Li, Yong Ding & Wen, Low Bing. (2016). The 100 Best Birdwatching Sites in Southeast Asia. John Beaufoy Publishing: UK. Pages 328.
From the humid lowland rainforests to the cool cloud forests of Southeast Asia’s tallest mountain, this book is a kaleidoscope of Southeast Asia’s biodiversity. However, this is not a coffee table book for armchair travellers. Its portable format suggests that it is intended to be a trip planning guide and one which some people may take with them for reference if they are embarking on a multi-country, multi-week big trip to the region. In this internet age, is such a book useful? Absolutely. Of the 11 countries covered in this book I have visited 6 of them and I know that internet research for identifying good sites is both time consuming and unreliable. The unreliability comes from a number of factors. Good sites may be masked in internet searches from poorer sites receiving better coverage because of a local patch birder or local community of enthusiasts who give it a higher web footprint.
Sometimes sites receive outstanding billing due to the work of months or years of scientific expeditions, but are virtually inaccessible on logistics for visiting birders. It helps enormously when local experts are able to write a compilation of top sites which take into account the relative richness of sites as well making a judicious and informed decision on site selection based on factors such as ease of access, food and lodging, etc. Such a compilation then can become the basis for more detailed research and for more current research using the internet.
One audience for this book is people who are not going on an organised birding tour and want to know if on a general tour, (e.g. a family holiday with children) if they can fit in some top birding and wildlife sites. Malaysia and Singapore are two countries with excellent sites that can even be fitted in on a day trip. Books like this can help to build confidence amongst visitors and even act as an eye- opener to the larger mainstream travel companies. This results in more visitor traffic to these sites which can be important for conservation when locals see their forests as a resource for income and careers. It also helps the hard-core birders who benefit from uplift to the quality and range of accommodation.
The book is edited by Yong Ding Li and Low Bing Wen. However, behind the cover page attribution to the two editors, an expert team has been brought into play with a number of locally based and visiting researchers, birders and professional tour leaders. An impressive 28 people are contributing authors. Members of the UK-based Oriental Bird Club will recognise familiar names from articles published in Birding Asia and Forktail.
The front sections introduce the reader to Asia's climate, geography and bird habitats. Not always found in site guides, is a useful overview to the families of birds found in the region. For example, one learns that 7 species of megapodes, 105 pigeons and doves, 68 owls, 11 frogmouths, 11 nightjars, 45 kingfishers, 27 species of hornbills, etc. are found in the region. Each country has a map marked with the handful of chosen sites with a brief overview of travel practicalities of climate, health and safety logistics. The birdwatching highlights and the key facts box (number of endemics, number of birds in country list and top 5 birds) is a useful introduction to anyone who has not birded in that country. The site accounts also have boxed key facts and a high level local orientation map. The access & accommodation is clearly written by people who visit these sites and provide a useful baseline for further research using trip reports. I have learnt to be wary of any information published by local tourist authorities. Therefore, books like this and trip reports by people who have been actually out in the field are necessary for serious birders and photographers in planning their own trips. Although it is billed as a guide to the top 100 birdwatching sites, needless to say, this will apply to wildlife in general.
The end sections include an index to help locate species and sites. It also has a list of tour operators. I would have liked to have seen a bigger list arranged by country and those that operate regionally. Internet searches can be hit and miss in finding suitable tour operators. This is another reason why trip reports with recommendations are useful. Another good source of finding out specialist tour operators are the advertisements in the publications of regional bird clubs such as the Oriental Bird Club, African Bird Club, Neotropical Bird Club and the Ornithological Society of the Middle East.
At the start I said this is not a coffee table book. However, it has plenty of beautiful images of highly desirable birds to want you to go out to the wilderness areas of Asia. It is also laid out professionally with a design that makes navigation intuitive. It makes good use of space to pack in a lot of content without it feeling busy or too crammed. It's a very different product to some of the self-published site guides (not to take away from them as these are helpful too). What is perhaps not obvious to the untrained eye is that a book like this brings together a few hundred man-years of field time. Hopefully the publisher will extend this approach to other geographical regions. The obvious audience for the book is birders and wildlife photographers. But it will I am sure, also be a helpful resource for travel industry personnel in mainstream as well as nature specialist companies both in-country and overseas. The appetite for travel to the wilderness is growing and many mainstream tour operators may want to fit in an element of wildlife tourism into a standard cultural or round-trip tour. This book will provide ideas of what is possible and build a connection between mainstream travel and the more specialist birding and wildlife tours. As I mentioned before this can only be a good thing for the specialists who will benefit from an enhanced infrastructure. We see this even in the G7 countries such as the in the UK. The London Wetland Centre is a superb example of a prime nature reserve which is possible only because a huge volume of ordinary visitors generate the cash flow to maintain a nature reserve which is a jewel for birders and photographers.