Sunday, 22 August 2021

Birds of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. 3rd edition

Birds of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. 3rd edition

Herbert A. Raffaele, Clive Petrovic, Sergio A. Colón López, Lisa D. Yntema & José A. Salguero Faria
Princeton University Press | 2021
224 pp. | 14 x 22 cm
Softback | $24.95 / £20.00 | ISBN: 9780691211671

First published in 1983, ‘Raffaele’ is the standard field guide to the birds of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. My previous copy is the revised 1989 edition, which follows the format of most guides of its era, with plates grouped in a single block, a number of them monochrome, both measures to save on colour printing costs; many of the paintings are works of art rather than comparative depictions. Three decades later, the 3rd edition places full colour illustrations opposite the text so that all information on a particular species can be gleaned at a glance from an open spread. Species are grouped by habitat to facilitate comparison of similar species. This may be slightly disconcerting to users who have only just got used to wildfowl appearing at the beginning of a field guide, and on this subject I agree with Steve Howell (Howell et al. 2009, 2012) that we should strive to follow a “field-friendly sequence of families”. But that is only a passing comment; this guide is small enough that a particular group of birds will quickly be found by flicking through the pages, something facilitates by the flexible cover.

Raffaele is joined by four co-authors for this edition, two of them well-known in Puerto Rican ornithological circles and two authorities on the birds of the US and British Virgin Islands. The contribution of each is not described but one can probably assume that status and distribution reflect the most current knowledge. The artists are, with one exception, new, and paintings are of a high standard. Taken together, visitors should have little trouble identifying most of the birds of the territories. As with the rest of the Neotropics, the visitor would still be well-advised to take along a standard North American field guide.

In the 30 odd years since the last edition, the number of species recorded has increased by a quarter!The guide covers all 347 species now on the checklist. Helpfully, vagrants and hypothetical species are relegated to the rear of the book, which allows the main body to focus on those species most likely to be encountered. Taxonomy largely follows AOS, departing in a few cases such as the splitting of Eastern Tringa (semipalmata) inornata and Western Willet T. (semipalmata) inornata, Puerto Rican (Loggerhead) Kingbird Tyrannus (caudifasciatus) taylori, and Puerto Rican (Lesser Antillean) Pewee Contopus (latirostris) blancoi. For the first time, local names are included, as well as standard English names, and they also receive their own index. This will surely be welcomes by local birders and naturalists.

Introductory chapters provide analyses of the avifauna and its changes over time, geography and biogeography, and conservation, while potential birding destinations are suggested at the end of the book.

Even with the increase in the number of species covered and supplementary information, this guide is about the same size and weight as its predecessor, and—unlike many field guides to the megadiverse Neotropics—it really is a portable reference. This is the obvious choice for anyone visiting either Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands. The improvements on the previous edition are such that those in possession of a 1980s vintage would be wise to invest the very modest cover price to equip themselves with this new guide. It will also be a mandatory purchase for students of the wider West Indian avifauna. The authors and artists are to be congratulated on producing a handy, accessible guide that will doubtless help further the conservation of the birds of these territories.

Saturday, 21 August 2021

Naturalized Parrots of the World

Naturalized Parrots of the World

Stephen Pruett-Jones (ed.)
Princeton University Press | 2021
304 pp. | 18.5 x 26.2 cm
Hardback | £35 / $45 | ISBN: 9780691204413 

As a group, the parrots (Psittaciformes) are highly threatened, with 16 species already extinct and 29% of the rest—118 of the 404 extant species recognised under BirdLife International taxonomy—now threatened with extinction, 20 of them in the highest threat category, Critically Endangered. Habitat loss, persecution of these (largely) seed predators as pests, and direct hunting of the birds for food, are some of the causes of decline, but the pet trade has been a major driver that has also led simultaneously to the establishment of exotic populations of a number of species, often far from their native range. This book is the first to provide a detailed overview of naturalised parrots, with half of the book focussing on distribution and ecology, and the other providing case studies. It is a welcome overview and point of entry into a fascinating subject. 

