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Australian field guides - a bit of a review. (1 Viewer)


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Australian Field Guides

There have been a few threads asking about Australian field guides from time to time and I’ve managed to get enough of them to do a bit of a comparison. Bearing in mind these are my opinions, hopefully it will be useful to anyone who’s looking to buy a guide before coming out here to visit.
There are four major field guides for Australia commonly available - three stalwarts: Pizzey and Knight's A Field Guide to the Birds of Australia, Simpson and Day Field Guide to the Birds of Australia and The Slater Field Guide to Australian Birds and the newer Michael Morcombe Field Guide to Australian Birds.
Each has its advantages and drawbacks. A major consideration is that the books have to cover up to 850 species, so there is often a trade-off between detail and weight. All of them with the exception of Slater (at least in the editions published in Australia) have the common failing (prevalent in so many books here) of having soft covers that are larger than the text block, which means that any field use at all and they'll be dog-eared in no time. Slater and Morcombe have plastic jackets, which helps a bit and keeps a bit of the rain off. SImpson and Day has a completely plastic cover under the dust jacket, so if you're using it in the field, leave the dust jacket at home.
There are a few photo guides out there, but generally, they are not much use for ID in the field as they often have just one photo and as such are not particularly representative of a species.
I've broken this up so each book gets its own post or it'll end up as a huge wall of text. Feel free to add comments/corrections/abuse.

Pizzey and Knight: The Field Guide to the Birds of Australia, 8th Edition.
580 pages, 1,120 grams.

This is a large, yet lovely book. The illustrations by Frank Knight are some of the best in Australian field guides (although Mrs Boris disagrees and thinks Simpson and Day are better). The 8th edition has an extra 46 species over the 7th edition, including some of the species found on island territories (but not all) and several of the recent splits proposed by Christidis and Boles.
The number of species per page seems to be dictated more by the text than how many illustrations can be fitted onto the plates, which means that the descriptions are not skimped on.
The text is comprehensive in its species descriptions and has more information than most of the other guides. One particular strength is the rendering of he vocalisations, which are more detailed than the other guides with the possible exception of Morcombe.
However, this extra detail means a larger weight and it is quite a large volume, even given the relatively small amount of introductory material. The maps are larger than most of the other guides and show the difference between regular and irregular ranges. The back of the book contains introductions to each of the family groups as well as a small section on taxonomy and common names.
Possibly better as a coffee table book or for having in the glove-box of a car, but not beyond the realms of possibility to drag it out into the field. Quite a few of the birders I know think this guide is the best of the lot.

In brief
Positive: excellent descriptions; good artwork; good maps.
Negative: heavy; cover will get damaged quickly with field use.
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Simpson and Day Field Guide to the Birds of Australia, 8th Edition.
384 pages, 740 grams.

S&D was originally published in 1984 and is regularly updated to reflect taxonomic changes and the arrival of species new to Australia. The eighth edition has some welcome improvements over the seventh: some of the plates have been repainted to give better views of important diagnostic features - sometimes these were covered up by superimposing one subspecies almost over another.
Overall, the plates are good, with some nice background illustration of habitats and the space on each plate is used well. A few plates are a little disappointing, such as the Fairy-wrens, which appear smudged. The range maps are good - subspecies are usually separated by black lines across the maps and the use of bold and faint colour marks common and uncommon ranges. Species that occur in limited regions have closer-scale maps, which is advantage over the other three books. Usefully, it has a fairly decent map of Australia at the front, although it doesn't mark many of the towns referred to in the text - I've lost count of the number of mentions of Innisfail and had to look it up on a different map.
The text can sometimes be maddeningly brief, with the bare minimum of detail for some species. The symbols for migratory habits and seasonal occurrence can be difficult to remember at first.
The introduction has a good section on birdwatching and identification tips, and there are bill comparisons for pelagic birds on the end papers. At the back, good descriptions of vagrant species are given, although with fewer and smaller pictures. A brief account of nesting habits and dates are given for families, with species calendars. There is also a guide to the different habitats found in Australia, which is useful as all the guides refer to specific habitat types (mulga, dry sclerophyll, etc). Another section at the back gives checklists for islands and dependent territories.
One thing to watch for is if you buy this guide as the Helm edition, it still has the note about the end papers being waterproof, which they're not as the sodden mass it became showed all too well...

In brief
Positive: useful field size and weight; good background information; good illustrations; very good maps; good separation of vagrant and more usual species; bill comparison charts and ruler on endpapers.
Negative: text can be too brief.
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The Slater Field Guide to Australian Birds, 2nd Edition.
416 pages, 670 grams.

