This is a compact, pocket guide covering 280 species in the Middle East (including the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt). Species typically receive a short text consisting of a description, voice, distribution, habitats and habits, and – in most cases – a single photo, though there are no distribution maps. The photos are generally of a reasonable quality, although some could have been better chosen (e.g. the Pale Rock Sparrow Carpospiza brachydactyla in deep shadow, and the front-on, wings-spread Yellow-legged Gull Larus michahellis juxtapositioned with a perfect side-on portrait of an Armenian Gull L. armenicus). The use of just a single photo leads to some omissions – no females of many species, for example, and breeding-plumage Common Sterna hirundo and White-cheeked Terns S. repressa but a non-breeding-plumage Little Tern Sternula albifrons. Some species are relegated to add-ons within other species: understandable in many cases – such as Dunn’s Lark Eremalauda dunni appearing within the Bar-tailed Lark Ammomanes cinctura entry or Lesser Masked Weaver Ploceus intermedius being lumped in with Streaked Weaver P. manyar – but odd in others, such as Tree Pipit Anthus trivialis being an also-ran in the Meadow Pipit A. pratensis entry, and Citrine Wagtail Motacilla citreola shoehorned into the Yellow Wagtail M. flava account. Some, though not all, of these ‘additional’ species also have a photograph.
Despite the relative sizes of the front-cover font, where Egypt appears to be an addition to the main Middle Eastern coverage, there is a distinctly Egypt-centric feel to the book – perhaps not too surprising given that is where the author is based. Most distribution texts start with ‘In Egypt…’, before being followed with a much more general round-up from the rest of the region. Indeed, the text for Indian Roller Coracias benghalensis even opens with ‘Not in Egypt’.
The book does not claim to be complete, though it does state that it covers ‘the region’s most commonly seen, unique and endemic species’. In that respect, it’s perhaps forgivable that some species, such as Forbes-Watson’s Swift Apus berliozi and Cyprus Wheatear Oenanthe cypriaca, don’t make an appearance – but the omission of Omani Owl Strix butleri, Yemen Serin Crithagra menachensis and the several endemics from the southwest Arabian highlands contradicts the third point in the publisher’s description.
This book is not without its merits. In many respects, it fits well with its ‘naturalist’s guide to…’ title, and I can imagine it being a useful addition for someone with an interest in birds on, for example, a cruise, where the Middle East may form only a few days of a much wider tour, or a beach holiday in Sharm El-Sheikh. It is slim enough to slip into the side pocket of a backpack, and the price represents great value for money for a book that may see only a few outings. But if birding is the primary purpose for your visit to the region, the lack of full coverage of all plumages and, indeed, all species will likely limit the usefulness of this book, and there are more-complete – if thicker and higher-priced – field guides on the market.