The first part of the book covers subjects of relevance like the parrot trade, distribution, genetics of established populations, parrot-human relations, conservation, ecological impacts, management and so on. These are well-compiled, very useful summaries, amply referenced and illustrated with numerous tables and graphics. There is plenty of good, hard information here about everything from population trends to economic impacts. Each chapter has been written by notable specialists in the topic at hand, and the chapters are individually well laid out, all including summary conclusions. The graphs and tables are generally helpful and display information at a glance. The figures at a global scale are, however, sometimes of insufficient size to adequately convey detail. For example, Fig. 2.1 on p. 30, which shows world distribution of naturalised parrots, is too small to feasibly show most Caribbean islands, including Puerto Rico, which harbours self-sustaining populations of at least eight species of exotic parrot. The same figure omits Venezuela, with its well-known urban populations of Rose-ringed Parakeet Psittacula krameri in Caracas. 

The case studies take up the second half of the book and either focus on species—Rose-ringed Parakeet and Monk Parakeet Myiopsitta monachus, the two most widespread—or geographic areas like the USA, Europe, the Hawaiian Islands, South Africa and Australia. Again, Rose-ringed Parakeet populations are not indicated in Venezuela, or even Puerto Rico (where first reported in 1979) or indeed anywhere else in the West Indies. These chapters are good primers those who wish to inform themselves about the real impacts of naturalised parrots, given the ongoing debates about whether such species should be controlled. There is plenty to absorb here and extensive reference sections are provided. 

This is a much needed compilation of information on the world’s naturalised parrots. Although aimed primarily at the ornithological and conservation community, there will be much here for the amateur enthusiast to enjoy. The care taken in the production, with high-quality paper and a pleasing design, does the content justice and makes this an ideal gift. A very worthwhile publication that will be a major reference for years to come.

Friday, 9 July 2021

Book review: Much Ado About Mothing


Much Ado About Mothing. A year intoxicated by Britain’s rare and remarkable moths

James Lowen
Bloomsbury | 2021
384 pp. | 14.3 x 22.2 cm
Hardback | £18.99 | ISBN: 9781472966995 

Much Ado about Mothing is an action-packed, whistle-stop tour of Britain and its moth inhabitants that conveys all of the drive and excitement but doubtless only a fraction of the hectic schedule of James Lowen’s year-long quest. The reader will be taken by the hand—often gently, but just as frequently whisked along with the author—on his 500 mile days out, up hills and mountains, into dozens of the UK’s remaining wildlife havens, including some of the quirkiest spots in the country: from Sychnant Pass to Orlestone Woods, Muir of Dinnet to Dungeness. If nothing else, this is an enlightening nature-oriented tour of the British Isles.

But it is more than a travelogue. There can be no grounds for feeling short-changed on information. The 380+ pages are stuffed to overflowing with moth names, descriptions, potted life histories, folklore, science, all woven into the fabric provided by James’s entertaining personal adventures with the moths and other like-minded souls who study, love and protect them. The list of amateur enthusiasts and experts that James meets along the way seemingly includes all of the nation’s best known moth experts, enthusiasts and eccentrics. There are constant references to the past giants of moth lore from the 19th century’s J. W. Tutt and P. B. M. Allan, to the 20th’s E. B. Ford, Bernard Kettlewell and Mike Majerus (initials eventually giving way to admission of actual names). Along the way, the principles of Müllerian mimicry and controversy over industrial melanism are succinctly explained, along with the pervasive issue of conservation. Indeed, much of the year is spent seeking out unusual, scarce and geographically restricted species, precisely those whose conservation status is likely to be in jeopardy.

