A Trio of Colombian Field Guides
January 9, 2022
A review by Peter Kaestner
Field Guide to the Birds of Colombia, by Miles McMullan
Rey Naranjo Editores, 2018
400 pages, softcover
Guia ilustrada de la Avifauna colombiana, by Fernando Ayerbe Quiñones
Wildlife Conservation Society, 2019
448 pages, softcover
ABA Sales–Buteo Books 15019 (English version)
Birds of Colombia, by Steven L. Hilty
Lynx Edicions, 2020
608 pages, flexi-binding
First, a disclaimer: I love Colombia. I love everything about Colombia, from its incredible bird list (more than 1900 species!) to its wonderful people, delicious food, and amazing scenery. If you haven’t been there…go! You will not be disappointed. There, I’ve said it. Read forewarned.
Almost a decade ago, I wrote a book review for Birding that included a field guide from Colombia and another that covered the Cerrado of Brazil. I started the review by noting that there was a revolution in South America, and it was a good one. Birding in the “Bird Continent” had never been better and was expanding beyond the traditional countries to include Colombia and Brazil as mainstream destinations. Well, that progression has continued apace, fueled by a plethora of field guides, organized tours, and, more importantly, the extraordinary development of local birding expertise.
Ten years ago, Colombia was opening up after decades of conflicts that had kept international tourists and Colombians alike away from key birding areas. A major milestone occurred in late 2016, when the Colombian Government and the F.A.R.C., the largest guerrilla group, signed a peace treaty. As a result, huge swaths of the country are now again considered safe, though there are still a few, isolated regions where security remains a concern. (As always, check your government’s travel advice resources, such as www.travel.state.gov or https://travel.gc.ca/travelling/advisories, before traveling.) Colombia has established “birding trails” in the center and northern parts of the country, and local birders are consistent users of eBird.
Indeed, one of the biggest challenges for bird-book publishers these days is the intense level of bird study going on in Colombia. According to a well-placed source, there are some 150 people studying birds at the university and post-graduate level in Colombia. There is a thriving birding community and as birdlife.org noted, “Birders in Colombia are young and hip.” While I am hardly an arbiter of “hip,” I can say that Colombian birders are super people and are a delight with which to hang out.
Writing a book about Colombian birds is not easy. Colombian ornithology is like a speeding train of knowledge—you have to know when to jump on and when to jump off to finish your book—keeping in mind that the train continues moving after you get off. The three books I’m comparing have all been published at different times in the past three years, which will have consequences vis-à-vis the train. I will consider these three recent contenders for the best field guide to Colombia in the order in which they were published, starting with Miles McMullan’s latest work, moving on to Colombian Fernando Ayerbe Quiñones’s, and ending with Steve Hilty’s new book.
Miles McMullan, an Irishman who has lived in Colombia forever, has published his third edition of his Field Guide to the Birds of Colombia, which came out in 2018. I reviewed the first in the September 2012 issue of Birding (vol. 44, no. 5), and there was also a second English edition that was released in 2014. The current iteration, which contains 2,000 changes (according to the author—the train is accelerating) in the four years since the second edition, is a compact guide with little extraneous information. The book measures 5 5/8” x 7” x 13/16” and is a bit thicker than the first edition that I had reviewed earlier. There are five pages of introduction and five full-page maps, which show political boundaries, natural vegetation, rainfall, endemic bird areas, and national protected areas. The main body of the book consists of 389 plates, which were all painted by McMullan himself. He does list five collaborators, including some of the most knowledgeable people in the Colombian bird world.
The back of the book contains quite a bit of interesting information. First is a beautiful painting of an Ocellated Tapaculo, one of Colombia’s great birds. Next is a list of 83 Colombian endemic species and 196 near endemics. Next are two lists of threatened species, one based on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List (135 birds) and another on the national Libro Rojo de Aves de Colombia (137 birds). Incredibly, one bird listed as “probably extinct” by the Libro Rojo has been rediscovered since the publication of McMullan’s book (there goes the train!). Lists of the birds from two offshore islands (San Andrés in the Caribbean and Malpelo Island in the Pacific) follow.
