Where to Watch Birds in Kent, Surrey and Sussex

Authors Don Taylor, Jeffrey Wheatley and Paul James, Christopher Helm/A&C Black, 2009, 432 pages. PB, ISBN 978-1-4081-0585-6

For me, one sign of a good book is the number of times it has been revamped and improved. Having first appeared as a slim 270 page volume in 1987, this has now appeared again as a fifth edition with a stonking 432 pages! So if you bought an earlier edition – even the last one in 2003 – there are good reasons to buy this new version. In total 159 locations are described.

Another reason for trusting this book is that the authors are all editors of excellent books on their own counties, so not surprisingly they know their stuff. So while it would have been easy to sit back and tweak a few pages and add an extra species here and there, the authors have added new sites. Taking my own home county of Surrey, some 43 sites are included, although some of these are in that part of “old” Surrey that is really Greater London. A number of these merely got a brief mention in earlier editions, but now are treated in more detail. A good example is the relatively new RSPB reserve called Farnham Heath.

Clearly the status of birds changes over time, and when the first edition appeared over twenty years ago the Firecrest was a rare breeder in Sussex, yet in 2006 it could be found at three sites, with 49 territories at one of these. So the choice of this species to adorn the front cover was a good one. The book has been revised carefully to reflect such changes. The maps have been updated, and are clear, showing access points and viewing positions. The habitat at each site is described, and the species are summarised. Access is also described, and a calendar included, highlighting particular species to expect in each season.

vSo are there any shortcomings? The list of useful contacts is a bit thin. Details are only given for two RSPB reserves – despite plenty of others featuring in the earlier chapters. Also it would be useful to have a systematic checklist of the birds that occur in the region with an indication of when they might be seen. However you can use the index of bird names to help you find your target species.

The Helm “Where to Watch Birds” series has been hugely successful over the years, and the key to that success has been the publisher’s efforts to make sure that the books do not become dated. £18.99 may seem to be a high price for a softback, but at 12p per site this book offers a lot of information in return for your investment.


Where to Watch Birds in Kent, Surrey and Sussex
By Don Taylor, Jeffery J. Wheatley, Paul James

Wesley: The Story of a Remarkable Owl

Author Stacey O’Brien, Constable, ISBN 978-1-84901-058-0, P

This New York Times bestseller tells the story of a young biologist who rescues a four-day-old Barn Owl with a broken wing, then cares for it for almost 20 years because it’s incapable of surviving alone in the wild. In turn, it plays its part in helping her to get through a serious illness. OK, so it will tug at the heartstrings shamelessly, and so it might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but there’s also a lot of interesting material in here about owl behaviour in general. One for the beach, maybe.


Collins Bird Guide 2nd Edition

Authors Lars Svensson, Killian Mullarney and Dan Zetterström, HarperCollins 2009, ISBN 978-0-00-726726-2, HB, ISBN 978-0-00-726814-6, SB

There are many revisions to the first edition due largely to taxonomic changes and this has affected the treatment of wildfowl, shearwaters, large gulls, thrushes (including the wheatears), warblers, flycatchers, shrikes and finches. There are no less than 41 new species, 33 of which are the result of taxonomic changes, and several subspecies have received more detailed treatment. This has been achieved by the addition of 24 new spreads, the reworking of many other plates and the incorporation of new illustrations. This means the book has 50 more pages, but it is still reasonably light in weight. The text has also been extensively revised to take account of most of the recent taxonomic research, resulting in the new order of the families at the beginning of the book, which now starts with swans, geese and ducks followed by grouse, pheasants, etc. Only then come the loons (divers), grebes, seabirds, etc., formerly placed first. We thought this would take some getting used to but after using the book for the last 2 weeks the new order has become second nature.

Naturally we went straight to the sumptuous plates and pored over the numerous improvements. Some of the most noticeable and enjoyable are:

A selection of vagrant wildfowl has been inserted. The Herring Gull complex has been dealt with in a succinct and straightforward way in line with current thinking. Birders who struggle with Herring, Yellow-legged and Caspian Gulls will find the picture much clearer.

The old Isabelline Shrike is split into Isabelline & Turkestan Shrikes, which are on the same plate as Red-backed and Brown Shrikes. The new paintings of the “commoner” American vagrant passerines are excellent and a vast improvement on the previous ones.

The wheatears have been extensively revised and the various splits have given rise to unfamiliar names such as Seebohm’s, Maghreb and Kurdish Wheatears. Other strange names include Isabelline Warbler for the old Western Olivaceous Warbler - not really comfortable with that one. Warbler updates include comprehensive coverage of the various chiffchaffs.

