Friday, 15 August 2014

Book review: A Sparrowhawk's Lament by David Cobham

A Sparrowhawk's Lament: How British Breeding Birds of Prey Are Faring

David Cobham with Bruce Pearson
Princeton University Press WILDGuides | 2014
256 pp. | 15.2 x 21.6 cm | 80 illustrations
Hardback | £24.95 / $ 35.00 | ISBN: 9780691157641

I am half way through A Sparrowhawk's Lament: How British Breeding Birds of Prey are Faring by David Cobham, illustrated by Bruce Pearson. This is a WILDGuides publication, but quite a departure from the photographic field guides for which the imprint is usually known. It is a personal look at the status of the UK's raptors, written by someone who has a long history of involvement in the conservation of our birds of prey, and a current vice-president of the Hawk and Owl Trust. The writing is a little quirky, being a conversational mixture of field notes, diary entries, interviews and personal recollections of meetings with a variety of people and excursions to every corner of the UK, all supported by bibliographic research; it takes some getting used to, but the passion and experience shine through to make this a rewarding, thought-provoking and topical read.

A chapter is devoted to each of the UK's 15 breeding diurnal raptors species, examining their changing fortunes from the earliest records to the present day. Most of the UK's species follow the same sad trajectory of abundance in the pre-industrial age, persecution by gamekeepers to near extinction or extinction during the 19th and 20th centuries (particularly after the 1831 Game Act and often tipped over the edge by egg-collectors and / or organochloride pesticide contamination in the 1950s), and contemporary resurgence in response to the conservation actions of a handful of dedicated individuals and organisations. Despite legal protection, the attacks by gamekeepers continue. Kestrel and Merlin populations have, unfortunately, not turned around and the once-familiar sight of the Windhover hanging over the verges of our highways is no longer a feature of road travel. But the glaring exception is the Hen Harrier, still illegally poisoned, trapped and shot by the managers of grouse moors and now teetering on the brink of extinction in England. With outrage about brazen illegal persecution and 'establishment' complicity becoming a political issue, this is quite a topical read. The texts are well complemented by Bruce Pearson's watercolours (reproduced in monochrome), that really capture the spirit of each species.

The author is careful not to turn the book into a critique of those who would have us return to the low raptor densities that unrelenting persecution had achieved before the First World War. Although he does not shy away from recounting the now familiar tales of extermination, he is keen to provide a balanced appraisal and above all to make this a positive book. Indeed, this is an uplifting read. I am finding plenty to enjoy, not least the resonance of described behaviours with those I have been lucky enough to witness myself as well as familiar haunts that crop up in the text. In the winters of the early 1980s I watched the Bowland Forest Hen Harriers hunting in over the hills of Nidderdale, and I have seen the careful protection and monitoring of Marsh Harrier nests at Sculthorpe Moor. The chapter on the Sparrowhawk – a species I monitored closely as a boy – is particularly evocative. And like the author and Mark Cocker (cited in the text) I am saddened by the efforts of political lobby groups like the ironically named SongBird Survival to vilify the species in order to detract attention from the real causes of biodiversity loss. No wonder that such organisations like to compare current raptor populations with those at their nadir a century ago.

A book to be read right through or dipped into at leisure, A Sparrowhawk's Lament is a fitting tribute to our birds of prey and those who work to conserve them. Whether beginner or specialist, everyone will learn something about our formidable, yet vulnerable diurnal raptors.

The author and artist will be interviewed by ChrisPackham at the UK Birdfair tomorrow.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Neotropical Birding 15 is out!

Back from a few days' camping in the Yorkshire Dales to find copies of Neotropical Birding 15 on my doormat, fresh from the printers...

Welcome to issue 15 of Neotropical Birding!

The Autumn 2014 issue of Neotropical Birding, NB15, has just been published. This issue commemorates the life of Alexandre Renaudier, the young French ornithologist who died prematurely last year. Alex was a very keen birder, who spent most of his time in the field and made some extraordinary ornithological discoveries. He had a sensitive ear, testimony to which is the wonderful collection of recordings he co-authored: Bird Voices from French Guiana. He had a close relationship with NBC, acting as Country Representative for France and French Guiana between 2006 and 2013.

Appropriately, our cover story presents the first photographs of the enigmatic Rusty Tinamou Crypturellus brevirostris from Alex's adopted home, French Guiana – truly Birding at the cutting edge.

