Review: Birds of Central Asia
There are two kinds of field guides a birder can buy, and they should be approached with two different sets of expectations. The first, is the field guide that enters into an exceptionally crowded market, claiming by its very existence that it offers something different from what has been offered before. For instance, the myriad of options a new birder looking for a field guide in North America faces.
The second type is the field guide to the obscure location, whose very existence is notable whether or not the field guide is actually any good or not. If you’re a birder traveling to this sort of spot, generally in what is considered the “third world”, you need something, anything, to help you identify the birds you’re going to see. And if that guide itself is well thought out, with readable maps and reasonably true to life depictions of the birds, all’s the better.
Princeton Field Guides’ new Birds of Central Asia, by Aye, Schweizer, and Roth, is decidedly in that second category. The various -stans that make up the region covered by this guide – mostly land-locked former Soviet republics and all barely functional democracies when not outright dictatorships – are poorly known and even more poorly birded, despite hosting some impressive species and gorgeous scenery. It would be enough for the guide to the birds here to be simply functional, as so many far more popular destinations have field guides that meet only the barest of requirements. But the guide I see before me is so much more than you might expect from a region that, while seeing some uptick in ecotourism interest (particularly Kazahkstan), is still lightly covered.
The book is laid out in what has become the typical field guide style, with maps and descriptions opposite illustrations. The maps are on the small side and squished horizontally such that they seem a little deformed, but the colors depicting ranges and migration are simple and intuitive, a feature than can be surprisingly inconsistent elsewhere. Those illustrations, with contributions by 13(!) different artists, are mostly good. Shorebirds feel a little weird, and I don’t really like the owl plates, but the passerines are uniformly excellent and the raptors are extensive and well-represented. Subspecific variation is included when appropriate and most birds are depicted in flight as well as perched. All in all, it’s an attractive and well put together field guide.
If you find yourself traveling to central Asia for birds, you don’t have very many… well, any, other options. So it’s nice when the only guide available is the only one you need. Birders can be confident that its novelty does not, in any way, reflect on its quality.
Even if you had several options to Central Asia, this would still be the book to get.
Thanks to Princeton University Press for sending me a review copy