The Slater guide is the smallest and lightest of the four guides. Despite this, it covers a large range of vagrant species within the main body of the book as well as birds that could possibly appear at some future point. Overall, the artwork is not quite as pleasing as the others, with very few flight pictures (although with useful comparison pages for raptors and some other groups). The illustrations are necessarily small, but some more careful arrangement on each plate could increase the size of many birds while reducing the empty space. One annoying feature is that birds that appear at the top of plate will often be at the bottom of the facing page in the text.
The text is more thorough than S&D and each group has an introduction. There are several ID pointers in Slater that don't appear in some of the other guides (such as the useful tip about the length of the gape in Great and Intermediate Egrets).
However, one major failing is the awful quality of the maps. Each map shows the whole of Australia, regardless of the distribution of the species and the coast is marked with a thick black line. Seeing as the distribution is also marked in solid black, you'd be forgiven for thinking every species occurs around Adelaide... No difference is made between common and vagrant ranges, nor any indication of where feral populations of native birds occur (such as Little Corella) apart from a very few cases.
There are quite a few errors in map ranges (e.g. Brown Honeyeater); several species have had the gender symbols mixed up (e.g. Albert's Lyrebird) and missing where it would be useful (e.g. Magpie-lark) and some times the labels on the plates are moxed up (Red and Great Knots).
One of the advantages is that a number of the island and territory species are covered in the text.
There is very little introductory matter compared to S&D or Morcombe, which reduces the size of the book markedly.

In brief
Positive: lightest field guide; waterproof plastic jacket; some good ID pointers; coverage of non-mainland species.
Negative: artwork can be less than great on some plates; poor maps; number of errors on plates and maps.
Michael Morcombe Field Guide to Australian Birds, revised 1st Edition.
450 pages, 1,180 grams (full version).

The newest of the field guides by a few years, this is the one that seems to attract the most derogatory comments, mostly about the artwork. For all that, the artwork is not bad at all and in some respects the slightly simpler nature makes it easier to see some of the salient ID features. Usefully, important ID points are marked and written on the plates themselves (a major strong point in guides such as Collins) and there are more illustrations per species than the other books. I would say the main drawback to the artwork is that some colours are oversaturated (check out the Chaffinch at the back).
Island and territory species are given good descriptions, some in the main text, others in a separate section at the back, covering Christmas, Lord Howe, Heard, Macquarie, Norfolk and Cocos-Keeling Islands, Ashmore Reef and the islands of the Torres Straits. Another section deals with the East Asian-Australian Flyway and where to find waders on migration and a further section gives new vagrant species written descriptions.
There is a wealth of information - very full species descriptions and an excellent map of Australia. One area this book excels in is the description of the breeding and nesting habits, plus pictures of nests and eggs, all at the back. The range maps are very good, with three degrees of distribution: rare/vagrant/former range being lightly tinted; uncommon being normally coloured and common/reliable in bold. Ranges for different subspecies are differently coloured.
Colour coding down the edge of the book makes it easier to find family groups and there are quick guides to the locations of families at the back and front.
This guide comes in two print versions – the full sized guide and the compact pocket guide with the nesting information and island species removed.
The drawback of the full version is the size - as a field guide it could well be somewhat unwieldy, not to mention heavy, but the cut-down version is smaller and much lighter, although I don’t have a copy to give exact numbers. The full version would be useful as a glove-box or coffee table book.
This book also comes as an electronic version for iPhones and is searchable in several different ways, thus negating the weight issue entirely.

In brief
Positive: hugely detailed, with large text and a good number of illustrations for each species; excellent maps; detailed information on nests, habitats and how to birdwatch; comes also as scaled-down and e-versions.
Negative: full version is a bit big for a field guide; some say the artwork is not up to scratch.

