The Handbook of Western Palearctic Birds

The Handbook of Western Palearctic Birds

Passerines (2 Volumes).

Hadoram Shirihai and Lars Svensson

Afghan Babbler Turdoides huttoni salvadorii

Volume 1: Larks to Warblers; 648pp

Volume 2: Flycatchers to Buntings; 623pp

Total weight: 5.2 kg (11.5 lbs)

Price: £150.00, but there are discounted offers, by 20% or more.

Fun facts and general opinions:

  1. 18 years in preparation.
  2. Long referred to as HWPB in gestation, it will continue so when (Please, not ‘if’) the Non-Passerine Volumes (eventually?) appear.
  3. Voous Order is followed, justified in a decent rationale that doesn’t wholly convince me, but it will resonate with many.
  4. Mostly a conservative and cautious taxonomic approach, but occasionally highly radical: either you like that it moves away from IOC Gill & Donsker and BirdLife International in different ways, or you don’t. Nevertheless, well-argued cases are made for their decisions, which means we have an audit trail against which we can evaluate other taxonomic approaches.
  5. Generally, consistency of explanation and of rationale across the two volumes is very high; most inconsistencies are probably due to the sheer volume of data accumulated having to be winnowed to extract and finalise texts and captions.
  6. The errors are infrequent, minor and do not detract from the enormous achievement in the least.
  7. Vocalisations are in transcription form. There will be an ebook version on sale on 27 August, but it won’t contain sound files. However, the publishers are considering a version with embedded sounds.
  8. The font in the 3-column species accounts is plain and not eye-friendly, especially because it is small and a quite a challenge to we senior citizens.
  9. The caption font is even smaller than the text font, but is proportionally thicker and somewhat easier to read.
  10. The page layout works well, the maps generally are clear, the image standard stunning, and nearly all birds face left…
  11. I love this book, which is the first to overcome my aversion to photographs-only serious bird books without artwork. Hadoram and Lars deserve the highest accolades.
  12. My favourite image is the first in the species account for Wire-tailed Swallow Hirundo smithii.
  13. The amazingly detailed ID, Ageing and Sexing, and Biometrics sections desperately need the eBook version to be of practical use in the field to birders and ringers alike. The sole field use of the physical version would be to help a short birder see through a tall telescope…
  14. Should the photographers decide to form the HWPB Image-makers’ Society, then the annual get-together would be quite some party! I recognise many names in the Photographic Acknowledgements section, but it is splendid to see sizeable, high-quality contributions from nationals of many countries where previously visitors were mostly responsible for the images becoming known.

Layout and Contents

(Volume 1: Volume 2 is arranged similarly, but illustrated with pertinent images)

Acknowledgements. It’s worth taking the time to read the Acknowledgements page at the beginning of each volume. It’s a salutary reminder of the assistance gladly offered by so many people over such a long time in an immense collaborative effort.

Introductory Material headings are:

Layout and scope of the book. The map of the Western Palearctic as defined by the authors (It includes Iran) is clear, and their explanation is concise. The basic criterion for a species’ inclusion in the main section is of at least 10 records. There is an appendix containing species with fewer than 10 records.

Species Taxonomy. The authors have attempted a balanced approach to taxonomy, but broadly take a conservative view, while usually noting findings that, with further research might overturn the presented opinions. They tackle the thorny subject of subspecies recognition in much the same vein. A few of their more radical decisions are mentioned below.

Sequence. The Voous 1977 sequence is largely followed, while admitting that does not correctly reflect the true relationship and evolutionary history of passerine families. Comparison with Joel Cracraft’s suggested sequence in Dickinson & Christidis 2014[1] is offered in a list 18 pages later, while noting that rearrangement of families since then convinced the HWPB authors to remain with a familiar order in which readers can more easily find families and genera. My view is that the vast majority of ornithologists and serious birders below a certain age would consider this conclusion a chimera. However, it does not present anything like a major problem, but might be a fruitful subject for discussion informally.

Nomenclature: Scientific Names. These largely follow Svensson et al 2009[2] or Dickinson & Christidis 2014.