Red-breasted Flycatcher has been split into Red-breasted & Taiga Flycatchers. We are sure that this will lead to more of the latter being identified in the UK, hopefully in Norfolk!

The Accidentals section (species recorded only 1 –3 times) has been re-vamped and even includes the Kent Tufted Puffin!

Collins Bird Guide
By Lars Svensson, Killian Mullarney, Dan Zetterström, Peter J. Grant

All said and done this guide is by its very nature a work in progress and this edition is really just the latest update. It is not perfect and never could be as birders, ornithologists, etc seldom agree on everything, foe example the on going debate on the ‘large ‘ Grey Shrikes. A minor criticism would be inaccuracies concerning the UK status of several species. Audouin’s Gull, Black Lark and Masked Shrike are not updated as recent vagrants to the UK but Oriental Cuckoo is still noted as an extremely rare vagrant despite no accepted records. There is also confusion regarding which race/species of Houbara Bustard has occurred in the UK. Whilst drooling over the plates the only typo that ww noticed was the caption Nile “Walley” Sunbird. The bird ‘topography’ diagrams on the end plates have been accidentally omitted but are apparently available as a download from the web.

These criticisms are trivial and we feel churlish to even mention them. Suffice to say that if you have the first edition you will want, need (?) the second. If you haven’t either then what are you waiting for?


The Greater Flamingo

Authors Alan Johnson and Frank Cezilly – T & AD Poyser, 2007, ISBN 978-0-7136-6562-8, HB

You know exactly what you’re going to get with the Poyser series of species accounts, and this doesn’t disappoint, providing the definitive work on this most photogenic of birds, which was nevertheless relatively ignored by biologists until around 50 years ago. For the casual reader, there’s pretty much everything you might want to know about how these birds live and breed, but the authors also add plenty of their own research into the flamingo population of the Camargue, in southern France, which is enough to start you looking at ferry timetables with a view to popping over there to see some.


The Greater Flamingo (Poyser Monographs)
By Alan Johnson, Frank C. Cezilly

Finnish Lapland (including Kuusamo)

Crossbill Guides, ISBN 978 90 501 1337 3

One of the latest field guides produced by the Crossbill Guides Foundation, a non-profit organisation that aims to promote public involvement with nature conservation. This is a beautifully produced guide that covers not only the birds that can be found in Finnish Lapland but descriptions of its flora, fauna and insect life. There are sections on the history and geology of the area and chapters to whet your appetite on the many and varied habitats there are to explore, including Boreal forests, fells and mountain heathlands, mires and bogs.

In the second half of the book, in the section called Practical Part, there are descriptions of 22 walking routes taking in some of the most interesting summer trails you can follow and what specialities can be found, all very clearly laid out and packed with useful information. In keeping with its ecotourism promotion, there is a section entitled Tourist Information & Observation Tips, which includes recommendations on how to act when visiting an area in order to reduce your impact on the natural world and local people.

Right at the back is a comprehensive species list for Finnish Lapland, with name translations into German and Dutch, so you can share findings with fellow visitors! In a compact 224 pages, this guide gives you a real picture of Finnish Lapland and enough information to ensure an enjoyable and bird rich trip.

For more information on the work of the Crossbill Guides Foundation visit www.crossbillguides.org


A Field Guide to the Bird Songs and Calls of Britain and Northern Europe

Author Dave Farrow, Carlton

A bit like picking up a foreign language, learning birdsong is probably most easily done when you’re young.

If though, like me, you let it pass you by in your younger years, you’re missing out on a huge amount. You probably all know at least one birder who can pull ticks out of thin air just by stopping and listening, and you probably wish you could do the same.

Dave Farrow’s new field guide, then, would seem to be ideal. It covers 200 species, with 350 full-colour drawings, but the real draw is the two CDs included, which contain 200 song and call recordings.

They complement the extensive descriptions of songs and calls given in the text, and of course could easily be uploaded onto an iPod or MP3 player, to take around with you in the field.

And they work very well. Rather better, for me at least, than those textual descriptions, which seem of variable value in the field. Farrow has done a fine job of coming up with a systematic way of writing down birdsong, but even so I found it hard to relate the description of, say, the Curlew’s bubbling trill, to the actual sound. Admittedly that’s a very difficult one, and many of the simpler annotations work much better, but it’s the CDs that are likely to really pay dividends.

