Book Review: Birds and Animals of the Serengeti, Princeton University Press

I recently received review copies of Birds of the Serengeti and Animals of the Serengeti, both part of the Wild Guides series by Princeton University Press. Author Adam Scott Kennedy and his wife Vicki Kennedy have worked as a private safari guides and luxury safari camp managers in Tanzania and Kenya since 2008, acquiring extensive personal experience with perhaps the most spectacular fauna in the world. In this time, Kennedy has also accumulated a remarkable array of high quality photographs of most of the bird and animals species of the greater Serengeti region. Drawing on both, he has developed two comprehensive and easy-to-use photographic field guides, the perfect resources to accompany a wildlife enthusiast’s first trip to the region.

In his introduction to the Birds of the Serengeti, Kennedy clarifies how his photographic guide to the birds of the region differs from traditional field guides: he is targeting the wildlife enthusiast with a budding interest in birds, not necessarily the hardcore birder. To this end, he includes only high quality photographic images of the birds, instead of the typical drawings found in field guides that emphasize the field marks of a bird often but fail to communicate the GISS, or general impression of size and shape. Consequently, the bird you see in the field is often exactly what you find in the book, and equally clear is its habitat, such as a thorny acacia branch or a forest floor littered with dead leaves. Kennedy also avoids using intimidating jargon to describe bird species, opting instead to keep the tone of his descriptions light hearted while still being informative. Finally, as it only covers 264 of the bird species most likely to be encountered in the Serengeti (over 500 have been recorded in the region), the book is reasonably sized, fitting nicely in the hand or camera bag.

Instead of including distribution maps for each bird species, which can often confuse visitors unfamiliar with the region, the author intelligently organizes species by habitat, not taxonomic order. Birds typically found in acacia scrub, for example, are all grouped together. This makes identification simpler for the novice, and even more experienced birders will appreciate this system of organization: after spotting a weaver bird in the field, you’ll only have to choose between the handful that inhabit acacia scrub, instead of flipping through all the pages of weavers found in the greater Serengeti region. The book is divided into nine such habitats: plains; marsh and water; woodland, scrub, and garden; acacia scrub; village; forest; birds of the air; nightbirds; and Lake Victoria specials. Each habitat is clearly defined in the introduction and helpfully color-coded, which should reduce the critical time between seeing a bird in the field and locating it in the guide. While there are some limitations to this approach, such as the issue of poorly defined or overlapping habitats, it definitely makes the guide more user friendly and less intimidating.

Before discussing the companion volume, Animals of the Serengeti, I’d like to praise the overall visual effect of the Birds of the Serengeti. The overwhelming majority of photographs are of exceptionally high quality, undoubtedly shot with the finest equipment, but also indicative of a high level of skill. Photographs taken midday on the barren plains and those captured in the dark forests of Ngorongoro Crater are equally detailed and rich in color. For example, you can appreciate the long eyelashes of the Secretary Bird on the book’s cover as well as the subtle variations in plumage color of the Cinnamon-Chested Bee-Eater. Birds in flight are also captured in impressive clarity and detail, which is no easy task when photographing swifts, swallows, and martins. A final excellent feature of the book is the photo editing used to blend different photographs together on the same page. Page 192 shows three different bee-eater species perched neatly but impossibly together, and I still can’t figure out whether the images of the male and female Purple Grenadier on page 162 were taken at the same time because the editing is so seamless throughout.

Animals of the Serengeti is pitched to an even wider audience than Birds of the Serengeti, purporting to empower safari participants “to have the confidence to make the right call on any animal you see.” The field guide is similarly attractive as the Birds of the Serengeti, although it’s not quite as innovative or extensive of a resource. Covering 89 animal and reptile species, the book is uniquely peppered with anecdotes and tips from six local safari guides working in the region. This human touch is a nice feature, and it's likely you'll come across one of the "Big 6" on safari in the region. While this volume is less dense than the Birds of the Serengeti and exhibits fewer examples of fancy photo editing, the photography in general is of equally high quality. Of course, the classic African “Big 5” are beautifully represented, but there are also some great photographs of infrequently seen animals, such as the Caracal, Aardvark, and Pangolin, a bizarre armor-plated anteater. In general, Animals of the Serengeti is an accessible and attractive photographic field guide, appropriate for the wildlife enthusiast who is looking for more than simply not going on safari empty handed.

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