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1 October 2002 Guide to the Birds of Fiji and Western Polynesia

Guide to the Birds of Fiji and Western Polynesia.—Dick Watling. 2001. Environment Consultants Fiji Ltd., Suva, Fiji. 272 pp., 16 color plates, text figures. ISBN 982-9047-01-6; Hard cover; $30.00. (Order by e-mail from or available online or—In 1978, a youthful Dick Watling published (through Millwood Press, Wellington, New Zealand) a useful large-format book (21.5 × 29.5 × 2 cm, 1,116 g) called Birds of Fiji, Tonga and Samoa. Now a more seasoned Dick Watling has published a field guide (16 × 22 × 2.3 cm, 602 g) to birds of the same region. The field guide also covers the depauperate birdlife of several more isolated island groups (Niue, Tuvalu, and Tokelau) that, unlike in Fiji, Tonga, or Samoa, have no surviving endemic species of birds.

Dick Watling knows these birds well, especially in Fiji where he lives. The extensive introductory material (pp. 10–62) is presented in four sections—how to use the book, country profiles, ornithology of the region, and conservation. The 172 species accounts are divided into land and freshwater birds (94 species), seabirds (53 species), and shorebirds (25 species). These accounts are excellent summaries of what is known for each species about their local and English names, identification, flight, voice, habits, distribution, conservation status, and often other attributes. After the species accounts are sections on unconfirmed or erroneous records, and birdwatching in the region, followed by a glossary, indices, and checklists.

It may be instructive to continue comparing the new field guide with the earlier, larger book. Conservation is a much more informed and pervasive theme in the field guide. Watling's observations and opinions are articulated in a thoughtful, straight-forward way. I congratulate him for covering the emerging prehistoric record of birds in those islands, which clearly shows that human-caused extinctions began with the earliest settlers 3,000 years ago. Both books feature color plates by Chloë Talbot-Kelly. The individual images are mostly the same, but some have been moved from one plate to another. Occasionally a new painting of a particular bird has been added to the field guide, such as for Pachycephala jacquinoti (Tongan Whistler) on plate 9, and several species of seabirds and shorebirds. Still, 19 species of seabirds, 11 species of shorebirds, and 10 species of landbirds that have species accounts are not illustrated. Fortunately, that includes only one native, resident species of landbird.

Although the new book will be appreciated by anyone in the field, scientists will be frustrated that it has no bibliography. Watling mentions much of what has been learned about the region's birds over the past 20 years, but without literature citations. His previous book listed 237 publications; updating that would have been an important service to scholars. The plate captions also would be much more helpful in the field guide had they included scientific names, which they did in Watling (1978). Some other criticisms, less important than the literature lacuna, include a small sprinkling of misspelled scientific names, run-together sentences, and poor punctuation, this exacerbated by the small, thin print that makes the book challenging to read, especially under field conditions. Even in the comfort of my well-lit office, Watling's fine field guide will always be memorable as my first book that was truly uncomfortable to read without glasses, this being only partly a testimony to my declining vision.

Several of Watling's judgements on the biology of Fijian birds deserve comment. His claim that the extinct Nesoclopeus poecilopterus (Bar-winged Rail) was volant seems doubtful. I examined the wing of that rail in the British Museum and found it to be typical of that in flightless species. Following the current world-wide splitting trend in insular birds, Watling recognizes the White-breasted Wood-swallow from Fiji as the endemic Artamus mentalis rather than as a race of the widespread A. leucorhynchus, and the Red-headed Parrot-finch from Fiji as distinct (Erythrura pealii) from that of Samoa (E. cyaneovirens). Except to list-oriented birdwatchers and conservationists looking for endemics, I see no benefit in such species-level splitting of populations from their allopatric but highly similar and undoubtedly monophyletic relatives. For A. mentalis, he also suggests that colonization and speciation occurred since human arrival only three millennia ago; although there is no fossil record of Fijian Artamus to test that notion, several millennia seem like quite a short period of time for speciation in a highly volant bird. Last, I see nothing to warrant recognition of the monotypic genus Xanthotis for the Kadavu Honeyeater (X. provocator), which clearly is a geographic representative of the much more widespread Foulehaio carunculata (Wattled Honeyeater).

In spite of my criticisms, Dick Watling's new book is outstanding. Since 1985, I have spent over nine months surveying living and extinct birds on 56 different islands in Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa. I will never go back to the islands without his field guide. More importantly, I would encourage all who travel to Fiji or Western Polynesia to take along an extra copy or two of Watling (or buy them in Fiji) to give away. Any islander who appreciates birds would love to own this book. A grant from New Zealand Overseas Development Assistance already has funded its distribution to schools through the region. That is genuine progress in promoting science and environmental awareness among island youth. Dick Watling should be very proud.

"Guide to the Birds of Fiji and Western Polynesia," The Auk 119(4), 1209-1210, (1 October 2002).[1209:]2.0.CO;2
Published: 1 October 2002
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