James’s raw enthusiasm and energy is contagious. The Victorian naturalists might be his historical forbears, but this modern-day moth-man comes across as the frenetic millennial—not he the man of leisure idly twiddling a butterfly net after the Sunday service, but rather (ever conscious of other hands on his time) a determined and disciplined aurelian loaded with state-of-the-art professional photographic gear or moth trapping paraphernalia to the point of physical discomfort and potential bodily injury, eyes darting anxiously after his current quarry, fingers of the hands in his pocket jangling the keys of his ‘Quattro’ in anticipation of the next moth rendezvous on the frighteningly long list of appointments. No-one I know would have been able to execute such a punishing schedule that clearly often combined visits to several widely separated sites in one day or required serial all-night vigils followed by days of processing the spoils. The results are apparent, between the covers of this book.

For those who are no stranger to Merveille du Jour and even Clifden Nonpareil, this will make a rollicking good read, and should provide the stimulus to go out and do more, explore new areas, experiment with pheremone lures, or simply overcome the end of week fatigue to put out the Robinson trap on that dull Friday evening. But if you have been wondering what this mothing business is about and are waiting to be nudged into taking the plunge, this book could well be for you. Be warned: mothing is an addictive pastime, and you are unlikely to be able to resist James’s siren call to spend a year or two ‘intoxicated by Britain’s rare and remarkable moths’.

Tuesday, 16 March 2021

Flight Identification of European Passerines and select landbirds

Flight Identification of European Passerines and select landbirds

Tomasz Cofta
Princeton University Press WILDGuides | 2021
496 pp. | 16 x 24 cm
Paperback | £38 / $ 45 | ISBN: 9780691177571

Ever since its inception at the turn of the millennium, the WILDGuides series has repeatedly broken new ground in field guide concepts and production. From the championing of photographic guides and use of digital artwork, to coverage of overlooked taxonomic groups, the series has made a name for pushing the frontiers of field guide capability. The current title certainly follows that precedent. We have enjoyed flight identification guides to non-passerines for decades, but the practicalities of producing an illustrated guide to smaller, fluttery passerines are considerable. And would the birding public need or want such a guide? Well, the gauntlet has quietly been taken up and the book is out. I suspect WILDGuides have done it again by publishing another indispensable guide that we did not know we needed.

This is a large and detailed guide, slightly larger than Britain’s Birds and about the same weight. The book treats 205 passerines and 32 non-passerines, approximately one third of the number covered there, which gives some idea of the amount of space afforded each species. The book goes into considerably more detail on its subject than any other available guide, providing a wealth of information that will be of immediate interest to the vismig and nocmig communities, but with wider appeal to all keen birders who strive to improve their field identification skills.


This is one book that benefits from a careful read of the introductory sections, which advise on how to use the guide and set out an important framework for analysing passerines in flight that covers structure and shape, colouration, flight characteristics, flock dynamics and vocalisations. These sections are worth studying because they break down the components that comprise each species’ flight signature and reinforce a habit of running through this checklist in order to identify birds. They also establish definitions that are used in the species identification accounts. Much of this information will be new to the average user and is worth digesting before proceeding to the species accounts. It is worth at this point noting the author’s credentials. I first came across Tomasz Cofta’s striking bird illustrations while reviewing drafts of The World's Rarest Birds in 2012, when he stepped in to provide images of those 75 species that were so rare that no photograph existed. But, by his own account, Cofta has spent thousands of hours observing migrating birds, has ringed almost 100,000 individuals and published a hundred articles (mostly in Polish journals), so he should not lack the authority to produce such a book.

Each species account is typically constructed around digital artwork depicting the species from the side above and below supplemented by a gallery of photographs, 2400 in all, obtained under field conditions. The less than studio quality of the photographs, sometimes taken at odd angles, often backlit, occasionally blurry, counterbalances the meticulous precision of the paintings by capturing the sort of glimpses that one might snatch in field observations. That is not to say that many of the photographs are not of excellent quality. The combination of clean, precise artwork and field photographs works well in giving an idea of the flight jizz of most species.

The text is surprisingly detailed, longer than some field guide texts. Who would have guessed that there was so much to say about small birds in flight? There is a lot to digest here, and I confess I am still in that process, slowly reading through species of interest in order to assimilate new information.

