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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.

The sea bird plates have set a new standard for sea bird illustrations in the region. Faansie Peacock re-did all the sea bird plates, the result is illustrations that are slightly bigger than the previous edition in many cases, illustrating a wide range of plumage features to help identify these tricky species. There is a handy two-page guide to the head and bill features of various albatrosses of the region. For those who have booked for Flock to Marion 2022, this guide is a must-have luggage item. I can’t wait to do a pelagic trip and use this guide to add some new birds to my life list!

The raptor section has been something I have always enjoyed in the Sasol guides. I have some plates from one of the older Sasol guides from my bookshelf scanned into my IPad to assist me on the field to identify these tricky birds with much plumage variation. Alan Harris has redone the raptor plates in the new guide, in some cases to show a few more variations from the previous edition, and in some cases a similar amount. The plates again in many cases have made the images slightly larger to aid with identification in the field. I have been comparing this section to my older edition, I don’t know if there has been a huge step up in this group of birds in terms of the illustrations, but the drawings used are really good and should be great when the summer migrants return.

My favourite plates in the book are the nightjar plates, once again painted by Faansie Peacock. The flowing inner white primaries on the Pennant-winged Nightjar is breathtakingly captured on the plates. The illustrations are not only breath-taking but Faansie’s intimate knowledge of the finer details of this group of birds means that the plates are great for assisting in identifying this cryptic group of birds.

What I feel that the guide is possibly missing is some photos for some of the species. Some other guides have managed to include both plates and a selection of photos for species where this would further assist the user with identification. This could have possibly taken the guide to a whole new level, but that being said the plates do illustrate many of the necessary identification features to look out for.

The species account in the Sasol guide provides all the relevant information needed to point one to the correct identification of a species. There is a distribution map that illustrates both distributions but also helps separate resident birds from migratory birds. The names have taken into account the updated species names, but for some recent changes such as the Yellow-throated Bush Sparrow (Gymnoris superciliaris), have the older name in brackets (Petronia). This is a handy feature for people like myself who struggle to keep up with all the changes. The species accounts are adequate for most birders, they give the information that is necessary without using too many fancy technical terms. The write-ups have less detail than some other guides on the market, and for those who want lots of detail, they may find this an area that is lacking in the Sasol guide. I, however, refer back to what I said earlier, those that need a field guide are often newer and less experienced birders, and with this, in mind, I think the Sasol guide has found the balance between being accessible to the newer birder, while at the same time giving enough to satisfy what most more experienced birders would be looking for in a guide.

A great feature in the new Sasol guide is the bird calls that can be accessed by downloading a free phone application. What makes this a winner is that you don’t need anything other than your smartphone to access calls at no extra cost after purchasing the guide. I have tried the app on the field and it works really well, the calls come up fast once one has scanned the barcode alongside the species, and for some of the species, there is a good variety of calls available. I have not been able to test this app in areas with low signal yet, but it is a great feature for those that get the book.

So, with all the controversy that has surrounded this book on many birding platforms, does the Sasol Birds of Southern Africa 5th edition deliver?

I have been using the guide since mid-June and I personally have loved using it in the field. It has helped me with some tricky nightjar identifications, as well as to separate some vultures that were soaring over me in the Drakensberg. However, with another tricky species that showed up in my area recently, I found the illustrations a little lacking with this particular species and had to use my other guide. This is something that I find with all the guides that I have, there are always certain species that require one to have to pull another guide off the shelf.

Is this the perfect field guide? No, definitely not. But with that being said, I don’t think there is such a thing as a perfect field guide. What I have found is a guide that is very user friendly, easy to read, and is able at most times to point one to the correct identification of the species that one is looking at.

This is a ‘field guide’, in other words, it is meant to guide one in the field, and for this purpose, the Sasol Field guide is a winner. You will, however, like with any other field guide, find yourself digging into a whole range of guides, books, and websites to go deeper at times.

I feel that as a bird field guide that the Sasol with its balance between being easy enough for the new birder to use, as well as having enough to satisfy most experienced birders, along with the updated illustrations (did I mention the stunning sea bird plates) is probably the best guide on Southern African market right now.


Plates 9/10

Species Accounts (text) 8/10

Ease of use 10/10

Overall Rating 9/10

Head on over to our podcast page and listen to an interview with Professor Peter Ryan on the Sasol Birds of Southern Africa (5th Edition) (Episode 16)

To order your copy of the Sasol Birds of Southern Africa (5th Edition)


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