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Bird Atlas 2007-11

Bird Atlas 2007-11: The Breeding and Wintering Birds of Britain and Ireland
Dawn Balmer, Simon Gillings, Brian Caffrey, Bob Swann, Iain Downie & Rob Fuller

There are really only two books you need to be a British or Irish birder. One is the Collins Bird Guide. The other has finally been published: Bird Atlas 2007-11 is here at last.

First of all, I do have to admit an interest here, with the authors being colleagues and friends. However, it’s difficult to imagine that anyone could be anything other than hugely impressed with this mighty tome. And it is mighty, weighing in at 3.6 kg. It’s certainly not a book to take into the field with you. Moreover, it’s not just a big dry book of maps, but it’s pretty stunning to flick through also, with specially commissioned artwork and hundreds of hand-picked photos.

The statistics behind the book are mind-blowing. Following several years of planning and fund-raising by the British Trust for Ornithology, Scottish Ornithologists Club and BirdWatch Ireland, fieldwork started in November 2007 and continued until July 2011. Over this time, about 40,000 observers submitted about 19 million records to the project. Every corner of Britain and Ireland was visited. The distance walked during the timed tetrad visits is equivalent to walking around the equator 20 times. Personally, I remember plodding around various bits of unremarkable farmland in the middle of Norfolk, but also taking the opportunity to knock off a few squares up in the North York Moors, a very pleasant departure. In fact, such a high proportion of the people reading this review will have been involved in one way or another, it occurs to me that it’s a bit of a waste of time telling you about it!

Most of the book is obviously made up of the species accounts. These combine (where relevant) the winter and breeding information in the same account, allowing for fascinating direct comparison. The maps are obviously the main feature of the book (it’s an atlas, see?) with up to seven maps per species showing distribution, relative abundance and change since previous atlases, for winter and the breeding season. One really simple feature that I particularly like is the addition of shading for higher ground (over 200 m), which I find really brings the distributions of so many birds into sharp focus. Each account has a relatively short piece of text which aims to draw out the key features revealed by the maps, and helpfully directs the reader to further sources as required.

Grey PartridgeIn addition, there are some fascinating introductory chapters. Some of these describe the “how we did it”, which will be of wide interest but perhaps particularly valuable reading for anyone planning an atlas project in the future. The chapter covering the development of the online systems stands out as particularly novel, and will be a really valuable historical reference in years to come as this fast-moving area changes beyond recognition. There is detailed coverage of the statistical methods used to generate the authoritative statistics on range change and relative distribution. Perhaps of most interest to the general reader though will be Chapter 6 which makes a first attempt (and there will doubtless be many others) to distil the messages revealed by the Atlas. The really striking thing about this book, and many other repeat atlases, is how much change there is in the environment over a relatively short time period. Some of this change is obvious to all birders out there, with increases in Little Egrets and Red Kites probably the most obvious, and the rapid disappearance of Turtle Doves the most depressing. But what on earth is happening to Green Woodpeckers in west Wales? And why, after all these years, have Great Spotted Woodpeckers decided it’s time to invade Ireland?

When I was a young keen schoolboy birder in the 80s, with no internet, no smartphone, in fact no knowledge at all of the rest of the ornithological world, I came across the 1968-72 Breeding Bird Atlas in our local library in north Leeds. It was the first time I’d heard of the BTO and the concept of bird monitoring. The maps in that book were enormously inspiring: I remember copying out (by hand) a list of all the species and the numbers of squares they were found in. I’ve spoken to many other people recently who seem to have had very similar experiences from the previous atlases, and I really hope this one is similarly inspiring to a new generation of birders. Bird Atlas 2007-11 is the product of an incredible amount of hard work, both by the volunteers and the authors. All you need to do is buy a copy. Or two. And go and ask your local library if they’ve got it...