Efforts have been made to compare similar species, so, for example, the section on thrushes nicely distinguishes each species on a combination of differences in tail length, flapping rate, flight-wave and flock size even without a the need to obtain a hint of colour.

Sound is at least as important as visual clues in identifying flying birds, and Cofta gets as close as it is possible to get in a book to a comprehensive description by triangulating transliterations of calls, sonograms, and a single QR code link to sound recordings hosted on the Princeton University Press Soundcloud website. Sonograms are a very powerful tool that have grown in popularity. They were virtually unheard of in British birding circles before the publication of the first volume of BWP in 1977, which confounded many buyers by including them. Perhaps the biggest boost to their popularity has come from the growing popularity of nocmig, where identification of flight calls by sonograms is routine. The only other other field guides that attempt comprehensive coverage of bird vocalisations by sonograms that I am aware of are Nathan Pieplow’s excellent Peterson field guides to North American birds, and I would love to see an equivalent for the Western Palaearctic.

In sum, this pioneering guide is a formidable reference tool for identifying passerines in flight. It will deepen the understanding of anyone interested in the subject, particularly vismig and nocmig enthusiasts, but also the garden patch birder straining to determine the identity of the smaller birds that fly over the house. A strong recommendation for anyone wanting to push their personal frontiers of bird identification.


Cramp, S. et al. (1997–1996) Handbook of the Birds of Europe, the Middle East And North Africa Volumes 1–9. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Hirschfeld, E., Swash, A., & Still, R. (2013) The World's Rarest Birds. Princeton University Press WILDGuides, Oxfordshire.

Hume, R., Still, R., Swash, A. R., Harrop, H. & Tipling, D. (2020) Britain’s Birds. An Identification Guide to the Birds of Great Britain and Ireland. 2nd ed. Princeton University Press WILDGuides, Oxfordshire.

Pieplow, N. (2017) Peterson Field Guide to Bird Sounds of Eastern North America. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston.

Pieplow, N. (2019) Peterson Field Guide to Bird Sounds of Western North America. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston.

Friday, 20 November 2020

Book review: The Birds of Cuba. An Annotated Checklist

The Birds of Cuba. An Annotated Checklist. BOC Checklist Series: 26

Arturo Kirkconnell, Guy M. Kirwan, Orlando H. Garrido, Andy D. Mitchell & James W. Wiley
British Ornithologists’ Club | 2020
472 pp. | 15.4 x 24.5 cm
Paperback | £44.99 = $ 61 | ISBN: 9780952288671

My first visits to Cuba were in 1995 and 1996, as a consultant to the World Conservation Monitoring Centre and United Nations Development Programme respectively, to work with Miguel Vales and a team of Cuban scientists at the Centro Nacional de Biodiversidad (CeNBio-IES) on the national Biodiversity Country Study, one of the first requirements of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. This was during the período especial, the 'Special Period' of adverse economic conditions triggered by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, and it was a real eye-opener for me. Even though everything from toilet paper to fuel, and beef to coffee had disappeared from daily life, and despite our conservation work being frustrated by the US embargo on the country (Nairobi funds were routed through Washington were frozen, while California-based Esri were threatened with fines for attempting to supply the GIS package Arc Info), I found Cubans remarkably hospitable, making me feel most welcome, sharing their extremely limited resources unselfishly and even going out of their way to find a vehicle to take me birding outside La Habana in the Sierra del Rosario Biosphere Reserve. One of my most poignant memories was being shown one lunchtime a Gundlach specimen of the extinct Cuban Macaw Ara tricolor—the sole example held in Cuba—that (I learned from this new checklist) has subsequently been lost, probably stolen. At that time, few foreign birders visited Cuba, the majority of them Canadians or Europeans. The embargo was a disincentive to US tourism, but some birders and ornithologists from that country nevertheless succeeded in visiting the island.

