Undiscovered Owls

Undiscovered Owls

5.00 out of 5 based on 4 customer ratings
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Undiscovered owls – Magnus Robb and the Sound Approach invite you into the mysterious, magical and twilight world of owls.


Explore the twilight world of owls that you can hear in your garden, the park or woods with this lyrical investigation into their sounds. Listen to previously unpublished digital stereo recordings of the owls of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, illustrated with annotated sonagrams. Enjoy paintings and photographs, often of the individuals recorded. Learn how to research into evolution, behaviour and sounds invite us to recognise a dozen new owl species.

Share the thrill of closing in on a huge fish owl found only a handful of times before, the rarest owl in our region. Travel to rugged desert mountains, where the authors chanced upon a previously undiscovered owl, the first new Arabian bird species for nearly 80 years. Learn to listen like an owl and maybe you could find the next one.

Brought to you by the team of obsessives that produced Petrels night and day

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4 reviews for Undiscovered Owls

  1. 5 out of 5
    Rated 5 out of 5


    Really looking forward to this!

  2. 5 out of 5
    Rated 5 out of 5

    (verified owner):

    There can’t be many birders who don’t look forward to a new book from The Sound Approach well in advance of its actual publication. The series is renowned for high production values, cutting edge taxonomy and esoteric information, as well as its promotion of new or obscure forms of Western Palearctic birds, some of which may be serious propositions as good species.
    The discovery of an apparent new species of Strix owl in Arabia last year, subsequently named Omani Owl, has created even more anticipation for this volume. Taxonomists have been aware that our zoogeographical region is likely to contain several cryptic and potentially splittable forms of owl, and The Sound Approach’s ‘hands-on’ ability to independently research these possibilities has meant that knowledge has increased at a faster rate than it could on ever-tightening academic budgets.

    Each volume revolves around original field recordings and the differences which can be heard between different bird populations, subspecies and species, encapsulated in The Sound Approach’s slogan ‘Understanding bird sound’. The high quality and atmospheric recordings are made in the field by lead author Magnus Robb and others mainly on expeditions set up specifically to collect these sound samples in carefully selected geographical locations.

    The interlinking text and recordings mean that Undiscovered Owls is a personally engaging and interactive experience. Consecutively numbered recordings on the four CDs are continually referred to and meant to be listened to as you read. Adjacent to these are annotated sonograms of each recording, too, enabling details of the sound to be ‘read’ and become more apparent. This now-familiar method was a pioneering innovation in the very first Sound Approach book and has been a defining feature since, but it really does work with practice — you hear the nuances and fluctuations of each hoot and shriek more clearly under visual instruction, and appreciate the authors’ subtle evaluations.

    But the headline purpose of the book for most will be the “undiscovered” forms they didn’t know about before, or further confirmation of those they may have suspected. So, let’s do the splits.

    Immediately, the first chapter on the barn owl genus Tyto declares three new island endemics “for the sake of argument”: Slender-billed Barn Owl on the eastern Canary Islands, plus the eponymous Madeira and Cape Verde Barn Owls. Straight away, we can see some of the fascinations and difficulties behind The Sound Approach’s methods.
    Without a confirmatory molecular study, the differences in physical proportions and minor plumage and call divergences could perhaps be the result of a ‘founder effect’ — features derived from a skewed gene sample provided by a small number of original colonists — or Foster’s rule, where island species change in size and proportions. While the authors briefly discuss the lack of genetic studies, some might argue it would be more taxonomically valid to keep these forms as subspecies pending further research. Turkish Fish Owl is split from Brown on the basis of its calls and a 2 per cent DNA disparity, but based on limited samples (though this is hardly surprising given its near-mythical status until recently).

    That’s not to say that the authors aren’t correct on all these points, of course, and it is riveting seeing the discovery of the different forms unfolding through a mix of travel book, expedition log and detective story.

    Further splits suggested are a strongly presented one between Little Owl (western Europe and Iberia) and ‘Cucumiau’ (North Africa, eastern Mediterranean and across the rest of Eurasia), which many birders won’t have suspected before (see Birdwatch 275: 62-67), as well as the split of Cyprus Scops Owl from Eurasian, while because of the book’s coverage of the entire Arabian Peninsula, Arabian Scops Owl (split from African Scops Owl) also gets a chapter. Arabian Eagle Owl (split from Spotted Eagle Owl) gets its own account, too, while Pharoah Eagle Owl remains separate from Eurasian, and ‘Lapland Owl’ is split from the North American Great Grey Owl. The recent conflation of the two Ural Owl subspecies in Europe seems further confirmed by the recordings in the book.