Then, inexplicably, in the middle of the information in the back of the book is a Table of Contents, which contains the material from the beginning of the book through the lists of birds of the offshore islands. Then, there are two indices, one of English names and one of scientific names. There are no Spanish names offered. Finally, the book ends with four pages of acknowledgments and recognition for the backers of the project. (Second disclaimer: I participated in the crowd funding that financed the publication of the book.) One of the innovations that McMullan has continued here is using colors to help readers find bird families. The edge of each page is a contrasting color that helps people find the different bird families.
OK, so what’s it like? How useful is this book? The heart and soul of any field guide are the illustrations. McMullan has done an amazing job in producing some 5,000 individual paintings. For anyone who is familiar with McMullan’s previous books, there is an evolution in the quality, and this one is the best ever. That said, the images in the book are tiny, with some detractingly small. The hummingbirds are some of the best in the book, as they are helpful and allow for confident ID. Indeed, McMullan’s hummers are the best of the three books, as we’ll see later. The weakest illustrations are the small flycatchers, where the detail needed just isn’t there because of the small size of the images. In several cases, issues that I pointed out in my 2012 review have been rectified. While the majority of species can be covered by just one image, in cases where there are variations of plumage, generally all are illustrated. For example, the Laughing Gull plate has nine images and the Hook-billed Kite has eight images in the species account. One odd thing about McMullan’s paintings is that they are not always to scale. One good example is the Blue Grosbeak and Indigo Bunting on p. 366. (See the comparison later in this review.)
The species accounts are concise and helpful, with about five birds arranged vertically on each page. That is, except when the birds are arranged in six to eight square boxes on a page (parrots, woodcreepers), or when the page contains four boxes and five birds arranged vertically (p. 280)! There are many short notes that give clues to the identification, and each bird has a range map with the subspecies indicated with a contrasting tone of green. This works pretty well, but we’ll explore this topic later. So, the bottom line is that the book is excellent value. It is small enough to conveniently carry in the field (though in a relatively large pocket!), and it has useful illustrations, nuggets of information on the birds’ habits and habitats, and adjacent maps to help you identify the great birds of Colombia.
The second book in my crosshairs is Guia illustrada de la Avifauna colombiana by Fernando Ayerbe Quiñones, which is now in its second edition. As the name implies, the book is in Spanish. But, before non-Spanish speakers shy away, there is almost no text (!), so you are missing very little. It must also be mentioned that an English version of this book is also available, but the translated edition will not be covered in this review.
Another big difference between Guia illustrada de la Avifauna colombiana and the other two covered in this review is that this book is written by a Colombian, reflecting the breadth and depth of ornithological knowledge that has grown there. The book has been produced in conjunction with the Wildlife Conservation Society.
Ayerbe Quiñones’s book is the same size as McMullan’s, so it is fairly portable. It also has a relatively brief introduction. After a short forward by the WCS, there is an innovative Table of Contents, called “Orden filogenético,” or phylogenetic (taxonomic) order. On two pages, Ayerbe Quiñones shows 30 non-passerine orders of birds, and 35 families of passerines. Each is a small (1” x 2/3”) square with a tiny illustration of the kind of bird, the scientific name of the taxon, Spanish name of the taxon, plate number where the birds are found, and conservation status and endemicity. Finally, each family is given a color, which is then used on the edge of the page to indicate where the families are in the book. The technique effectively took McMullan’s edge colors and made them more useful. But Ayerbe Quiñones also uses that same color as the edge for the page numbers. Which works when the edges are dark colors, but when the page-edge colors are pale (as in the hummingbirds, hawks, and flycatchers) you can hardly see the numbers, as they do not contrast with the background color of the page!
The 212 plates are, on first blush, very uniform, in the style of Dana Gardner. But, on closer examination, the illustrations are quite accurate. Most are larger than McMullan’s tiny paintings and contain exacting details that allow for accurate identification. In most cases, there are nine or ten birds per plate, with specific information on the facing page. This allows similar species to be presented on one plate, for easy comparison. Indeed, this feature was the one most often referred to by those Colombians who preferred Ayerbe Quiñones’s guide to the others.
My biggest issue with the plates is the hummingbirds, which are all painted with their wings extended over their backs. This is odd, since this manner of depiction eliminates any possibility of using the plumage of a closed wing to help ID the bird. In contrast to the other two books, Ayerbe Quiñones’s plates are painted on a colored, not white, background. As a result, some of the plates appear dark, such as 76 (kingfishers), 119 (woodcreepers), and 172 (thrushes).
