AUSTRALASIA




Australasia includes Australia, New Guinea and its satellite islands, and Halmahera & the Moluccan islands. It is a beautiful land with many strange and wonderful beasts. I've only visited three times so far, but this montage does capture a wide variety of habitats from grasslands to tropical jungles, seacoast heath to cloud-forested mountains:


FAMILIES

A total of 19 families are entirely endemic to the Australasian realm. Most are part of the corvid radiation that arose in Australasia (Sibley & Alquist 1990), some members of which (crows, jays, shrikes) spread throughout the world:

 
Casuariidae Cassowaries Cinclosomatidae Whipbirds & Quail-Thrushes
Dromaiidae Emu Neosittidae Sittellas
Pedionomidae Plains-wanderer Grallinidae Mudnest-Builders
Aegothelidae Owlet-Nightjars Corcoracidae Apostlebirds
Menuridae Lyrebirds & Allies Cracticidae Butcherbirds & Bellmagpies
Atrichornithidae Scrub-birds Ptilonorhynchidae Bowerbirds
Maluridae Fairywrens & Allies Paradisaeidae Birds-of-Paradise
Epthianuridae Australian Chats Climacteridae Australo-Papuan Creepers
Orthonychidae Logrunners Pardalotidae Pardalotes
Pomatostomidae Australo-Papuan Babblers
Two additional families are near-endemics: the Australo-Papuan warblers (59 species) have six species of Gerygone that "leak" over into Asiatic Indonesia or into the oceanic islands (New Zealand, New Caledonia; thus 90% endemic), while in the Australo-Papuan Robins some 39 of 44 species are endemic (89%). So the near-endemic families are:
 
Acanthizidae Australo-Papuan Warblers Petroicidae Australo-Papuan Robins
AVAILABLE REFERENCES

Handbook: There is a handbook series on-going (Marchant & Higgins 1991 et al.) entitled Handbook of Australian, New Zealand, and Antarctic Birds. It is modeled closely after the Birds of the Western Palearctic (Cramp & Simmons 1978 et al.), published by the same publisher, and of the same general high quality. Alas, the first volume appeared in 1991 and therefore just missed incorporating all the new identification & distributional information on small Pterodroma petrels published by me and others (Roberson & Bailey 1991, Spear et al. 1992). Since many of these originate in New Zealand or vicinity, the first volume was immediately out-of-date when it appeared. I admit it turned me off to read numerous errors in the Pterodroma sections, and I ended up not buying this set (it is also incredible expensive, even for a handbook). I have used other folk's copies for research since, though, and the more recent volumes seem quite good.

Australasia is unique in having a type of book I've never seen so well done before -- the photo mini-handbook. These are tomes which gather together a short summary of that which one would find in a handbook (plumage & distributional details, habitat, taxonomic relationships, voice, and something on breeding biology) and then illustrate each species with one or more high quality photos (the best that could be found.. in the case of rare or shy birds, the photo may not be superb but at least IS a picture of the bird in the wild). For Australia, this photo mini-handbook bears the unlikely name of the Reader's Digest Complete Book of Australian Birds (Frith 1979), but it is quite good. The photo choices made far surpass the potpourri of good-to-awful photos chosen for American or European photo books, which generally disappoint.

