Birds of the Indonesian Archipelago: Greater Sundas and Wallacea

by James A. Eaton, Bas van Balen, Nick W. Brickle, and Frank E. Rheindt

Reviewed by Frank Lambert on December 31st, 2016.

Birds of the Indonesian Archipelago: Greater Sundas and Wallacea

Publisher: Lynx Edicions

Date: November, 2016

Illustrations: paintings

Binding: hardcover

Pages: 496

Size: 16 x 23 cm

List Price: $75.00

I first visited Indonesia in the mid to late 1980’s, before there was any illustrated field guide. It was not until 1993 that the Field Guide to the Birds of Borneo, Sumatra, Java and Bali (MacKinnon and Phillipps) was published, and not until 1997 that A Guide to the Birds of Wallacea (Coates and Bishop) appeared. These two books, and a couple of recent field guides for Borneo (Phillipps & Phillipps, and Myers), have until now been the only available field guides for the vast contiguous biogeographic regions of the Greater Sunda Islands (Sumatra, Borneo, Java, and Bali) and Wallacea (Sulawesi, the Moluccas, and the Lesser Sundas). The aforementioned books, with exception of the Borneo Guides, have meant that recent visitors to the region have had to make do with books that are now thoroughly outdated. During the last 5-6 years, James Eaton and his team have worked tirelessly, gathering data from publications, museums, fellow birders, and in particular from the field, to produce what has to be one of the most important field guides of recent times. Birds of the Indonesian Archipelago: Greater Sundas and Wallacea is truly a landmark publication, and the book itself excels in filling the niche for a desperately needed, thoroughly modern, user-friendly field guide to the birds of this fascinating, highly diverse region.

This guide covers a region that spans an arc of more than 16,000 islands that stretch almost 5,000 km along the Equator, including the small countries of Brunei and East Timor, as well as the East Malaysian (Bornean) states of Sabah and Sarawak and all of the territory of the Republic of Indonesia except for the eastern provinces of Papua and West Papua (the island of New Guinea and its satellites). Maps inside the book covers show this region and name most of the important islands, although they lack any scale, which is unfortunate. With over 2,500 illustrations and 1,300 distribution maps, this very impressive guide describes a colossal 1,417 bird species that are known to occur in the region, including 601 endemics, 98 vagrants, and 18 tentative species yet to be formally described. Together these represent over 13% of global bird diversity, highlighting the huge importance of Indonesia as a global biodiversity hotspot.

Considering the number of taxa covered, this guide is relatively small. It won’t fit in any pockets, but it is certainly not too large to carry in the field. One consequence of producing a manageable size is that the font is rather small, though larger than that in Craig Robson’s excellent guide to the Birds of Southeast Asia. It is almost identical in size to Robson’s book, but unlike it, the Birds of the Indonesian Archipelago includes maps for almost every species. As with the recently published HBW/BirdLife Illustrated Checklist of the Birds of the World, the maps are to be found on the plates themselves. This rather novel but pleasing arrangement leaves more room for text on the facing page, where all the other details about the species are to be found. The individual species accounts, forming the bulk of the guide (about 450 pages), provides key information about taxonomy, voice, and identification features, including notes on similar species where relevant. Tick boxes alongside the maps enable users to record birds seen on different trips to Indonesia.

The brief introduction to the book sets out to define the geographic limits of coverage and describes in detail the biogeography, topography, climate, and habitats. It also includes an ornithological history, a section on conservation, and, perhaps of more interest to most readers, has a detailed section on taxonomy and systematics. The illustrations, most of which originate from Lynx’s Handbook of the Birds of the World series although a considerable number were also done especially for this field guide, derive from 27 different artists. The great majority of illustrations are very good to excellent.

In contrast to many field guides, Birds of the Indonesian Archipelago takes a very bold approach to the species that it includes, with taxonomy a key issue addressed throughout the book. Having a professional taxonomist as one of the authors (Frank Rheindt), has obviously been key to this refreshing approach. Whilst I would anticipate some reluctance to accept some of the taxonomic decisions and suggestions found here, I suspect that the vast majority of the new species included will be widely adopted as valid within a few years’ time.

There are so many recently accepted and proposed splits in this book that it is impossible to mention them all in a short review. An important section in the Introduction to the guide, entitled “Taxonomy and Systematics”, provides a succinct overview of the Family Sequence, Genus Arrangements, English Group Names, Species Concepts, and Taxonomy adopted in the book. This section provides a valuable insight into the approach followed in the Species Accounts, including the choice of various English names and the species taxonomy that is followed.