While the illustrations are of high quality, there is a catch: There are no species accounts. Missing is text that could highlight abundance, keys to identification, vocalizations, and/or habitat and habits. Each bird family and genus is introduced with a short paragraph that discusses general characteristics of the taxon, including habitat preferences, nesting, and behavior (the paragraphs are in Spanish). But each species has nothing. Well, almost nothing. Each bird has a space in which there are scientific, English, German, and French names—but no Spanish names! There are several blank lines for the owner of the book to write in their own names for the birds. This is useful, since the Spanish or local names vary geographically. (Interestingly, Hilty’s 1986 Colombia guide did not offer Spanish names because of a lack of standardization. But the new Hilty does include one Spanish name per bird!)
One feature that does not work for me is that the birds are numbered on the plate and the names and range of the bird are opposite. What I have trouble with is that the corresponding number on the map is on the bottom of the image, not the top. My eyes consistently went to the map below the number rather than the map above. Another feature that accompanies each bird is a range map. Like McMullan’s book, the ranges of the subspecies are noted, but, in this case, more colors, including red and yellow, are used. This makes the maps more understandable. The length of the bird is given in inches and centimeters and an indication of the conservation status of the bird is noted. Finally, the elevational range of the bird is noted next to each map. The one thing that is sorely missing is the rarity of the bird. In both McMullan and the new Hilty, the abundance or rarity is the first thing that is given about each bird.
So, how useful is Ayerbe Quiñones’s book? For visiting birders who are not conversant in Spanish, this book is less useful than McMullan’s field guide. Indeed, there is less useful information in the book than either of the two other guides here considered. That said, the illustrations are great, which brings real value to the book. I cannot evaluate the ruggedness of the book, as I have not yet used my copy in the field. I did notice, however, that Colombian birders I met often used protective covers to preserve their copies.
The last book to be considered, which was just published in March 2021, is the most up-to-date and the largest. Birds of Colombia is the latest installment in an ambitious effort by Lynx Edicions, in conjunction with BirdLife International, to create country-specific field guides based on the monumental Handbook of the Birds of the World (HBW) and its two offspring: The Illustrated Checklist of Birds of the World and All the Birds of the World. They are 17-volume, two-volume, and one-volume masterpieces, respectively. Hilty’s A Guide to the Birds of Colombia (1986), illustrated mainly by the incomparable Guy Tudor, set the standard for the country for a quarter century. Hilty’s latest effort (I’ll call it Hilty 2.0) continues that tradition.
Hilty 2.0 is big. At 6 1/2” x 9 1/4” x 1 3/16” and 1,213 grams, it is 58 percent heavier and considerably larger than the other two books—and not likely to fit in any pocket. I carry it around in my day pack, where its flexi-bound, plastic cover beautifully withstands the considerable wear and tear of the field. The first thing that you will notice when you open the book are the large maps on the inside of both covers. Covering two full pages, the front map is a political and relief map of Colombia, with major cities, all states, and significant geographic features noted. On the back, the map shows and lists the protected areas, including six proposed sanctuaries.
The book begins with a list of the 30 (!) artists. The copyright page includes information on all who were instrumental in the production of the book, and, along with the Table of Contents, shows which artists contributed to the illustrations of the various families (I love accountability…). The prelude to the plates encompasses 15 pages, including a history of Colombian bird study, topographical regions, habitats, etc., and a helpful “Using the Field Guide” section. Conservation activities are discussed, highlighting BirdLife International’s local partner Calidris. Overall, it is good reading while on a flight down to Colombia.
Hilty 2.0 is based mainly on the HBW taxonomy, as updated with the eBird and South American Checklist Committee decisions. This results in several species split in Hilty 2.0 that are not considered in the other two books. Three examples are: Slaty-capped and Pale-legged shrike-vireos, Sinu and Perijá parakeets, and Amazonian Black-breasted and Ringed woodpeckers. In addition to the taxonomic splits, many distinctive subspecies get full accounts in Hilty 2.0. Some examples are: Rufous Spinetail, Maroon-tailed Parakeet, and Tyrian Metaltail. While I eagerly await the day when we’ll all use the same world bird list, splitting birds in this situation means that we have more information on the potential birds we will encounter in Colombia, and that is a good thing.
