Field Guides, Books, and Apps for Birding in Australia

I interrupt this travelogue series detailing our 2019 trip Down Under to describe the identification guides and other books you’ll want to read and/or take with you for your Australian birding adventure. I’ll start with my favorite field guide, Pizzey & Knight’s Field Guide to the Birds of Australia:

And by favorite, I don’t just mean my favorite field guide of Australian birds. I mean, of the more than 50 field guides that I own for birds and other wildlife from all over the world, it is my single favorite book. I got my first copy, the 7th edition, in advance of my 2006 trip to Australia, and I was instantly in love with both the book and Aussie avifauna. The illustrations, by Frank Knight, are exquisite. They are large in scale, with bright and bold colors. The painting style is smooth and inviting. Each bird is presented as the best, most attractive specimen, seen up close in good lighting. I will never tire looking at these images. The accompanying text by ornithologist Graham Pizzey is crisp and detailed. Juveniles and immatures are discussed at length, as are many subspecies. I especially appreciate the habitat and range/status sections of each account.

The latest edition (the 9th) has been updated and edited by Sarah Pizzey after the passing of her father. It has wonderful touches, like a quick-find picture index, a detailed glossary, large form maps of Australia, a section on vagrants and rarities, and articles in the front on migration, behavior, and habitat. In the back there is a whole section providing short but helpful family introductions for each group of birds. I was extolling the sheer perfection of this field guide to Neil in 2018 when we were planning our trip, when he asked me if I’d heard of the Australian Bird Guide.

“THE Australian Bird Guide? Aren’t there quite a few of them?” I sniffed.

“THE Australian Bird Guide,” Neil affirmed. “By Menkhorst and … a whole lotta other people….”

I ordered THE Australian Bird Guide (hereafter ABG), mostly to point out to Neil all the ways that it was inferior to Pizzey and Knight. But when it arrived and I opened it up and began to leaf through it, my mouth fell open and I didn’t close it for several minutes. If Pizzey and Knight reminds me of the elegance, artistry, and precision of David Allen Sibley’s guide to North American birds, then ABG is the analog of our super-detailed National Geographic guide, only on steroids. The ABG aims to be nothing short of exhaustive and definitive, and it basically succeeds. The text is highly detailed, giving average wing, bill, and weight metrics. There is a comprehensive description of all plumages, a section of flight habits, and an extensive notes section for each species. All important subspecies are represented, usually in the illustrations and in the maps as well as in the text. The entry on Crimson Rosella has EIGHTEEN different birds illustrated in an attempt to show the extensive variation present in this species, and a six-color range map showing the distribution of each type.

The paintings in ABG are also quite good, although they are done by a whole committee of illustrators so the style is a little uneven. I think I like the ones by Kim Franklin the best, but all of the illustrators are quite talented. In order to fit in lots of different subspecies, sometimes the images get a little small. The aforementioned rosella paintings are only about 5 to 6 cm long on the page, which is pretty small for a bird that reaches 36 cm or more in real life.

If I had a complaint about the ABG, it’s the use of colors in the maps. For one thing, I am so accustomed to using color to represent seasonal variations in distribution that it took me quite a while to get used to their use of color to show geographic subspecies distribution. I understand that migration patterns are different in Australia (and for some species less important and/or less predictable), but it still took some getting used to. A more serious problem is that the colors were not chosen in consultation with anyone who knows anything about colorblindness, and even my moderate deuteranopia rendered many of the red/green/brown color schemes totally inscrutable.

My favorite thing about the ABG, besides the fact that it is the most information-dense field guide on the entire planet, is its use of Harvey balls to generate a visual representation of each species’ subjective ‘likelihood of encounter.’ I think all birders are interested in “what’s my chance of actually finding this thing?” and the use of Harvey balls for the authors’ best guess of this probability is just *chef’s kiss*.

Example of Harvey balls

There are of course other field guides available for the birds of Australia. If I had to take a third one with me, I’d probably go with the fine offering from Simpson and Day (Birds of Australia). I have the 7th edition, and I think they’re out with an 8th edition now. In many areas of the world, a field guide like Simpson and Day would be far and away the very best one available. Too bad in Australia it’s a distant third.

In terms of bird finding guides, we did make some use of Finding Australian Birds by Dolby and Clarke.

I bought the Kindle version (so it wouldn’t take up any room in my luggage, and because it was fractionally cheaper) and Neil bought the paperback. To be totally honest, I don’t think these printed “bird finding guides” are worth much anymore. When I first started getting into birding in the late 1990s, I found them indispensable. But with the rise of internet birding groups and listservs, birding websites, and (most importantly) eBird, what they are able to offer just pales in comparison to what’s available online for free. For one thing, their subject matter is almost impossibly broad. “Finding Australian Birds” is a bit like “Finding a Hamburger in the United States.” How can you possibly cover 900 species of birds over an entire continent in a single book? You just can’t. For another thing, a printed book is immediately out-of-date. This is not the fault of the authors, of course, but as sites and access change or birds move around, the information becomes useless (or worse, misleading). Still, Dolby and Clarke is a fine resource for giving you an overview of different regions and habitat types. It highlights some of the better know birding locations, and has some helpful maps and directions. I appreciated having it as a reference, even if we didn’t use it for much of our detailed planning.

[If you’re interested in how exactly we *did* do our detailed planning, I wrote a blog post about the process of planning our South Africa Trip in 2019. The short answer is: eBird data and a ton of spreadsheets. We went through a similar process this time, only Neil spent even MORE time using our detailed research to construct fancy, custom checklists for us, including robust use of Harvey balls, of course!]

In addition to paper and electronic books, we also used a couple of iPhone apps to help us prepare and complete our expedition. I tried out a couple of different field guide apps, and while a number of them were pretty decent, my favorite (no surprise!) was PK Birds, the Pizzey and Knight field guide app:

PK Birds

PK Birds has all of the fantastic paintings, detailed text, and accurate maps you’d find in the full Pizzey and Knight field guide. But it also has thousands of photos and audio recordings. The audio recordings were incredibly helpful. I tried to learn the 50 or so most common birds by call or song before I left, so that I didn’t go chasing every Eastern Whipbird off the trail and deep into the rainforest. And we’d listen to recordings of our target species in the car on the way to our next stop so that we could “tune in” to what was singing when we arrived. This app wasn’t cheap, but it totally delivered. I used it for several hours every day of our trip.

A book that won’t help you learn to find or identify Australian birds, but one that will help you to appreciate them more is Tim Low’s incredible new work, Where Song Began.

I read a lot of nonfiction, and this was the most enjoyable book about natural history I’ve read in a long time. Low makes fascinating connections between the geology and geography of Australia and it’s native birds and plant species. Its poor soil combined with favorable amounts of sunlight lead Australian plants to channel much of their excess energy into production of nectar, which in turn drives bird evolution in new and interesting directions. Low also charts the human impacts on Australia’s wildlands, from the aboriginal peoples through colonization and modern times. If you’re planning a trip to Australia (or you’re just interested in avian evolution and natural history), you should definitely check it out.

Of course, my all-time favorite book on birding Australia is not available in any store. It’s a Neil Hayward custom piece:

I’ve told him there’s probably a market for people willing to pay top dollar for a 75-page personalized book that includes custom checklists, itineraries, research guides, site guides with maps, daily logs, and bonus material on plant and mammal IDs. Maybe our next career is making these custom resource guides for birders who prefer independent travel over all-inclusive tours, but still need the scoop on when and where to go, and what to see when they get there? We’d have to test them all out in-country, of course, to make sure they were totally accurate!

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