Nomenclature: English Names. These largely follow IOC[3], but with a few changes to well-known traditional names, but with emphasis on using as few hyphens as possible.

Photographs. A short narrative tells what the aim was that the photographs had to illustrate, how images were tracked down and obtained, lists some of the more important sources and contributors and refers to the separate list of photographers and credits – 3 pages, double-column, in small print!

Captions. Captions intentionally are long enough to cover selected ID advice and key points in the image.

Species Account Maps. Magnus Ullmann prepared original maps that are very clear to understand and interpret, with presumed borders between species indicated by lines patterned variously for distinct or merged subspecies, or indigenous species or subspecies, I think the key to the maps has a couple of errors. First, the second line of the key text states correctly, ‘Breeding (rare, irregular or poorly known)’; the fourth line is identical, but should read, ‘Breeding and wintering (rare, irregular or poorly known)’. Second, the seventh line of the key text sates ‘Border of distinct species’; given that the example map is of one species, Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin Cercotrichas galactotes, that line should read ‘Border of distinct subspecies’. Note that maps do not illustrate most species that breed extralimitally to the Western Palearctic, but there are a few exceptions. The Vagrants section that follows the main species accounts does not contain maps.

Species Accounts. Species accounts vary in length and in the number of images, dependent on the number of pertinent points in the various categories that are important to cover in detail. Each species account comprises nine parts: Short introduction; Identification; Vocalisations; Similar species; Ageing and sexing; Biometrics; Geographical variation & range; references. In addition, where necessary there is another part, Taxonomic notes, as the penultimate part.

The remaining sections in the Introductory Material are Glossary and Abbreviations, and Selected Gazetteer, both self-explanatory.

Next is a 5-page concise, illustrated essay, An Approach to Moult and Ageing Birds in the Field, then a two-page General References[4] list, a single-page List of Passerine Families: Traditional and New Order, and lastly, on two pages, A Brief Presentation of Passerine Families.

There follow 603 pages of species accounts, before you start Volume 2.

HWPB and the OSME Region

Spoiler alert! I may offer the odd stunkle[5] or two here, but for wholly selfish reasons.

In the Introduction, much is made of following political boundaries in defining the Western Palearctic (sensu Shirihai & Svensson) to make the approach ‘birder-friendly’ and by and large, this is successfully achieved, resulting in a map of the WP not hugely different to that adopted by the Dutch Avifauna System Committee (CSNA) WP List[6], nor from Mitchell 2017[7], but in a slightly different way.

There is one major departure from this premise and that is, as unfortunately and as usual, the Socotra archipelago, politically part of Yemen, is omitted. The reasons are easy to understand, in that the archipelago’s avifauna is regarded as largely African avifauna-heavy. But is it? Only some 30 or so of the archipelago’s 215 bird species, including migrants and rarities, either are island endemics or comprise species found in Africa but not in the Arabian peninsula.[8] However, the reason I think this was an opportunity missed is that it was a golden opportunity to highlight the endemism of the Socotra biotopes to a much larger audience, because it deserves its soubriquet ‘Galapagos of the Indian Ocean’ from its almost unspoilt nature.

Perhaps some good will come of this understandable, if unfortunate decision, in that it presents a gap in the market for an enterprising publisher…

The most important aspect, in my view, is that OSME Region species occurring in the Middle East, Egypt, the Levant, Turkey the Caucasus and Iran are covered in this book better than in any other. Also, many species that breed outside the Western Palearctic in Central Asia, but occur regularly or as vagrants in the OSME part of the Western Palearctic are mostly covered to that standard.

Now on to points and to particular species of interest in HWPB to the OSME Region.

First, the choice of English names, where taxonomic changes require them, is mostly logical even though not always aligning with agreed earlier choices or my personal preferences. However, the changes themselves are of most interest, and a few are discussed briefly in passing.

Before that, my congratulations to OSME Council Member AbdulRahman al-Sirhan, not only for his sizeable photographic contribution, but also for having a name that appears first on the Authors’ personal Acknowledgments page (Page 7, Volume 1).