Another problem is that the book itself is not comprehensive enough to suit even beginners as a field guide, with species such as Mute Swan, Hen Harrier and Jack Snipe missing, so you’re unlikely to want to carry it round in the field.

On the other hand, it’s not going to break the bank, so if you have a spare £20, buy a copy, keep it and the CDs in the car, and I guarantee you’ll find it useful in complementing more conventional books next time you find yourself baffled by the calls of a maddeningly elusive bird.


The Birds of Turkey

Authors Guy M Kirwan, Kerem Boyla, Peter Castell, Barbaros Demirci, Metehan Özen, Hilary Welch & Tim Marlow. Christopher Helm / A&C Black, HB, ISBN 978-1-4081-0475-0

As the only country to span both Europe and Asia, and bordered as it is with no less than eight other nations, Turkey holds a special place in Western Palearctic ornithology.

Since the early 1970s, European birders have visited it in significant numbers, and from small beginnings Turkey has itself established a flourishing and highly-motivated network of bird clubs. It is therefore surprising that this is the first book to truly document the avifauna of this proud country.

A total of 463 species are covered in this book. The main focus for each species account is status and distribution, while breeding information is provided for 316 species that have nested in Turkey.

With the exception of vagrants, each species has a monochrome distribution map. Four levels of shading indicate seasonal distribution, and while the maps do not divide the country into the main regions, major rivers are always indicated.

Chapters by a number of experts discuss the history of ornithology in Turkey, eco-regions and the breeding season, while another poses plenty of questions for which the authors simply did not have clear answers.

For example, Mediterranean Shearwaters surely must breed along the coast – but to date nobody has proved that it happens. Plenty of birders have made a pilgrimage to watch Caspian Snowcocks in north-east Turkey, but despite this nobody has found a nest since 1876. Incidentally, this enigmatic species features on the back cover in an excellent watercolour by John Gale, who also provided paintings of Black-bellied Sandgrouse for the front cover.

Turkey has a wealth of excellent young bird photographers whose work can be seen on websites such as http://www.trakus.org, but while the work of a number of these has been used in the 32 colour plates that illustrate a mixture of birds and habitats, too many of the illustrations chosen are of only average quality, which is a little disappointing.


The Birds of Turkey (Helm Field Guides)
By Geoff Welch, Barbaros Demirci, Guy M. Kirwan, Kerem Boyla, Metehan Ozen, Peter Castell, Tim Marlow, Hilary Welch

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.


The Birds of Lancashire and North Merseyside

Eds Steve White, Barry McCarthy and Maurice Jones – Hobby Publications, 2008, ISBN 978-1-872839-11-0, HB

Produced by Lancashire and Cheshire Fauna Society, this is the third Lancashire avifauna ever produced. Given that the last was in 1953, it provides a welcome, much-needed update on the birdlife of one of the UK’s largest, and most ornithologically diverse, counties. As such, it’s pretty much a model of what such a book should be. There’s a brief history of birding in Lancashire, plus a short-round-up of the county’s birdwatching sites, and then a comprehensive, species by species look at the birds themselves, illustrated by 311 original photographs and 105 original line drawings, plus a host of maps, graphs and tables. If you’re a Lancashire birder yourself, it’s a must-have, but if you’ve got any kind of interest in birds, it’s a really fine example of what can be produced by many hours of voluntary fieldwork, research and writing.


Birds of the Cotswolds: A New Breeding Atlas

Authors Iain Main, Dave Pearce and Tim Hutton, Liverpool University Press, ISBN 978-1-84631-210-6, HB

County and regional bird atlases are a really underrated tool for any birdwatcher, and this is a really fine example. The product of five years’ field work by the North Cotswold Ornithological Society, it covers parts of Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire and Warwickshire, and does so with good, clear species accounts and distribution maps that are easy to use. For any birder in this outstandingly beautiful area, this is a must, for leisurely browsing as well as more systematic fact-checking.


Birds of the Cotswolds: A New Breeding Atlas
By Iain Main, Dave Pearce, Tim Hutton

Bird Observatories of Britain and Ireland

Authors Mike Archer, Mark Grantham, Peter Howlett and Steve Stansfield, T & AD Poyser, 2010, ISBN 978-1-4081-1040-9, HB

The 18 bird observatories scattered around the British Isles have been playing a hugely important role in monitoring migration since 1933, when the first was set up on Skokholm, off the south-west coast of Wales.

And, although in these days of hi-tech rarity-chasing they might seem like a throwback to a different era of birdwatching altogether, they’re actually seeing greater numbers of visitors, and having to adapt accordingly.

