A greatly enhanced guide, Andy Dennis

The Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand
Barrie Heather and Hugh Robertson;
illust Derek Onley
Viking, $49.95, ISBN 0 670 86911 2

The Book of the Kea
Philip Temple
Hodder Moa Beckett, $29.95,
ISBN 0 340 600039

Wake of the Invercauld
Madelene Ferguson Allen
Exisle Publishing, $44.95,
ISBN 0 908988 02 8

My first handbook on New Zealand birds was a copy of the 1957 edition of Perrine Moncrieff’s New Zealand Birds and How to Identify them, first published in 1925. The central section of consisted of descriptions of the main species, not arranged in standard taxonomic order but in order of size, beginning with riflemen, which in those days measured 3 inches from tip of bill to tip of tail, and concluding with the 44-inch-long royal albatross. I thus grew up thinking that size was the most important feature that distinguished one bird from another and I remember being a bit sad that there was nothing about moas in Moncrieff’s book because, even though my adolescent mind was well aware that they had long been extinct, I still regarded them as “New Zealand birds” and felt that their inclusion would somehow make our birds better than those of Britain, Australia or America.

Eventually these early misconceptions were laid to rest, thanks mainly to subsequent field guides that carried on the tradition initiated by Moncrieff. Like many others with more than a passing interest in the unique birdlife of these long-isolated southern islands, my basic bird “bible” has long been R A Falla’s, R B Sibson’s and E G Turbott’s A Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand, first published in 1966 and extensively revised and re-illustrated in 1979. While I have acquired of a fair range of other books on New Zealand birds over the years, this field guide has remained my most direct link with the birds themselves and as a consequence I have developed great respect and affection for it, somewhat akin to the kind of relationship I have with my favourite works of fiction.

Though many other field guides have been produced over the past two decades on New Zealand birds or particular classes of them, none seems to me to have managed to knock Falla, Sibson and Turbott off their pre-eminent perch. (One that might have is M F Soper’s Birds of New Zealand and Outlying Islands (1984) but, while this is a handy and comprehensive guide, both it and Geoff Moon’s A Field Guide to New Zealand Birds (1992) suffer from the major drawback of relying on photographs as their sole means of illustration, which most people I know find much less helpful than the work of a talented bird artist.)

However, it has been clear for some time that the 1979 revision of Falla, Sibson and Turbott has become increasingly dated and in need of another major revision. Much new information has come to light about most birds over the past two decades and since the early 1990s the time has been ripe for a new comprehensive guide. This new guide is thus to be welcomed as meeting an increasingly urgent need — though were this not so it would still be a very impressive addition to books on New Zealand birds, both in terms of the vast amount of information Barrie Heather and Hugh Robertson have managed to package between its covers and for the excellent new colour plates painted by Derek Onley.

I should perhaps admit at this point that I am not a professional ornithologist nor even a dedicated amateur but merely a tramper and wanderer in wild places who from time to time needs to write about birds in books and articles. So I feel unqualified to pass authoritative comment on the contents beyond the observation that in the brief time I have had the book in my possession I have found it highly informative, easy to use and written in easy, lucid prose which should by no means daunt readers unfamiliar with the ways in which ornithological information is conveyed.

I have therefore cross-examined a number of prominent ornithologists here in Nelson for their assessment. Their comments have been almost invariably very positive, albeit laced with the occasional quibble (like, for example, whether the information on the gannet colony at Farewell spit isn’t a little dated or whether orange-fronted parakeets should not be listed as a separate subspecies rather than just a colour phase of yellow-crowned parakeets). Most also seemed to find useful the novel structuring into a field-guide section, containing the 71 colour plates along with basic identification and habitat information for each of the 328 species, in the first third followed by a handbook section, which provides more detailed information on distribution, population, conservation, breeding, behaviour and feeding for each species.

As for Onley’s illustrations, the dominant view (which I share) is that they excellently depict plumage, posture and movement and are worthy successors to Chloe Talbot Kelly’s paintings in the 1966 guide and Elaine Power’s in the 1979 revision. Assembling often multiple studies of this number of birds on 74 plates 15 x 21 centimetres in size and grouping together those species that are most likely to be confused in field observation must be a hugely exacting task and I suspect that in passing judgment on artists who undertake field guide illustration some people too easily overlook the fact that aesthetics are often bound to be sacrificed to more practical objectives in this kind of work.

A number of other features of this new book have not been present in any previous field guide and have greatly enhanced its value.

