriptions of the species which are not illustrated.

Notwithstanding the improved illustrations, it is the text which has really benefited from this new edition. The format follows and improves on the standard set by Birds of Mexico and Birds of Ecuador. Thinner, better quality paper has allowed nearly 20% more pages than Birds of Ecuador to be incorporated into a book which is still slimmer than the latter volume. In addition, the type-setting and text layout have allowed more text to be included and, on top of that, Hilty has further reduced bulk by being extraordinarily precise and economical with his words. The exemplary quality of the text will come as no surprise to those familiar with the author's earlier Birds of Colombia.

Compared with the first edition, the text is much more oriented towards the main requisite for a field guide - species identification in the field. The first section, entitled identification, provides a general description of the identification characters of the species, using italics to emphasise diagnostic features. There is a wealth of distilled experience here: at last I see the characteristic and highly visible 'headlights' along the leading edge of the wing of Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle Spizastur melanoleucus mentioned as a field mark and a note on its '"stretched' Buteo"' appearance in flight'. In perusal I also learned that yellowish eyes are diagnostic of Plumbeous Pigeon Columba plumbea, something I see illustrated in Bird of Ecuador too. The following paragraph on similar species lists sympatric species that may cause confusion and provides further comparative text where merited.

A good deal of the information is original, for example the extremely detailed treatment under Roraiman Nightjar Caprimulgus whitelyi of its separation from sympatric Band-winged C. longirosris roraimae. Among other fascinating field pointers we find that the tail of Red-and-green Macaw Ara chloroptera is 'steady (no wiggle) in flight' compared with the wiggling tail of Scarlet Macaw A. macao . Both the above sections are very succinctly written and the author's tremendous experience ensures that they are perfectly oriented to field use.

The voice section is new and seems to be very well compiled with - to my taste - excellent transliterations of songs and calls. The voices of Columbidae and Psittacidae are particularly helpfully described, with an attempt made to distinguish between calls of the larger macaws. I especially enjoyed 'like French ambulance' for the flight call of Sharp-tailed Ibis Cercibis oxycerca. Condensed natural history information and further aids to identification are included under a paragraph on behaviour. This section contains just enough information on basic biology to give the curious student a brief introduction to the ecology of the species and to stimulate further information gathering, but not enough that the field guide becomes cumbersome. A detailed appraisal of status and habitat preference follows. Abundance terms are biased to reflect the observer's probability of encountering the species in the favoured habitat rather than actual density. Migratory status is discussed in detail using similar terms to Hayes with dates where relevant. Where scarcer species are easily encountered at a particular site, this is mentioned. The final discussion of range retains the custom established by the earlier edition of separating range information by subspecies, a feature which is particularly welcome in these times of ever-changing taxonomy. Sight records are clearly separated from specimen data. Additional information on taxonomy and potential new species often appears under notes.

Range maps with state boundaries and contour lines are another new feature. They use different types of shading to indicate presumed Venezuelan range, with points to mark individual locality records for specimens (black dots) and sight records (open dots). In short, they are similar in format to those provided in Birds of Ecuador. The author has been very thorough in his compilation of museum records from Venezuela and elsewhere. Taxonomy follows a number of sources and will be broadly familiar to users of Birds of Ecuador. The majority of the changes are supported by published evidence, for example in the case of many of the Thamnophilidae. Others, like the splitting of White-fringed Antwren into Northern Formicivora intermedia and Southern F. grisea are intuitive and likely to be confirmed by research, whilst the separation of the tepui subspecies of Two-banded Warbler Basileuterus bivittatus as Roraiman Warbler B. roraimae is less clear and unexplained by the author. Equally deserving candidates for splitting, such as the distinctive arid-country forms (phainoleucus and pulchellus) of Black-crested Antshrike Sakesphorus canadensis, the Andean (erythophrys) versus Guayanan/Amazonian (angustirostris) forms of White-browed Antbird Myrmoborus leucophrys or the western form (griseoventris) of Black-faced Antthrush Formicarius analis remain unchanged.

The author documents most of the major taxonomic departures from the first edition, referring the reader to the bibliography of original research. Some of the Venezuelan names have been improved since the 1978 edition. The substitution of 'Chiriguare' for 'Caricare Sabanero', 'Pájaro Ratón' for 'Tapaculo', 'Levanta Alas' for 'Leptopogon', 'Jipato' for 'Xenopsaris', 'Paraulata Imitadora' for 'Paraulata de Lawrence' and 'Pico de Plata' for 'Sangre de Toro Apagado', and the use of 'Atrapamoscas Frutero' to denominate Mionectes all make good sense or coincide more closely with common local names. Less suitable are 'Tiluchi de Las Tierras Bajas' for Todd's Antwren Herpsilochmus stictocephalus, when three other congenerics occur in the lowlands, or Atrapamoscas del Dosel for Amazonian Scrub-Flycatcher Sublegatus obscurior.While clearly outside the scope of this field guide, a large proportion of the Venezuelan names are still cumbersome or inaccurate or do not correspond with locally used names. The unenviable task of revising them should be carried out before this field guide appears in Spanish.

