A New Standard: The Australian Bird Guide

In early May, birders across Australia will be checking and rechecking their letterboxes for their pre-ordered copies of the highly anticipated The Australian Bird Guide (ABG). I was to be amongst their number, but managed to snag a sneaky copy from CSIRO Publishing to review. Fantastic.

The daughter and granddaughter of birders, my childhood was full of bird lists, binoculars and field guides, and littered with magazines by the Gould League and the UK’s Young Ornithology Club. Family holidays were Enya, Deep Forest or TV themes in the tape deck, fights in the back seat and poring over field guides found in car seat pockets. Across the moors of Scotland and along the apparent monotony of the Stuart Highway, I found distraction from irritating brothers in first Britain’s Collins Gem Guide to Birds, and later the Slater and Simpson and Day Australian field guides. Though I never grew up to be a diehard “twitcher”, I have always kept field guides at hand and delighted in sighting new species and observing the behaviour of those familiar to me.

So it was with great excitement and reverence that I picked up Australia’s “most comprehensive single-volume review” of continental and visiting avifauna. Being a bit of an ocean girl, I quickly flipped the pages to find the birds of sea and shore. I had been told that this book would be a vital resource for tern identification, one of the most difficult groups to distinguish. I definitely struggle with these birds, and I was pleased with the precise, sparing notes and meticulous illustrations. It is my opinion that some guides have been overzealous in their annotations, adding so many that it becomes difficult to understand which are the important ones. In ABG, great care has been taken to include notes on only truly diagnostic features, and thus the plate notes for this book are one of its key advantages over previous guides.

Impressive illustrations and sparing annotations make it easier to learn diagnostic features before heading into the field.

Impressive illustrations and sparing annotations make it easier to learn diagnostic features before heading into the field.

Of course, the illustrations for this guide are exquisite. Jeff Davies, Peter Marsack and Kim Franklin, described by the guide's authors as “unmatched in their ability to depict Australian birds accurately”, were responsible for the painstaking production of the 4,700 plus images featured. The three have noticeably unique styles, but all images are perfectly executed to cover the full range of variability in our birds. The artwork is intended to be a key part of this new guide, the aim of which is “to help the novice birder identify an unfamiliar bird to species level, and the more committed birder to reach an identification of age, sex and subspecies where possible”. To understand and accurately depict the important (and often minute) diagnostic features, the artists worked with a database of more than 300,000 images, and specimen collections from across Australia. 

The introductory section is truly luxurious. If you’re like me, you probably don’t spend much time in the non-field guide sections of a field guide. I’m glad I did this time. ABG has an extended introductory section that doesn’t just explain how to use the guide, but also includes detailed and friendly notes on how to begin birding in Australia, judging sizes in the field, and extensive moult information for those who want to age birds or distinguish cryptic or uncommon species. I particularly enjoyed an essay on the fascinating and surprising evolution and taxonomy of the Australian avifauna, by Dr Leo Joseph of the Australian National Wildlife Collection (CSIRO). Here I learned that falcons are more closely related to parrots than to other birds of prey - incredible!

Lovely illustrated behaviour notes give the birder more to look for than just plumage.

Lovely illustrated behaviour notes give the birder more to look for than just plumage.

I value the important inclusion of guidelines for “ethical birding”; to ensure we don’t negatively impact the animals we love to watch, particularly in sensitive seasons or locations. Throughout the guide, the team’s enthusiasm and love for birds and birding is evident. I appreciate the obvious passion and drive the creators have for inspiring new birders and conservationists, and the care with which they have produced sections to this end. Indeed, this guide has the capacity to excite and satisfy serious birders while introducing concepts and identification techniques to new birders, without being boring for the first or condescending to the latter. As a non-expert but keen birder myself, I find the text engaging, encouraging and most importantly, inclusive.

This is a book for field identification. Great care has been taken to use font emphasis to highlight key and flight features for quick reference. That said, the book has a heft, and is more likely to be left in the car than carried around. We can but hope that an app version isn’t too far behind. One aspect that bemused me, and will no doubt confuse new birdwatchers greatly in the field, is the inclusion of obligate freshwater and grassland birds in the seabird and coastal biome. The decision to step away from a strictly phylogenetic sequence has merit, since avian taxonomy and birding knowledge is rapidly evolving, but perhaps the three biomes chosen to describe bird habitat could have been further broken down, as they are in Pizzey and Knight. The only other noticeable issues for me are the strange choice of marker for “likelihood of encounter score” and the fact that some, but not all higher taxonomic groups are given introductions. Consequently, a new birder might come to think that all our migratory shorebirds come under the Gallinago Snipe section!

Getting the differences between black-shouldered and letter-winged kites down now that the latter has just been spotted in Victoria.

Getting the differences between black-shouldered and letter-winged kites down now that the latter has just been spotted in Victoria.

The Australian Bird Guide is a call to arms in a way that no other guide I’ve read is. The writing team, made up of Peter Menkhorst, Danny Rogers and Rohan Clarke, actively encourages readers to record their sightings and take part in conservation programs in order to protect birds and the habitats they depend on. I think this is a beautiful way to acknowledge that we have a duty to protect that which we admire. If we won’t, who will? It is poignant that this guide is the first to include an illustration of a juvenile night parrot, a species whose rediscovery is spurring greater conservation of some of our most at-risk landscapes.

This is a brilliant guide with sublime illustrations, and a magnificent publication in its own right, away from the field. I hope it finds its way into plenty of car seat pockets, for the next generation of bird and nature lovers to find and fall in love with.

You can purchase your copy of ABG from CSIRO Publishing.

Cathy Cavallo

Cathy is a PhD student and science communicator with a passion for natural history, environmental engagement and photography. When she isn't running the Wild Melbourne social media, you'll find her working with little penguins on Phillip Island or underwater somewhere.

You can find her on Twitter at @CavalloDelMare