I've only used Slater and Simpson and Day in the field as they are the smaller and lighter books. As guides that fit into a larger camera bag, these two would be the first choice for field guides, but some weighing up has to be done. Slater is the lightest guide, but unless you're already an expert on the ranges of birds and you don't need to see flight shots of most species, then there is a lot of useful information missing. The erroneous information on some of the maps and mistakes on sexes of some birds could be pretty annoying for anyone new to Australian birds. Additionally, the unorthodox taxonomic ordering makes it difficult to find birds. The repetition of some species is useful. The smaller Morcombe guide has promise as a good guide for a camera bag.
Simpson and Day has the advantages of better illustrations and far better maps, but lacks a lot of detail in the species descriptions and is larger. The cut-down version of Morcombe could be a very good contender in this market as it has reasonably good illustration and also good descriptions.
For the larger guides, I still think Pizzey and Knight is an excellent choice for more relaxed reading, but Morcombe would be more useful to keep in a car for ID in the field.
In terms of taxonomy, Morcombe seems to be the most conservative - Ospreys and Great Egrets are not split, while Slater and S&D split these. P&K remains fairly conservative.
In terms of cost, if I remember correctly, Slater was the cheaper when comparing RRP, but not by an awful lot. Books are horribly overpriced in Australia (if you're visiting, try and buy foreign editions beforehand), but careful shopping around at discount retailers, such as QBD, can get you a reasonable deal (P&K is $50 at Borders and $40 at QBD). One definitely worth keeping an eye out for is that Australia Post often has S&D on offer, combined with posters or a checklist book, usually for A$20.
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Nice review!
I bought the field guide (full sized guide) by M. Morcombe as my backup about the australian avifauna.
I can only add that I was really disappointed about the drawings. E.g. Wagtails, they are looking like Pipits - not knowing the caption one wouldn´t guess even the genus. An other example is the male Regent Parrot: It´s so strange colored - lemon yellow, that it look´s like a Golden Parakeet with a red bill. Ruff and other relatives - horrible! Herons and Bitterns - awful!

The part with nest and egg description is nice but IMHO the drawings are often childish. What I like is the drawing of the many different nest styles.

According to the really very impressive text part I decided to keep the book.
Thanks for this update. I think one additional aspect deserves being mentioned. The new (2010) Slater and the Pizzey/Knight book both have all the birds oriented in the same direction. This facilitates comparisons. The ease of comparison struck me when I compared my first and second edition Slater volumes. I also think it was the reason why I did not feel comfortable with the Simpson/Day book when it came to choosing one to concentrate on for my trip preparation in 2007. Because I agree with Mrs Boris that the individual illustrations in that book are very good, and possibly often the best. So it must have been the "confusing" (for a newcomer at least) arrangement that kept me from ever really warming up to that book. In the end, I fared extremely well with Pizzey/Knight then. I had only seen Morcombe when I was on my way, but I had then been about equally "impressed" as Stonechat1.
Fantastic thread. This is such good information for any newcomers to Australian birders that it should be made into a sticky.

For myself I always use the Slater guide although I well agree the maps are shockingly useless (I just ignore them) and it has its other identification issues. I have the Simpson and Day too but I just really dislike the layout of the species on the plates (I find the pictures too "busy" for good identification purposes) but that's just me of course. I also have the old Pizzey and Knight but I never use it.
Morcombe is definitely quite polarising - I know some who really like it and others who really hate it. Personally, I can overlook the duff bits of illustration for the useful ID pointers.
Here's another question - what elements of each would you combine to make the ideal field guide? I'd have the on-plate ID pointers and maps from Morcombe, artwork from Simpson and Day (corrected for orientation) and the text would be a combination of Morcombe and Pizzey and Knight with a smattering of the good bits from Slater.
........Here's another question - what elements of each would you combine to make the ideal field guide? I'd have the on-plate ID pointers and maps from Morcombe, artwork from Simpson and Day (corrected for orientation) and the text would be a combination of Morcombe and Pizzey and Knight with a smattering of the good bits from Slater.

And I'd add to this the full coverage of the island species/subspecies.
I’m just back from my first trip to Oz (trip report to follow when seasonal festivities allow). I took an old edition of the Slater guide as I’ve always admired the plates and wanted a functional field guide (i.e. compact & readily portable) rather than ‘glove-box’ guide. I must admit I’ve never been too keen on S&D – the illustrations are generally good, but although not too thick a book, its breadth makes it unwieldy. As a field guide the additional 80 odd ‘handbook’ pages would have been better used to give more space to text/illustrations. For such a relatively large book the text is a bit ‘thin’ too. Given the existence of Slater, & particularly the example set by Morcombe, I’m surprised the book has never been repackaged as a ‘true field guide’.

I also like the current edition of Pizzey – arguably it has better illustrations than S & D (but less good, I feel, than Slater’s). It’s a vast improvement on the original guide (which I left at home!). In many ways I felt this the best guide, but its size and weight militated against my buying a copy. (Besides, my host had a copy!).