The first is the distribution maps provided for all species breeding in New Zealand (which here includes all off-shore islands from the Kermadecs in the north to Campbell island in the south as well as the Ross dependency area of Antarctica) showing the range within which that species is likely to be found along with the most important breeding and distribution sites. On several trips to Britain and Iceland over the past 20 years I have carried with me a Collins Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe, the maps in which show at a glance whether a bird breeds in a particular area or not, whether it is present in summer only or throughout the year and the places where it is most likely to be seen in spring and autumn migrations. These maps have always been of immense value and I have long felt the absence of similar distribution maps in New Zealand field guides has been a major shortcoming, the more so since seasonal migration is much less significant here than in Europe and our maps therefore do not need to be as complex. (It should, however, be added that the reason has not been oversight so much as a lack of adequate inform-ation from which to compile the maps — such information having having become available only with the publication of the Atlas of Bird Distribution in New Zealand in 1985.)

The second significant innovation is information on conservation management of those species for which some form of active management is being undertaken or likely to be required. Some 41 species believed to have been present when the first humans stepped ashore have since become extinct (among them 11 species of moa, a huge flightless goose and the largest eagle the world has known) and another 16 species are today seen as having declined in numbers and distribution to the point where there is a real possibility they will become extinct unless circumstances change.

Notwithstanding this lamentable record, New Zealand is today regarded as a world leader in bird conservation and since the early 1970s the wider public has become increasingly aware of the scale and urgency of threatened species work, especially as a result of a number of high-profile rescue campaigns mounted to save birds like the kakapo, kokako, black robin, black stilt and yellow-eyed penguin. The long-term future of these and other birds continues to depend on maintaining a high level of public awareness of and support for the measures needed to improve their chances of survival (including protecting lowland forest and freshwater wetlands on private land under the Resource Management Act and a much greater commitment of public funds to predator control). Consequently the highlighting of conservation management issues and objectives in this guide is to be warmly applauded.

The other important innovation is the appending at the end of most of the entries of a list of further reading about the species. The references are in addition to the more important general books on New Zealand birds listed in the “standard references” section of the introduction and, as well as more specific books, include articles in journals, scientific papers and university theses. Many of the entries are from Notornis (the journal of the Ornithological Society), for which there is an excellent comprehensive index for the years 1939-1989, but many people will not have easy access to that index and the information given here both updates it as well as incorporating many important entries from other sources.


Philip Temple’s The Book of the Kea is a new bird book of a somewhat different ilk, joining a rapidly lengthening list of popular illustrated books such as David Cemmick and Dick Veitch’s Kakapo Country and Black Robin Country, Neville Peat’s The Incredible Kiwi, Adele Vernon’s The Hoiho and Chris Gaskin and Neville Peat’s The World of Penguins and The World of Albatrosses. Since the kea is the most delinquent, comical, infuriating and “human” New Zealand bird, the victim of the worst case of avicide in this country’s history (an estimated 150,000 keas were killed by high-country farmers over 100 years from 1870) and the only true mountain parrot in the world, it would seem to have a story that is well worth telling.

And no one is better qualified to tell it than Temple, whose 40 books and booklets include two notable fictional works on keas — Beak of the Moon (1981) and its sequel, Dark of the Moon (1993) — novels that are unique in New Zealand literature for transposing into adult fiction the technique commonly used in children’s books of making animals central characters, often (as is the case in these two books) with clear allegorical connotations. Like his kea novels, Temple’s The Book of the Kea makes a strong plea for better understanding and tolerance of kea eccentricities and, with a wide-ranging text, photographs from outstanding wildlife photographers like Rod Morris and Tui de Roy and drawings by Gaskin, the book has every chance of carrying this message to a wide audience. It could, however, have done with a list of “further reading” of the more significant of the numerous writings on keas by explorers, mountaineers, high-country farmers and ornithologists.


Wake of the Invercauld is the story of shipwreck in the Auckland islands in 1864 (the same year as the Grafton was wrecked at the opposite end of the main island in the group and two years before the loss of the General Grant) written by the great granddaughter of one of only three of the 19 members of the crew who made it ashore and who thereafter managed to survive 12 terrible months until they were rescued.

I suspect I was sent the book because sketches and photographs of birds are scattered liberally through it but, while there are some interesting passages on the birdlife of the Auckland islands, mentions of birds are more in the context of the urgent dietary needs of the shipwrecked sailors (who managed to salvage nothing from the wreck) than a commentary on the magnificent natural history of these windswept dots in the empty Southern ocean.

Still, I found the book enthralling. The author retraces the voyage of the Invercauld (including visits to the Aucklands in 1993 and 1995) and, in weaving together a record of her own highly adventurous pilgrimage with extracts taken from accounts compiled by each of the three survivors, has made an important addition to the fascinating literature on the subantarctic islands.

Andy Dennis is a Nelson-based writer, photographer and translater of Old Icelandic. 

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Posted in Natural History, Non-fiction, Review
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