Crossley ID Guide: Britain & IrelandEvery now and then comes a significant development in field guides. Arguably landmark guides include the Peterson Field Guide with its indications of visual field marks, Lars Jonsson's Birds of Europe with beautiful and aesthetic illustrations and most people's current favourite for use today, the Collins Field Guide. Photographic guides have never quite achieved this level of acceptability – whilst several have been produced most birders would agree that they have never been able to capture sufficient variety and information to match the best of the more "traditional" guides. Richard Crossley's Crossley ID Guide: Britain & Ireland attempts to rectify this and meld it with the best aspects of other field guides, using photographs and a presentation approach that focus on teaching the reader/viewer to observe and develop as a better birder.

In 2011, Crossley published his first photographic guide: a field guide to the birds of eastern North America. Whilst opinions on it were divided, it was universally agreed that this really was something different. Now the long-awaited British and Irish equivalent is out. What? A British and Irish field guide by an American author? Well, the other way round actually; Crossley is from Yorkshire – which means that one of the authors of this review may show a little bias...

Long-tailed SkuaAnyway, for those who haven't come across either guide yet, you may be wondering what's so different. Crossley has spent years taking a LOT of photos – 5,000 are included in the book apparently. What is different from other photographic guides though is that the photos are then digitally cut out of their original settings and are placed, alongside others of the same species, in a single shot of a landscape. The birds are sized appropriately to appear at a variety of scales from near to far, to give a "realistic" impression of what birds look like in the field.

Now, admittedly, the resulting images are verging on the "hyper-real" at times. There can be a bewildering number of individuals sometimes in the same plate, which is often a little freaky for a species like Sparrowhawk that one tends to encounter individually. Broadly though, once one gets over this, the stated aims of the approach are achieved, which is to give the birdwatcher a feel for the real in-field impression of the species. I felt it was particularly good at giving help with the jizz of flying skuas and terns, plus Merlin which can be a tricky bird for beginners to get a feel for. What doesn't necessarily come across so well in two dimensions is the relative size of different birds; I would like to have seen confusion species introduced on many plates, e.g. Peregrine with Merlin, Sparrowhawk with Buzzard and Kestrel, but it would be difficult to know whether the different images were meant to be at the same distance and could be compared for size, or whether one was further away.

MerlinThe background landscapes are generally relevant to the species and, especially for the well-travelled birder, are one of the delights of the book as you can play "name that place". Again, Crossley has clearly spent an enormous amount of time gathering these images. Well known sites such as Fair Isle, Cley, Slimbridge, Flamborough and many more all make an appearance. I think Radipole sneakily appears at least twice from slightly different angles! But even ignoring the birds, the book is a fabulous collection of photos of the British (and Irish?) countryside at the start of the 21st century.

The photos are clearly the main part of the book and the accompanying text by Dominic Couzens is relatively short, but it's concise, useful and accurate. Each of the regular species also has a small map depicting broad patterns of distribution, although those species presumably considered too rare for a map include some surprise ones: Corn Crake, Quail, Yellow-legged Gull, Woodlark and Hawfinch for example. Crossley has chosen to follow the BOU/BBRC species names and categorisations for species status (excluding official rarities for example), and the BTO defined short codes for species names. It is good to see the adoption of recommendations from higher-level "authorities" in this way - too often field guide authors like to be "cutting-edge" and introduce different species names and taxonomies that may not have been so well thought through. The taxonomic treatment of Redpoll (lumping Common/Mealy with Lesser as "Common Redpoll") is however at odds with the current BOU treatment. The five character short names are used in the helpful visual index to all species at the front of the book, although here I wish the author (and/or type-setters) had made the effort to use the full species names – this section is likely to be used primarily by beginners and the extra step of working out exactly which species from the short name is not ideal in a "quick" reference. Where Crossley has deviated from conventional taxonomic wisdom though is in the species ordering – moving away from genetic relationships into grouping species by habitat preference and "type", e.g. Swimming Waterbirds, Flying Waterbirds and Walking Waterbirds. This certainly makes more sense for identification purposes, and taxonomic-based orders aren't as consistent as one might think anyway!