Selected species accounts, in the same Voous sequence as in HWPB through Volumes 1 and 2.

Arabian Lark (Arabian Dunn’s Lark) Eremelauda eremodites

As with BirdLife International (BLI), HWPB splits Arabian from African populations on allopatry and sizeable genetic differentiation. The latter remains as Dunn’s Lark E. dunni but is remote from the OSME Region from west Sudan westwards. The species account texts for both species provides some additional information that might settle the ID of the sole record of an Eremelauda species in Cyprus.

Greater Short-toed Lark Calandrella brachydactyla complex

HWPB treats dukhunensis as a separate species, Mongolian Short-toed Lark (Sykes’ or Eastern S-t L), further reduces the complex by treating Hume’s Short-toed Lark C. humei separately (whose breeding range just extends from the east into Afghanistan and perhaps sporadically into Southeast Iran) and by grouping eremica, blanfordi, erlangeri & daroodensis into Rufous-capped Lark C. eremica. These four taxa and others have been variously grouped as in or out of the Red-capped Lark C. cinerea complex since its prior separation from the then-huge brachydactyla complex. Nowadays, the cinerea complex is generally agreed to occupy more southerly African breeding grounds.

However, there is a case for tentatively parsing the results of Stervander et al 2016[9] into two species from the four taxa above, ‘Arabian Red-capped Lark’[10] C. eremica with extralimital (to the OSME Region) ssp daroodensis (Somalia) and extralimital Blanford’s Lark C. blanfordi with ssp erlangeri (The latter treated as a species by some authorities). The text in HWPB does emphasise differences between the two pairs. Note that in the IOC Draft 9.1 List, it is proposed to lump erlangeri into blanfordi.

Returning to Greater Short-toed Lark, only two of its three sspp should be encountered in the OSME Region, brachydactyla & longipennis.

Lesser Short-toed Lark Calandrella (Alaudala) rufescens complex

HWPB declines to accept Alaudala on the grounds that not all taxa (5spp, 21sspp) relationships are known, given the remote areas they occupy. Clements (Cornell, IOC & BLI take the opposite tack: Alaudala is accepted, and once taxa relationships become better know, their lists will be adjusted accordingly. Fortunately, this divergence of expert opinion does not make for too much confusion in the OSME Region: the sspp most likely to be encountered are minor, nicolli, pseudobaetica, heinei, aharoni&persica, but since HWPB also lumps Asian Short-toed Lark A. cheelensis in C. rufescens, the latter’s ssp leucophaea (Kazakhstan to Turkmenistan) is included.

Rock Martin Ptyonoprogne fuligula sensu lato

For about a decade, most authorities have aligned reasonably well with the split From Rock Martin P. fuligula sensu lato into Pale Crag Martin P.[f.] obsoleta and Rock Martin P.[f.] fuligula sensu stricto. For the OSME Region, the advantage was that no taxon covered by P. fuligula sensu stricto (all from Africa) had been recorded in the Region, only those of P. obsoleta, a most useful discrimination. There had also been earlier suggestions to further split the African taxa, referred to in HWPB, but these had not generally been agreed. However, recently, BLI did undertake such a split, but I think somewhat differently from previous proposals, including Large Rock Martin under a new species name P. rufigula for the species occupying the region south of the Sahara as far as southern Africa and Red-throated Rock Martin P. fuligula sensu stricto for the species only in southern Africa[11]. Given that HWPB opted to remain with the Rock Martin Ptyonoprogne fuligula sensu lato arrangement it means that HWPB diverges considerably from those most recent assessments of the southern and western African taxa. Unlike most other HWPB species accounts, the ‘Taxonomic Notes’ section for Rock Martin has much less emphatic justification of the decision.

