The Birds of Scotland

Edited by Ronald W Forrester & Ian J Andrews, SOC, ISBN 978 0 9512139 0 2 HB


During my first 18 years I had no more constant friends than Scotland’s birds. During my next six decades as an expatriate, I have been drawn back to them many times. Along with a few trusty mentors, they and their places have given me more joy than anything else on the three continents that I know.

At first my reading about Scottish birds was biased towards the somehow glamorous accounts of the ‘game versus vermin’ battles and the collectors of the 19th Century. Two books saw to an end of my ignorance. The first was Frank Fraser Darling’s still inspirational Natural History in the Highlands and Islands, Collins, 1947. The second was the treasure trove of The Birds of Scotland, Oliver and Boyd, 1953, written by the ‘good ladies’ Evelyn Baxter and Leonora Rintoul, in two volumes and in the grand manner – all prose and not one table.

Thirty-three years on, the Scottish avifauna was re-described by Valerie Thom in her Birds in Scotland, Poyser 1986. Complete with many maps and tables, it was marvellously succinct but with the explosion of modern records and research, the need for another national assessment was recognised in 2001.

So only another 21 years on, here is the third review of Scottish birds and ornithology. Filling two volumes with 1,650 A4 pages, a team of seven editors, 157 authors, 206 photographers and two main artists has produced a majestic statement on the 509 species on the Scottish list.

Given that all team members worked voluntarily for the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club, it is a true testament to the combined commitment of amateur and professional birdwatchers. Last and not least, it costs £75 or thereabouts. So, does it deliver value?

Yes, absolutely. The team have provided a national avifauna of comprehensive text and excellent illustration in an appealing graphic whole. Just as a book, it is totally impressive. Who would squint at a screen when you can have such a companion handy on a shelf?

My favourite part is the long introduction to Scotland, its ornithologists and avifaunal perspectives. The 11 chapters touch on subjects as varied as the growing fossil record, complex bird movements and selected pioneers. I found the last riveting particularly the texts on Harrvie Brown, Scotland’s greatest animal stocktaker, and Phillip Clancey, the ace ‘splitter’ of subspecies of all time.

My next pleasure came from the illustrations. All but 31 of the birds feature in telling, sometimes really evocative Scottish photographs. It is a remarkable harvest and I loved the Goshawk in the snow, the Jack Snipe trying to hide in seaweed and the robust St Kilda Wren.

The unphotographed species are conjured up in a compelling series of washed scraper board drawings by Tommy Daniels. It was great to see a now rare medium take on digital images and impress. Nearly all the other vignettes come from John Busby. In colour for once, his images convey, as ever, life and movement.

The meat of the book is the systematic list and its 509 species accounts, many split into subspecies texts. To learn from these fully, you have to study their introduction with some care but once your eyes are in, the rhythm of the texts becomes friendly.

Each account begins with a key fact summary and then addresses both world and Scottish status and behaviour. Maps and tables abound and there is enough narrative to set human casts among the bird scenes. The main database runs up to and includes 2004; an appendix adds the highlights of 2005 and 2006.

The Birds of Scotland
Scottish Ornithologists' Club

Testing out those of my favourite species, I was unable to find fault but occasionally I sensed a loss of trail. In Valerie’s book, Roy Dennis was quoted as supporting the existence of Willow Tits in the Highlands as late as the early 1950s. No confirmation of this appears this time. Could it be that my one bird at Loch an Eilan on August 13, 1951 was the last of all? (It’s always such fun to take down old diaries and see if you can beat the latest blockbuster!).

More importantly, the book clarifies where the sands around Britain’s endemic species have shifted. Does the Red Grouse still attract supporters? Is the Scottish Crossbill real? “Not in Scotland” and “Quite possibly yes” are the answers. Reading them in full, you can learn also that the Outer Hebridian (and Irish) form of the grouse does not pass the DNA test and that even more amazingly, both the Common and the Parrot Crossbills are struggling to complete their speciation. So evolution continues right now….

With half of the Scottish list made up of strays, the book displays many intriguing histograms and maps of their occurrence patterns. It seems that rarities have become ever more frequent in Scotland but I looked in vain for any measure of the changing size and distribution of the observer corps that had found the birds. Yet again a major review has missed the opportunity to clarify the major human construct (or bias) in the birdwatching record. The British blindspot continues.

One very neglected theme of British ornithology has been the state of our endemic subspecies. The new book does rather well with them, making gaps in knowledge clear and treading a straightish line between the historical authorities and reviews.

Meanwhile every peer that I have asked is enormously impressed by The Birds of Scotland and the core performances in its management, those of Ron Forrester and Ian Andrews. What a task they and the whole team have set for Scotland’s next ornithological assessors! I cannot think of a better national bird book than this one.

If you are serious about your hobby, invest in The Birds of Scotland.

IAN WALLACE, MARCH 2008