RedwingInevitably, given the scale of the task Crossley has set himself, it's easy to pick out gripes if you want to. Some of the pictures work better than others, and a minority of the images do have an unconvincing size or lighting within the background. For example, there's a chap who looks understandably terrified at being mobbed by a Great Skua with what must be a 12 foot wingspan! Other things that jarred slightly were having photos of breeding adults of Aquatic and Barred Warbler, which are not relevant in a British/Irish context, and the fact that a rocky beach setting has been used for Yellow-legged Gull (which as everyone knows, almost exclusively live in pig fields.) It's clear that Crossley has leant heavily on his earlier American guide, but saying that Great Black-backed Gull may feed on birds such as "AMCO", i.e. American Coot, should have been spotted before publication.

There is no doubt that this book is aimed at the beginner or less experienced birdwatcher, and this is welcome - too often I have seen birders bemused by the number of species and great detail given to rarities in excellent new field guides, and hence losing the ability to step back and think rationally about the identification process from the start. In this aspect Crossley's introductory section is excellent in talking through the process of bird identification – the best I have seen in any recent field guide and a recommended refresher for experienced birders too. In fact I doubt that there is an "expert" birder who wouldn't gain something from working through this guide and the birding habits it encourages. It's also really good value, given the astonishing amount of material in the book, and we personally recommend it. However, if you're still not sure, there's an even better option. If you join the BTO now then you can get a copy for free! What's not to like?!

Andy Musgrove & Mike Prince

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How to Be a Better Birder - Derek Lovitch

This book is aimed at the novice birder who wants to develop their interest and skills. The author is American, based in Maine, and the book is unsurprisingly very US-focussed, although much of the subject material is obviously relevant more widely. It covers topics such as Habitat, Geography, Weather, Vagrants, Patch Listing and “Birding with a Purpose”. The book is predominantly text-based, although contains a good selection of photos to illustrate points being made. It also contains a good range of references, both to books and to online resources.

So, how well does it succeed? It’s a bit hard to say really. Unfortunately, I wasn’t particularly taken with the book personally. Indeed, I haven’t managed to finish it yet (although it’s not particularly long). I’m not sure why this is. Partly it might simply be that it was aimed more at novice birders; I felt a lot of the tips being given were rather obvious (e.g. learn to read a map, look for birds in their favoured habitats, etc). I also didn’t really warm to the author’s writing style, but maybe that’s just personal preference; he is obviously genuinely interested in sharing knowledge and helping birders develop. The book might have been better edited in places however.

However, maybe it was just the US focus that made it seem less relevant to me as a UK-based birder. There were lots of tips that might have been really useful (or not?) had I lived in the States. For example, the author describes his thoughts on the finer-scale habitat preferences of the many species of North American sparrows, and I guess this would be helpful to the novice birder in North America. Having just returned to the UK from a trip to upstate New York, I was struck by subtle differences in the practice of birding there, due to things like the size of the country, larger size of habitat blocks, land ownership and access, the intensity of migration and the fact that many migrants are detectable at night by calls. Therefore, if you’re based in the US or Canada, I’d say it would be worth giving this book a go. If you’re a relatively experienced European birder, it’s probably less useful. And for those of you in the rest of the world ….?

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Petrels, Albatrosses and Storm-petrels of North America; Steve Howell (Princeton)

There is something magical about the Procellariidae – the tubenoses that wander the world’s oceans. Most birders come into relatively little contact with the group; British birders tend to experience most species as occasional distant shapes on the horizon whilst sea-watching, or perhaps are lucky enough to have experienced somewhat better views on offshore trips off Scilly or in Biscay. In North America, offshore trips are more the norm, as a result of exciting seabird areas situated several hours journey off both Pacific and Atlantic coasts.

Whilst the tubenoses are covered by standard field guides, their observation and identification often requires a rather different approach to land-based birdwatching. Views can be brief or distant, and appearances are more influenced by light and wind conditions. This book is an attempt to provide more detail about this challenging but beguiling group of birds.

The book is authoritative (as one would expect from the author of such works as A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America) and also attractive and well-produced. It is a large book, not really a field guide. The scope is to cover all species recorded within 200 miles of the North American coast (including as far south as Panama and the Caribbean). The introductory chapters are excellent, with particularly informative sections on “habitat” (i.e. upwellings, currents, thermoclines) and at-sea fieldcraft (including all-important advice on dealing with seasickness of course).