A good number of new English names have been adopted that will certainly surprise and confuse some users, such as Bloodhead instead of Crimson-headed Partridge Haematortyx sanguiniceps, Heinrichia instead of Great Shortwing Heinrichia calligyna, Rhinortha instead of Raffles’s Malkoha Rhinortha chlorophaea, Jay Shrike instead of Crested Jay Platylophus galericulatus, and Mountain Leaftoiler instead of Mountain Tailorbird Phyllergates cuculatus. Such changes are justified on taxonomic grounds, but there are other English name changes that seem a bit unnecessary, such as changing White Cockatoo to Umbrella Cockatoo Cacatua alba, Long-tailed Fantail to Charming Fantail Rhipidura opistherythra, White-shouldered Triller to Lesueur’s Triller Lalage sueurii, and Violet-necked Lory to Scaled Lory Eos squamata. With so many new names adopted for taxonomic reasons, the dropping of a significant number of familiar English names that did not really have to be changed only adds to confusion.

Whilst many of the new English names make a lot of sense and will be easy to remember, such as Sangihe Lilac Kingfisher Cittura sanghirensis (endemic to Sangihe Island), Javan Flameback Chrysocolaptes strictus, Enggano Parakeet Psittacula modesta, and Mentawai Malkoha Phaenicophaeus oeneicaudus, because the name relates to the species range, some of the other names may be harder to recall, such as those adopted for some of the new cuckoo doves, such as Parzudaki’s, Barusan, Sultan’s, Amboina, and Eucalypt Cuckoo Doves.

The cuckoo doves are one of the polytypic groups for which recent splitting has resulted in numerous new species – something that many seasoned Indonesian birders will consider long overdue. Other polytypic groups with significant numbers of new species (or potential new species – termed “limbo splits” by the authors, which are highlighted under the relevant species accounts) include the boobooks, whistlers, leaf warblers, shortwings, drongos, fantails, and myzomelas, all of which have received a severe taxonomic shake-up. For example, the five species of cuckoo dove that were recognised in previous guides (mentioned above) are now treated as 13 species; Golden Whistler Pachycephala pectoralis is split into five species groups with more likely splits on the way, resident leaf warblers treated under three species in Coates and Bishop are now recognised to comprise 11 endemic Wallacean species (and have changed genus from Phylloscopus to Seicercus); a revision of drongo taxonomy has resulted in the recognition of 26 species in the region covered; and myzomelas increased from six species in Coates & Bishop to 13 species now. Recent proposed splits within the Red-bellied Pittas Erythropitta erythrogaster complex are reflected here by the recognition of five limbo species (i.e. not treated as full species in the book, but likely to be split in the future), that are grouped under a newly proposed name, “Sahul Pitta”.

There are numerous other splits and recently recognised species in the book, including a significant number of taxa elevated to species level in the chain of islands off west Sumatra – the Barusan Islands, stretching from Simeulue to Enggano. Some of the more notable inclusions not specifically mentioned above include Bornean Wood Owl Stix leptogrammica, Bornean Crested Fireback Lophura ignita, Simeulue Parrot Psittinus abbotti, Sunset Lorikeet Trichoglossus forsteni, Sumatran Woodpecker Picus dedemi, Alor Cuckooshrike Coracina alfrediana, Sulawesi Crow Corvus celebensis, Penan Bulbul Alophoixus ruficrissus, Javan Scimitar Babbler Pomatorhinus montanus, Bacan White-eye Zosterops atriceps, Maratua Shama Copsychus barbouri, Crocker Jungle-flycatcher Cyornis ruficrissa, Flores Warbling-flycatcher Eumyias oscillans, Salvadori’s Flowerpecker Dicaeum keiense, and Obi Paradise Crow Lycocorax obiensis. As mentioned previously, there are 18 completely new species that have yet to be described, but all are illustrated and have full species accounts, including Alor Myzomela, Bacan Spangled Drongo, Wangi-wangi White-eye, Rote Leaf Warbler, and Mount Mutis Parrotfinch. Whilst a lot of the species mentioned above have been recently described in the literature, a considerable number have not, and many readers may be unaware of the huge changes in taxonomy that is currently underway in this remarkable part of the world. One would hope that just reading this mouth-watering list will encourage more people to visit.

Birds of the Indonesian Archipelago: Greater Sundas and Wallacea is an outstanding field guide. The authors’ vast experience and knowledge of the region’s birds has provided us with an indispensable addition to the growing number of field guides to the Oriental Region. Indeed, this should be the region’s standard field guide for many years to come, one that will encourage more visitors to this remarkably diverse region. I, for one, am very much looking forward to using it on my next visit to Indonesia!

Category: Field Guides

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One Comment

  • Robert Furrer says:

    The only thing that is far from “user friendly” is the index! It may be OK for scientific names, but that’s it. Obstinately listing common names alphabetically results in a virtually useless listing when all species with the first name of Common are placed together (Common Coot, Common Dollarbird, Common Flameback, Common Green Magpie …etc.) one does not easily find a Coot or a Flameback with the help of this index. I have hardly ever encountered anything so stupid in a book that is meant to be used as a field guide as well.