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SASOL Birds of Southern Africa (4th Edition)

The Region's Most Comprehensively Illustrated Guide

SASOL Birds of Southern Africa: The Region's Most Comprehensively Illustrated Guide by Ian Sinclair, Phil Hockey, Warwick Tarboton and Peter Ryan | 464 pages, colour plates, distribution maps | published by C Struik | Softcover | 2011 | Edition: 4 | ISBN: 9781770079250A decade ago we reviewed the much-improved third edition of SASOL and said:

Like many other birders, I have been eagerly awaiting the new Sasol. It appeared on the shelves last week, and at first glance looked as if it had changed in a number of respects. As a twitcher the first thing that one notices is the new birds in the book – I was able to do some armchair twitching and added species like Damara Hornbill and Orange River White-eye to my life list without moving away from the living room!

I have now had time to read through and examine the book in greater depth. Perhaps the biggest advance is the identification hints, which are integrated into the plates. These provide pointers to the key field characters to look for, and will enhance the identification skills of novices birders and experienced twitchers alike.

The book includes no less than 31 new species, and if you are still using the first edition of Sasol, you will be missing a lot more! Also of great value is the inclusion of the new names, with old names provided in parenthesis where these are substantially different. The sequence of birds is still as for Robert’s and Roberts numbers are retained. This will enable us all to make the gentle transition to the point when Roberts VII arrives which will present a new taxonomic sequence as well. All of this has been achieved without huge upheaval, and for most species, page numbers are still the same as Sasol II.

Maps have been updated, and in many cases go beyond the Atlas of Southern African birds. A new feature is the inclusion of shading in to depict areas where the bird is more sparsely distributed. The maps have also been re-designed, and as with the text are easier on the eye. A small niggle might be that the use of shading to depict areas of sparse distribution does not seem to have been applied consistently to all species.

Many new illustrations have been added, and some superfluous ones removed. For a number of species illustrations have been amended to render them more accurate, and overall the quality of the illustrations is very high. In many cases illustrations have been re-organised allowing for some to be larger than in Sasol II, and superfluous decorative foliage etc has been removed, making for a cleaner look. For example the vulture plate on page 89 allows for better use of space and larger images on the same sized page.

A field guide of this nature is a hugely complex undertaking and there will be gripes and gremlins. Some of the new additions involve compromises – Wahlberg’s Eagle has been moved from the plate of other large brown eagles and placed with Buzzards and Gymnogene. I could also not find the Livingstone’s Flycatcher using the index. In a few cases (Slaty Egret being one) distribution maps have not been updated to include new data.

Overall however, the new Sasol is quite a step forward as far as field guides are concerned, and I have no hesitation in exhorting all birders to get in touch with BirdLife Head office immediately and order your copy of the new Sasol.So what of Edition four? Well this book remains the region's most comprehensively illustrated and trusted field guide. The fourth edition has been improved by the addition of group introductions, calendar bars showing species' occurrence and breeding periods, a 'how to use this book' section, and sonograms depicting the calls of tricky bird groups. The newly designed plates are meticulously illustrated, with labels pinpointing key differentiating features. Distribution maps show the relative abundance of a species in the region and also indicate resident or migrant status.

At first, second and third glance this is a step up. The brief species descriptions are better and I like the intro to the group – especially useful for first time visitors to the continent who may be completely unfamiliar with some of the bird families.

My one beef is with some illustrations – it could be that my copy has printed darker than the norm – if not then some illustrations are too dark and this makes them look rather lumpy and lacking the fine details of, for example the raptor and wader illustrations which show a lightness of touch that allows detail to show best, the worst are from Larks through to Chats.

I’ve seen some of these larks and would not had had a chance to separate them without ID features being pointed out by local experts, unfortunately I’d say it would have been harder still with this edition, or at least my copy.

Nevertheless, in all other ways, including, surprisingly, the weight, the new edition (its lighter) out performs the previous one.


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