Since then, I have been back several times, and particularly since 2014, tourism flourished as US-imposed restrictions were relaxed, a welcome policy that culminated in the restoration of direct flights in 2016. Although there has been a reversal of political rhetoric under the retrograde policies of the Trump regime, I am hopeful that a more pragmatic future awaits. At any rate, there seems no better time to publish a revision of the Cuban avifauna, something that had not been attempted—leaving aside the more summary treatment in Garrido and Kirkconnell’s field guides to the birds of Cuba (2000, 2011)—since Garrido and García’s Catálogo de las aves de Cuba published in 1975. I was honoured to be asked to review the new checklist for the next issue of the Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club.



For more information on birds and birding in Cuba, you could do worse than read Seeing Cuba’s endemic birds and other specialities.


Friday, 30 October 2020

Europe's Dragonflies: A field guide to the damselflies and dragonflies

Europe's Dragonflies: A field guide to the damselflies and dragonflies 

Dave Smallshire & Andy Swash
Princeton University Press WILDGuides | 2020
360 pp. | 15 x 21 cm 
Paperback | £25 / $ 29.95 | ISBN: 9780691168951
Few groups illustrate as clearly as dragonflies the enormous advances in field guide technology over the past few decades. I became interested in the Odonata at a local nature reserve at age 11, and having read the school library’s copy of Collins New Naturalist Dragonflies from cover to cover I soon needed something to help me identify the species I encountered. At that time, the only identification guide available to me —and in a new edition on sale in the coveted natural history corner of Austicks Bookshop— was the slim, A4-sized volume by Harley Books. At £16.95 it was fabulously expensive, but my 1984 school Physics prize put it within reach and I spent the next few weeks bubbling with the anticipation of actually receiving it from the headmaster. As I carefully scrutinised its pages over and over again, it did not seem as if identification literature could ever get better than its sumptuous super-life-size full-colour plates, technical keys to both adults and larvae, and impressive 10 km square National Grid maps. The excitement was tempered slightly by the fact that I could now see starkly that I was apparently never going to be able to find many more species this far north in Yorkshire: most British dragonflies were limited to the balmy climes south of the Humber. 

The evolution of dragonfly guides...
I still have enormous affection for that identification guide, and great respect for its author, who —like so many great naturalists— was not a professional, but a north London schoolmaster, and I still take it off the shelves to learn its insight into the species that I find. But times have changed for those wishing to identify dragonflies. On one hand the number of potential species has increased as dragonflies expand their ranges, moving northwards to colonise the British Isles, and on the other the identification literature has vastly improved to more than keep pace with new challenges. The illustrations of Richard Lewington have greatly facilitated the amateur identification of several once arcane insect groups and collaborations with Steve Brooks in 1997 and Klaas-Douwe Dijkstra in 2006 produced ground-breaking guides to British and European dragonflies respectively. Both are a pleasure to use. The former has run to three editions while a second edition of the latter is in press as I write. On a different tack, the WILDGuides team employed their trademark photographic approach to produce a complementary guide to Britain’s dragonflies in 2004; the 2014 third edition is excellent, a resource that I use alongside Brooks & Lewington. So it is perhaps no surprise that WILDGuides have taken the logical step to publishing a photographic guide to the wider region of Europe. There has been no better time to get out and explore the European dragonfly fauna.

The new guide has all the hallmarks we have come to expect from WILDGuides publications. It is portable, robust, oriented at field identification by amateurs as well as professionals, visually intuitive, and makes use of the highest quality photographic images skilfully manipulated by design wizard Rob Still. As with other titles in the series, it also includes introductions to the identification of particular subgroups and plenty of comparative plates and text to facilitate correct identification, thus guiding the user in the process of identification. This use of ‘visual keys’ is one of the strengths of the book, and the series as a whole.

This guide covers all 140 of Europe’s species. Apart from the keys and comparative plates, each species receives a full double-spread account comprising three to ten or more photographs and facing text set against the background image of a typical habitat. There are 1400 photographs in all. The text is concise and very easy to navigate. Abundance and seasonality data are placed adjacent to range maps to facilitate the rapid narrowing-down of options, while the main body of text focuses on identification, behaviour and breeding habitat. A short list of similar species (with respective page numbers) is shown at the bottom left of each species account.

