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Review - Sasol Birds of Southern Africa (5th Edition)

Updated: Oct 1, 2020

There have been discussions on certain birding platforms with regard to the new Sasol Birds of Southern Africa 5th Edition field guide – topics that have been discussed in great detail are things such as the birds that were included, and the order that the birds are recorded in the guide. I respect the opinions that have been put forward with regard to the new field guide by the experts, but I am going to look at the guide from a different angle altogether. I am by no means an expert birder, so I am not going to be looking at these areas when I review the new Sasol guide, instead, I am going to look at how I find using it as a birder in the field.

The argument that I would have is that the people that are most in need of a field guide are not expert birders who are looking to add the latest field guide to their ever-growing collection. Instead, those that need it are beginner birders and birders that still struggle to identify certain bird species when in the field.

When I first started birding I was given a field guide that I have grown to love as I have matured as a birder, but at that time when I saw a bird in the field, I spent so much time paging through the guide to try to find the bird that often I ended up sending the bird to a friend to identify. I have always found that over the years, that the Sasol field guide has been a guide that is both acessable to the newer birder, but at the same time satisfies the needs of the birder as one starts to grow in skill. I'm happy that the tried and tested 'Sasol formula' still shines through in this new edition.

When I received the new Sasol guide, the first thing that I fell in love with was the cover. I have to say that as a Kwa-Zulu Natal birder, the Ground Woodpecker is a bird that is always a special bird to see – it’s tricky enough to make it a bird that you have a plan to get somewhere to see it, while at the same time being accessible enough that with a bit of effort you are able to find it. It's a bird that is both drab and stunning all at the same time – the plumage of the bird in many ways is a stunning metaphor for how life can be for many of us. Faansie Peacock, one of the finest artists in our country, masterfully painted the three Ground Woodpeckers on a rock – giving the guide a stunning cover.

Once one opens the guide, on the inside cover is the quick reference guide that makes it quick to find species in the guide. This has become a handy feature in local bird field guides, as it really saves time on the field. This is a great starting point for any new birder to help them not to have to flick through page after page to find a species. There is a ‘how-to’ section that explains how to use the guide in a simple way without using fancy terms that would alienate a newer birder. There is then a simply glossary explaining terms that may come up in the guide (and in other places), again I love the fact that this is written in terms that are simple enough for almost anyone to understand.

A feature that I love that some may find surprising, is the illustrated glossary. I sometimes find that when I speak to experienced birders, they explain parts of the bird that make me go all 'starry-eyed' with confusion. The illustrated glossary in the Sasol guide has always been my go-to glossary, the drawings are done in a simple way and help even the most inexperienced birder to know the parts that make up the bird. Who knows if you read this section enough, just maybe at your next social gathering, you will have some awesome ornithological terms around?

The plates in the new Sasol guide are stunning, with many of the plates being redone for this edition (800 new illustrations have been done for this edition). I have always liked the Sasol style of plates; they have a way of showing the necessary details that one should be looking out for in the illustrations. They almost seem to have a ‘bolder’ style than some other field guides on the market, without losing the details that is necessary to identify the birds. I would suggest that for those whose eyesight isn’t great, may find the style of drawing helpful.