    Sonograms comparing the songs of Little Owl (top) and ‘Cucumiau’.

    The fragmentation of Tawny Owl continues apace with a chapter on Maghreb Wood Owl, which has a deeper call and darker plumage than Tawny, and was in fact viewed as a good species a century ago. The recent controversy over Hume’s and Omani Owls is addressed in the book as an addendum, and the team stick to their guns in retaining Omani as a new species, but reserve judgement on the published revelation that the type specimen of Hume’s was also a different species that may correspond to Omani, and which was also given a new scientific name by other authors (see Birdwatch 272: 82). Pragmatically, they leave a full conclusion open to further research.

    This is a sumptuous and eye-opening read, as well as an authoritative reference for years to come. The joy of discovery and the pains of detailed hard work are profuse throughout, and the book remains an engrossing read due to Robb’s pleasingly conversational style. It will also give adventurous birders plenty of scope to plan trips to see — and hear — these mysterious and hard-won species for themselves.

  3. 5 out of 5
    Rated 5 out of 5

    (verified owner):

    UNDISCOVERED OWLS: A Sound Approach Guide

    This is the latest in a series of lavishly-produced books pioneering identification strategies based primarily on sound recordings. Once again, it is a very impressive piece of work – extremely pleasing on the eye, thought invoking text and crammed full of essential information. This publication concentrates on all of the Western Palearctic’s 27 owl ‘species’ and allows for a comprehensive study of each and every one.

    The Sound Approach team is made up of a small band of elite and highly experienced ornithologists, namely Arnoud van den Berg, Mark Constantine, Magnus Robb, Dick Forsman, Killian Mullarney and Rene Pop, and has been actively pursuing such projects since the early 1990’s. Magnus is the main man when it comes to recordings and the understanding and production of sonograms, while the others all have their own individual niches to fill – all in all a formidable team. Add to that the professional design expertise of Cecilia Bosman and Mientje Petrus and then you have one production team bar none and this book is working proof of such marvel – it is an undoubted masterpiece.

    In just under 300 pages, it’s 9 chapters work their way through all of the Western Palearctic Owls and to get the optimum from the text, the book really needs to be read in conjunction with the four CD’s that accompany the tome. It is a book from my own heart, adopting the rather liberal approach of taxonomy and running with 27 rather than 19 species, based around both physical & morphological differences as well as vocalisation differences. The book has numerous surprises up its sleeve, splitting Barn Owl into 4 (Common, Slender-billed, Madeiran & Cape Verde), Scops Owl into 4 (Eurasian, Cyprus, Pallid & Arabian), Eagle Owl into 3 and recognising Maghreb Tawny Owl as distinct, as it clearly is by those that have seen and heard the species in Morocco.

    Each chapter is highly detailed, often running to 15 pages per species, and incorporates lavish photography, lots of sonograms and useful histories. The text is very readable but with an obvious bias on sound recordings – great detail going in to describe how and when each segment was obtained. A map highlighting the approximate distribution of each species is also included. The majority of the images used to illustrate each species are sumptuous whilst Hakan Delin’s evocative artwork is patch-quilted around the text and histograms, complimenting the presentation. Many of the names used to describe each species are straightforward but ‘Cucumiau’ for Desert Little Owl was somewhat unexpected and Great Grey becomes Lapland Owl in justification for separating it from the Nearctic counterpart ‘species’. I must admit to being rivetted to the book at times, the chapters on Hume’s and Omani Owls being particularly illuminating – the latter remaining undiscovered before work commenced on this project.

    All in all an absolutely essential purchase and a book to be extremely proud of.

    Lee G R Evans, British Birding Association, 12 April 2015

  4. 5 out of 5
    Rated 5 out of 5

    (verified owner):

    Rare Bird Alert – Andy Stoddart

    With their 2008 ‘Petrels Night and Day’, the Sound Approach team pioneered a whole new sound-based exploration of their chosen subjects. Now, in this new book, this approach is applied to that ever-popular though enigmatic group of birds – the owls.