Amazingly enough, New Guinea has an even better two-volume photo mini-handbook: Coates' (1985 & 1990) The Birds of Papua New Guinea. While it does not cover Irian Jaya endemics (but it does cover New Britain as, politically, it is part of Papua New Guinea), it still includes the vast majority of New Guinea birds. Brian Coates has some just astonishingly wonderful photos taken in the wild. Shots like a Sooty Thicket-Fantail Rhipidura threnothorax drinking at a forest pool next to a Thick-billed Ground Pigeon Trugon terrestris (both hard-to-see forest dwellers), or, even more dramatic, a Stephan's Dove Chalcophaps stephani giving a threat display to a male King Bird-of-Paradise Cicinnurus regius (at perhaps the same forest pool? must have had a photo blind set out there) are beyond belief. Yes, it is obvious that some superb shots are of birds mist-netted and placed in small enclosures with native vegetation for photos, a technique pioneered by John Dunning in South America (see Dunning 1970). But they are still pictures of birds just moments from being in the wild and which will soon be there again. And yes, some of the birds-of-paradise in display (including the absolutely stunning Blue Bird-of-Paradise Paradisaea rudolphi) were taken in zoos (with the bars carefully hidden). And yes, he doesn't always tell you which photo technique was used and which are the zoo birds, but there is still more than enough here to entertain anyone. He does have Lawes' Parotia Parotia lawesii at his display court in the wild and, better yet, a great overview shot of Magnificent Bird-of-Paradise Cicinnurus magnificus in display on his carefully-tended forest-floor court. And the text that goes with it all is up-to-date, readable, and presents a lot of new stuff. Plus nice range maps for all species. Have I babbled enough? These two volumes rank among the best bird books in the world.

Field Guides: The three main elements that make up Australasia have their own guides:
    AUSTRALIA: On my first visit in the early 1980s, there was a two-volume Slater series of small field guides (passerines and non-passerines) and huge coffee-table book with more thorough text (Simpson & Day 1984) that was kept in the car. Now, the two competing guides are available in smaller, one-volume, softcover format: the Slater guide (Slater, Slater & Slater 1989) and the 5th ed. of Simpson & Day (1996). Simpson & Day is still a bigger book and has a short "mini-handbook" in the back explaining characteristics of the families (which I found nicely written). I liked the art in Simpson & Day a bit more than the Slater, but the latter fits easily in a pocket so still was my field guide of choice on a day's birding. Take both; keep the Simpson & Day in the car or motel room (there is a third competing guide by Graham Pizzey that I've not even tried in its current incarnation, although the initial edition was quite good).
    NEW GUINEA: there was no field guide when I first visited in 1983; I "created" my own by drawing color pencil sketches of what I thought the birds would look like based on the descriptions in the thick tome by Rand & Gilliard (1967), and we used Beehler (1978) for the central mountains of Papua New Guinea. Diamond (1972) was along for further textual details (but no plates). Now all birders have the extraordinary luck to have one of the finest field guides in the world available, and for such a remote place: Beehler, Pratt & Zimmerman's (1986) Birds of New Guinea. I find Dale Zimmerman's paintings in this guide to be both very accurate (with only some minor quibbles -- much more accurate than most field guides) and evocative, and the text is authoritative. This is due, in part, because Brian Finch -- an indomitable field birder -- had a hand in much of the text and almost all of the vocalization accounts.
    HALMAHERA & THE MOLUCCAN ISLANDS: This was one of those spots with almost nothing available at all until just recently, when Coates & Bishop's (1997) A Guide to the Birds of Wallacea appeared. I haven't yet used it in the field, but it looks like a modern state-of-the-art field guide and mini-handbook (it is quite thick for the number of species covered).

Journals: There are local journals in Australia, and a newsletter for the birding club in Papua New Guinea, but none I have seen come anywhere close to major journals on the scale of British Birds or America Birds/Field Notes. The realm does not seem to have an adequate journal, and yet it has some of the best books in the world. Go figure...

Non-bird Book [nature / exploration / adventure]: Jared Diamond has written some provocative books on man, nature, and culture based on his New Guinea experiences but I'm not sure that is exactly the category I'm looking for here. Peter Matthiesen's Below the Mountain Wall tells the cultural story of the people of the Baliem Valley, first "discovered" to the outside world early in the 20th century. But I'm sure there is one or more great books out there about exploring the nature of New Guinea, or the outback of Australia, that would catch my imagination. I just haven't come across them yet.

