For the birds

A reading list

The world can be divided into two sets of people: those who, on hearing the name James Bond, think at once of Ian Fleming’s Agent 007; and those — sadly, the smaller set — who think instead of the eminent American ornithologist, author of the long standard field guide Birds of the West Indies. Of course, true Flemingophiles know that the former is in fact derived from the latter. Sitting in his villa on the north coast of Jamaica, some balmy day in around 1952, Fleming was racking his brain for a name for the hero of his novel-in-progress, Casino Royale. He wanted something “brief, unromantic, Anglo-Saxon, and yet very masculine.” His eyes fell on his trusty copy of Bond’s Birds. An icon of twentieth-century popular culture was born, fully — ahm — fledged.

Novelist and ornithologist met just once, an encounter recorded by Bond’s wife Mary Wickham Bond in a slim book called How 007 Got His Name (1966). When Fleming’s best-selling novels sparked off the vastly successful movie series, one imagines the real-life Bond came in for some good-natured ribbing from his colleagues, but it never troubled his scientific reputation. Based at the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, Bond was a leading authority on Antillean birdlife; he estimated that he’d personally encountered ninety-eight percent of the region’s avifauna in the wild. He began his fieldwork in 1926, in Cuba, and ten years later published the first edition of his Birds. It was updated five times — the fifth edition was published in 1985 (it includes more than four hundred species and sixteen colour plates), four years before Bond’s death — and for seventy-odd years it was considered an essential reference for birders in the Caribbean.

Field guides, by definition, are not meant to repose on a bookshelf; rather, they are meant to be tucked into rucksacks and snugged into pockets, carried up hill, down dale, through forests, across swamps, along cliffs — they are working books, assisting naturalists both professional and amateur in their quest to understand the world around them. But the best field guides also give a particular aesthetic thrill. Partly it is the vision they suggest, of an ordered universe where each species is named (in the special poetry of binomial nomenclature) and ranked according to its evolutionary history; the hard-won knowledge of countless scientists distilled into elegantly brief notes on range and habitat and behaviour. Partly it is the beauty and colour of their illustrations — almost all field guides include visual aids to identification, whether simple line drawings or lavish colour plates. (Most birders prefer painted illustrations to photographs. A photo is a record of a single individual with its idiosyncratic features; professional nature illustrators, on the other hand, study dozens of specimens before they set brush to paper, to arrive at a representative image of a whole species.)

Ornithological field guides, therefore, are especially attractive books to thumb through, even for non-birders; and surely every one of us at some point feels a twinge of curiosity about the nations of birds who soar and sing above us? How pleasing, then, that in the last decade or so there has been a sort of renaissance of Caribbean “bird books,” as increasing numbers of globe-trotting bird-watchers have prompted publishers to invest in ever more sumptuously illustrated field guides, usually compiled not by single authors but by expert teams. So that although Bond’s venerable Birds remains in print — and is still the most portable single-volume guide to the entire Antillean region — for serious birders it has been superseded by Birds of the West Indies (1998) by Herbert Raffaele et al (al being James Wiley, Orlando Garrido, Allan Keith, and Janis Raffaele, with illustrators Tracy Pedersen and Kristin Williams), covering 564 species, with ninety-three colour plates, including seven full-plate portraits of endemic island species (a pert Bahama Woodstar, for example, or a wary Martinique Oriole).

The larger Antillean islands have their own field guides. Raffaele himself previously authored A Guide to the Birds of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands (rev. ed. 1989; 284 species, twenty-five colour plates), including the winter migrants that make up almost half the birds recorded in Puerto Rico. Cuba, whose extraordinary bird diversity includes the famous Bee Hummingbird, the smallest bird in the world, is covered by Orlando Garrido and Arturo Kirkconnell’s Field Guide to the Birds of Cuba (2000; 354 species, fifty-one colour plates). And for Hispaniola there is Birds of the Dominican Republic and Haiti (2006; over three hundred species, fifty-seven colour plates), by Steven Latta, Christopher Rimmer, Allan Keith, James Wiley, Herbert Raffaele (again), Kent McFarland, and Eladio Fernandez.

Neither Bond nor Raffaele is much use in Trinidad, the island with the greatest bird diversity in the Caribbean — over 440 species recorded. Politically and culturally, Trinidad and Tobago belong to the Antillean chain, but biogeographically they are part of South America, and an imaginary boundary called Bond’s Line (guess who it’s named for?) running south of Grenada marks the limit of the Antillean avifauna. G.A.C. Herklots’s Birds of Trinidad and Tobago (1961) was the first field guide to this feathered abundance, but its amateurish illustrations exasperated many birders. Richard ffrench’s Guide to the Birds of Trinidad and Tobago (1973, rev. ed. 1991; over 430 species, thirty-eight colour plates) became the standard field reference immediately upon publication, with its sturdy brown batter-proof binding and jaunty Crested Oropendola on the dustjacket (the second edition adopted a rather more demure Scarlet Ibis). Its illustrations — both the identification plates, by John O’Neill, and nine full-plate portraits by the eminent ornithological artist Don R. Eckelberry — are masterpieces of their kind, but over the years some birders have complained that ffrench does not provide a colour image for every species he includes. Martyn Kenefick, Robin Restall, and Floyd Hayes’s Field Guide to the Birds of Trinidad and Tobago (2008; over 460 species, 107 colour plates) is rather more ample in that regard — though Restall’s illustrations, rightly described as “immaculate,” don’t have the vivacity of O’Neill and Eckelberry’s. (Richard ffrench is at work on a third edition of his Guide, however; let’s hope this comes equipped with fresh plates.)

The ABC islands — Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao, off the coast of Venezuela — also fall outside Bond’s Line. K.H. Voous’s Birds of the Netherlands Antilles (1983) is long out of print, but many species in these Dutch-speaking islands are also found on the mainland to the south. Rodolphe Meyer de Schauensee and W.H. Phelps’s Guide to the Birds of Venezuela (1977) has been replaced by Steven L. Hilty’s Birds of Venezuela (2nd ed. 2003; 1,381 species, sixty-seven colour plates); Hilty retains the masterful illustrations done by Guy Tudor for the predecessor volume, and supplements them with new plates by John Gwynne, along with photos of the diverse habitats that lie within the book’s range — from Andean slopes to Amazonian rainforest to open savannah. Hilty is also the standard field guide for Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana, which have similar avifaunas to Venezeula’s.

But for sheer epic scope, all the guides listed above are dwarfed by the two-volume Birds of Northern South America (2007) authored by Robin Restall, Clemencia Rodner, and Miguel Lentino, which covers an immense stretch of the continent, from the Pacific coast of Ecuador almost to the mouth of the Amazon. Its 2,308 species —  more than a fifth of the world’s known total — are depicted in “virtually every plumage variation,” for a total of 6,400 illustrations. Think of them — all those hawks and hummingbirds, macaws and motmots, cormorants and cotingas, their many hues, the unruly chorus of their shrieks and trills — neatly captured in the ark of the field guide’s pages. Even 007 might be, for a moment, awed.


The Caribbean Review of Books, May 2008