Species accounts form the bulk of the book. There are accounts for 40 petrels, 11 albatrosses and 19 storm-petrels, although the continuing flux in taxonomy of this group is acknowledged throughout, with regular discussion of the most recent research. Howell does not follow the AOU’s species limits, but tries to steer a course as he feels most appropriate. Species accounts include an identification summary; taxonomy; names; status and distribution; similar species; habitat and behaviour; description; and moult. There is a wide range of photos for each species (e.g. 18 within the Black-capped Petrel account), generally of very high quality and mostly taken by the author; each photo is also well-annotated. Distribution maps show the usual at-sea range, breeding areas and moulting areas, with indications of which areas are occupied during which months.

This excellent book is highly recommended for North American birders, but would also be of value much more widely. In a European context for example, there is very helpful discussion of taxa such as Cory’s/Scopoli’s/Cape Verde Shearwaters, Cape Verde (Fea’s), Desertas (Fea’s) and Zino’s Petrels, Madeiran/Grant’s Storm-petrels, and so on. The cost is also remarkably reasonable for the amount of information contained – well worth it! Now where are my seasickness tablets...

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Hawks at a DistanceWhen I saw the title of this new guide to North American raptors, my mind immediately jumped to the Monty Python sketch "How to recognise different types of tree from quite a long way away" (Number one - the Larch...) So, is this book just an excuse for a collection of fairly distant photos?! Surely we could all produce a book along the lines of "Small Fuzzy Dots in the Distance"?

Well, of course not. The idea behind the book is that raptors are regularly seen at long range, whether on the breeding grounds or from migration watchpoints, a major feature of raptor watching in the USA and indeed in other parts of the world. Having a book showing pin-sharp photos of flying raptors at close range is all well and good, the author argues, but this may not help as much as one might expect in terms of real field identification.

The book covers 29 species of North American raptors, although the amount of detail varies considerably, from a 17-page account for the widespread (and variable) Red-tailed Hawk, down to less than a page for Short-tailed and White-tailed Hawks. Five species that breed in the USA (Snail Kite, Common Black Hawk, Harris' Hawk, Grey Hawk and Aplomado Falcon) are omitted altogether. In general, the focus is very much on the common and widespread species and, especially, on those that might be encountered on migration. I was pleased to see a page of flight photos of Californian Condors, however!

Rough-legged HawkThe photos are almost all taken by the author and are well-selected to illustrate a wide range of views of each species, covering differences in viewing angle, lighting angle, flight modes, ages, sexes and colour morphs. They are indeed photos deliberately chosen to be "at a distance" however, and so do give a good field-feel. Not all the pictures are at a distance. Each main species account begins with a fine close-up portrait, that of the Rough-legged Hawk being particularly stunning! Each species account also includes a section of text, in which the experience of the author really shines through, covering key field identification tips. Moreover, at the beginning of each group (Accipiters, Buteos, etc) there are further notes discussing comparative differences between the species in that group.

At the end of the book, there are a series of 19 plates containing over 40 small monochrome photos of the common species from almost every angle imaginable. These are a little over-powering at first glance, but are useful in portraying the much wider range of flight shapes shown by each species than is illustrated in a typical field guide.

This is a worthwhile book if you're watching raptors in North America, and is a sensible size to take and use in the field. There is clearly a degree of overlap with raptors elsewhere in the world (Peregrine, Osprey and Golden Eagle, for example, are all very widespread species), but an equivalent Western Palearctic guide would be extremely useful for birders watching the raptor bottlenecks of Falsterbo, Eilat, Batumi and elsewhere. Alternatively, it does occur to me that although this book does convey to the reader a great amount of the field-jizz of these species, this is still not the whole story. The missing element is movement; the speed of the bird, the tightness of its thermals and the frequency of its wingbeats are all of huge importance in flight identification of raptors. Perhaps the next step is to produce a digital book, for an iPad or similar, with video incorporated too.

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