Radde’s Accentor Prunella ocularis (including fagani as ssp)

HWPB notes wide allopatry (1750km) between nearest breeding ocularis and fagani, but they consider small morphological differences and modest genetic differences since divergence (0.19Mya) (despite probably non-existent gene-flow in that period) not to merit recognition as separate species, citing Drovetski et al 2013. However, Drovetski et al 2013 actually does suggest as an option that because the allopatric sspp of Black-throated Accentor P. atrogularis (atrogularis & huttoni) show similar-scale differences to the species P.ocularis and P.fagani, it could merit the former pair’s elevation as separate species. Indeed, the reasoning rationale of the approach of Drovetski et al 2013 has also been adopted, I would venture, by those who established Basalt Wheatear Oenanthe warriae (qv) as a full species. My preference is for allopatry here to be considered the principal factor because it keeps the taxa pairs ocularis&fagani and atrogularis&huttoni clearly in view. HWPB also applies the same conservative approach to Azure-winged and Iberian Magpies (Cyanopica cyanus & C. cooki), neither of which feature in the OSME Region List.

Variable (Eastern Pied) Wheatear Oenanthe picata (3 sspp)

HWPB splits into three separate species:

            Blyth’s Wheatear O. picata

            Gould’s Wheatear O. capistrata

            Strickland’s Wheatear O. opistholeuca (‘Black-bellied Wheatear’)

This is a radical move, not so much as the split itself, which has been tentatively suggested before, but because the summary of supporting reasons includes that it “is quite unusual for geographically connected subspecies to differ so distinctly as these three do” and also “subspecies rarely co-exist in certain areas like these three do”. Occam’s Razor has been applied with gusto, it seems, with a dash of the Null Hypothesis vanquishing prior competing hypotheses! However, sensibly there are several caveats concerning, for example genetically unsampled populations in remote regions that may well validate Evgeniy Panov’s[12] prediction of hybridogenous capistrata x opistholeuca populations.

The Mourning Wheatear Oenanthe lugens complex

HWPB diminishes O. lugens sensu stricto to two ssp, the nominate and persica. Although there is evidence to suggest that persica in Iran differs sufficiently to warrant species status as ‘Iranian Wheatear’[13], HWPB notes that the Syrian breeding population’ unclear affinities may comprise:

  1. Only persica.
  2.  An undescribed persica-like taxon.
  3. A population intermediate between lugens and persica.

HWPB treats the remaining taxa that for decades were included in Mourning Wheatear thus:

  1. A group comprising Arabian Wheatear O. lugentoidesAbyssinian Black Wheatear O. lugubris and Schalow’s Wheatear O. schalowi (with 2sspp, nominate and vauriei); the last two are extralimital to both the WP and the OSME Region, although vauriei in northeast Somalia is only some 340km from the Socotra archipelago, the longest sea-crossing being 95km.
  2. Maghreb Wheatear O. halophila, eastern Libya to Morocco; this taxon is genetically close to lugens, but there are other similarly related wheatear taxa pairs that are already treated as full species, for example Pied and Cyprus WheatearsO. pleschanka and O. cypriaca, because there are other characteristics given due weight.
  3. Basalt Wheatear O. warriae, from a tiny, dark-substrate breeding area straddling the Jordan-Syria border. Long considered a dark morph of Variable Wheatear O. picata opistholeuca (‘Black-bellied Wheatear’), then of Mourning Wheatear O. lugens lugentoides and more recently as the ssp O. lugens warriae, HWPB elevate it to full species status to maintain consistent taxonomy with the Oenanthe genus. OSME takes special delight in consequence, because it is named after Effie Warr, who has maintained with quiet authority the consistent ‘taxonomy’ of OSME Council since OSME began as the Ornithological Society of Turkey 50 years ago.

Streaked Scrub Warbler Scotocerca inquieta

HWPB split off populations from westernmost Libya west to Morocco and south to Mauritania as Saharan Scrub Warbler Scotocerca saharae. Its map indicates that it is present at the Al Jaghbub Oasis less than 10km from the Egyptian border and less than 60km from Egypt’s Siwa Oasis, and so it is likely to have occurred within the OSME Region.

