It was a huge revelation for all birders in the region when Craig Robson’s A Field Guide to the Birds of South-east Asia came out in 2000 on New Holland Publishers. Since 1975 and until then, the local birding ‘bible’ had been Ben King’s book on Collins by the same title. King however, did use a lot of black-and-white only plates, many forest species were not illustrated at all, and he made the mistake of never revising his work which died a quiet death after 2000.
King is an outstanding American ornithologist, he continued to study and lead bird watching tours to the region he loved, but he left the job of selling bird books to his younger British heir. Robson took over gladly, his book became an instant best-seller for New Holland, a cheaper soft cover version was put out in 2002 (above).
In 2005 the smaller New Holland Field Guide to the Birds of South-East Asia came out (below). This new book was smaller in size and had less text, all descriptions were now facing the 142 colour plates, it included 19 species new to the region and 120 illustrations were re-done. Then recently, late in 2008, Robson went back to his roots and published a new edition of the 2000 hard cover book, stock just arrived in Singapore.
Events have favoured Craig Robson in the sense that other bird book publishers in the region have been asleep at the wheel. Oxford published an excellent guide to Singapore and Malaysian birds by local expert Allen Jeyarajasingam, A Field Guide to the Birds of West Malaysia and Singapore, 1999. Even before then, Lim King Seng, our home-grown field ornithologist published Birds: An Illustrated Field Guide to the Birds of Singapore, Sun Tree Publishing, 1997. Robson didn’t even site Kim Seng’s admirable effort as a source, much to the author’s fully understandable consternation,
Instead, Robson sites the 1998 checklist by R. Subaraj as his Singapore source, plus subsequent sightings published in Oriental Bird Club publications (sightings, which he himself edits!). Presumably, the superb An Annotated Checklist of the Birds of Singapore by Wang & Hails, 2007, came out too late for Robson to use.
Anyway, both Allen J’s and Kim Seng’s marvelous local works are now long out of print. Allen J. and Oxford keep saying they will come out with a new edition …. Soon! … that was three years ago. Kim Seng and Sun Tree sing much the same tune. And in the meantime Robson is laughing all the way to the bank! His is the only complete field guide to all the species, if you want to go birding anywhere in mainland South-east Asia, including Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore. A spin-off cut-and-paste field guide job for the birds of Thailand was put together later, the possibilities here are endless.
This is not to say anything detrimental about the author. I have never met him, but he seems like a real nice guy from e-mail correspondence, and he works hard continuously updating his skills and his knowledge. Nigel Collar is his scientific editor at New Holland, and together this outstanding team possesses a wealth of knowledge, both are regarded as ‘splitters’ in the community, obsessed with finding new records, species and taxonomic variations and updates.
The 2008 edition (left) is a major revision by Robson and Collar, 76 species new to the region have been added compared to the edition from 2000, that is a staggering 6% increase in eight years, a combination of taxonomic splits and new vagrant records. A total of 120 plates (before 104) illustrate all species, sexes and distinct subspecies, many drawings are re-done and the print quality is better. The text is (like in 2000) behind the plates, but design-wise it is now split into two columns and as such much easier to read. There is a wealth of new information on status and ecology for each species, most of this missing from the handy 2005 edition.
Presumably, New Holland wants to continue the 2005 book as a cheaper, lighter field ID-guide only. However, anyone who is seriously concerned about the current status of all the region’s birds must have the new 2008 book. Experts can argue about the validity of some of the records, but all credit must go to the author for working hard through the years to produce this unrivaled bird watching tool for us in the region.
A Field Guide to the Birds of South-East Asia, 2008, is available from Nature’s Niche at S$93.60.