By William S. Clark and Rob Davies
Christopher Helm, 2018
Hbk, 336pp; 52 colour plates, 322 colour photographs
ISBN 978-0-7136-6538-3; £50.00
When you include the early Croom Helm and Pica Press editions, the Helm Identification Series now extends to over 50 titles, but this is the first to focus on Africa. It covers all 107 raptor species that occur in Africa either as breeding species or as migrants. Bill Clark is well known for his expertise on American raptors and he has travelled widely to study them, away from his home in the USA. Before moving back to the UK, Rob Davies was based in South Africa, where he took a special interest in raptors and set up the African Raptor Databank. He illustrated this book with the 52 fine colour plates.
The taxonomy followed is essentially that of IOC with the exception of Ethiopian Goshawk Accipiter unduliventer, which is treated as a distinct species, rather than a race of African Goshawk A. tachiro (IOC and Clements) or Red-chested Goshawk A. toussenellii (HBW/BirdLife).
An introductory section explains how the book is set out and this could perhaps have been used to explain how African raptors live. For example, it would have been useful to have at least some information on raptor ecology and perhaps an overview of the amazing migrations that some species undertake, plus the challenges that they face both in Europe and in Africa. Although this book gives plenty of information on identification, it does not discuss conservation at any point, which is a missed opportunity.
Rob Davies’s plates are placed at the front of the book and are very pleasing. Each faces a page with captions and most species are shown against a suitable habitat background. Personally, I prefer such illustrations to be free of backgrounds, which I find tend to take away from my ability to detect the subtleties of plumage coloration. However, they are impressive illustrations and are clearly labelled.
These are followed by the species accounts, which cover identification, measurements, taxonomy, geographical variation, similar species, status and distribution, habitat, behaviour and moult. There is also a more detailed explanation of plumage according to sex and age, and there are references to unusual plumage variations and hybrids. The origins behind the species’ English and scientific names is also explained. Each species text is accompanied by a decent-sized colour map indicating range and seasonality and these are really clear. A list of around 300 references is given and these focus mostly on identification and moult.
The main texts are accompanied by a useful set of 322 colour photographs, and it is good to see these interspersed within the text rather than bunched together in one section. As I personally study the Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus, I immediately turned to that species and unfortunately the first photograph I saw was captioned incorrectly – a juvenile labelled as an adult. I would also like to have seen a wider selection of images showing the different races of this and other species, both perched and in flight. No doubt in some cases such images are not available but a quick check of the African Bird Club’s freely accessible AFBID photo database shows that many suitable images exist but were not included.
Sadly, it seems that a number of labelling errors exist on other photographs and these will hopefully be corrected in later editions of the book. Despite these errors, it is great to see Africa’s raptors in the spotlight.