Our first Photospot provides further ground-breaking images from the same country, this time of nesting Black-bellied Cuckoo Piaya melanogaster, while the second piece is dedicated to another mysterious species, Giant Snipe Gallinago undulata.

Alex rarely found the desk-time necessary to publish his findings, but in our Identification Workshop, he and his friend Olivier Claessens reprise Field identification of Least and Yellow-billed Terns, a subject explored by Floyd Hayes in Cotinga in 2001. Further advances have made this challenge a lot easier and should result in better reporting in the future.

Switching environments somewhat, the American Bird Conservancy's Dan Lebbin takes us back to northern Peru, in a sequel to his Nightbirds article published in NB11. Dan returns in the daytime, with some suggestions for tracking down 50 species of hummingbird. A Hummingbird Paradise, perhaps?

No issue of Neotropical Birding is complete without an invitation from Alex Lees to “get your lists out” for another roller-coaster ride through the world of avian taxonomy and systematics in Splits, lumps and shuffles (one of Alex Renaudier's favourite columns).

Our compilation of recent published and unpublished records, Neotropical Notebook, is compiled by Guy Kirwan and his team of collaborators: Dušan Brinkhuizen, Diego Calderón, Bradley Davis, Jeremy Minns and Kini Roesler.

NBC has always played a role in conserving Neotropical Birds. Jez Bird tells us about this year's award winners and the continuing benefits of projects financed in the past in NBC Conservation Awards Update. Your contribution to NBC helps Award recipients give something back to the Neotropical birds we all enjoy.

We round off the issue with Book reviews of two of last year's most exciting publications: Birdwatching in Colombia and Birds and People.

Happy Neotropical birding!

Christopher J. Sharpe, Senior Editor

Neotropical Birding 15: contents

Sharpe, C. J. (2014) Welcome to issue 14 of Neotropical Birding. Neotrop. Birding 15: 2.

Ingels, J., Claessens, O. & de Pracontal, N. (2014) Neotropical Birding 15: a tribute to Alexandre Renaudier. Neotrop. Birding 15: 3. E-mail:

Lees, A. C. (2014) Splits, lumps and shuffles. Neotrop. Birding 15: 4–14. [resume of recent publications on taxonomy and systematics concerning multiple taxa] E-mail:

Rufray, V., Pelletier, V. & Ingels, J. (2014) First photographs and new records of the Rusty Tinamou Crypturellus brevirostris from French Guiana. Neotrop. Birding 15: 15–19. [Crypturellus brevirostris] E-mail: /

Claessens, O. &  Renaudier, A. (2014) Field identification of Least and Yellow-billed Terns: experience from French Guiana. Neotrop. Birding 15: 22–31. [Sternula superciliaris, Sternula antillarum] E-mail:

Lebbin, D., Aucca Chutas, C., Olmos, F. & Spencer, A. (2014) Hummingbird paradise: northern Peru. Neotrop. Birding 15: 33–41. [multiple Trochilidae spp. of N Perú] E-mail:

Kirwan, G. M., Brinkhuizen, D., Calderón, D., Davis, B., Minns, J. & Roesler, I. (2014) Neotropical Notebook: published and unpublished records. Neotrop. Birding 15: 46–62. [resume of recent records concerning multiple taxa] E-mail:

Ingels, J. & Fernandez, M. (2014) Photospot: A nest of Black-bellied Cuckoo Piaya melanogaster in French Guiana. Neotrop. Birding 15: 63–65. [Piaya melanogaster] E-mail:

Smith, P., Bland, D. & Clay, R. (2014) Photospot: Waka Waka: The Giant Snipe Gallinago undulata in Paraguay. Neotrop. Birding 15: 66–69. [Gallinago undulata] E-mail:

Bird, J. (2014) NBC Conservation Awards update. Neotrop. Birding 15: 71–75. [Glaucidium nubicola, Megascops colombianus, Coeligena orina, Henicorhina negreti, Dacnis hartlaubi, Compsospiza garleppi] E-mail:

Morris, P. (2014) Book review: Birdwatching in Colombia. Neotrop. Birding 15: 78–79. E-mail:

Sharpe, C. J. (2014) Book review: Birds and people. Neotrop. Birding 15: 79–80. E-mail:

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Book review: Woodpeckers of the World by Gerard Gorman

Woodpeckers of the World

Gerard Gorman
Christopher Helm | 2014
528 pp. | 17 x 24 cm | 722 colour photographs. 239 maps Hardback | £35 / $49.95 | ISBN: 978-1-4081-4715-3

