Thursday, August 29, 2013

Review: New Zealand Bird Books

Greg the famous flightless Takahe on Tiritiri Matangi
Back at the end of 2011, I was able to spend a week in Auckland, New Zealand for a conference (Facebook album).  Since it was my first trip to this magical place, I was anxious to see as much as I could.  Fortunately, since eBird had gone global, I was able to identify some good birding locations around Auckland, and slip out of the conference early in the morning, at lunch, or in the afternoons for some good birding by bus around town.  I also managed two trips out to Tiritiri Matangi--an island refuge where they have been able to establish populations of many birds that have been almost wiped out on the mainland.  I also managed a pelagic trip out into the Gulf of Hauraki to see tens of thousands of seabirds, including the newly rediscovered New Zealand Storm Petrel.

Endangered Sickleback on Tiritiri Matangi
Before I review the two bird field guides I used down there, let me first review the birds.  In a word, spectactular!  If I could use another word, it would be unbefreakinglievable!  If you haven't been to New Zealand, start saving your pennies.  Or just sell what you have to and go.  It is as amazing as you might expect, and then some.  My only regret is that I didn't full on quit my job so I could have spent more time there, rather than just baling on my classes I was teaching at Rowan University for a week.  Ok, I also regret  not having a better camera at the time, as there were so many great opportunities to take stellar shots of amazing birds--but hard to manage with a point and shoot through binoculars.  And I also regret not making the huge effort it would have taken to see a wild kiwi (though I did get some good video footage of one at the Auckland Zoo).

Anyway, now that you've decided on a New Zealand trip, what bird books should you take?  Before my trip I scored a review copy of Ber van Perlo's Birds of Hawaii, New Zealand, and the Central and West Pacific (Princeton University Press, 2011).  This is one of the Princeton Illustrated Checklists, and I took it in my back pocket everywhere.  It was very handy in a small size, and it had every bird I could expect to see, so it was very useful--especially since there aren't that many land birds in New Zealand, there weren't usually a lot of confusing species to have to separate!  These Princeton Illustrated  Checklists feature small but very serviceable illustrations, with brief species accounts and range maps on the facing page, a standard field guide layout we became comfortable with almost 50 years ago with the publication of the original classic Golden guide (dang, I still love that old guide!).

Typical two-page layout of the Princeton Illustrated Checklist to the Birds of Hawaii, New Zealand, and the Central and West Pacific.

Since this book covers all of the Pacific, it could be a good choice if you are also going to visit other islands some day.  The drawback is, there will always be a lot of birds to look through in order to figure out which birds are supposed to be where ever you are birding.  The maps help a lot with that--though I did find that with the seabirds, the range maps for many species may not have been completely accurate.  But more on that later.  Meanwhile, this was a great little book to carry around!  You can also learn a lot about the distribution of birds in the Pacific with this little book--I especially liked the illustrated checklist to each region at the front of the book, where you can see a thumbnail of all the endemic species grouped by island group.  Very cool.

Paradise Shelducks in a park in Auckland. 
I really liked this book, though there were a couple of issues I found.  First, the birds are labeled with numbers on the plates, and in at least one instance (Australian Shelduck and Paradise Shelduck) the numbering was wrong--almost causing me to not realize I was seeing the endemic Paradise Shelduck when I first found it in a park in Auckland!  Secondly, New Zealand is a wet place at times.  Especially on a pelagic trip.  I got thoroughly soaked going out to Tiritiri Matangi island and on the Hauraki Gulf Pelagic trip.  The binding of this guide, which was tucked in my pocket, did not survive the pelagic trip.  I was able to save the book by carefully drying out the pages, but the binding was toast.  That said, as I sit here holding my broken and wrinkled copy of this book, it brings back some great memories (though not of puking on the rough seas out in the Hauraki Gulf!) and I still really like this book.

So why am I reviewing two New Zealand bird books?  Well, I'm a book junkie.  And when I saw a copy of Barrie Heather & Hugh Robertson's The Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand (Viking, 2005) at the Auckland Zoo, I just had to have it.  So that was my other bird book on my trip.

In almost every way the Heather and Robertson guide is a very different book than the Princeton Illustrated Checklist.  The checklist is small (thinner than the old Golden guides at 7.3 x 4.9 x 0.7 inches and 14.4 ounces) while the field guide is big (3/4 the size of Big Sibley at 8.5 x 6.2 x 1.3 inches and 1.9 pounds).   If he checklist is formatted like the Golden guide, this one is more like a hybrid between the Golden guide and Howell and Webb's Mexican guide.  You still get the maps and species accounts across from the plate illustrations, but the illustrations are larger.  And you also get a separate text section with very detailed species accounts covering the distribution, population size, conservation, breeding, behaviour, feeding, and a bibliography for each species!  That's a lot to love!

Typical two page spread of The Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand.  In addition to these large illustrations, maps, and facing text, you also get a larger often multi-page species account for each species.

Others have called this the definitive field guide to the birds of New Zealand.  I won't argue with that.  It is amazing.  The illustrations are more detailed than the checklist, and the maps seemed to be more accurate, especially for the seabirds.  The only, and seriously for me it is the only drawback I could find with this book, is that it is so big that it isn't as easy to use and lug about in the field.  While I often had the checklist in my jeans pocket, the field guide lived in my backpack.  Granted, that spared it from a lot of the water that almost K.O.'d the checklist, and perhaps that's a good thing!

Endemic Brown Teal on Tiritiri Matangi
I loved both of these books, and would recommend getting them both if you are going to New Zealand.  You are going to love the birds down there, and the field guide gives you lots and lots of info about them that you will want to know after you've first seen and identified them.  But that little checklist is good to have when you are out and about, for a quick ID look up!  But whatever book or books you take, just take my first recommendation and go to New Zealand.  Once you've sat in the presence of the tranquil Brown Teal or the otherworldly Takahe or any of the other spectacular birds down there, you will be infected and will never be at peace until you can go back!  So on second thought, maybe you should just stay at home and enjoy these birds by reading these books.  Nah!  Go!


  1. There's now an added resource,, which just came on line very recently. It has great details, calls and photos and was done as a result of a collaboration between their ornithological society and Department of Conservation with contributions from interested people from New Zealand and a few from Australia.

    It is a beautiful country to visit though with beautiful scenery, and a great pelagic trip from Kaikoura on the South Island.

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