BEST BIRDS [see my explanation for choosing "best birds" here]

It was very difficult to choose 7 "best birds" in Australasia (even after I expanded the choices from 5 to 7, it didn't help). I admit to being totally enamored with Birds-of-Paradise, and folks with special interest in Australia (over New Guinea) might have quite different choices. And even I struggled with which BOPs to pick and which to leave out (surely the King of Saxony BOP Pteridophora alberti and the Little King BOP Cicinnurus regius are among the best in the world! And any of the four sicklebills Epimachus would make a trip worthwhile!), not to mention a variety of near-mythical species of the undergrowth in New Guinea, including Shovel-billed Kingfisher Clytoceyx rex and Pheasant Pigeon Otidiphaps nobilis (even their scientific names shout spectacular!). And what about any of the 8 species of Paradise-Kingfishers Tanysiptera? Or either lyrebird? And do you mean to say you totally forgot about the bowerbirds? This are impossible choices, but my 7 picks are:

FAVORITE PHOTOS: This link goes to a page with the three favorite Australasian bird photos that I have taken so far.

Literature cited:

Beehler, B. 1978. Upland Birds of Northeastern New Guinea. Wau Ecology Institute Handbook 5, Wau.

Beehler, B. M., T. K. Pratt, and D. A. Zimmerman. 1986. Birds of New Guinea. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, N. J.

Coates, B. J. 1985. The Birds of Papua New Guinea. Vol. 1. Dove Publ., Alderley, Australia.

Coates, B. J. 1990. The Birds of Papua New Guinea. Part II. Dove Publ., Ltd., Alderley, Australia.

Coates, B. J., and K. D. Bishop. 1997. A Guide to the Birds of Wallacea. Alderley, Australia.

Collar, N.J., M.J. Crosby, and A.J. Stattersfield. 1994. Birds to Watch 2: The World List of Threatened Birds. BirdLife Conservation Series No. 4, BirdLife International, Cambridge, U.K.

Cramp, S. 1978. Handbook of the Birds of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa: The Birds of the Western Palearctic. Vol. 1: Ostrich to Ducks. Oxford Univ. Press [and 8 more volumes thereafter through 1997].

Diamond, J. M. 1972. Avifauna of the Eastern Highland of New Guinea. Nuttall Club Publ. 12. Cambridge, MA.

Dunning, J. S. 1970. Portraits of Tropical Birds. Livingston Publishing, Wynnewood, PA.

Frith, H. J., consulting ed. 1979. The Reader's Digest Complete Book of Australian Birds. 2d revised ed. Reader's Digest Services, Ltd., Sydney.

Marchant, S., and P. J. Higgins. 1991. Handbook of Australian, New Zealand, and Antarctic Birds. Vol. 1 (in two Parts). Oxford Univ. Press.

Rand, A. L., and E. T. Gilliard. 1967. Handbook of New Guinea Birds. Weindefeld & Necolson, London.

Roberson, D. and Bailey, S. F. 1991. Cookilaria petrels in the eastern Pacific Ocean: identification and distribution. Am. Birds 45: 399-403 (Part I); Am. Birds 45: 1067-1081 (Part 2).

Sibley, C. G., and J. E. Alquist. 1990. Phylogeny and Classification of Birds: A Study in Molecular Evolution. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.

Simpson, K., and N. Day. 1984. The Birds of Australia: a Book of Identification. Tanager Books,   Dover, N. H.

Simpson, K., and N. Day. 1996. Field Guide to the Birds of Australia. 5th ed. Penguin Books Australia Ltd., Ringwood, Australia.

Slater, P., P. Slater, and R. Slater. 1989. The Slater Field Guide to Australian Birds. Rev. ed. Weldon Books, Sydney.

Spear, L. G., S. N. G. Howell, and D. G. Ainley. 1992. Notes on the at-sea identification of some   Pacific gadfly petrels (genus Pterodroma). Colonial Waterbirds 15: 202-218.

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