This chunky volume tells their story simply and methodically, allocating a chapter to each observatory. You’re told the history of the site, and there’s plenty of information on where to see the best birds, as well as accounts of the most notable past sightings.

The text is broken up by plenty of photos, plus tables of statistics for each observatory. The latter help you grasp just what a valuable scientific role they’re playing.

I enjoyed the appendices, too, which include checklists (including one for non-avian species, and another for birds new to Britain and Ireland found at observatories).

But as well as all the concrete details contained within, one of the less obvious pleasures of the book is the way it shines a light on some of the unsung heroes of British birding – the wardens, volunteers and visitors whose willingness to put in long hours has made the sites what they are.

If you’ve been involved with the observatories in any way, or if you’d like to experience the full glory of Britain’s bird migration at first hand, this is a fine summary of 18 little birding gems.


Bird Observatories of Britain and Ireland (Poyser Monographs)
By Mike Archer, Mark Grantham, Peter Howlett, Steven Stansfield

Bird Migration

Author Ian Newton, Harper Collins, 2010, 596 pages, ISBN 978-0-00730731-9 (HB) 978-0-00730732-6 (PB)

There is no doubt that the story of bird migration is huge – not just the distances covered, but the reasons for it, and the consequences of it. Just trying to comprehend the immense number of facts involved in this phenomenon is exhausting, but here, in one volume, Ian Newton has condensed everything that is known about the subject, and in his characteristic style he has explained complex theories with a clarity and conciseness that makes the subject available to everyone.

Importantly, this book (like all in the New Naturalist series) only tries to assess the subject from a British Isles perspective and as a result it is both readable and highly relevant. Starting with a summary of migration studies, Newton then sets the scene by outlining the different types of migration through each season, and he then looks at the ways that birds both large and small tackle the challenge of long-distance flight. The positive and negative effects of weather and altitude are explored, as is the importance of food both before and during migration. Many examples are given of enormous journeys undertaken by birds in circumstances that are hard for humans to comprehend. Incredibly, some species can cross continents without the aid of parents showing them the way – and having been born just a few weeks previously!

But for me the most fascinating aspect of bird migration is the way that birds navigate their way across the globe – often at night. This whole area is assessed, summarising the main findings from experiments to check the way birds use the Sun, stars, magnetic forces and an incredible memory for land features that would leave even the best pilot in awe.

Another section describes the way birds disperse after breeding, and the way individuals return (or not) to wintering sites. Vagrancy is also discussed, with explanations for overshooting and drift, mirror-image and reverse-direction migration. There is an extensive section on the evolution of migration, showing how birds choose to migrate in response to factors beyond their control. This is particularly interesting given the climatic changes that are predicted for the next fifty years. Many recent changes are discussed, and clearly more species may change their travel patterns as a result, with some needing to travel further north in order to find their optimal habitat. A chapter on the effect of the last glacial age (20,000 years ago) is fascinating, and shows how some species probably altered their migration patterns due to the climatic conditions. While the research on this is nowhere near complete, it seems that some species still take unnecessarily long migrations – probably because it has not yet been to their disadvantage.

Newton continues to explore more aspects of migration such as the fact that many species undertake moults in their winter quarters, and explores the reasons why they do not take the opportunity to breed twice – once in the north, and then again in the south.

While we might think of the sudden arrival of Waxwings as an irruption in search of food rather than a planned migration, this subject is also considered along with movements within a winter period by wildfowl, waders and thrushes. The differences in migratory patterns between males and females are also explained.

The final sections discuss the circumstances for birds wintering in Africa, and the current population trends for our migrant species. It means that the book has to end on a less positive note, but it does so at a time when the BTO’s “Out of Africa” research is highlighting the challenges that our birds are facing from massive overgrazing in key parts of West Africa.

Compared to our awareness of birds’ breeding behaviour, I would suggest that most of us are comparatively less informed about their migratory habits. Indeed many of us have probably never considered whether the birds that we see every day ever undertake migrations. This book opens the door for birdwatchers on a subject that has traditionally been the domain of scientists. It does so in a way that translates detailed research into everyday facts without losing the rigour of scientific expertise.


Bird – the ultimate illustrated guide to the birds of Britain and Europe

Authors Peter Hayman and Rob Hume. Mitchell Beazley HB, ISBN 978 1 84533 338 6. Includes CD for MP3 or iPod

This book will be popular as a reference work for people who want everything in one place – identification, photos, maps and basic information.

