Monday, August 1, 2016

Britain’s Birds. A Book Review.

Birders love their collections of field guides, generally added to or updated on each trip to some far flung corner of the world or when a new version of an old favourite is announced. Birders also like to debate the pros and cons of either an artwork or a photographic field guide and usually come down fairly and squarely in favour of one style or the other. Their preference was thrown into yet more debate in recent years by the innovative Crossley guides that sit between the two camps. 

If an opinion poll existed my guess would be that most birders favour artwork guides, so it will be interesting to see how the birding community receive a new and entirely photographic guide to the birds of the UK. The book in the spotlight today is Britain’s Birds: An Identification Guide to the Birds of Britain and Ireland by Rob Hume, Robert Still, Andy Swash, Hugh Harrop & David Tipling. Published by Princeton University Press, the book is due for launch at BirdFair 2016 and for general release in mid August. 

Britain's Birds - Princeton University Press

Via Princeton’s pre-publicity I read that the book measures just 6” by 8” and contains 3,300 colour photos within its 560 pages. My immediate thought was that the authors would do well to squeeze the requisite information into the available space and I was more than keen to see the finished article. When I first unpacked Britain’s Birds it was obvious that here was a hefty piece of work. It tipped the scales at 1200 grams, making it a candidate for inclusion in a large rucksack containing all the essentials of modern birding - cameras, lenses, a pager, a Smartphone, a large supply of Snickers and a can of Coke. 

After the obligatory Contents followed by advice on how to use the book there is a handy feature at pages 8-13 by way of thumbnail pictures of “Types of Birds”. These smaller pictures direct the reader to the most likely eventual page to find the full account of the species they are looking for. This is clearly a useful idea, especially for novice birders, but the process could never be fool proof. This is especially true in the case of “perching birds” that loose collection of birds which present so many pitfalls of ID to a beginner wondering whether a bird is for instance, a “warbler”, “bunting”, “flycatcher” or “crest”. For more experienced birders this initial selection process is unimportant but for a novice it is often a crucial step fraught with difficulties; I congratulate the authors for incorporating this idea into the book. I can see these six pages being a great help to many a budding birder. 

My own experience is that novice birders shy away from artwork guides as if the birds depicted are in some way “not real”, which is true enough, however good the artwork may be. If a purely photographic guide like Britain’s Birds makes birds more accessible to people starting out on the birding trail then that is all to the good. 

A pleasing element of Britain’s Birds is the way the species accounts are arranged in a user friendly order rather than the strict taxonomic order of many field guides, a mysterious system which flummoxes so many starting out in birding. But now in Britain’s Birds the freer list allows “Large waterside birds” to include herons, bitterns, egrets, ibis, spoonbill, cranes and storks. And Hooray! At last we have a field guide where swifts, swallows and martins appear more sensibly together under the heading “Aerial feeders”. 

The pages devoted to each species are occasionally double spread which helps to even out the load of the detailed information about identification, size, variety of plumages, voice descriptions etc. However the design of all of the pages including single sheets that cover a species remains uncrowded and allows the photographs centre stage. Distribution maps in the right hand corner of each page are of necessity small (60x40cm) in order to fit the available space. I have some reservations about the accuracy of a few species I know well locally, e.g. Cetti’s Warbler, Lesser-spotted Woodpecker and Corn Bunting, but in general the maps seem truly representative and accurate given the ever changing but mostly declining numbers and status of so many UK species. 

In “Acknowledgements and photographic credits” the authors tell us that Britain’s Birds was ten years from conception to completion, a mammoth piece of work that required a phenomenal amount of time and effort from the authors. As we might expect given the many advances in digital photography in recent years, the 3,300 photographs from 251 photographers are without exception of very good, even exceptional quality, sharp in focus and reproduced with true to life colours. The combined efforts of both authors and photographers paid off big style in Britain’s Birds which sets a new benchmark in photographic field guides that will be hard to beat. 

Britain’s Birds lives up to the pre-publication claims by being bang up to date with the inclusion of everyday species, races, vagrants, rarities, together with both category D and E species. The book is comprehensive, user friendly and jam-packed with essential information on status, populations, distribution and conservation. For those who like to browse, there are many high quality photographs to admire. I recommend it to readers of Another Bird Blog as a book they must buy. My already well-thumbed copy is now in a safe but handy place for quick reference. 
Britain's Birds -  Princeton University Press

Produced to Princeton’s usual exacting standards this is a fine book and something of a steal at £19.95 or $35 direct from Princeton University Press or slightly less from Amazon.

Amazon has a number of turn-over pages where potential buyers can see a selection of actual pages before they buy. I predict that few people will not choose to buy Britain's Birds resulting in a large demand - best to order it quick.

Linking this post to World Bird Wednesday.


Bob Bushell said...

Nice read indeed.

Linda said...

Sounds like a really nice book, Phil!

David M. Gascoigne, said...

Great review and seems like a worthwhile book. If ever I return to the UK I will invest in a copy.

David M. Gascoigne, said...

Just curious, Phil, did you submit any pictures for the book? Are any included in the book?

Hootin' Anni said...

This kind of publication is what Bud and I call a "Come in handy".

You did a bang up job critiquing this too Phil!!
Now...if I could just get over the Big Pond, and actually GO birding in the UK.

Margaret Birding For Pleasure said...

Great book review Phil

Breathtaking said...

Hello Phil!:) Just came over to say Hi, and it was a very pleasurable read, and excellent critique of what seems like a (must have) for British birders, especially new comers to birding.

Jenn Jilks said...

I find it hard to ID birds from art. That's just me. I depend on the experts.
(ツ) from Cottage Country Ontario , ON, Canada!

A Colorful World said...

Wow! Looks like an outstanding birding book! I would love one that has the birds categorized in a user-friendly way and with the awesome photos! I hate it when they are grouped "warblers" and "flycatchers" etc because I often don't know what category the bird I am looking up will fall into. What nice review! Oh and thanks for your very nice comment on my blog.

Breathtaking said...

Hello again!:) Just came over to tell you that I have had second thoughts about buying the book,..after all, even if I never visit the UK again, at least I will learn something about British birds. It's already ordered!!

I agree with you about the challenge involved in searching for a special species, but it's exciting, and if only my memory would keep up with my enthusiasm, I would become a birder.

Adam Jones said...

Nice review Phil. I've had my eye on this, and now very much looking forward to it.

Rohrerbot said...

Great review Phil. Sounds like this guide would be perfect for the car or desk. I usually don't carry around guides out in the field as they are cumbersome. If there is a bird of question, I write down my observations and snap several shots. I can say I have both the drawing and picture type guides. I like to go back and forth between them....but the picture guide usually wins out. Why is that?

You are spot on with the equipment though. So much is carried out into the field! Thanks for the info. Sounds like an interesting guide to purchase for down the road.

Lowcarb team member said...

Great review, think folks will love this book!

All the best Jan

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