Common Reed Warbler Acrocephalus scirpaceus

HWPB takes a conservative line on Reed Warbler taxonomy on the understandable concern that much has yet to be learned about the relationships between populations of a species that reaches north-central Sweden in the north, southernmost Africa in the south, Portugal and Dakar in the west and eastern Mongolia in the east. However, HWPB on the subject of genetic differentiation and ancestry appears to rely on two relatively old references, Leisler et al 1997 and Helbig & Seibold 1999. The former suggests avicenniae (‘Mangrove Reed Warbler’ in the OSME Region List [ORL}) and scirpaceus (Eurasian Reed Warbler) are sister taxa, more recently evolved than baeticatus (African Reed Warbler). The latter notes low levels of genetic differences between taxa.

There are three most relevant and pertinent recent references that inform the issue, however, but they have not been cited in HWPB: Arbabi et al 2014a[14], 2014b[15] and Olsson et al 2016[16]. This is probably because (I surmise) the authors judged that, though relevant, the papers covered only a subset, if a large one, of the total number of populations whose affinities and inter-taxa boundaries are unclear. These papers concern genetic research, but apply a diversity of molecular techniques that were not available to Leisler et al 1997 and Helbig & Seibold 1999, and so bear greater due weight in analysis of taxa relationships and ancestry. I prefer the idea that since the findings of those papers better define the status and relationships of a significant number of populations, they should form part of the basis of how these taxa are treated. Olsson et al 2016 also called for a complete re-analysis of the reed warbler complex, and so as unstudied, unsampled or poorly studied and sampled populations are investigated in future, then that basis can be amended as necessary, perhaps confirming splits or requiring lumps.

Arbabi et al 2014a, 2014b found that avicenniae diverged from baeticatus 0.7Mya and concluded it is basal to scirpaceus and fuscus. Olsson et al 2016 found eight lineages, evidence of cryptic taxa, while noting that the new taxon ambiguus of much of North Africa and of southern Iberia (‘Ambiguous’ or ‘Brehm’s Reed Warbler’) split from the Sahelian minor 0.53Mya. Olsson et al concede that placing all taxa as sspp of Common Reed Warbler while re-evaluation is carried would comply with academic norms, but since there are at least 10 sspp across a vast range, I would argue that establishing an interim position would be of considerable help to non-academics and to keen birders alike to keep taxa relevant to their area of interest well in view.

Recently, Pavia et al 2018[17] found in southwest Burkina Faso a population of A. baeticatus that had not been described taxonomically.  They used a combination of DNA barcode analysis and the methodology of Malmhagen et al 2013[18] in wing morphology analysis to establish subtle ID distinctions by new criteria, and suggest that this approach would assist if applied over the whole range of Reed Warbler A. scirpaceus sensu latoNB. The subspecies they describe as guiersi of Senegal is the minor of IOC.

Thick-billed Warbler Iduna aedon

This species once was firmly ensconced in its own genus Phragamaticola, appeared in Acrocephalus in Sibley & Monroe 1990[19], reverting to Phragamaticola under most authorities (but not necessarily in all bird books), then, once the Hippolais genus settled into true Hippolais and Iduna, this species, being difficult to place, ended up being placed in Iduna by Fregin et al 2009[20], a circumstance described in that paper as the most conservative option, with which HWPB agrees. However, Fregin et al 2009 also stated “It would also be possible to exclude the taxon aedon from this genus and place it in a monotypic Phragamaticola on the basis that its inclusion in this clade is based on comparatively little genetic evidence, and hence not very well corroborated”.

Although the use of ‘conservative’ here may have aligned well with customary taxonomic usage, it can easily be argued that to keep the uncertainty of the position of taxon aedon prominently in view to non-taxonomists interested in this species, the most conservative option would indeed to place it in Phragmaticola for that very reason. In addition, Fregin et al 2009 noted that two species of the genus Chloropeta have close affinities to species in the genus Iduna and to taxon aedon, and so there are other aspects to be puzzled out before the position of aedon is any clearer.

HWPB add as supporting information, ‘Since inclusion in Iduna avoids a monotypic genus it is preferred here” which begs the question of what their view is of other monotypic genera, such as Hypocolius? I doubt if the intention of that statement is ‘treat monotypic genera as abhorrent’, but without context, it does read that way.

