Tuesday, 10 September 2002

A Review of 3 Field Guides

Up until about 11 years ago, there was only one field guide to speak of ..."A Field Guide to the Birds of South-East Asia" by King, Woodcock & Dickinson. These days, birders in Malaysia are spoilt for choice with the following available:-
  1. A Guide to the Birds of Thailand (BOT) by Boonsong Lekagul and Philip D. Round; Price RM135.
  2. A Field Guide to the Birds of West Malaysia & Singapore (BWMS) by Allen Jeyarajasingam & Alan Pearson; Price RM140.
  3. A Field Guide to the Birds of South-East Asia (BSEA) by Craig Robson; Price RM140
Consequently, the question that new birders invariably ask is "Which field guide should I get?". The decision is ultimately theirs to make, but I hope perhaps, to be of some help.

Published in 1991, BOT was a much welcomed guide for the Malaysian birding fraternity. Even with the other 2 guides published more recently, it is still a favourite with many birders. Its drawings are very good and the book is also very user-friendly. The illustrations and the text are close to each other, thereby making for easy reference. In addition, the birds are named directly on the illustrations unlike the other 2 publications. The diagnostic features of each individual bird are also highlighted by way of lines pointing to these features.

Drawbacks to BOT include 40 plus Malaysian birds that are not included because they are not found in Thailand. This can be a major source of confusion to new birders. Moreover, the distribution maps and text covers places and habitats in Thailand, not Malaysia. Although generally, a particular species should be found in the same habitat both in Thailand and Malaysia, there are exceptions. One of such is the Great Tit, which in Malaysia, is found principally in mangrove areas of the west coast. In Thailand, in addition to it being found in the mangroves of the Thai Peninsula, the Great Tit also inhabits forests above 800 meters. I would have to say though, the distribution map for each species is very useful (if one were birding in Thailand).

BWMS, published in 1999, is the most comprehensive field guide for birding in Peninsular Malaysia. With 648 bird species described and 643 species illustrated, I recommend this book strongly for its description of each bird, its voice, range, status & distribution, habitat and habits all in the local context. However, it has to be said that the illustrations are not as good as those in BOT. Therefore, do not rely entirely on the illustrations. Read the text on the field marks to help you make a positive id.

BWMS also covers virtually all aspects of birding in West Malaysia and Singapore that a beginner would require to know. One feature that BWMS has that the other 2 field guides do not, is the inclusion of local Malay names for most of the birds. This feature can prove useful from time to time.

For beginners birding in Malaysia, BSEA (first published in 2000) can be very confusing as it covers 1251 species, about half of which are not found in West Malaysia. It is also not very user-friendly as one has to match the number on the colour plate against the name of the bird on the opposite page. Moreover, to read the text on the back pages, one has to then match the species number on the plate pages against the species number on the back pages.

The illustrations in BSEA are generally okay. I do find the information in there to be very helpful, especially the description of the nest and eggs. These 2 features are not found in BOT and BWMS. As a back-up reference, I find this book excellent.

A field guide that incorporates all the useful features of the above 3 field guides will be most ideal. However, if you were buying just one field guide and doing your birding mainly in West Malaysia, I would have to recommend BWMS. If not, buy all 3 field guides as BOT and BSEA will prove to be invaluable sources of reference materials and illustrations.

By Khoo Swee Seng