    After a brief Introduction, the book’s nine chapters are devoted to the nine Western Palearctic owl genera, each then subdivided into its constituent species. The bulk of each species account comprises a detailed analysis of its vocalisations, broken down into the various call types of males, females and young. Lightening what might otherwise be quite a dry text are some revealing insights into the team’s adventures in the field, recounting the triumphs and failures which are inevitably part of trying to get close to (and photograph and record) such elusive birds.

    The text is supplemented by numbered references to the accompanying CDs and to sonograms which provide a neat graphical illustration of many of the tracks, with the most significant or important aspects clearly annotated. However, whilst the sonograms are highly instructive, it is far more rewarding to sit back and listen to the CDs themselves. These are wonderfully atmospheric, transporting the listener to such fabulous locations as the cosatal marshes of Morocco, the arid mountains of Oman and the boreal forests of Finland. However, the individual tracks are not announced with either a species name or reference number and so the slightest interruption or lapse of concentration means losing your place in the sequence.

    The book’s guiding premise is that vocalisations offer an under-explored tool in avian systematics and that, used alongside morphological, ecological, geographical and genetic evidence, they can inform a whole new perspective on taxonomy. Vocal evidence is of particular significance in owls, argue the authors, as their calls are genetically ‘hard-wired’, their differences representing sometimes long periods of independent evolution. However, despite the importance of this aspect of the team’s work and the inevitable interest it will provoke, the taxonomic discussions are tucked away in each of the species accounts and take some finding. Once found, though, they provide a fascinating challenge to traditional taxonomy, presenting nothing less than a wholesale redrawing of species limits in a number of Western Palearctic owls.

    Perhaps the most eye-catching proposal is a vocalisations-based split of the Little Owls into two ‘new’ species – our own Little Owl, breeding in northwest Europe (including Britain) and Iberia, and the quaintly-named Cucumiau, comprising the other Athene owls in southern and eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

    Other proposals include the recognition of three Atlantic Island Barn Owl species – Slender-billed Barn Owl of the eastern Canaries, Madeira Barn Owl and Cape Verde Barn Owl. Nearby, in northwest Africa, the dark, coarsely-marked and vocally distinct ‘Tawny Owls’ are recognised as Maghreb Wood Owl whilst, in the southeast corner of the region, the authors propose Cyprus Scops Owl, Arabian Scops Owl and Arabian Eagle Owl as full species. Transatlantic relationships are also touched on, the authors proposing species status for both members of several species pairs i.e. Tengmalm’s and Boreal Owls, Lapland and Great Gray Owls and Long-eared and Wilson’s Owls.

    Perhaps the most exciting of the accounts occur towards the end of the book. The story of the rediscovery of Brown Fish Owl in southern Turkey is well-known but is dramatically reprised here and, of particular interest to those who have already twitched these birds, they are presented here as a new (and therefore staggeringly rare) species – Turkish Fish Owl.

    The most dramatic account is kept until last, however. This is of course the story of the recent (re)discovery by the Sound Approach team of a new owl in the Al Hajar mountains of northern Oman. Now named Omani Owl, its discovery has truly captured the birding headlines whilst the subsequent debates over what it actually is have made for fascinating (if somewhat arcane) reading. This is very much a ‘work in progress’ and it will be fascinating to see how our knowledge of the status, distribution and taxonomic position of this bird develops over coming years.

    The landscape format of this book mirrors that of ‘Petrels Night and Day’ and whilst this makes for an attractive product it does not sit well in most bookcases. Inside, the layout is clean and attractive with liberal use of colour photographs, including some stunning images of Turkish Fish Owl and a wonderful selection of Omani Owl pictures. To add further visual delight, there are many supremely delicate paintings by Håkan Delin, each one a triumph in the restrained use of colour.

    In summary, this is another great example of pioneering, investigative birding by this dynamic team, deploying not just new technology but also the more traditional virtues of imagination and dedication. By looking at (and listening to) owls in new ways and refusing to be constrained by conventional wisdom, they have given us a wholly new perspective on these fascinating but mysterious birds. This will be without doubt one of the most important bird books of the year.

    Andrew Stoddart
    28 April 2015

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