In Part one of this four-part article series, I gave a background to the island of New Guinea and how its geological history may have played a significant role in an evolutionary radiation of new species. I continue the second part of this series by picking up on the discussion of the latest field guide to the Birds of New Guinea, by Phil Gregory. The ‘Birds of New Guinea: Including Bismarck Archipelago and Bougainville’ is published by Lynx Edicions. The publisher, co-founded by Josep del Hoyo another medical doctor turned ornithologist, is a story in itself. However, here let me turn my attention to the hard-backed, 464 page field guide, which is a chunky offering, but yet of a size for use in the field.

Unlike in many field guides, under the family descriptions, it lists the number of species in the world and that recorded in the region covered in the book. I can see that this may not add a lot of value in a field guide to the Birds of Britain for example. However, given that New Guinea and Australia are the centres for species radiation for some families, this provides additional context. For example, of the 42 species of the Birds of Paradise, 38 are found in New Guinea. Other examples that illustrate the endemic radiations in New Guinea are the Pigeons and Doves (353 species, 70 in the region) and birds in the families Acanthizidae (Australian Warblers, Mouse-warblers, Scrubwrens, Gerygones Thornbills and Goldenface) and Pachycephalidae (Whistlers and Shrike-thrushes and Pitohuises).

Even the common names are exotic and conjure up visions of exploring a little known wilderness. In each of these families, around a third of the species are found in the region with many of them being endemic to the region. There are many families with a small number of species present in the region where these species are endemic. To quote two examples, all of the Berrypeckers (family Paramythiidae) and Jewel Babblers (family Cinclosomatidae) are endemic. What is more, these species are stunning. Perhaps none so stunning as the famed Birds of Paradise which have been a frequent subject of illustration from ever since explorers from the West came across these birds. Gregory’s book has stunning and most importantly ornithologically accurate plates drawn by 25 of the world’s best-known bird illustrators. Several of them have had coffee table wildlife art books published.

If you are visiting London, look out for the annual exhibition (usually held around October) of the Society of Wildlife Artists (SWLA) held at the Mall Gallery which is opposite the wonderful St James Park. Some of the artists in this book are SWLA members and exhibit their work of a more artistic tilt (as opposed to illustrative) with that of some the finest wildlife artists in the world.

The island of New Guinea has two political divisions. The western half which is almost entirely linearly demarcated is a province of Indonesia known as West Papua. The eastern half is Papua New Guinea which includes the Bismarck Archipelago and Bougainville. The latter is an autonomous province of Papua New Guinea but zoogeographically is a part of the Solomon Islands zoogeographical region. The nine species of endemic birds found in Bougainville inflate the ‘New Guinea’ endemic species total stated earlier. If zoogeographical rather than political boundaries are used, this number will be taken out. But this is a small detraction from the overall numbers of endemics which are staggering.

New Guinea, the second largest island in the world after Greenland has 800 languages spoken within it. Just as with the fauna and flora, the people have been isolated from each other for a long time resulting in the diversification of languages. It has a range of mountains broadly cutting across it in the middle, from east to west. New Guinea took its name from Spanish and Portuguese sailors who sighted it in the 16th century and named if after Guinea in Africa. The western half of the mainland was a Dutch possession which was annexed by Indonesia in 1963 to become West Papua. In 1884 Germany annexed the northern parts of the eastern half of the mainland and the Bismarck Islands and Britain proclaimed a protectorate over the southern parts. Australia successively took over the German and British part until when in 1965 Papua New Guinea was declared as an independent state. The largest block of unbroken tropical rainforest in Asia and the Pacific is in the island of New Guinea.