Lastly, Phragamaticola is a junior synonym of Arundinax, under which genus it is listed in the ORL.

Indian Pitta Pitta brachyura

HWPB include this species in the ‘Vagrants to the Region’ section in Volume 1, for the single occurrence of this long-distance migrant (within the Indian subcontinent) in November 1968. At one time, the ORL also included it, but the Iran Bird Records Committee declined to accept it for the official Iran Birds Checklist because captive origin could not safely be excluded, and so the entry moved to the ORL Hypothetical List.

Common Babbler Argya caudata

HWPB treat as having 4 sspp, emphasising that although vocal and morphological differentiation of huttoni and salvadorii (‘Afghan Babbler’) from the nominate and eclipes have been known for some time, little additional data are available to support the split, which is supported by IOC and Clements, hence the ORL places Common and Afghan Babblers firmly in the ‘don’t know’ category (by the use of round brackets for caudata in both cases).

Great Tit Parus major complex

HWPB splits this complex into 4 species-groups, somewhat bolder than IOC and very much so than BirdLife International (BLI). Cinereous Tit P. cinereus in the WP occurs on the NE Iran and NNE Iran borders with Turkmenistan (intermedius) and Afghanistan (ziaratensis) (disjunctly so) respectively according to their map, although text states that the latter is extralimital. Turkestan Tit P. bokharensis occurs in Iran along a similar border area to Cinereous Tit, but on a narrower, continuous front. Great Tit P. major sensu stricto occupies the remainder of its considerable range across the WP and beyond it to the east. P. minor, Japanese Tit, is extralimital to the east of the southern WP.

Penduline Tit Remiz pendulinus complex

HWPB accept the split to separate Black-headed Penduline Tit R. macronyx (breeds in the WP in Iran, SE Caspian and perhaps on the border with southern Turkmenistan and in Kazakhstan just west of the Ural River mouth, north Caspian) and White-headed Penduline Tit R. coronatus (winters Iran’s SE Caspian, along the border with Afghanistan and breeds in Iran probably sympatrically with the south Turkmenistan R. macronyx population.

Abyssinian White-eye Zosterops abyssinicus complex

Across the many species of white-eyes occupying vast tropical and semi-tropical distributions in the Old World, a number of studies involving extralimital (to the WP and to the OSME Region) have begun to reveal several over-lumped species or species-groups. It’s unlikely that the Zosterops in the OSME Region are different in that respect. Indeed, Socotran White-eye Z.(a.) socotranus (just outside the HWPB area) is a strong contender, as are several mangrove-dwelling unstudied populations. HWPB notes that a forthcoming study (Provisionally, Babbington et al in prep) may shed light on some mangrove-dwellers. Let’s hope co-authors Manuel Schweizer and Hadoram Shirihai can find time in their busy schedules to help the final draft to a successful conclusion soonest!

Indian Golden Oriole Oriolus kundoo

HWPB notes that there is no known occurrence in the WP, but includes mention of it in the ‘Taxonomic Notes’ section of (Eurasian) Golden Oriole O. oriolus, where useful ID separation criteria are listed:

  1. Very marked morphological differences where ranges (of the two species) meet without appreciable intermediates; the HWPB images show several clearly.
  2. The songs differ clearly.
  3. O. kundoo winters exclusively in the Indian subcontinent, whereas O. oriolus winters only in Africa[21].

Black-crowned Tchagra Tchagra senegalus

Only subspecies percivali occurs in the OSME Region, from the Saudi Asir region south-southeast (patchily) to montane Yemen. HWPB notes that it differs rather dramatically from African taxa more than expected among sspp of polytypic species and so may warrant species status, although genetic, vocal and behaviour data are lacking. 

Isabelline Shrike Lanius isabellinus

HWPB notes that from long before this species (aka Daurian Shrike) and its relative Turkestan Shrike L. phoenicuroides were split from Red-backed Shrike L. collurio, up to 2002 (Pearson 2000)[22], due to a specimen ID error on two early 19th-century specimens, the speculigerus of Mongolia and the isabellinus of the Tarim Basin were wrongly named. The former is now a junior synonym of isabellinus and the latter has become arenarius. References published previous to 2013 (Pearson et al 2012[23]) likely contain superseded information on these two taxa.

