How, might readers who think about the hours I’ve spent putting these Puerto Rico posts together (odd how us bloggers ‘talk’ to an imaginary audience that we fondly imagine share in every drop of sweat we exude while putting our blogs online – in the nicest possible way it has to be said that we’re a deluded bunch in some ways), does Charlie know so much about birds he’s never seen?
It’s a good question (even if no-one is actually asking it) and the answer is a) some really great people on PR who have helped me every step of the way [thanks one and all], b) the internet, and c) guide-books like Mark W. Oberle’s excellent ‘Puerto Rico’s Birds in Photographs: A complete Guide and CD-Rom including the Virgin Islands’ (henceforth PRBP).
Packed with photos and expertly written text, this lightweight book has to be as vital as binoculars for any birder going to Puerto Rico (and, no, I haven’t been, but I’ve been to enough birding areas now to know what I would find useful in a book whether I’ve used it in the field or not (which sounds a little pompous, but isn’t meant that way – I’m just trying to explain that after thirty years birding you do get to know whether a book will be useful in situ or not!)). On top of that the book comes with a bilingual (English and Spanish) CD-Rom which contains html versions of the book pages, an enormous number of additional photographs, and audio recordings of 300 species making the whole package extremely good value indeed.
While PRBP is not – and is not intended to be – the final word in identifying anything that just might be seen on Puerto Rico it undoubtedly covers what most birders going to the island archipelago will see – and for any vagrants (which are either going to be off-course migrants from North America or endemic wanderers from nearby Caribbean islands) perhaps Sibley’s Guide to Birds (of North America) or Rafaele’s A Guide to the Birds of the West Indies, might be useful but both are large, heavy books that most birders going to Puerto Rico ONLY simply won’t need to take with them.
To get back to PRBP, though, and visiting Puerto Rico…the birds this book illustrates and describes are wonderful and wonderfully covered! Mark Oberle intelligently puts the pages on all the endemics into a section of their own at the front of the book – these are the species most overseas birders are particularly interested in and this makes them very easy to find – but each main account follows a similar layout, beautifully concise yet containing all the information any birder might want: photograph/s (which range from “Good” to “Wow”), and text on Identification, Habitat, Status and Conservation, and Range. The layout of the pages does leave very little ‘white space’ incidentally, which makes for a slightly cluttered look, but I’d rather have the amount of information given here than have an aesthetically superior volume which misses key data out and is less useful.
Not all species get the ‘full’ treatment in the book. Some common North American non-breeding migrants, for example, get little more than a photo, the English, Spanish, and scientific names, and a short text. This makes good sense because – as the author explains – their life histories are not relevant in this context and are well-covered in dozens of other books: leaving out uneccesary information has certainly helped keep the book to a size that fits into most large-ish pockets and won’t even be noticed in a backpack.
Caribbean taxonomy is as fluid as -er, the Caribbean Sea itself, and though I’ve a feeling most books will be out of date by the time they’ve gone through the long process from conception to publication this second edition of PRPB is as accurate as it can be. The old ‘Stripe-headed Tanager’ is now the Puerto Rican Spindalis (see Puerto Rican Spindalis – which is what exactly?), but eg Puerto Rican Peewee is still lumped under Greater Antillean Peewee, and the Lizard Cuckoos are listed in the now obsolete Saurothera genus (they were moved to Coccyzus a few years ago). Without a re-write every few months though that’s entirely unsurprising – and a major revision of several regional families is apparently in the offing which may well cause major headaches to all authors trying to keep up with current thinking! (Mark Oberle does hint at some interesting possible future taxonomic spilts incidentally – including the possibility that the Caribbean forms of both Short-eared Owl and Cave Swallow are full species: time – and genetic study – will no doubt tell…)
Another thing worth pointing out is the excellently-written pages which preface the species accounts. Covering topics such as ‘Extinction: The Big Picture’ and ‘Conservation Issues affecting Puerto Rican birds’, these pages give a real indication where Mark Oberle’s focus on Puerto Rico’s birds is aimed. He obviously cares passionately about the birds of PR and the issues affecting their long-term future, and his commitment forms the backbone of the work here. PRPB as a project is a group effort (as the author clearly points out in the first line of the book), but it’s surely to his credit that as the author of the text the book is strongly conservation-orientated but the message is not in the slightest bit ‘preachy’ or ‘intrusive’.
It probably goes without saying that I thoroughly recommend this book to anyone visiting Puerto Rico (I’m not qualified to say whether local residents who are hardcore birders and looking for vagrants would need something more expansive instead or as well – but I can’t imagine them not owning it at some point). I do have one small criticism in that I’m surprised there is no map of the more important birding sites included either as a fold-out addition or on one of the pages, but that’s wouldn’t stop me for a second both using this book as preparation for a trip to Puerto Rico and carrying it with me when I was there – something I genuinely hope to do sometime in the near future…
Puerto Rico’s Birds in Photographs: A complete guide and CD-ROM including the Virgin Islands
2000; revised 2003
2nd edition, softcover 132 pages + CD-Rom
Retail price: U.S. $29.95
Ordering details at www.mindspring.com/~oberle/PRbirds.htm