So, what of Morcombe? I’d seen examples of his artwork online and had a brief look at his book a while back. Frankly, I was dismayed. It’s funny, but even with birds you’ve never seen you can get a gut feeling that an illustration is on the mark or well wide of it. I honestly think that you have to go back to the old original Collins guide to the birds of South Africa to find such a disappointing set of illustrations. Whatever Morecombe’s strengths (and I gather he’s a brilliant photographer) he clearly isn’t a naturally gifted artist and it shows – at times badly so. So I dismissed both his large and small format guides pretty much out of hand. Then, once out in Oz, I began to feel aspects of the Slater book not as helpful as I’d expected; too few illustrations, an uninspired design and layout, inadequate maps, etc.

So in desperation I turned to Morecombe’s compact edition. I still found the illustrations (esp. of small waders) pretty poor, but an awareness of other factors began to kick-in. Tall and tin it was an ideal field companion since I could slip it into the large leg pocket of my 'cargo trousers'. It is also brilliantly designed and set out – useful back flaps, a coloured “thumbnail index” and good overview to families/species. Small but seemingly subtle maps. Above all were the very useful annotations to those illustrations, which whilst poorly painted and entirely lacking a feel for ‘jizz’, weren’t as useless in the field as feared. To a surprising degree they redressed the inadequacies of the artwork. In fact some field marks were easier to see. So in actual field use, very much to my surprise, I found Morcombe the most useful book by a wide margin. The strength of the book is that it came from the hand of one man who clearly has a great depth of knowledge and from a publisher who allowed free reign to the author. It is a pity that Morcombe’s artistic skills were not equal to his ambition. If it were possible for an artist of Slater’s undoubted talent to redraw all the plates this would be an unequivocal choice,
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Thought I'd give this thread a 'bump' since the colonel's remarks are too interesting and well done to be overlooked. Apart from anything else it'd be useful to get a contribition from someone resident in Australia rather than we visitors,
...... To a surprising degree they redressed the inadequacies of the artwork. In fact some field marks were easier to see. So in actual field use, very much to my surprise, I found Morcombe the most useful book by a wide margin. .......

The Morcombe FG seems to be quite popular among Australian birders. So they must have made similar experiences like you did, I would assume.

On the other hand, we always long for those perfect illustrations. Strange world indeed, at times.

The artwork is a funny thing. Simpson and Day has lovely artwork, but it isn't always helpful, while Morcombe can be poor in places, but gets the point across. I've lost count of the number of S&D plate where they have two subspecies on the plate, but blown if I can tell the difference without studying the text.
Also, if anyone's thinking of getting an Australian bird book for someone who is not a birder, or is a kid, try the Green Guide: Birds of Australia - covers the basic species as a photo guide and has some trivia about the birds covered as well as bird behaviour and introductions to family groups (plus it's comparatively cheap):
I have just read this thread through and completely agree with the comments and assessments of the 4 guides we have.

Here is my contribution as a resident birder from Australia.

When birding locally I don't use a book unless I'm guiding, in which case the Morcombe is my choice for it's compactness and other features. Granted some the colours in some illustrations are overdone, but for others they are spot on. The colour coding and extra illustrations for the the different races is particularly useful. I've been with birders who have the Morcombe on their Iphone with the bird calls built in - that will be a must for me in the near future. I hope the other field guides go that way too.

Often I'll sit down and compare the illustrations and text in all 4 plus the Trounson Photographic Field Guide and 'Birds of Australia's Top End' by Denise Goodefellow.

When I travel I always take the Simpson and Day because that is where I keep records of first sightings of new birds, using the check boxes.

Ah yes, Birds of Australia's Top End is a fantastic resource if you're off to that neck of the woods. Denise posted on Birding-Aus recently that she's seen a copy go for silly money online and I didn't have the heart to tell her that I picked it up for only four pounds in England...
If I get a bit of time, I'll add a piece on that book too, unless someone with more experience using it would like to.
Numbers or names?

My Simpson/Day edition dates from 1986. One additional reason to the reasons already mentioned in earlier posts why I do not feel comfortable with this book is the fact that species names are omitted from the plates. There are only numbers. Together with the often somewhat cluttered (or artsy) arrangement of the birds, this reduces one's overview even more. I wonder whether newer editions still have only numbers? There are other indications such as races in fine print, but not the basic names like in the other books discussed here. (Don't know about Morcombe though.)
By an odd coincidence, I've accidentally found a TVS program about bird watching and not only was the episode on Sydney, but they also did a mini-review of the four major field guides. They were quite careful not to recommend one over any of the others...
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