Archive for the 'Reviews' Category

Book review: “The fearsome flute players”

The fearsome flute players

Book Review:

Roetman, P. E. J. and Daniels, C. B., 2011. The fearsome flute players: Australian magpies in our lives. Adelaide, Crawford House Publishing.

I have just finished reading this delightful book and thoroughly recommend it to all of my readers. I was asked by one of the authors to review this book on this site; I’m pleased I agreed.

Citizen Scientists

The fearsome flute players captures the very essence of what magpies mean to the people of South Australia. The project was based here in South Australia but the findings would be true throughout this vast land of ours. This book is the result of Citizen Scientists throughout SA. It was heavily promoted by Chris Daniels who was a regular guest on the morning radio show hosted by Matthew Abraham and David Bevan on 891 ABC Adelaide. They have written the foreword to the book. (They’ve also since shifted to the Breakfast programme.)

Survey forms

Chris Daniels, along with Matt and David, asked their listeners to fill in a special survey form on the ABC Radio web site. The survey allowed citizen scientists throughout the state to enter their observations of Australian Magpies in gardens, parks, schools, ovals, farms – wherever. They were also able to relate their stories about the magpies they saw, fed, helped when injured and any other bird/human interactions they cared to tell. The result is fascinating – and at times, humorous – reading.

Results: magpie stories

A total of 1,927 people filled in the survey. I was one of them. Of those, 1,222 people responded to the magpie story request, creating a rich source of information for the authors. These stories make up the bulk of the book and are certainly the great strength of the volume. A few of these stories are thought provoking, some are serious, many are hilarious and all well worth reading. Some of the best are illustrated by appropriately cheeky cartoon sketches, another highlight of the book.


The various chapters cover many aspects of the lives of magpies, always including human interactions and relationships with these wonderful birds. This book is not a scientific thesis paper; it has been written without jargon and will therefore be accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds. It has a valuable place in any school library collection. While the chapters do cover topics like the magpie’s song and mimicry, food, foraging habits, territories, nesting and care for injured and orphaned birds, the main emphasis in each section is the stories told by the people.

Purchase the book

This wonderful book is available in some ABC centres and selected bookshops. Alternatively, you can order your copy online from the bookshop of the Barbara Hardy Centre for Sustainable Urban Environments (click here). On that page you can read a sample chapter and browse through the table of contents page.


If you order online and mention you read about this book on Trevor’s Birding, you will also receive a free CD of 200 photos featuring water, including many water bird photos. You can see sample of the photos here.

Australian Magpie

Review: Field Guide to the Birds of Australia 8th edition

Field Guide to the birds of Australia 8th edition

Field Guide to the birds of Australia 8th edition

Everyone interested in birds needs at least one field guide to help with the identification of the birds being seen.

I have several. Ten, in fact. Six of them are Australian field guides, plus I have one covering the birds of South East Asia, one of the Indian sub-continent and two for the British Isles and Europe.

Now I have another one! This field guide is being published TODAY.

Field Guide to the birds of Australia 8th edition

by Ken Simpson and Nicolas Day

(with Peter Trusler)

Ease of use

Many years ago I was given the first edition of this very popular field guide. It has remained largely on my bookshelf in my office, referred to from time to time but never taken out into the field. This was because of its bulky size and being in hardback couldn’t really be called a “field guide” as it was too big to carry around. Recent editions have been far more portable, and this new edition is excellent: convenient size, portable, and at 826 grams just the right weight.


There are many fine features in this edition. There are so many I can only highlight those I think are worth mentioning.

Colour plates:

There are 132 full page colour plates throughout which illustrate every bird found in Australia. The publisher’s use of the word “comprehensive” on the cover is no idle boast. Each colour plate shows about five or six different species, most shown in typical poses to help identification. Birds most often seen in flight, such as eagles and sea birds like terns, are also shown in flight. The colour rendition of each species appears very good in most cases, especially those I am very familiar with. One page I’d take exception to is the plate showing White-eyes and Silvereyes, as the birds I’ve seen in this group have far more vibrant colours. The ‘red’ robins suffer the same fate, along with some of the fairy-wrens. On the other hand, the rendition of the cuckoos, parrots doves and pigeons are very colourful and well done. The birds of prey (owls, hawks, eagles and kites) are brilliant.

Text pages:

Opposite each colour plate where the birds are illustrated is the text page. Each species has a short description of the bird, including sexual and race variations. The text also includes details of size, juvenile plumage, voice and preferred habitats. Breeding information is included in a separate section. The text is the part of this guide of which I am most critical. For my needs it is too short, too concise. In many cases I will need to go elsewhere in my library to find the information I need. For the casual bird watcher it is quite adequate. I concede that to expand this section to please me would probably add 20-30% more pages to the volume making it less portable in the field. The authors must have had some tough decisions to make along the way.

Next to the text they have included some 900 black and white sketches showing identification features hard to include in the text. This is an excellent feature. The text section is complete with a small map showing normal breeding and non-breeding distribution. Another excellent feature of the maps is to delineate the range of each race of the species, along with extra notes on some species where deemed necessary.

Breeding information:

A separate section details comprehensive breeding information. This includes a brief description of the nest, number and colour of eggs, incubation periods and what the hatchlings look like. It includes fledging periods and some notes about the care of the young until independence. Each species also has a bar graph showing typical breeding seasons.

