Updated: Oct 13, 2020
After being involved in a podcast review of the Roberts Bird Guide 2 application, I thought it would make sense for me to review the paperback version in comparison to other guides you could purchase with your hard-earned money. Looking over at my badly overloaded bookshelf, I wanted to scratch around to see if I could find one of the older Roberts Guides and compare how the birds, format, and descriptions have changed over time. Thankfully, the earliest version of the book I could find was one that I luckily picked up at our local SPCA thrift store for R20.00. This copy is the Roberts Birds of South Africa revised by G.R. McLachlan and R. Liversidge. This third edition (fifth impression) was published in 1976, with the first edition being published all the way back on the 8th of June 1940. I could sit here and write the expected comparison between the latest version and Roberts Bird Guide first edition last reprinted in 2015, but that is a lot less interesting than seeing how far the Roberts books have come. Yes, I will give you my opinion on this latest book too...
Looking at the foreword written by the then Field-Marshal 'The right Honourable' Jan. C Smuts, I quote the opening lines: "Although the bird life of South Africa forms one of its outstanding glories, there has so far - apart from the handy little volume by Dr. Leonard Gill - not been a comprehensive guide for the use of bird-lovers. This need, at last, has been met, and I am happy to be able to introduce this valuable work to the public of South Africa." This text was written in 1938 and shows how long-lasting and strong the heritage of the Roberts guides has had for the South African birding community.
Apart from the dust and brown pages, the most notable difference between these books is simply the number of species each list within Southern Africa. As more and more people have picked up a pair of bins and have grown in their experience with birding, so the accounts of new species for the region has grown. If you are interested in reading further into this topic, I have provided a link to a fascinating article written by Faansie Peacock below. The old book still made use of their own numbering system with Ostrich being number 1 and went through to species 875 which was Cabanis' Yellow Bunting (Emberiza cabanisi) now simply called Cabinis's Bunting. The new book has moved on somewhat from their numbering system, but the first bird featured is still the Ostrich. The latest inclusion which happens to be the 971st species now listed is Yellow-throated Leaflove (Atimastillas flavicollis) (as at the time of publishing the latest edition in 2016).
Plates (illustrations) are arguably the most important feature of any field guide, as without these we are left to imagine the appearance of a species based on how detailed the written description from the author is. The earlier edition does include plates (hand painted), some of which date back to 1937. These colour plates were compiled by Norman C.K. Lighton, and for the time were invaluable. Artists of today (namely I.B Weiersbye, R.J Cook, P.R.M. Meakin, G. Arnott, C.S van Rooyen, A. Barlow, and A.C.V Clarkson) use a blend of historical plates and modern photography to develop the latest iterations of species' plates. Thanks to their work, the later version of the book can allow the viewer to pinpoint the most important identifying feature/s of a species. Very few species had both male and female species depicted in their dimorphism, however, today's book can often have up to four illustrations for a single species. Today's version of the Roberts Bird Guide goes one step further especially with difficult to identify families such as Nightjars. The authors have added colour photographs to supplement the plates to assist with determining the species observed. Again, I would like to 'draw' your attention to the link below to a relaxing video showing the intricacies of painting a bird. Perhaps you could develop a new birding related past time or hobby?
The plates in the latest edition are superb. The detail into which each species is depicted whether the variable in plumage or not is remarkable. Almost every species is represented by male, female, and where possible juveniles too. Hybridised species such as Red-capped Robin-Chat x Chorister Robin-Chat are included so as to help one identify these in the field should you encounter and off-colour familiar species. The illustrators have gone to the length of including the breeding plumage of some of our migrant waders, although we are unlikely to encounter these forms locally, it is interesting to note how beautiful they can be during their breeding season.
As mentioned previously, the early distribution maps of species were only as accurate as per the experience and location of the birder. Nowadays with smartphone applications such as Birdlasser and SABAP2 (Southern African Bird Atlas Project 2), the distribution of species is updated more often and is thus more accurate. The earlier edition of the Roberts guide points to a time before climate change and habitat destruction had dramatically impacted the distribution of several species. Notably, the then called 'Jackass Penguin' now African Penguin was listed as a common resident of our coastal islands in 1976. Its range spread from the Cunene River on the West Coast to the coastline of Mozambique in winter months. Unfortunately, we have seen a dramatic decline in their population (crashing by more than 80%), and as such their range is now restricted to a few colonies along the West Coast. Another species worth mentioning (because I was chasing it on a recent trip......but dipped) is that of the Rosy-throated Longclaw which the earlier book describes as Pink-throated Longclaw. Its range has changed remarkably since the two books were published as the earlier book lists it a regularly occurring species in Durban through to Kenya and Tanzania. Currently one must travel much further North of Durban around the Isimangaliso Wetland Park area to search for this marshy skulker.
In terms of the text and descriptions for each species, here again, we have seen notable change not only in the style of writing but how in-depth the species knowledge has become. Birders in times of old would be offered information as to which page the respective plate can be found (as in the entire book there was a total 62 pages dedicated to plates), dimensions, identification features (only in the text), general habits, food, distribution, and breeding information. In today's edition, we find text on differing sexes of the species, juvenile description, status in terms of abundance and/or population numbers, habitat, food, dimensions, and a description of the call. One can clearly note that earlier authors placed a lot more emphasis on the text than those of today who prefer a more succinct approach to the text, but more emphasis on the plates.
The latest version of the Roberts Bird Guide is a fantastic addition to your collection and is worthy of being a beginner birder's go-to guide. The format of the book is functional as the inside of the cover provides a quick reference guide to jump to your desired bird family page. The first few pages (although often overlooked) provide a wealth of information about Southern Africa's various biomes and how getting to know these will take your birding to the next level. I learned a very important lesson from a birder whom I have a lot of respect for, Trevor Hardaker, that if you want to find the bird you're looking for, get to know its preferred habitat intimately. Further still one finds more interesting graphs and tables showing the range expansion of a variety of species which is interesting to learn about. Perhaps the only negative I could draw during this review is that it is now 4 years old and although it has immense heritage and birding credibility, perhaps the newer field guides are slightly ahead of the curb in their experimentation with including technology and additional features. These will certainly be a value add to birders of a younger generation. We have also seen several new species being recorded in the sub-region, so hopefully, the next version of this book is on the horizon.
If you are the owner of the earlier version (African Fish Eagle on the cover), you will not be disappointed by this new version. The plates, distribution, and amount of species has been updated. This book caters to a variety of users from beginner, advanced, and also foreign birders looking for a resource on their next Southern African birding adventure.
Collecting vintage bird books is a joy for most birders and discovering gems and the secrets they hold really does make you take note just how far we have come not only in knowledge but presentation style. I for one am glad that amidst the growing popularity and accessibility of smartphone applications, many birders still prefer their trusty paper back field guide when birding. I hope you enjoyed this review and if you wish to purchase your own copy, consider supporting our work by clicking the affiliate link below:
Species Accounts (text) 8/10
Ease of use 8/10