Book Review: Birds of East Africa, Princeton University Press

Birds of East Africa is the classic, indispensable field guide by Terry Stevenson and John Fanshawe covering the birds of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi. The review copy that I recently received from Princeton University Press is actually my second copy of this remarkable book. I purchased my first in 2010 before I moved to Tanzania, where I lived for a year. At the time, I thought Tanzania was the premier birding destination in East Africa, given its size and geographical diversity; however, Uganda, where I'll be living for the next two years, appears to be an even richer destination, containing nearly as many bird species as Tanzania or Kenya in considerably less space. Regardless, I was so excited to return to the region that I simply couldn't wait for my original copy to arrive in Uganda from storage, and I have been studying the field guide for weeks in anticipation.

Birds of East Africa covers 1,388 species on 287 color plates, including a plate for vagrants and new records made during the production of the book. Several of these new records are from Semiliki National Park, which is located on the edge of the Guinea Congo forest biome and is likely Uganda's best birding site. Published in 2002, Birds of East Africa is current, comprehensive, and compact enough to carry in the field. Several features of the book are immediately noteworthy. First, birds are depicted in both repose and flight where appropriate. This is useful for identifying quail and francolin species, which are often only seen when flushed. Second, sexually dimorphic species are exhaustively presented. For example, all four plates of nightjar species include both the male and female in flight. Third, many images are lovingly painted with contextual flora: the Hamerkop is poised on top of a massive nest; cisticolas perch lightly on blades of grass; the African Paradise Flycatcher darts across a verdant background; and the Miombo Grey Tit acrobatically hangs in different positions from delicate twigs. These touches are always tasteful and economical, never taking too much space on the plate or obscuring the bird's field marks.

On the facing page of each plate are concise species accounts, describing the appearance, status, range, habitats, and voice of each species. Each species account also includes a distribution map, although in my opinion this is one of the few weaknesses of the field guide. While there is a detailed two-page map of the region in the index that includes major cities and towns, the distribution maps don't indicate major cities as a reference point. In addition, the migration patterns of individual bird species are only described in the text, not illustrated in the distribution map. Some field guides effectively use color-coded maps to indicate whether birds are residents, passage migrants, or spending the winter or summer in the country. The authors do point out that much ornithological research remains to be done in the region, especially in western and southern Tanzania, and several distribute maps truthfully indicate only question marks in these areas.

Even if you don't have firm plans to take a birding trip in the region, Birds of East Africa is a mandatory addition to your library. Armchair birding on a single plate can take you from the Swahili coast to the savannas of the Serengeti to the montane forests of the Rwenzori Mountains. Birders unfamiliar with the continent's avifauna will also be impressed by endemic bird families, such as the turacos, mousebirds, and wood-hoopoes, as well as the monotypic families, such as the Hamerkop, Shoebill, and Secretary Bird. Myself, I'll try to keep my new copy in pristine condition for reference when I am preparing for a birding trip or reviewing my field notes. My original copy, already battered by a year of use in Tanzania, will hopefully suffer further exposure to light, heat, humidity, and dust as I drag it around with me to the remote, wild areas of East Africa.

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