Wednesday, 10 June 2020

Book review: Britain’s Birds. An Identification Guide to the Birds of Great Britain and Ireland. Second Edition

Britain’s Birds. An Identification Guide to the Birds of Great Britain and Ireland. Second Edition, fully revised and updated

Rob Hume, Robert Still, Andy Swash, Hugh Harrop & David Tipling
Princeton University Press WILDGuides | 2020
576 pp. | 15 x 21 cm
Paperback | £20 / $ 35 | ISBN: 9780691199795

Despite commencing birding at a time when painted plates in field guides left quite a lot to be desired, I have been slow to entirely embrace photographic guides. My first was the Collins Bird Guide, “a revolutionary field guide” to the birds of Britain and Europe, and it provided a welcome additional source of visual material at a time when good quality photographs of birds were not readily available, but I certainly never pressed it into action as a field guide. The first publishers that seemed to be dealing with the limitations of photographic material in order to take full advantage of growing photographic libraries were WILDGuides in the UK and Kenn Kaufmann in the USA. Both were skilfully manipulating selected images in order to compensate for different light conditions, standardise postures and eliminate artefacts of the photographic process. Both publishers now have a long list of titles covering a wide range of taxonomic groups, some of which have were sorely lacking in identification literature, and many of these guides are now standard identification works. However, the United Kingdom’s avifauna is very well covered by a dizzying number of field guides, some of them amongst the best guides to any avifauna in the world. A new guide launched onto this crowded field has to be very good indeed if it is to make any significant contribution. And Britain’s Birds, published in 2016, is, and it has.

I have had the first edition by my bedside since that time. I typically pick it up at the end of the day to resolve queries arising from the day’s encounters, and one consultation generally leads on to another. After 40+ years of birding, I still get puzzled or excited by something every day, and this book helps me resolve doubts. It seems fitting that the first author, Rob Hume, has been a familiar name from YOC/RSPB magazines since I began birding. Rob’s co-authors together have truly formidable experience, not only on this topic, but in photography, design and the production of field guides. So the user is in very safe hands indeed.

Britain’s Birds is a large, comprehensive field guide, approaching the size of many of the standard Neotropical guides that cover avifaunas several times as large. At 1.44 kg and nearly 600 pages, it could be reasonably argued that this is not a field guide at all – indeed, my first edition has never seen sun, shower or the shady inside of a backpack – but then again, British birders of my generation were schooled to leave all references at home, but rather to take detailed field notes, something that I dutifully abide by to this day; and indeed, being of a similar vintage, this is the process suggested by the authors.For those who feel daunted by such a tome, or really do want a portable guide to take into the field, watch out for my review of the companion British Birds, A Pocket guide.

Why so large? The authors cover all 631 species on the British and Irish lists as of the end of 2019, using BOU/IRBC taxonomy which is in turn adopted from the IOC World Bird List (note that, as Nigel Collar has pointed out, IOC denotes the “international ornithological community”, not International Ornithological Congress). Another 33 species are also covered. So a page per species is about what one would expect for a visual guide to birds.

A typical species account
What about content? All regularly occurring species are typically treated by a page of coverage which includes text, photographs and a map. Birds are presented in their habitat, giving an additional clue to their characteristics. Scarcer species receive less space, while problematic groups, such as gulls, enjoy expanded comparative sections. All plumages are included, depicted with 3,591 photographs.

Maps are derived from current BirdLife International base maps, which were originally compiled by BirdLife International and Handbook of the Birds of the World (the latter now defunct). They are a generous size that is easy on the eye and permits high resolution. Arrows indicate broad migration routes. Status, seasonality and population data appear above the map, and habitat information below, allowing the user to determine almost at a glance the chances that a particular species has been seen.

Text is concise and, for me, achieves that tricky balance between providing enough description to clinch identification and avoiding extraneous detail. The team’s field experience is much in evidence, with expert insight being employed to craft succinct accounts that incorporate much distilled identification knowledge. Capitals, bold text and italics help navigate the sections.

Any downside? Having written field guides myself, I have renewed respect for those who take on such a task, and am now strangely reluctant to pick holes in the work of others. The production of a work like this is a massive undertaking, and all field guides contain errors, many of them spotted the day after the galleys go to press. However, I would be hard pressed to find much to complain about with this field guide, and remarkably uncharitable to draw attention to anything I found. I had already consulted the first edition on a daily basis, and – barring one unfortunate but conspicuous photo mix-up in my first printing – errors were few and far between, and the overall utility of the guide simply swamps any gripes. This edition has corrected the few oversights I had found and has improved the already high overall quality in every respect. Doubtless Chris Batty’s role as an identification consultant will have eased the burden of verification (he kindly gave me the benefit of his formidable knowledge on one of my own field guides). As far as field guides to the British avifauna are concerned, Svensson et al.’s Collins field guide and this current volume have, for me, become the two standard works the I reach for first, and their very different approaches complement each other nicely. If I need to delve beyond them, I reach for Witherby, BWP, van Duivendijk, Beaman and Madge, Harris et al. or the relevant standard monograph.

Given that I view this as a must-have for anyone with an interest in identifying the birds of the UK, whatever their level of expertise, the question then becomes, “Should owners of the first edition replace it with the second?”. That’s a hard question to answer, and depends as much on the strength of one’s bookcase shelves and the tolerance of one’s cohabitants as any technical factors. The current edition incorporates 800+ new photos, layout has been improved in key places and the entire production looks to have been revised with a fine tooth comb. And, of course, the list of taxa covered is bang up to date, reflecting the February 51st BOURC Report. So American ‘Taiga’ Merlin (columbarius) and Shorelark (alpestris group) are covered, as are other splits and additions over the past four years.

This is yet another ground-breaking field guide from the WILDGuides imprint, and an outstanding guide to Britain's birds for observers of all levels. At a retail price of £20, this is an absolute bargain. The authors and all contributors are to be heartily congratulated.


A typical double-spread species account, in this case for Dunlin Calidris alpina, showing the major plumages encountered in Britain and Ireland, along with subspecific variation. This is a variable species, and a standard, common 'yardstick' shorebird, so the coverage will be useful for beginners as well as those who want try to determine which subspecies they are seeing. Note the map indicating migration routes, and table showing the months during which different subspecies may be encountered. All relevant information can be taken in at a glance.

The double-spread devoted to the White/Pied Wagtail Motacilla alba complex has been completely overhauled in this edition. I still find alba hard to clinch, despite having read and re-read all of the literature, coupled with hours spent staring in monochrome at borderline individuals, so have already interrogated these pages several times. Photographs have been selected to help people like me. Note the inclusion of personata, new to Britain since the book's first edition.

Ducks in flight: handy double-spread guide to fieldmarks. The images are first class, and the spread has been slightly improved since the first edition, with subtle eye-guiding lines linking images of the same species. Similar comparison spreads are provided for other groups that requite critical flight identification, for example gulls, shorebirds, raptors – even larks.

Particularly tricky identification challenges are sometimes addressed by means of an extra page or two, in this case examining the similar Apricaria golden plovers. Not quite as much has been made of differences in leg length/proportion and head pattern as I might have suggested, but nevertheless the key identification characters are well covered.

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