Back in both January and February 2005 I was fortunate enough to be shown around the small middle-eastern state of Kuwait by George Gregory, a British birder who’d been working in Kuwait for fourteen years, was a key member of the Kuwait Bird Monitoring and Protection Team (BMAPT), and who – at the time – probably knew more about its avifauna than anyone else. George was planning to move back to the UK and was busy writing a book that surfaced soon afterwards which I reviewed here (and from which review I just ‘borrowed’ the opening lines of this paragraph).
George did indeed return home not long after our couple of days together, and the next time I went to Kuwait (in 2008) I joined up with an ex-pat South African called Mike Pope. Mike turned up in an imposingly dark 4×4, was somewhat chiselled and weathered, and looked ever inch the hardened desert explorer. He carried a top-of-the-range DSLR with a massive lens. And – it turned out – was an extremely pleasant man and a very, very good birder.
Mike is now Chairman of the Kuwait Ornithological Rarities Committee (KORC) and is passionate about the conservation of Kuwait’s habitats and birds. And he still carries his camera everywhere, recording his sightings on his excellent blog Kuwaitbirding.blogspot.com/. More relevant (to this review anyway) he and Stamatis Zogaris (one of the co-founders of the NGO ‘Biodiversity East’ with Nancy Papathanasopoulou and Aris Vidalis) have just produced a hefty encyclopaedia-sized book that is absolutely crammed with superb images that illustrate, according to the intro, ‘all the known recorded species of birds that have ever visited Kuwait up until June 2012‘.
Most definitely not a field-guide, ‘Birds of Kuwait: a comprehensive visual guide’ is a heavy slab of paper that weighs something like a small car and almost redefines ‘coffee-table book’ as a book that could indeed operate as a coffee-table. Nor is it (strictly-speaking) an ID guide, with just a few lines of concise text on each page. It is exactly what it says it is on the cover: a visual guide to the birds of Kuwait. And rarely has a country’s avifauna have been so well-captured and so sumptuously presented.
The bulk of the pages in ‘Birds of Kuwait’ are dominated by one large photograph and two or three smaller ones. And there really is not a poor photograph amongst them. The majority of the photographs (some of which are reproduced right) have been provided by resident birders in Kuwait such as Mike himself, Pekka Fagel, and Abdulrahman Al-Sirhan, but the list of contributors is wide (and rather nicely have all been properly acknowledged with a short bio in a section at the end of the book that includes a Glossary, indexes in English and Arabic, References, and a Birding Code of Conduct).
I know from personal experience that that the light in Kuwait can be very strong, but without exception the images are perfectly exposed, pin-sharp, and perfectly saturated. Given the layout and the physical dimensions of the book most of the passerines are gratifyingly illustrated at life-size or larger (eg the Red-breasted Flycatcher on Page 364 is literally and gloriously the size of a thrush!) as are many of the calidrid-sized shorebirds (eg a stunning capture of a breeding-plumaged Caspian Plover on Page 167). A very small number of the rarest vagrants are illustrated with images taken outside Kuwait (there are only a handful of birders in the State and some short-stay vagrants inevitably and understandably are not photographed), but they appear to have been carefully chosen to fit the overall look of the book (there are no photos taken up a mountain or on a Norfolk saltmarsh for example, or if there are it’s not immediately apparent).
It would be fun to make a list of my ‘favourite’ photos, but there’s really not any point in singling some out above others as there are so many that are genuinely top-notch. I have always been drawn thrushes, wheatears and chats and I turned to them first. They’re gorgeous (bringing back memories of watching Isabelline and Pied Wheatears, twitching a vagrant Dusky Thrush in the UAE, and finding a Dark-throated Thrush skulking under a bush in a small Kuwait park). If warblers such as Menetries, Upcher’s, Mountain Chiffchaff, or Eastern Orphean are your bag you’d be delighted to own this beautiful book. Lariphiles will perhaps want more clarification in the text how this most bewildering of groups can be identified with any certainty, but if they want good images of Armenian, Heuglin’s, and Caspian etc they too will be happy.
I could go on for every other group, actually, but hopefully by now the picture (as it were) is emerging. Cracking photos, large size, well-reproduced in accurate colours – and of some really great, thoroughly desirable Western Palearctic birds.
This is a book to be pored over and savoured, and aside from the images there is much of other interest. There is an important section on the random, senseless hunting that takes place in Kuwait (and across the whole region) for example, and a thought-provoking photograph taken along a fence-line which clearly shows the growth of vegetation within a reserve and the denuded land outside of it. On a more broader issue the editors have followed some interesting recent taxonomic decisions (following the Ornithological Society of the Middle East IOC taxonomy used by KORC). The grey shrikes are split several times, for example, and the common form in Kuwait is listed and illustrated as Mauryan Grey Shrike Lanius lahotra, while the armenicus form of Saxicola maurus is named Byzantine Stonechat. There is no full specific ranking given to any of Kuwait’s Yellow Wagtails (even feldegg) or White Wagtails (inc Masked Wagtail A. personata) which are sometimes split by other taxonomists. I’m not involved deeply enough in any relevant taxonomic discussions to know whether these will change in the future or not, but I can at least say without fear of contradiction that I really like the English name given to the desert form of Little Owl Athene noctua lilith, Lilith’s Owlet (which I’d not come across before).
That’s the good news. Unfortunately for anyone wanting to buy a copy there is as yet no retail version and so far there has only been a limited edition print run (initially 1500 + an additional 2000). Developed to promote Kuwait’s remarkable birdlife within Kuwait rather than being designed to appeal to overseas birders and Western Palearctic listers, the initial print run has already been distributed. Its popularity has been such though that Mike is planning to produce another 2000 and is currently looking at making an e-version available as a smartphone app. It’s a welcome move, and will make the photographs and avifauna of this tiny state available to a far larger audience: I have to say though that it does make my ‘full-size’ hard copy something to be treasured and enjoyed even more.
I’ll be talking to Mike for a podcast in the near future, but in the meantime can I pass on a request: if you are going birding in Kuwait (or have been birding in Kuwait) please pass your records onto KORC or a resident birder. Building up an accurate picture of Kuwait’s species and their distribution is crucial for conservation, and ‘logging’ your visit will be an important part of demonstrating to Kuwait’s leaders that eco-tourism could be a growing part of future revenues.