With any book review, I undertake; I always try to remain as objective as possible. With this latest review, however, I must admit that I had to work a little bit harder to ensure that I maintained the same approach.
When I started birding, I was gifted with a field guide by a good friend. The problem was that whenever I saw a bird as a new birder, I struggled to find it quickly if at all in the guide. The field guide I had was packed with great information and accurate illustrations – the problem was that for a new birder it was not very user-friendly. I eventually saved my pennies and brought a Newman’s Birds of Southern Africa Guide. Suddenly, I had found a guide that ‘spoke my language’ as a new birder. This book was laid out in such a way that even the newest and most inexperienced birder was able to navigate through its pages and find the birds that they were seeing relatively quickly. For the first few years of birding, my Newman’s Bird Guide became my ‘go-to’ field guide and helped build my foundational birding knowledge.
I now get to review this field guide that has always had a very special place in my heart as, a more experienced birder – but at the same time one who still is new enough in birding to remember what it was like to struggle with identifications. I can actually remember going on bird walks and being shown other field guides by more seasoned birders, telling me that I had the wrong guide and that I should change – so the question is do I still see the Newman’s as a field guide that is worth getting?
For so many people that have had the privilege of meeting Kenneth Newman, he is not only spoken of as a great birder but also as a true gentleman. This guide in many ways flows out of his desire to simplify bird identification – as a newer birder this was reflected in the usability of the guide. Harvey Tyson wrote a tribute to Kenneth Newman which is included in the guide and says the following "His guides followed a clear, instantly grasped formula inspiring similar bird guides here and in many countries. If you go back to his simple step-by-step route to bird identification, set out in different words in almost all his works, you will see how effective his teaching is and how big his influence has been."
The commemorative edition has been revised by Kenneth Newman’s daughter, with the support of the well-known author and bird artist Faansie Peacock. The field guide covers the Southern African region – meaning South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, Swaziland, Lesotho, Mozambique, as well as the southern seas.
The endemic Knysna Turaco graces the cover of this edition and it is available in either a softcover or with the PVC protective cover. The gold writing on the top of the commemorative edition gives the cover a nice classy feel to it. Something to note is that the Newman’s is not as wide as the Robert’s and the Sasol field guides, which may make it just a little less cumbersome when being used in the field.
The book starts with a comprehensive section that assists people to identify the birds that they see them. This is something that sets the Newman’s apart from the other guides found in the Southern African market. It starts with the six points that are important when it comes to identifying the birds that one would see on the field – relative size, bill shape, and colour, length, and colour of the bird’s legs, plumage colours or markings, habitat, and activity.
I remember when I got my first guide, every time I saw a bird I would end up paging through page after page of bird families until hopefully, I managed to find the bird that I was looking for. The Newman’s has simplified this process and makes the world of birding just a little more accessible for even the most novice birder. Once you have gone through the six points – you now look at what group the bird belongs to. There are twelve different groups that this book suggests a bird could belong to:
1) Ocean, offshore and subantarctic birds
2) Inland waterbirds
3) Ducks, wading birds, and shorebirds
4) Terrestrial birds
6) Colourful, medium-sized birds
7) Nocturnal birds
8) Arial feeders, hole-nesters, and sociable birds
10) Insect-eaters, fruit-eaters, and omnivores
11) Specialised feeders
The guide explains each group and provides the necessary information to help the user to get the bird into the correct grouping. This is where the formula that Kenneth Newman developed makes this guide the best for any newer birder. Instead of paging through page after page to try and find the bird – once you have managed to put the bird you are seeing into a group – the pages have a handy colour coding on the side of them that is divided among the different groupings. So, once you have put the bird into the correct group, you simply go to the relevant section in the book to try and find the bird. You would now look through the plates in a group section and find the bird that you have seen.
The beginning of the book also provides valuable information with photos of the different habitats that make up the Southern African region. I interviewed Trevor Hardaker on the first episode of 'The Birding Life Podcast' and he spoke of the importance of understanding habitat as a birder, so this section is an important area that the book covers.
The plates are painted to show the most important diagnostic features that one should look for on a bird. The style of illustration is unique to the Newman’s – as they almost seem to be the boldest in appearance out of all the guides available – with thicker lines used when they were drawn. The style of drawings will not appeal to everyone, simply because different styles appeal to different people. The plates label many of the important features that one should look out for when identifying a bird, as well as showing the differences between the species that are on the page. Once again, as with the information in the front of the book, one can see that much effort was put in to try to make the identification process as simple as possible. There are small things that make this guide a winner such as the example of how Speckled and Red-faced Mousebirds differ in flock behaviour. The Speckled fly in straggling groups and the Red-faced fly in compact groups. As with other guides, the underwing colouration and contrasts are illustrated where necessary. When one pages through the plates there is a wealth of information that one can learn about the various species in Southern Africa.
The guide also offers two pages that are dedicated to showing the different weaver nests that occur in the region. As a newer birder, this was a page that I often turned to when I saw Weavers on nests. There are also two pages that are set apart to aid one in the identification of Swifts, Martins, and Swallows – which as many birders would agree can be tricky.
The text is sufficient without being overwhelming. There are the usual distribution maps that are seemingly standard with any field guide, the English, and the scientific name. The information isn’t as ‘meaty’ as with other guides on the market – it basically provides information about the status of the species, the identification features that should be noted, the habitat, the behaviour, and finally the size of the bird. This is where some more experienced birders may find this guide lacking, as they may want just a little more information to ‘chew on’, but for the newer and less experienced birder, all the information that would be needed is provided in a simple and understandable manner.
One of the biggest weaknesses of the guide is how long ago it was published; the latest Roberts Guide was published in 2016 and the Sasol in 2020. The Newman’s was last published in 2010 – which means that the information is more than ten years old – with splits that have taken place and new species being added to the Southern African list – this means that the guide is definitely in need of an update.
The back of the book has a handy section to help you keep a life list – leaving space for both the place and the date that the bird was seen. For those that still like to write the birds that they see as opposed to using an App to keep a life list, this section will be handy.
Is the Newman’s Birds of Southern Africa still worth getting with all the newer field guides that are on the market? I don’t know if this guide will appeal to the more experienced birders looking to add to their growing collection of guides, but for the newer and less experienced birders, I think that there is no better field guide available on the market. There is no guide in my opinion that is as user friendly and accessible for the newer birder than the Newman’s. My well-worn Newman’s still holds a proud place on my bookshelf and in my heart – the worn cover and dirty pages testify to just how much I have used this guide over the years. If you are new to the hobby and trying to get a grasp on this thing called birding, you need to head on over to your local bookstore and get your hands on a copy.
Species Accounts (text) 8/10
Ease of use 10/10
Overall Rating 8.5/10
To order the Newman's Birds of Southern Africa click on the image below
(use the code 'Birding' for a 5 percent discount)