Chris Watson

Britain's Birds: An identification guide to the birds of Britain and Ireland

Review, BirdingChris Watson

by Rob Hume, Robert Still, Andy Swash, Hugh Harrop and David Tipling

Princeton University Press, August 2016

Paperback AU$78.00

This new field guide arrived, fortuitously, only a few hours before I departed for a four week stint in the British Isles. As such, it has received a more thorough road-test than some field guides I’ve reviewed. I was also able to meet the authors at the British Birdfair and speak to a number of British birdwatchers there to gauge the early reception Britain’s Birds has received from locals. The overwhelming impression from my snap-poll? A resounding 'thumbs up'.

In total, Britain’s Birds was knocking about in my glovebox or backpack for a shade over 2200 kilometres of a trip that took in parts of England around Oxford and Rutland Water; southern Scotland around Glasgow; and islands of the Inner Hebrides including Mull, Islay and Arran in the Firth of Clyde. These are all areas that I have birded intermittently over the last 15 years, apart from Mull and Islay, to which this was my first visit. After a brutal dip on a vagrant Long-tailed Duck at Rutland Water, my only lifer from four weeks of birding was Red-billed Chough on Islay. But despite all other species being familiar to me already, Britain’s Birds taught me much more about them all and I referred to it constantly.

That first glimpse of a lifer; is there anything like it?! My picture here isn't a patch on the images you'll find in Britain's Birds but we were rapt to eventually have great views of close to 40 birds. Islay is one of very few places in Scotland this rare species still occurs. Britain's Birds informs us there are fewer than 3500 birds across Britain and Ireland with as few as 300 individuals remaining in Scotland.

Completeness is the inescapable first impression Britain’s Birds makes. It includes accounts for just shy of 650 species. With the usual list of resident birds and annual migrants to Britain barely topping 200 species, the fact that the official British list has grown to such a size is testament partly to its geographic location being favourable to avian vagrancy, but mainly to the fervour, size and skill of its birdwatching community. (For comparison, the vaunted Collins guide to all the birds of Europe treats 713 species, has 100 fewer pages and is about two thirds the weight.) As the inevitable result of being so comprehensive, Britain’s Birds is heftier than any other British field guide I’ve used, coming in at 1190g, just a fraction lighter than my ‘go to’ guide to Australia’s 700+ birds, Pizzey & Knight.

The species account for (Red-billed) Chough. The text is concise but more than sufficient. This is one of the more straightforward species to identify.

But if size is the only criticism I can make of Britain’s Birds, it is also a piddling one. It still fits comfortably in the glovebox or day pack, if not quite a jacket pocket. I happily carried mine in the Scopac across many miles of forests, moors and peaks during my visit. It’s printed on robust stock with a low-gloss finish and the solid cover is made of a splash-proof plasticised card which was sufficient to withstand the drizzliest days the Hebridean weather could throw at us.

My antipathy toward photographic field guides has been gradually dissolving since the release of Birds of Australia by Campbell, Woods & Leseberg; Britain’s Birds has banished my reservations about the form entirely. The images are uniformly brightly-lit, well-chosen, frequently breathtaking and carefully arranged without crowding the pages.

The authors have adopted an approach that will be familiar to users of the Crossley ID guides, with a few innovations of their own. Birds are set against a typical background with a number of other birds of the same species super-imposed around them for comparison. The collection of photographs they have collected in Britain’s Birds is staggering. Unlike Australian photographic guides which remain frustratingly bereft of images of Buff-breasted Button-quail (and Night Parrot although photos, happily, are now available for this species), every species is depicted. Not only that, but each species is shown in almost every plumage variation, in comparable light, in near identical poses, in flight and at rest. For a country in which a newb can easily become befuddled by the profusion of gulls (not to mention hybrid ducks!), the inclusion of additional comparison pages for difficult groups is particularly handy. Where vagrants are pictured, the authors have even gone to the trouble of sourcing photographs of an actual individual from its occurrence in British territory. Sub-species are also detailed in most cases; the best example of this may be the species account for Wren Troglodytes troglodytes, which has a dedicated page picturing all six races which occur.

For potentially problematic species you get the Full Monty: a double page spread here for the bogey bird of my trip, Long-tailed Duck. Flight shots, head shots, different moults, behavioural notes, other species it is likely to associate with... all in beautifully comparable, well-lit, photos.

Another highlight is the size and detail of the maps. This is a common stumbling block for many guides so I was stoked to see these produced at a size that allows for fine-grain geographic detail. Each map also has a caption giving movement information, a summary of habitat use and an estimate of British population size.

Also a welcome addition for many will be the ‘educational’ pages at the start of some sections for bird groups that might be difficult for newer birders or birders new to the region. These include helpful pages on the field identification of swans and geese, ducks, waders, gulls, skuas, auks and many others. These pages summarise the field marks to look for in separating the species and give useful behavioural details, moult cycles, confusion species, etc. Certain species accounts also carry a “Rare Beware” inset beside the title. This is a great innovation which immediately alerts you to the possibility of rare birds that might be confused with the species you’re looking at and lists the page numbers to check for those confusion species.

The order is roughly taxonomic with a twist; species are grouped into general categories like water birds, wetland birds, birds of prey, night birds, game birds, etc. To be honest, I’d be happier with a more strictly taxonomic order but the order presented doesn’t affect the usability of the guide in the slightest.

For me, Britain’s Birds has finally eliminated any reticence toward photographic field guides. Photographic and production technology has clearly reached a point at which a guide like this can be the equal of any hand-illustrated version. With the gobsmacking growth in popularity of wildlife photography in recent years who knows? Perhaps one day photo field guides could even become the preferred format.

Britain’s Birds will now be my first pick of field guides to pack when visiting the UK. It’s on the heavier side, but not impractically so. For the extra size you get a field guide which is beautiful, comprehensive, highly usable, as up-to-date as a book in print is able to be and will be a valuable reference on the species it describes, wherever they happen to be found.

CBW

 

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