Birds of the Baja California Peninsula: Status, Distribution, and Taxonomy.—Richard A. Erickson and Steve N. G. Howell (editors). 2001. Monographs in Field Ornithology No. 3. American Birding Association, Colorado Springs, Colorado. 264 pp. 134 figures. 592 pp., 114 color, 20 black-and-white photographs and illustrations. ISBN 1-878788-39-6. $39.95 (paper).
It was only a matter of time before avid birders began in earnest to dedicate significant effort toward exploring the vast Baja California peninsula. Akin to alta California in the late 1960s and early 1970s, previously unrecorded distributions and occurrences of numerous bird species on the peninsula represent a treasure trove for the dedicated birder. Considering the vast armies of birders nearby in the United States, it is surprising this surge in interest did not occur sooner.
The benchmark for bird distribution and status on the peninsula has always been Joseph Grinnell's 1928 A Distributional Summation of the Ornithology of Lower California (University of California Publications in Zoology 32). One needs look no further than this comprehensive analysis for any and all information up until its time of publication. Strangely however, over five decades passed with almost zero investigation or published information on Baja's birds. Checklists of the birds of Mexico published in the 1950s, and all the AOU checklists, added negligible amounts of new information to the record. Wilbur's 1987 Birds of Baja California (University of California Press, Berkeley, California) unfortunately contained considerable erroneous information.
Momentum to explore the peninsula began to build in the late 1970s and then really took off in the 1990s, with a small cadre of adventurous birders making regular weekend and longer forays south of the border. They soon began amassing new and interesting records, resulting in many brief papers and notes on their findings. It is this cadre, led by the editors of this book, that spurred this effort to assemble an updated picture of the peninsula's avifauna.
The monograph contains a seemingly eclectic collection of eight papers and five appendixes. At first glance, the title seems misleading, as most of us would understandably expect a neat, annotated synoptic list and supporting material. I had to delve deep into this book to overcome that initial disappointment. The editors readily acknowledge that this is not the tidy, straightforward, species-by-species summary that most would prefer. Once you read the entire book, the reasons become more apparent. Bringing together the extensive efforts of the various authors could probably not have taken place in any other manner.
The first paper (by Howell) provides a useful analysis of the known distribution of breeding birds within the roughly nine distinct faunal regions of the peninsula, ranging from the northwestern coastal slope (very similar to habitats found on the United States side of the border) through the high mountains and dry deserts to the cape district, the decidedly subtropical center of Baja's endemism. The paper by Devillers et. al. presents distributional data for just 20 species that was gathered by the authors between 1967 and 1971. Originally written in 1978 and never published, the editors deemed the contents to have significant enough value to warrant inclusion in this collection. The brief papers on the breeding birds of the Cerro Prieto geothermal ponds, the Vizcaíno Desert, and observations from Baja California Sur contain mostly noteworthy data on a limited number of species from these areas, with little information on more common species. The paper by Patten et al. on the Colorado Desert avifauna most closely resembles the comprehensive species-by-species summary that would have been desirable for the peninsula as a whole. The paper on migrant birds in the northern and central portions of the peninsula contains a massive amount of detailed information and documentation on noteworthy occurrences of 205 species. This paper presents the bulk of new information in the monograph. Lastly, Howell et al. provide an annotated checklist of the 464 species recorded from both of the Mexican states on the peninsula through July 2000. Unfortunately, this list uses a variety of codes to indicate the status, breeding, and documentation for each of the species. This is about the least user-friendly way that such information could be presented. Nevertheless, all the available pertinent information is there to be found for those who dig.
As is typically the case when birders venture forth to document avian distribution, an inordinate amount of attention is given to unusual or unexpected occurrences. This, after all, is what makes birding fun. In the end, information on common and sometimes abundant species often has more relevance for science and conservation. Perhaps someday an atlas of Baja California birds will fill this need.
The monograph is quite free of typographical and other errors. This is a credit to the editors and to the editor of the series, Kenneth P. Able. I would have liked to see more detailed maps or a location gazetteer. Good maps of the peninsula are very hard to come by. The binding of the monograph may not stand up to the many years of handling it is likely to be put through.
My only other criticism of the monograph is of the cover photo of the Yellow-footed Gull (Larus livens). Adults of this distinctive, nearly endemic gull are instantly distinguishable in the field by their extremely bright-yellow legs and feet. The color reproduction of the photograph does not do justice to this characteristic. Readers unfamiliar with this species may well wonder what is so special about the gull on the cover.
Despite the weaknesses of this monograph, the authors and editors have done a very admirable job. In particular, the enormous amount of documentation provided is precedent-setting for a work of this kind. Every unusual sighting has undergone severe critical review, and the facts substantiating the records are often provided for future investigators to evaluate. The monograph also contains 114 color figures, most of them photographs of rare or unusual species. In addition, 20 black and white figures contain copies of original field notes detailing individual sightings and historical photographs illustrating habitat degradation around the Colorado River delta.
The appendices, containing tabular information on sightings, specimens, documentation, birds in the pet trade, and conservation status, demonstrate that the authors and editors attempted to pack this monograph with every piece of data they could reasonably lay their hands on. Equally admirable is the effort that has been made to include Mexican ornithologists and their work in this monograph. Until recently, avian studies on the peninsula have too often been imperialistic in nature, with little or no regard for local scientists or their efforts.
The editors seem to understand that the ultimate purpose of this publication is not necessarily to be definitive. Where they have greatly succeeded is in pulling together the majority of data available since Grinnell's seminal work. As with Grinnell, future compilers will not have to look much beyond this monograph and the literature it has gathered to produce the inevitable avian tome that the peninsula deserves. In the meantime, this monograph is clearly an essential addition to the library of anyone with an interest in the status and distribution of Baja California birds.