Chris Watson

Birdfair

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

 

Buy it from Andrew Isles

Journey to the center of the (birding) world

BirdingChris Watson

“This is an annual event held over three days and represents the biggest bird jamboree in the world. It takes place at the nature reserve of Rutland Water, but seeing birds is not a high priority.” – Birders: Tales of a Tribe by Mark Cocker (p.27)

You never know who you'll bump into! Moppers with the great champion of British natural history, Bill Oddie.

For most of the year, Egleton, in the East Midlands of England, is a sleepy village with a population that is yet to creep over a hundred. But if census data was ever taken in mid-August that population figure would change. Drastically.

Egleton lies on the western shore of the Rutland Water Reservoir; a large man-made body of water that supplies much of the water to surrounding areas. And each year in August, The Rutland Water Nature Reserve hosts the British Birdwatching Fair, often known simply as Birdfair. As Mark Cocker’s description makes clear this is the single largest gathering of birders, twitchers, birdwatchers, frog freaks, bug-trappers, wildlife enthusiasts and naturalists of all ilks on Earth. Over three days it regularly attracts between 20,000-30,000 attendees with as much as two thirds of those attending in a single day. To say it’s an extraordinary event sells the experience massively short. It’s variously touted as the wildlife event of the year and the Glastonbury of Birdwatching; neither of which is an exaggeration.  

Need a ludicrous bird box for the back yard? You'll find it at Birdfair.

In the humid late summer weather there are dozens of marquees set up by folks from all industries related to wildlife and conservation from over 100 countries around the globe. Australia’s Northern Territory stands side-by-side with Ugandan operators peddling trips to track the Mountain Gorillas in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest Reserve. The Falkland Islands stand boasts pictures of steamer ducks and penguins while tour operators from the Orkneys tout trips to see their northern counterparts (and they always have a dram of the local produce under the table for friendly faces). There are prominent authors conducting book signings (dear god the BOOKS!) and interviews throughout the day and as you meander through the marquees you stand a good chance of rubbing shoulders with natural history luminaries like Sir David Attenborough, Bill Oddie, Chris Packham, Mick Jerram and Mark Carter. They’re all regular attendees.

...no, seriously these are all fully-functional bird nesting boxes.

Then there are the numerous opportunities to learn. The entire weekend has lectures running concurrently across three marquees from leaders and experts from every part of the world. You can spend your entire day going from lecture to lecture and the diversity of subject matter is too dazzlingly to cover here. When you tire of the throng, the reserve has numerous feeder gardens, world-class hides and mile after mile of trails and ponds to search with Common Kingfisher, nesting Western Osprey and a variety of other interesting birds often around. (I’m told they have a Long-tailed Duck there at the moment and I’m hoping the bastard stays put until I can get there.)

Ludicrous. 

Then there are the gear stands. We all know birders like gear and Birdfair is probably the only opportunity on Earth to compare all the gear in a single location, side-by-side. Canon, Zeiss, Swarovski, Bushnell, Leica, Nikon… you name it. Pretty much every brand of optics from the budget to the budget-blowing has its entire product range on display, on tripods, on the shores of the nature reserve for you to get your grubby mitts on. It’s easy for most birders to disappear for half a day in the optics marquees alone.

And there’s always the beer tent if it all becomes too much.

On top of all this, the British Birdwatching Fair is a major fundraiser for conservation causes around the world. Last year it raised, through auctions and direct donations, £320,000 in a single weekend. Since 1989 it has raised a total of £3,996,152, so it’s is safe to say that it will have contributed well clear of £4 million to conservation programs around the world by the time Birdfair 2016 wraps up this Sunday.

Just a Leopard wandering past the wildlife crime stand. The UK has a dedicated police unit for the prevention and prosecution of wildlife crime. We have a long way to go in Australia.

The first time I visited I found it an almost overwhelming onslaught of information and new friendships to be made. More than any other event I've attended it gave me a profound sense that birders everywhere are part of a massive global community. We might sometimes feel remote from this community as we go about our birding activities on our own patch, but at least once a year it is good to be reminded that you're a member of this extraordinary tribe. This year will be my fourth visit to Birdfair, my first non-“work” trip, and I’m as excited as ever. A friend living in Oxford has kindly planned her wedding for the weekend following Birdfair providing the perfect excuse to combine the two.

If you want to talk turkey with the Outback experts you have to drop in on the NT stand. There's free stuff and prizes!

So, friends I’ve met at Birdfair in years past, I hope to catch up with you again. And for those of you who haven’t yet been, it’s high time you made plans to get over for this unique event and mingle with your tribe.

See you there!

 

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