Distribution maps are based on the 2015 Atlas of the European dragonflies and damselflies. Each is printed at a scale (43 x 34 mm) that allows just sufficient resolution to determine whether or not the species is likely to be encountered at a given location. Interestingly, since I received my school prize field guide a dozen new (mostly) continental species have been recorded in the UK, half of them (Chalcolestes viridis, Lestes barbarus, Coenagrion scitulum [recolonising], Erythromma viridulum, Anax parthenope, A. ephippiger) becoming established, having bred or at least recorded egg-laying. Others, like Aeshna mixta, was, as its name Migrant Hawker suggests, largely an immigrant only just beginning to breed in the UK, but is now a common resident throughout most of England. The still more southerly A. affinis, a rare vagrant when I was at school, has subsequently expanded its European range several hundred kilometres polewards and has now also bred in the UK, something that will make its English name of Southern Migrant Hawker redundant. In fact, many species have expanded their range north and westwards in response to a warming climate. And one thought to be extirpated in my school days, Lestes dryas, has been rediscovered, within a few kilometres of my current home.

As ever with WILDGuides publications, the book has been issued in association with a relevant conservation organisation, in this case the British Dragonfly Society, and there is a strong emphasis on conservation throughout, including details of IUCN Red List status for each species in a handy checklist located at the end of the book.

This book is almost self-recommending. Anyone with an interest in the dragonflies of the region will want a copy. Even for those who limit their travels to the UK —virtually all of us at present— this guide will provide vital context and also some handy identification tips. I am very glad to have this book on my shelves and wish a copy had been available to help me with the challenges of exploring the Iberian Odonata. At the same time, I look forward to the publication of the second edition of Dijkstra & Lewington’s wonderful guide. The two should complement each other perfectly.

Accessible, easy-to-understand introductory material.

A wealth of information packed into concise, image-rich content in a careful layout designed to provide the most helpful cues along the quickest and easiest route to identification.

'Visual keys' to the trickiest groups making full use of painstakingly selected images supplemented with identification pointers.

One of several critical comparison plates.

Detail of a particularly useful comparison plate depicting lateral views of flying Aeshna males. 

Checklist of European Odonata.

Askew, R.R. (2004) The dragonflies of Europe. 2nd edition. Harley, Colchester. 
Brooks, S. & Lewington, R. (1997) Field guide to the dragonflies and damselflies of Great Britain and Ireland. British Wildlife Publishing, Dorset. 
Corbet, P.S., Longfield, C. & Moore, N.W. (1960) Dragonflies. Collins (New Naturalist No. 41), London. 
Dijkstra, K-D.B. & Lewington, R. (2006) Field guide to the dragonflies of Britain and Europe. British Wildlife Publishing, Dorset. 
Galliani, C., Scherini, R. & Piglia, A. (2017) Dragonflies and damselflies of Europe. A scientific approach to the identification of European Odonata without capture. World Biodiversity Association (WBA Handbooks No. 7), Verona. 
Hammond, C.O. & Merritt, R. (1983) The dragonflies of Great Britain and Ireland. 2nd edition. Harley, Colchester. 
Kalkman, V.J. & Boudot, J-P. (2015) Atlas of the European dragonflies and damselflies. KNNV, Netherlands. 
Smallshire, D. & Swash, A. (2014) Britain’s dragonflies: A field guide to the damselflies and dragonflies of Britain and Ireland. 3rd edition. Princeton WILDGuides, Hampshire.

