Birds of Vietnam

Published on 08 September 2019 in Book reviews

By Richard Craik and Lê Quý Minh

Lynx Edicions, 2018 

400pp; over 1,900 colour illustrations and 870 distribution maps

£50.00 (pbk) or £55.00 (hbk) – buy it from the BB Bookshop

This is the latest in a new series from Lynx entitled the ‘BirdLife International Field Guides Collection’. A field guide for Thailand was published last summer and soon to appear are guides to the West Indies and Japan. I was pleased to get my hands on this latest book just ahead of a recent trip to Vietnam.

Vietnam is one of the best birding destinations in Asia and a three-week trip from north to south is likely to result in a total of around 400 species. That said, the birds are often hard to find and it is only through the ingenuity of local guides that you can actually see some of the shyer laughingthrushes from temporary hides at feeding stations. As a result, anyone who visited Vietnam a few years ago may find that several species are now easily available for much closer scrutiny.

For almost two decades the standard guide for Vietnam has been Craig Robson’s A Field Guide to the Birds of South-East Asia; still a masterpiece, it is in urgent need of updating and lacks distribution maps, but is invaluable in illustrating a wide range of races across the region. This new book sometimes illustrates only one race when several can be found in Vietnam, although is good at showing approximately where each race can be found. That criticism aside, this is the first field guide dedicated to Vietnam and is really welcome. It describes and illustrates all 911 species that have been recorded and provides colour maps for all except vagrants, and always next to the illustration rather than the text.

Texts of around 150 words per species cover status, habitat and behaviour, age, sex and geographical variation, voice, and always suggest confusion species. There are 180 colour plates with over 1,900 illustrations taken from HBW. These include birds in flight for groups such as waterfowl, waders and raptors, both sexes where appropriate, and a selection of juvenile and non-breeding plumages. A total of 29 artists created these images but you would never think that because their styles have merged together very well. The layout has around six species per plate and this works well, although occasionally similar species have ended up split between two pages – for example White-spectacled Warbler Phylloscopus intermedius would have been better placed next to the Phylloscopus warblers that it most closely resembles rather than those it does not.

The taxonomy follows that of BirdLife/HBW and recognises ten endemics and a further 27 near-endemics for Vietnam. Followers of IOC taxonomy will thus miss out on Tonkin Partridge Arborophila tonkinensis as a species (treated by IOC as a race of Green-legged Partridge A. chloropus) but gain two endemics: Dalat Bush Warbler Locustella idonea and Dalat Shrike-babbler Pteruthius annamensis, which BirdLife/HBW lumps with Russet Bush Warbler L. mandelli and White-browed Shrike-babbler P. aeralatus respectively. Much as travelling birders love HBW, an increasing number (perhaps most) are now using the IOC list as their checklist – and it can become confusing when around up to 5% of the species are described using different names or taxonomic relationships. In most cases this guide makes it clear when other names are in common usage – but not always.

In addition to the species pages, for those who like to seek additional information while travelling, there is a QR code for each species linking to the HBW Internet Bird Collection gallery of photos, videos and sounds. There are also introductory pages outlining Vietnam’s habitats and key birding sites.

Weighing in at around 1 kg this is a very portable guide and added greatly to the enjoyment of my trip, although at £50 for the softback version it is not cheap.

Keith Betton