Hilty 2.0 uses another strategy for its range maps. In contrast to the other two books, Hilty uses six colors to delineate ranges (resident, wintering, migration, etc.), but he uses lines on the map to separate the different races. Of the three ways to represent the distribution of races that we’ve encountered, I found Hilty 2.0 to be the most useful, followed by Ayerbe Quiñones.
Finally, the last plate is of two antbirds that were discovered in Colombia in 2019 and added out-of-order at the end. Then, there are four indices: the main one of English and scientific names, a Spanish-name index, a quick index which has the main bird groups in English, and a family index, which is very similar to the quick index, though it is limited only to the English bird family names.
OK, OK, I hear you! Let’s talk about the plates. Hilty 2.0 has 529 plates, which form the bulk of the book. As one would expect from a work with 30 contributors, the results are somewhat uneven. That said, the unevenness starts from such a high level that even the weakest illustrations are not that far off from the best of the other two books. My least favorite groups in Hilty 2.0 are some hummingbirds, some elaenias, and some antpittas. That said, the best work in Hilty 2.0 is simply stunning. In fact, most of the illustrations are really, really good. Some of my favorites are the mourners (p. 402), wrens (beginning on p. 433), and antbirds (beginning on p. 258). I swear, some of these birds look like they are going to hop right off the pages! The number of species per page averages four, which then gives you eight birds on the two facing pages. Compare this to the nine to ten species on each of Ayerbe Quiñones’s plates. Because of the small number of species per page and larger size of the book, the images of each bird are significantly larger in Hilty 2.0 than the others. This is especially true when you compare Hilty 2.0 to McMullan.
Lynx reused the images from the superb All the Birds of the World, and the concept worked beautifully. Indeed, compared to the tiny images necessary to put all the world’s birds in one volume, these illustrations are much bigger and much more detailed. In some cases, new species have been discovered and their paintings were added to this work. An example is the new antpitta discovered near Cali, which is pictured on p. 298. This undescribed species is too new for the other two books. (There goes the train.)
As noted earlier, the antpittas in the original HBW are not the best illustrations in the work. I find them generally stiff and small-headed. Interestingly, several illustrations have been reworked for Hilty 2.0, including the Plain-backed Antpitta and the Cundinamarca Antpitta, which, sadly, had been unidentifiable in All the Birds of the World. Interestingly, the recently described Urrao Antpitta was a new painting for All the Birds of the World, and that painting stands out on the page compared to the older illustrations. Strangely, Hilty 2.0 uses a scientific name that was rejected by the SACC, Grallaria fenwickoreum, for the Urrao Antpitta. Even more strangely, Hilty notes in the species account that he “prefers” the name Grallaria urraoensis, which was the name selected by the SACC. It is unprecedented in my experience that an author would be overruled in such a manner. The mess that resulted in the competing names is summarized here: https://www.science.org/doi/abs/10.1126/science.331.6021.1123
One final innovation that the Lynx/BirdLife International Field Guides share is a QR code. Each species has a code, which, when scanned with your smartphone, will take you to the eBird landing page for that species. There you will find a detailed range map, photographs, and sound recordings of the species.
As a way to compare the three books, here are photos of pages showing the Indigo Bunting and Blue Grosbeak, two birds readers of Birding will likely be familiar with.
So, in case you’ve read all the way to the conclusion, here it is: While each book has advantages and unique features, Hilty’s Birds of Colombia is the most useful. The illustrations are beautiful, the information is comprehensive, and the QR codes allow easy access to the treasure trove of information that is Cornell’s Laboratory of Ornithology. Hilty 2.0 has set the bar for Colombian bird books. In most countries, birders would be perfectly happy to have a book of the usefulness of McMullan or the quality of Ayerbe Quiñones, but Hilty 2.0 is simply that much better. I supported the publication of McMullan and would recommend all who can to support local authors. In these pandemic days, it is always a good thing to support those who contribute to the ornithological literature.
Peter Kaestner is a retired U.S. diplomat and world lister. He was the first person to see all the world's bird families, and in 1989 he introduced Western science to the bird that would later be called Cundinamarca Antpitta (Grallaria kaestneri). When not adding to his life list, Peter is a part-time tour leader for Rockjumper Worldwide Birding Adventures.
Thanks! very helpful!
Glad you enjoyed!
This comparison review is wonderfully useful! Thank you for providing such an in-depth look at each of these. (I kind of want them all, now that I’ve seen this review)!
Thanks, Barb! That is wonderful to hear!