Review: Birds of the West Indies
Birders in the North America north of Mexico should try to have a handful of additional field guides to help them with any extra-limital species they may encounter on the margins of the continent (or even the center if Orange-billed Nightingale Thrushes are any indication). The list of books is fairly well established. For Europe, you can hardly go wrong with Svensson and Zetterstrom’s Birds of Europe. For Mexico, Howell and Webb’s Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America is older, but essential. But for the southeast corner of the US, there hasn’t been a book that has been the consensus go-to guide for the fascinating chain of islands that run from Florida all the way to the northern coast of South America.
I’m not sure why this is, it may have something to do with the islands’ reputations for beach vacations rather than ecotourism, but the West Indies has a fascinating, if short, list of birds, many of which are found nowhere else in the world. Like the more famous Galapagos and Hawaiian archipelagos, the Antilles, both Greater and Lesser, are a hotbed of biodiversity and biogeography as nearly every island has its own endemic species and in many cases multiple ones. A birder could spend years island-hopping to pick up each endemic, and in fact some have, but for most of the world’s birders such an massive logistical undertaking is a bit out of the question. With the exception of a few bird rich larger islands, it’s sufficient to have a simple field guide to help you identify what you may see while sipping pina coladas by the crystal blue water.
The Princeton Illustrated Checklist, Birds of the West Indies by Normon Arlott, a bird book stripped down to its bare essentials, is uniquely suited for such an effort. The book certainly has some noteworthy attributes; the species accounts are short, not messing around describing plumages you can clearly see in the illustrations, but no important details are missing and you’ll have no trouble gleaning useful information from the text. The illustrations themselves by Arlott are uniformly excellent and, if the species that I’m personally familiar with are any indication, remarkably true to life. Relatively unbeknownst to me as I suspect it is to many birders, the West Indies are full of notably gorgeous species. Imperial Parrot, Whistling Warbler, and Blue-headed Quail-Dove are particularly striking birds.
There are a few frustrating aspects as well. I’m generally not a fan of bird books where the range maps are sequestered to the back of the book, and while it’s less urgent for birds who are more or less relegated to individual islands, the alternate option would be to group birds by island as the other popular West Indies guide by Herbert Raffaele does. While I prefer the taxonomic approach, it seems as though there could have been a better way to make the restricted ranges clearer than text alone. Additionally, the nightjars and parrots are frustratingly illustrated perched only rather than in flight where one is just as, if not more, likely to see them, as any birder who has spent time in the neotropics well knows.
Other than these relatively small complaints, Arlott’s book is an excellent choice for a visitor to any of the islands, whether for birding or beach, or for an intrepid Florida birder looking to predict the next big vagrant. More likely though, one turn through this book will make even a birder skeptical about the Caribbean’s potential as a birding destination searching for ways to beat the Cuban travel embargo, or at least checking airfair to Kingston or Santo Domingo. This one certainly was.
Thanks to Princeton University Press for providing me with a review copy.