Wednesday, 26 August 2020

Britain's Ferns: A field guide to the clubmosses, quillworts, horsetails and ferns of Great Britain and Ireland

Britain's Ferns: A field guide to the clubmosses, quillworts, horsetails and ferns of Great Britain and Ireland

James Merryweather
Princeton University Press WILDGuides | 2020
280 pp. | 15 x 21 cm
Paperback | £20 / $ 23.95 | ISBN: 9780691180397

Ferns are – at least to this novice – a rather daunting identification prospect, notwithstanding the manageably low diversity compared with more popular taxonomic groups. My first attempt to get to grips with ferns was in the early 1980s, enthused by the newly published Grasses, ferns, mosses and lichens of Great Britain and Ireland, one of several ground-breaking Roger Phillips guides published by Pan (of which his Mushrooms has best stood the test of time). This was quickly supplemented by the Collins guide to the grasses, sedges, rushes and ferns of Britain and Northern Europe, from another proven field guide pedigree. As I take them off the shelf now, these pioneering aids look decidedly dated, and perhaps I can be pardoned for blaming my lack of expertise to some extent on deficiencies in the literature. In the intervening period (while I lived outside the UK), Page’s excellent The ferns of Britain and Ireland, has become the standard work, although since it is seemingly never to be found second hand for less than £60 I am not in a position to have acquired it. So I lay out my cards as an interested – and probably not very persevering – novice, and my assessment of the current guide should be taken as such.

But there’s no excuse for not tackling this group now. James Merryweather’s new field guide should put British fern identification within the reach of the most botanically (and economically) challenged. It is small, portable, clear and up-to-date. All 60 native ferns, 6 clubmosses, 3 quillworts and 9 horsetails are treated in this new photographic guide, in a format that will be very familiar to aficionados of the growing WILDGuides series.

Like most WILDGuides books, the aim is not merely teach the user the characters of each species, but primarily to inculcate an identification process that can be applied to any specimen encountered. As with companion guides, the introductory sections – a full 97 pages – comprise identification procedures, extremely detailed keys, and a guide to families. Those allergic to keys should not be put off, since this highly visual resource bears little resemblance to the dry dichotomous texts of yore. Here text, photographs, diagrams and clever design are married to produce a tool that the least technically proficient will be able to use. So the recommended way to use the guide is to work through the keys to find a suggested identification, which then directs the user to a full species description.

The species descriptions each cover a double-page spread, with most of the text, a map and a full-plant photograph appearing on the left, complemented by large photographs of fronds, sporangia and further detail on the right. These are very straightforward to peruse. Additional tables are provided to aid critical identification of the tricky British male-ferns. The closing pages are largely devoted to guidance as to when and where to encounter ferns and to further resources for study and recording. The skill of designer Rob Still is everywhere apparent, making the material supremely accessible.

The text itself is remarkably free from technical terms, so can be used with ease by the complete beginner. Indeed, the warm, accessible, occasionally whimsical style, is ideally suited to the task. However, the amount of information provided will make it just as handy for experienced botanists or professional ecologists. The author has decades of experience in the field and has already produced a previous illustrated key in the popular Field Studies Council AIDGAP series.

This is yet another ground-breaking WILDGuides initiative: as the first portable photographic field guide to British ferns, it really plugs a gap in the British identification literature. As usual, I can find little to fault here, and no reason why any keen naturalist would not want to get hold of a copy. I would expect to see interest in this group increase in response, as has occurred with the emergence of previous novel guides, to the benefit of national recording schemes. This can only be good for conservation, which is one of the major aims of the WILDGuides founders. Grasses next?


Fitter, A., Fitter, R. & Farrer, A. (1984) Collins guide to the grasses, sedges, rushes and ferns of Britain and Northern Europe. Collins, London.

Merryweather, J. (2007) The fern guide. 3rd edition. Field Studies Council, Shrewsbury.

Page, C.N. (1997) The ferns of Britain and Ireland. 2nd edition. Cambridge University Press.

Phillips, R. (1980) Grasses, ferns, mosses and lichens of Great Britain and Ireland. Pan, London.

Phillips, R. (1981) Mushrooms and other fungi of Great Britain and Europe. Pan, London.

Rose, F. (1989) Colour identification guide to the grasses, sedges, rushes and ferns of the British Isles and north-western Europe. Viking, London.