Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Book Review: Algarve Wildlife - the natural year

Written 'mostly' by Clive Viney with photographs 'mostly' by Ray Tipper, this is the second edition of a title that first appeared in 2009. It is a much more substantial volume than the original with a hard cover and text that has been both revised and considerably expanded. There are also many more photographs, almost 500 in total.

As previously, the core of the book is the bimonthly accounts of the Algarve’s wildlife.  The year is divided into 24 half months and for each period there is a description of the various wildlife features that might be encountered at that time of year.  Although birds and wild flowers predominate there is something for everyone in these sections with mammals, butterflies, dragonflies, fungi, trees, fish, reptiles and amphibians all receiving due coverage.  On average each half month is given about seven pages with variation depending on the number and size of the photographs.

As an example, the section dealing with the current period, 1st to 15th December, makes reference to the unpredictable nature of the weather at this time; there is a list of some of the plants and trees that are in flower; several butterfly species are mentioned and illustrated; a whole page is devoted to two conspicuous fungi (Oyster Mushroom and Fly Agaric); birds that are referred to range from the very common Chiffchaff to the extremely rare Sociable Lapwing and there is a paragraph detailing the seasonal occurrence of hirundines in the Algarve; finally there is the suggestion that this would be a good time of the year for a coastal walk or a visit to Rocha da Pena.

Inevitably, dividing the year in this way results in some statements which, taken in isolation, could be misleading.  For instance, the first half of December may well be a good time to see Caspian Terns but is it really the best time to see a species that is fairly common here outside the breeding season?  Also, although visiting gulls at this time certainly do include Audouin’s Gulls and Slender-billed Gulls in reality both species are present more or less throughout the year.

Whereas in the first edition the bimonthly wildlife descriptions accounted for about 85% of the book, in this new version they are only about 60% as a result of several new chapters being added which cover geology, mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians, butterflies, dragonflies and mosses and liverworts.  There are lists of the English, scientific and in some cases the Portuguese names of the flora and fungi that are mentioned in the main text and a gazetteer with brief information about the many place names featured and a map showing their location.

Naturally, it was the chapter on birds that we turned to first.  It is in the form of an annotated list mostly of species that occur annually but also a few others including, somewhat bizarrely, Small Button-quail that hasn’t been recorded in Portugal since the first half of the last century!  Most (but not all) species are given a code to denote the likelihood of seeing them but, unfortunately, the three categories described really don’t work at all well giving rise to much scope for debate.  In several cases (e.g. Red-billed Chough, Slender-billed Gull and Spectacled Warbler) the brief descriptions of the status of a species seem at odds with the category code that it has been given.  In several instances, the status descriptions suffer from brevity.

The scientific names, English names and taxonomy are said to follow the British Birds list of Western Palearctic Birds but it is the 2013 version that is used.  The impression given is that the authors may not entirely accept the taxonomical changes that were made in the 2015 version.  They have, however, elevated to full species status Iberian Green Woodpecker, Western Subalpine Warbler, Western Olivaceous Warbler and what they call Iberian Azure-winged Magpie but have chosen not to recognise Iberian Grey Shrike.

The chapters on mammals, reptiles and amphibians and on butterflies are also in the form of briefly annotated checklists, while that on dragonflies is little more than a list of the 55 species that have been recorded.  These chapters will be a useful reference for visitors and residents alike and they underline just how much wildlife interest there is in the Algarve.

The photographs are mostly of good quality and some are really excellent but others suffer from their small size and several from a printing process that has rendered them somewhat darker than they might have been.  The choice to include comparatively large photographs of Ruddy Shelduck and Calandra Lark is a bit odd given the status of these species in the Algarve.  There is nothing amiss with having more than one photograph of the same species in different sections of the book (e.g. Bee-eater) but presumably it wasn’t intentional to have the same photograph of Caspian Tern on pages 66 and 205.

We will certainly recommend this book to anyone who expresses an interest in any aspect of the Algarve’s wildlife. The bimonthly sections give a very good indication of what to expect and look out for at any given time of year.  It may not help much with identification issues but it will in many cases point towards which species are likely to be here and thus narrow down the choice from those presented in say a field guide covering the whole of Europe.

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