As befits such a thoroughly researched work, over 800 references cited in the text are included at the end of the book. They form a handy selected bibliography of Venezuelan ornithology. Introductory chapters cover the topography, climate, biogeography and vegetation of Venezuela. Bird habitats are particularly helpfully described with the help of 44 stunning colour photographs that will make the reader want to purchase an air ticket immediately.

Further chapters are dedicated to a brief resumé of conservation and national parks (actually, even allowing for overlap, national parks and nature monuments account for about twice as much land as the author states here - some 13 million ha and 1.8 million ha respectively), discussion of migratory species (with lists) and a history of Venezuelan ornithology. A well annotated locality map of the country is also provided together with colour relief and vegetation maps.

Any drawbacks? With a work of this magnitude there are bound to be some errors and inaccuracies, but the number is remarkably small and it seems too petty to mention them here, except to share the rather comical typo which indicates that the poor Louisiana Waterthrush 'sulks in damp shady areas'. There are a few minor omissions though - most conspicuously in status and distributional data - that might perhaps have been reduced with some external review. Again, at the risk of appearing petty, under range I see that there is often a gap in the known distribution of a species. For example, White-rumped Hawk Buteo leucorrhous, Striped Owl Asio clamator, Common Potoo Nyctibius griseus, Crested Quetzal Pharomachrus antisianus, Variegated Bristle-Tyrant Pogonotriccus poecilotis and Barred Becard Pachyramphus versicolor all occur in Yacambú National Park. Likewise, Stripe-throated Hermit Phaethornis striigularis, Northern (?) Scrub-Flycatcher Sublegatus arenarum?, Piratic Flycatcher Legatus leucophaius and Grey-headed Tanager Eucometis penicillata can all be found at Hato Piñero, while Large-billed Seed-Finch Oryzoborus crassirostris occurs in the llanos of central Apure. As for status and habitat, migratory flocks of Turkey Vultures Cathartes aura in the Mérida Andes can number in the hundreds and there are certainly more records of Swainson's Hawks Buteo swainsoni from the same area, often amongst the vulture flocks. Violaceous Quail-Doves Geotrygon violacea and Rusty-faced Parrots Hapalopsittaca amazonina are somewhat commoner and easier to find than suggested, Andean Cock-of-the-Rock Rupicola peruviana is known from additional leks and there have been more sightings (and even published data from captures, e.g. Verea et al.8) of Scallop-breasted Antpitta Grallaricula loricata. Occasionally, vocalisations are frequently known than indicated too.

But the above shortcomings don't even amount to what one might call quibbles. Certainly some will find the dimensions and weight of this new guide forbidding, though this is an inevitable product of the diversity of the avifauna in question. In fact, I might suggest that in terms of grams per unit of information this is actually one of the lightest field guides ever to have appeared. Plus, with the possible exception of a North American field guide for those unfamiliar with that avifauna, one can now carry a single field guide on a trip, thus saving weight in additional literature previously required to cover those groups inadequately treated in the old edition. In any case, given a certain degree of irreverence and a pair of scissors it is always possible to remove the plates with their facing notes for field use and keep the main text back at lodgings.

In sum, Steve Hilty has produced a monumental work, unequalled in this hemisphere in its scope and accuracy. Its utility will extend far beyond the frontiers of Venezuela, making it invaluable for workers in neighbouring countries, especially those without field guides. Birds of Venezuela second edition is an essential buy for all who are interested in Neotropical ornithology and is exceptionally good value for money too. Not to be missed.

As a last note, I hope that the publishers have plans to produce a Spanish edition or to facilitate a local edition. The existing Spanish editions have been of vital importance in encouraging a new generation of Venezuelan birders, even though many of them are fluent in English. After all, it is only through such initiatives that we will ensure that future editions of Birds of Venezuela contain more and not fewer species.

References 1. Hayes, F.E. (1995) Definitions for migrant birds: what is a Neotropical migrant. Auk 112: 521-523. 2. Hilty, S.L. & Brown, W.L. (1986) A guide to the birds of Colombia. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 3. Howell, S.N.G. & Webb, S. (1995) The birds of Mexico and northern Central America. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 4. Meyer de Schauensee, R. & Phelps, W.H. Jr. (1978) A guide to the birds of Venezuela. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 5. Phelps, W.H., Jr & Meyer de Schauensee, R. (1994) Una guía de las aves de Venezuela . Caracas: Ex Libris. 6. Ridgely, R.S. & Greenfield, P.J. (2001) The birds of Ecuador. Volume II: Field Guide. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. 7. Ridgely, R.S. & Gwynne, J.A. (1989) A guide to the birds of Panama. Second edition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 8. Verea, C., Solórzano, A. & Fernández-Badillo, A. (1999) Peso y distribución de aves del sotobosque del Parque Nacional Henri Pittier al norte de Venezuela . Ornitología Neotropical 10: 217-231. Reprinted with kind permission from Cotinga 20: 119-122.

Buy it now...

All material on this site is © Chris Sharpe. It may not be copied or reproduced without the author's permission. Design by NOMADOM