Gerard Gorman is a woodpecker nut. I know because I have been privileged enough to have spent a couple of weeks with him in the field, sharing part of his quest for the world's woodpeckers. Our field trip took place in 2009 and began when we met in an aeroplane on the way to Guyana. As owners of bird tour companies, we had both been invited to travel to Guyana on a 'fam' trip. We met on the London – Port-of-Spain leg and, since we had been assigned adjacent seats, spent much of the ten hour flight talking about birds. Needless to say, I learned a lot about the Picidae! The trip came out of the blue for me and I had been unable to return home to load my collection of bird vocalisations onto my iPod, but Gerard assured me that he had everything that we would need. Some time into the flight I asked to borrow his iPod. When I scrolled through the species list, I found only woodpeckers... Throughout our Guyana trip, Gerard would always home in on a woodpecker, even to the point of shunning some of the Neotropics' most charismatic species. Since then I have regarded this often-overlooked family in a new light and with renewed interest. So who better to guide us through the world of woodpeckers?

This is a major new overview of the world's woodpeckers by an expert on the subject who has two previous woodpecker publications under his belt: Woodpeckers of Europe and The Black Woodpecker. Woodpecker taxonomy is a subject for debate, but for the purposes of this book the author recognises 239 species. Each receives a detailed text with information on identification, vocalisations, food, conservation status, habitat, range and notes on taxonomy and similar species. Interestingly, for the first time, the author specifically includes information on drumming – or absence of it. Each species account is accompanied by a range map and typically several photographs illustrating sexual dimorphism or subspecific variation.

As one would expect, the text has been exhaustively researched and carefully compiled from a broad range of primary sources, but the author himself has travelled widely to gain extra field experience with a large number of species. So this is more than a literature review; it is a real contribution to our knowledge of woodpeckers. As the author recognises: “During my research it soon became clear that many species of woodpecker are poorly-known, with questions on taxonomy, biology, behaviour, distribution and even existence remaining unanswered.” One of the contributions of this book is to point out areas that require further research.

Good as the text is, the photographs are surely going to be the main reason for purchasing this book. There are, on average, three images per species and the quality is generally excellent. My favourites are the Piculus, the photographs capturing the striking plumage and eye colour that often receive rather drab treatment in field guides. I have to mention the wonderful sequence of the interior of a Downy Woodpecker nest, showing the development of the young.

Maps need some checking. For example, of the Neotropical woodpeckers I checked, Ivory-billed Woodpecker Campephilus principalis is shown on Hispaniola rather than Cuba; the Trinidadian range of Chestnut Woodpecker Celeus elegans is not shown, whereas Red-crowned Melanerpes rubricapillus is erroneously shown on Trinidad (it is found on Tobago); the Belizean range of Acorn Woodpecker Melanerpes formicivorus is not depicted; Cinnamon Woodpecker Celeus loricatus is shown for W Venezuela, although it does not occur in the country; and the NE Venezuela range of Golden-spangled Piculet Picumnus exilis is absent.

For those who already have Winkler et al.'s 1995 Pica Press Woodpeckers of the World (and / or HBW 7, published in 2002), is there enough novel content to justify buying this new book? The answer is yes. The text updates Winkler et al. and an extensive bibliography of post-2002 publications is provided (current enough to include, for example, del Rio et al.'s 2013 six-way split of the 'Golden-green' Woodpecker Piculus 'chrysochloros' complex). The photographs provide a useful complement to both Winkler et al. and HBW 7. For example, the distinctly larger bill of White-bellied Piculet Picumnus spilogaster compared with other similar species is clearly shown – something that I have not seen in field guide illustrations.

In short, a really nice reference book to an attractive and often under-rated group of birds. This will surely set the record straight. Excellent work Gerard!


del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Sargatal, J. (2002) Handbook of the birds of the world. Vol. 7: jacamars to woodpeckers. Lynx Edicions: Barcelona. 613 pp.

Gorman, G. (2004) Woodpeckers of Europe: a study of the European Picidae. Bruce Coleman: London. 192 pp.

Gorman, G. (2011) The Black Woodpecker: a monograph on Dryocopus martius. Lynx Edicions: Barcelona. 184 pp.

Winkler, H., Christie, D. A. & Nurney, D. (1995) Woodpeckers: a guide to the woodpeckers, piculets and wrynecks of the world. A & C Black: London. 416 pp.