Book Review: Birds of Western Ecuador, Princeton University Press

Birds of Western Ecuador is an excellent new photographic field guide by Nick Athanas and Paul Greenfield. This geographically tiny area is rich in biological diversity and home to some of the world's most spectacular and colorful birds. Visiting Ecuador has long been on the wish-list of every birder, and this book depicts nearly all of the region's bird species in the wild, including almost 1,500 photographs of 946 species. Even the rarest and most difficult birds are presented in full-color, high-resolution photographs, such as the Banded Ground-Cuckoo, Black-Chested Puffleg, Rufous-Crowned Antpitta, Star-Chested Treerunner, Choco Vireo, Golden-Chested Tanager, and Tanager Finch. The book also includes up-to-date species accounts and range maps, making it the most comprehensive and authoritative field guide to the birds of the region.


Birders have long debated the relative merits of illustrative and photographic field guides. Illustrations present birds systematically and uniformly, and they usually emphasize the distinguishing field marks of a bird. On the other hand, photographs depict birds in context and offer a better impression of size and shape. In the past, photographic field guides have suffered in accuracy and unevenness in quality. Even high-quality photographs do not always depict a bird's field marks clearly or exhaustively, and it is difficult to capture satisfactory images of male, female, and juvenile plumages. For these reasons, most photographic guides focus only on common birds and target novice or casual birders. Birds of Western Ecuador overcomes all these challenges and is the first photographic guide I have seen that surpasses the utility of an illustrative guide.


Nick Athanas is one of the cofounders of Tropical Birding, a tour company based in Quito that runs world-class birding trips all over the world. He has long published his bird photographs on his website Antpitta, a project that has evolved greatly in quantity and quality over the years. Paul Greenfield is coauthor and illustrator of the definitive Birds of Ecuador, a two-volume tome that birders have dutifully carried around in the field since 2001. Athanas and Greenfield are both long-time residents of the country, and they know the birds of western Ecuador as well as anyone in the world. The book contains significant photographic contributions from Athanas's colleagues at Tropical Birding, including Iain Cambell, Pablo Cervantes Daza, Sam Woods, and Andrew Spencer, and a number of other resident birders and guides contributed photos, such as Roger Ahlman and Dusan Brinkhuizen.


I was fortunate to live in Ecuador for six years myself and birded western Ecuador regularly. I have seen many of these birds myself, although not always with the stunning clarity and detail that they are presented in this guide. For example, I have spotted male Scarlet-and-White Tanagers on several occasions in mixed canopy flocks in northwestern Ecuador, but never at eye level. Brinkhuizen has though, and he captured this once-in-a-lifetime moment in a photograph of dazzling color and clarity. Equally impressive, and fortuitous, are shots of the Tawny-Faced Quail, Solitary Eagle, Banded Ground Cuckoo, Black Solitaire, Yellow-Green Bush-Tanager, Blue-Whiskered Tanager, and Pale-Headed Brush-Finch. As is clear from the photographer credits, Ecuador is home to dozens of top-rate birders and guides, each armed with the latest professional photographic equipment. Birds of Western Ecuador is a veritable storehouse of their finest avian encounters.

During the research and development process of this photographic guide, Nick Athanas inquired whether he could use a few of my own photographs. Although I have never had a first-rate camera or lens, I did spend enough time in the field to capture several once-in-a-lifetime moments myself, even on my tired Nikon D80 camera and beat-up Nikkor 70-300mm telephoto lens. Three of my photographs are published in this guide, depicting an adult male Andean Condor in flight at Antisana Reserve, a male Elegant Crescentchest in repose in Loja Province, and a Black-Cowled Saltator feeding near Utuana Reserve. This is a modest contribution given the extent of the guide, but I am proud of it nevertheless. To avoid copyright issues, I have only posted my own photographs to accompany this review, but readers can be assured that those in the guide are even better.

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