Here's a book review I wrote back in January. I held off from posting it then because, after my comments on Robins and Chats, I didn't want to become "that guy who posts negative book reviews"; but following my trip to Lanzarote I've been using the book again and I've suffered the same frustrations I encountered the first time around. It may well not be a positive review but, on careful reflection, it still feels like my comments are fair and a reasonable reflection of the product. Furthermore, word on the grapevine is that the same author has just signed a deal with Bloomsbury to publish a title on birds of the Canary Islands – whether that's a new title dealing with the avifauna as a whole rather than on a species-by-species basis or whether it will simply be a sexed-up hard-back version of this publication remains to be seen. Either way, I seriously hope Bloomsbury have got their fact checkers on standby.
Eduardo Garcia-del-Rey has done more than most to publicise the diversity of birdlife found in the Canary Islands and has a host of publications under his belt. His latest offering, Birds of the Canary Islands, is the pinnacle, representing more than 20 years of resource-gathering and literature-gleaning on the avifauna of the archipelago. The result is a weighty tome of over 900 pages covering “all 202 [species] recorded in the archipelago”. [Update: It is also the first in a series on Macarnesian avifauna, with a title on birds of the Cape Verde Islands due for publication this year]
The commoner species receive a more-or-less similar treatment: taxonomy, status, distribution, population, habitat, movements, breeding, conversation, and so on . Rarer species are included in a list at the back, with number of records broken down by island.
One species is conspicuous by its absence, if not by its presence on the SOC logo that adorns the front of the book: the Canary Island Black Oystercatcher. The species is not covered in the book at all and, while it could be argued that its extinct status means it is of little interest to modern-day ornithologists on the island, the claim that the book included “information from the last 215 years (1800–2015)” is at odds with the non-inclusions of the species.
The book is also billed as having “in the hand identification for every passerine species” but, as far as I can see, this extends to a selection of – often rather poor – in-hand photos for most (not all) passerine species. Accompanying captions are scant and presented in at least three different styles throughout the book. Moult information is given but for the majority of species simply states if a moult is complete or partial for the different age classes, most apparently simply lifted from BWP. It’s reassuring to see Fuerteventura Stonechat gets slightly more extensive coverage than the average but it would have been nice to see this same treatment extended to some of the other endemic taxa – especially give then author’s comments in the introduction regarding the establishment of a ringing programme to study ageing, sexing and moult of species not previously covered in literature.
As sole author, cartography, designer, typesetter, editor and, to-a-point, publisher (the author is the founder and managing director of the SOC), Garcia-del-Rey has certainly shown his dedication towards getting Birds of the Canary Islands published; but the one-man-band approach to the production comes at a cost: the English in places is in need of a good edit and the layout is in desperate need of a designer’s eye. The narrow inner page margins, for example, make it a challenge to read words closest to the spine, while the style of binding doesn’t give me much hope that the spine will withstand too much forcing open wide. Then there are some points that on the face of things seem rather minor but in actual fact make navigating through the book surprisingly difficult – things such as the lack of a species-name heading on the page or any clear indication in the font size and style where one species ends and another begins. And the indexing system: birds are listed alphabetically by their first name, such that the index runs from Abyssinian Roller to Yellow-legged Gull. Common Redshank is called simply Redshank and thus appears under R; but Linnet is listen under its “full” name and thus appears under C for Common Linnet. And then there’s Laurel Pigeon, which the author inexplicably called “Thermophile Pigeon” in the body text, but which is still indexed as Laurel Pigeon in the index (and not under T for Thermophile). Mixed in amongst these English names are the scientific names, not italicised and thus surprisingly difficult to differentiate from English names when scanning down the list. Even when you've found the page number of the species you're looking for, you still have to battle with finding the page you need – there's a large swathe of the book where the page numbers are printed on the inside corner of the page, i.e. burried in the spine! I reiterate, these are relatively minor points but together they make a measurable difference to the ease with which one can use – and enjoy – the book.
References to Garcia-del-Rey (2011) are plentiful throughout this book. The often-referenced Gardia-del-Rey (2011) will be better known to most birders as Field Guide to the Birds of Macaronesia. You start to get the feeling that the reference is included sometimes just for reference’s sake, although in relation to habitat and status it’s perhaps justified. Where it does start to get into thin ice is in places like, for example, Blackbird taxonomy: “According to Garcia-del-Rey (2011), the subspecies carerae is not genetically distinct compared to the nominate.” Curious, I read the Blackbird entry in Garcia-del-Rey (2011): “Two races have been described for Macaronesia, T. m. azorensis and T. m. cabrerae, although recent mtDNA analysis found no basis for latter.” No further references are given. There must be a primary source for this data somewhere and for the author to reference one of his earlier works – which I’m absolutely sure is not the primary source for this genetic study – is, in my view, unacceptable and really does smack of self-referencing for the sheer hell of it.
It doesn’t take too much reading through to find other issues. For example, it’s stated that Barolo Shearwaters return to their colonies around March. I was involved in field work surveying and tagging birds returning to their colonies in late December, data which is in fact quoted later on in the species entry, so it’s clear that the author is aware of these studies. Looking for a typical page to show in the review, I opened the book and landed the Corn Bunting page shown to the right. Even here, on a randomly-selected page, issues are apparent: the complete post-juvenile moult is stated as being "usual" for the family when in fact it is unusual (undoubtably this is a typo but it's an extremely unfortunate type that an editor would surly have picked up on). The fact there is no date attached to the photographs makes them of limited use (note also the differences in captioning style between this species and the above Goldcrests), and the lack of a location makes the sentence "no live biometric measurements of the bids from this Archipelago" hard to understand – was this bird photographed in the Canary Islands but the ringer took no biometric data at all, or was this bird photographed elsewhere? The taxonomy of the species also seemed to be a little confused as well but I had neither the time nor the inclination to investigate deeper.
To refer to Garcia-del-Rey as an enthusiastic amateur would undermine his status as an established ornithologist. Nonetheless, there’s an inescapable feeling that this publication sits in the category of “well-researched personal labour of love” rather than an authoritative scientific avifauna. There’s clearly a lot of useful information contained within its pages and the amount of writing time and resource gathering that must have gone into publishing this book shouldn’t be underestimate. However, for me at least, this book comes a long way from living up to the hype that the author has attempted to generate around its publication.
For anyone who has a particular interest in the archipelago’s avifauna, it’s going to be a useful addition to their bookshelf. I just can’t help but think it could have become an essential addition to all Western Palearctic birder’s bookshelves had it received some external input, not least from an editor with a keen eye for scientific rigour and a designer with a knowledge of page layout.