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Biggest Twitch

The Birds of Australia - a new field guide

Book review by Alan Davies

Common paradise Kingfisher

Before The Biggest Twitch, in 2008, Australia was not a place I really yearned to visit, not really sure why. There were plenty of bird rich places I did want to visit but for some reason not Australia. Then in 2008 we set off on our madcap journey to try and set a new world record for the highest number of birds seen in a single year.

Orginally we had thought of taking a year out and visiting some of our most wanted destinations and seeing some of our most sought-after birds as we travelled, no drama just a lovely year of birding. Then, we made the mistake of mentioning our idea to our friend Iain Campbell, the author of this book. Iain's reaction was "Why don't you do something useful and set a new world record?" That was a defining conversation, the whole idea just took off and before we knew it we were off on a world record-breaking quest!

When we sat down to plan our record breaking year we could not afford to ignore a continent with over 700 species, most of which are found nowhere else, could we? No. Now it just so happened that Iain was guiding a Tropical Birding Tour trip in Australia in October so we took the plunge and booked on the tour. Of course we would need to have a field guide and we purchased the popular one at the time, how we wished we could have had this new guide back then!

Red bellied Pitta

The Birds of Australia is a breath of fresh air in the crowded world of bird books. It immediately looks good and a quick flick through the pages gives you an indication that the pictures here are outstanding! I am not usually a big fan of photo field guides, preferring the tradional painted plates as often some of the pictures in photo guides are not good enough to enable you to identify some of the species. This new guide really shows how brilliant a photo guide can be if the authors ensure they have the right photographs. This collection of images is simply stunning and most importantly it does the job: you can indeed use them to help you identify the birds of Australia.

Of course a field guide needs to be a lot more than a collection of photos, however superb they may be. The text for each species is concise and really gives you the information you need in the field, no fancy waffle, just plain talking identification help. You would expect this in any field guide but it is not always delivered as well as this. Having seen many of the birds, thanks to Iain, I can draw from my memory and own photos to be sure this book is spot on and will be a very useful tool for any field birder.

OK, so far we have a very good photo field guide with brilliant photos and excellent concise text, but is that enough to tempt you to go out and purchase a copy? It should be! But there is a lot more to this book. What really sets this book well and truly above any other field guide is the additional information it contains.

No less than 36 pages are devoted to a fascinating section called "Habitats of Australia". As the book rightly states, "Becoming familiar with the variety of habitats within Australia and how and why they occur where they do, can help understand how birds are distributed across the landscape."

Each major habitat is introduced and described with a map to show the area occupied by that particular habitat. Of course many species have very specific habitat requirements so a knowledge of the habitats and importantly where they occur is a huge help in finding the target birds you want to identify. I wish we had known all this before our visit! More colour photos help you picture the areas you will visit and bring the text to life, particularly useful for unfamiliar ones of which there are many for the visiting birder! Studying the habitat maps helps understand the often disjointed distribution of many species, obvious when you look at it like this!

A good test of any field guide is how it deals with tricky species. I think a lot of birders might be able to tackle the colourful parrots and doves given a good look, but how about seabirds? The views of these ocean wanderers are often brief and under difficult conditions, strong winds or from a pitching boat! The photos presented here have been carefully selected to be of genuine use to identify these tough birds. The photographer, Geoff Jones, is again to be congratulated on the images he has obtained, top stuff. Often in photo guides it appears that any photo of the particular species will do, not the case here, a lot of thought and effort has gone into the selection of the best images to show identification features.

The photographs are not only very useful they are also a delight simply to look at and enjoy. If you have birded in Australia you will want this guide for sure, if you are planning to visit you will want this book. If like me pre Biggest Twitch, you have not considered birding in Australia you must have this book! There are over 700 amazing, surprising, beautiful, astounding birds here and I know you will want to see them. Australia is a wild continent with huge landscapes and a dazzling array of birdlife and this new book "Birds of Australia" will help you not only identify but understand and enjoy them.

I highly recommend this book and only wish it had been published before October 2008! Still I hope to return down under one day and this book will be the first thing I pack.

Birds of Australia is published by Princeton University Press.

ISBN 978-0-691-15727-6

By Iain Campbell with Sam Woods and Nick Leseberg.

Photography supplied by Geoff Jones.

You can take advantage of a pre-publication offer by visiting

Red crowned Lorikeet


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