Although the inside cover bills this as the first edition of Guide to the Birds of China, it is essentially an updated and expanded version of John MacKinnon’s A Field Guide to the Birds of China (OUP 2000). The coverage in Guide to… is comprehensive, including 1,484 bird species (up from 1,329 in A Field Guide…) from across the entire country, plus vagrants. Each species account has a short text including identification, voice, range and habitat, a map (even vagrants receive a map with dots showing accepted records), an illustration and, as is increasingly becoming the norm, a QR code to scan for recordings of the bird’s vocalisations.
The illustrations vary a little in their quality but are overall sufficient for their purpose. The guide is, however, let down somewhat by the layout. Each species is numbered to allow cross-referencing between the plates and the text – some illustrations appear opposite their respective texts, but many are a page or two away forwards or backwards from the plate. The plates themselves are either a single or a double-page spread and are often crowded, with apparently little regard given for the relative sizes of the birds illustrated: the Barred Warbler Curruca nisoria, for example, is the same size as the Hume’s Whitethroat C. althaea, and the Tundra Bean Goose Anser serrirostris, which is correctly illustrated a little smaller than the accompanying Taiga Bean Goose A. fabalis, is the same size as the Cackling Goose Branta hutchinsii immediately to its left. To make matters worse, the biggest goose on the page by some way is… the Brent Goose B. bernicla.
And then there are the lines (without text) pointing to the features on the birds. A real bugbear of mine in field guides, and what feels like a throwback to guides from decades ago! Details of the features being pointed out are easy enough to find in the species text account in most cases, although this may require flicking backwards and forwards between pages. Some, however, are not explained. What is even stranger is that for the swans and geese (but not ducks), warblers and finches, and in some cases gamebirds, the lines do have annotations.
The fact that it covers the whole of China (other publications cover just part of the country and/or a selection of the commoner species) will certainly make Guide to the Birds of China a popular and useful book for anyone birding in the region, especially since it’s now over two decades since the last equivalent title was published. That said, it’s a shame that the production of this new title didn’t focus on reworking the layout to bring this book into line with the style and quality of many other recently published field guides. As it is, it feels a little out-dated, and that does nothing to let the author’s hard work shine nor to maximise the value to birders who are using the book in the field.