Vagrant Species:

Special note must be made about the 21 pages of vagrant species included at the end of the colour plates. These pages show sightings of species not normally present in Australia (ie vagrants) but which have been officially accepted on to the Australian list of birds. Some have only been seen the once, others on only a handful of occasions.

Other features: these are too many to review here. All I can do is add a list:

  • A water resistant cover – useful on wet days in the field.
  • Help for beginners on how to observe a bird.
  • Where birds live – a useful, informative section on variations in habitats.
  • Australian island territories checklists
  • Hints for birdwatchers
  • An extensive glossary of  words used by birders.
  • A list of bird-watching organisations.
  • Core library – an extensive list of publications the authors suggest for keen birders to build up their own reference library.


We are so blessed here in Australia with so many excellent birding field guides. Each has strengths and weaknesses, so the choice of which to buy becomes an agonising one. I have no hesitation in recommending this new edition because of the comprehensive coverage of Australian birds in a compact, easy to use volume. An truly incredible amount of information has been packed into its 381 pages. The publisher claims to have sold over 500,000 copies in earlier editions. This new, completely revised 8th edition will continue that trend and sell many more copies in the future.

While I would like more information in the text this is just a personal need; not everyone needs the detail I require. For the vast majority of people with a passing interest in our birds, this is an ideal guide to have on the bookshelf or in the car or rucksack when travelling. At a RRP of $39.95 it is also very affordable.

Disclosure: The publicist of Penguin Books Australia kindly sent me a review copy a few weeks ago. Thanks Leisel.


A page from the field guide

A page from the field guide

Rainforest: the secret of life

I thoroughly enjoyed tonight’s nature programme called “Rainforest: the secret of life” on ABC1 television here in Australia.

It was particularly pleasing to see so many of our birds featured on the programme. I enjoyed the long sequences showing the Albert’s Lyrebird and his extensive repertoire of calls and songs. Another feature was the Brush Turkey dispatching the carpet python from stealing eggs from the nesting mound by violently flicking leaves and sticks at the hapless snake.

The only criticism I can level at this lovely documentary was at the commentary. Whoever wrote the script needs a lesson in basic nature writing. It was far too lighthearted and anthropomorphic for the seriousness of the subject matter. The final few minutes highlighted the global importance of rainforests. They are being destroyed at an alarming rate. This is great cause for concern, but I fear the message was lost after the humourous sections earlier in the documentary.

Despite my criticism, this is a worthwhile show to watch. It’s not available from the ABC Shop Online as I write this, but will probably be available in the next few days.

UPDATE: the DVD of this programme is now available – click here.

Nest boxes for wildlife: a practical guide

On the weekend I bought another book to add to my already vast collection. (Can one ever have too many books?) This one is a very practical book; it says so on the cover!

  • Nest boxes for wildlife: a practical guide by Alan and Stacey Franks (2006, Bloomings Books, Melbourne)

We already have quite a few species of wildlife nesting in hollows on our property. At times however, the competition seems to be intense. This has been worsened in a the last few years by the large numbers of the introduced European Starling taking over many of the suitable hollows. They have forced some of our native species to look elsewhere. Over the next few years I intend giving some of our native birds and animals a helping hand by providing some nesting boxes. We have enough suitable trees for several dozen such nest boxes.

This new book of mine has plans included for some of the more commonly constructed nesting boxes. These plans include many different birds as well as boxes suitable for possums, gliders and bats. Of course I could have gone ahead and bought some boxes, but I enjoy making things with timber so I’ll have a go at them myself. It’s a bit late to be putting up these boxes this year because the breeding season is in full swing. I plan to have some ready for next spring.

I’ll keep you posted.

Happy birding.

Special Note: this book deals only with Australian fauna. For suitable nesting boxes for your country, please look for publications dealing with you local fauna.

A Guide to the Birds of East Africa: a review

Now for something completely different.

Over Christmas and New Year I read a book called A Guide to the Birds of East Africa: a novel written by Australian author Nicholas Drayson.

A a first glance at the front cover you might be forgiven for thinking that this is just another field guide, albeit to a part of the world with a wonderfully rich and diverse bird life. Look again. The two innocent words a novel at the end of the title bring a whole new perspective to the book.

The novel is a story of intrigue, excitement, adventure, mystery, crime and with a light touch of romance. Actually, the whole premise has romance as its basis. Not soppy romance, mind you, but the driving force of the main character and his protagonist is their love for another bird watcher.

Mr. Malik is quiet, reserved and polite in the extreme. He is not the one to ruffle any feathers, ornithological or human. But his heart holds a secret passion; he is deeply in love with Rose Mbikwa, leader of the Tuesday-morning bird walk of the East African Ornithological Society.

Mr. Malik secretly plans to ask Rose to the annual Hunt Ball. Harry Khan, a ghost from Mr. Malik’s past sweeps back into his life, and he too has Rose in his plans. When Mr. Malik unwisely blurts out his feelings at their club, a wager is arranged. Whoever sees the most birds in a week will be the one to ask Rose to the ball.

The chase is on, but not without the inevitable hindrances, intrigue, mystery and complications over interpretations of The Rules. Many birds are seen and woven seamlessly into the story which rollicks along to a satisfying conclusion.

Highly recommended.


Drayson, N., 2008, A Guide to the Birds of East Africa: a novel. London, Penguin

Book cover: A Guide to the Birds of East Africa: a novel

Book cover: A Guide to the Birds of East Africa: a novel