Great Grey Shrike Lanius excubitor

Since the publication of Olsson et al 2010[24] whose central tenet and conclusion was that Southern Grey Shrike L. meridionalis did not evolve from the same common ancestor as did all the subspecies conventionally attributed to it (save the nominate), authors and publishers have steadfastly ignored that unequivocal conclusion ‘in the interests of taxonomic stability’. Overall, it can be argued that such an article of faith has merit, but here it turned into a ‘false prophet’. I concede that the taxonomic relationships at the next level of detail involve taxa whose breeding distributions are imperfectly known, whose extent of sympatry is poorly known as are the areas and persistence of hybridisation, and whose grouping relationships remain unclear; much remains to be researched.

To summarise, the genetic analyses showed that L. meridionalis is monotypic and breeds only in Iberia and southern France, but its nearest relative with which it shares common ancestry is the Nearctic Northern Shrike L. borealis, of which more below. This relationship had been suggested in earlier, smaller molecular studies. All former meridionalis subspecies are now reassigned to Great Grey Shrike L. excubitor. Perhaps to complicate (but certainly to clarify) matters further, most Eastern Palearctic subspecies (roughly east of 90°E) are related not to Great Grey Shrike, but to the formerly Nearctic-only Northern Shrike L. borealis.

HWPB adopt this basic taxonomic revision, which leaves us some hope that more research will soon be undertaken to refine the indicated likely relationships in Olsson et al 2010.

‘Arabian Magpie’ Pica pica asirensis

Retained in HWPB as a subspecies of (Common) Magpie for the following:

  1. “…the isolated Arabian mountain-living asirensis perhaps meriting specific treatment. In want of a comprehensive study of asirensis we prefer to keep it as” a subspecies.
  2. “Limited material available for examination, only 3 ♀♀”.
  3. “…some clear vocal differences are known, but considering the small and widely isolated range of this population, morphological differences[25] are surprisingly moderate”.

Dead Sea Sparrow Passer moabiticus

HWPB acknowledges the case for splitting the distant taxon yatii as Afghan Scrub Sparrow, but prefers to remain with a cautious lump until molecular analysis can be undertaken

Desert Sparrow Passer simplex

In this case, molecular analysis was available to support the HWPB split of Zarudny’s Sparrow P. zarudnyiof Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, remote from the African populations of Desert Sparrow. Alternative English names are Asian Desert Sparrow and African Desert Sparrow, but given the mtDNA difference is around 5%, these names perhaps are now less appropriate?

Golden-winged Grosbeak Rhynchostruthus socotranus

HWPB declines to split into Socotra Golden-winged Grosbeak R. socotranus and Arabian Golden-winged Grosbeak R. percivali until further (presumably molecular, vocalisation and behavioural) studies have been done. Since Socotra is outside the HWPB area, it is understandable that spending time on researching the nominate was not a priority.

In Conclusion

HWPB is a cornucopia of information for birders, ringers and ornithologists assembled in two exhaustive volumes – and these are just the passerines. However, perhaps of greater importance to those whose interest, passion, or data-collection lies mostly in the OSME Region, these two volumes are essential reading.

For field-workers, the ebook version will inform the work of ringers. Bird survey participants will just have to wait and see whether a version with sound files comes to fruition. For nationals in OSME Region countries, the cost of the ebook version will be the sticking point.

When I first heard the price of HWPB, I sucked my teeth, but having been through these two volumes several times I have to say that the sheer quality of production of the imagery and the depth and volume of the knowledge of the authors presented on each species account is staggeringly good. For those OSME Members who live in the UK, if you can afford it, you won’t regret your purchase. If you can’t afford it, badger your county library service to obtain for the reference section, but in the category that it can be sent to your local branch; at least that would increase sales modestly.

Mike Blair

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