Illustrated throughout with Hayman’s distinctive artwork, the book describes the full range of European breeding species but excludes most vagrants. The exception is Ring-billed Gull, although I would also have included Pectoral Sandpiper and Ring-necked Duck.

Each species is depicted on the ground or perched and in flight (often, but not always, from below). Adult and immature plumages are shown in most cases – especially with the non-passerines – and a photograph accompanies every species. There is also close-up detail on tail patterns where this aids identification. Closely-related similar species are briefly mentioned with a small comparison sketch.

A map showing European distribution is included together with a circle (a bit like a clock face) to show which months you can expect to see each bird. Both are coloured to indicate to which family the bird belongs. For me this added a level of unnecessary detail which prevented the maps from showing when a species was in summer or winter range.

I have several concerns with the maps, which are a missed opportunity. For example these clearly show Hooded Crow being present throughout the eastern side of England, while Raven (which now is spreading across the south-east) is shown only west of Dorset. Perhaps my expectations on such things are high, but given the care that has been taken to show detailed identification points, I would have hoped a bit more time had been spent on the maps. If you are new to birding you’ll be thrown by such things.

In summary I do think this will be a popular book and at £25 it represents great value for money, particularly with so much data being available as images and notes for your iPod. Recordings of 250 species are included and when you consider the cost of buying these separately the value of this book becomes even greater.


The Biggest Twitch

Authors Alan Davies and Ruth Miller, Helm, 2010, ISBN 978-1-4081-2387-4, PB

Although it’s fair to say that the subtitle, Around The World In 4,000 Birds, pretty much gives the game away in terms of story, you’re unlikely to come away from this account of an extraordinary birding adventure unsatisfied.

If you didn’t already know as much from the pages of Bird Watching present and past, The Biggest Twitch was the authors’ attempt to see more bird species in a single year than anyone has ever managed before.

That they succeeded, and then some, has already been widely documented, but the pleasure of it all for any birdwatcher is in the detail. And what detail!

Starting in Arizona on New Year’s Day, the authors work their way through the incredible 4,341 species that they clocked up. There are moments when you worry that the account is going to turn into a list of sightings that all blur into each other, but the book is saved from the danger of monotony by two factors.

One is that, put simply, Davies and Miller are engaging companions, and sensibly take on alternating chapters to give contrasting views of what must, again and again, have seemed a completely madcap scheme. Both write concisely and entertainingly, and while Davies keeps the birds more firmly in his scope, Miller is great at evoking the other, more personal side of the story – the endless late night journeys, early starts, dodgy meals and unexpected encounters.

And that’s the second factor. It was inevitable that such a huge, globe-trotting journey would result in all sorts of last minute changes of plan, diversions and even dangers.

These include everything from the genuinely alarming, such as when the boat they’re in starts to sink off Australia, to the sort of gastric hazards familiar to most birdwatching tourists who have ventured to the further reaches of the globe. You’re left feeling that a birdwatcher’s best friend, after their binoculars and field guide, is an industrial-sized supply of Immodium!

The Biggest Twitch: Around the World in 4,000 Birds
By Alan Davies, Ruth Miller

The greatest success of the book, though, is that despite the problems and pitfalls it unflinchingly documents, it leaves you itching to get out there and see even a hundredth of the exotic species described within its pages. There’s no purple prose, just good, detailed descriptions of the sort of birding ‘eureka’ moments we all dream of.

It’s interesting, too, that these don’t always involve the massive rarities or colourful exotics you’d expect – sometimes it’s the appearance of a relatively familiar bird at the right time and right place that gives the record attempt fresh impetus, and that’s a feeling every birdwatcher can relate to.

The colour photos are a nice touch, with just enough included to give you a real flavour of the trip, while the chapter format previously mentioned (by location) means that you can dip in and out just as enjoyably as reading straight through. I found myself, after the intro, skipping ahead to locations I’d visited myself, then going back to read through in chronological order.

However you approach it, though, you’ll find yourself marvelling at the sheer stamina of our two heroes, and thoroughly inspired as well as entertained.


Bats of Britain, Europe and Northwest Africa

Authors Christian Dietz, Otto von Helversen, Dietmar Nill, A & C Black, 2009, ISBN 978-1-4081-0531-3, HB

When birders start to extend their interest in wildlife into other areas, it’s usually dragonflies, butterflies and moths they start with. Bats seem to get a little bit overlooked, no doubt because of the relative difficulty of observing them due to their nocturnal lifestyle as much as any negative connotations from all those old horror films.

This glossy, comprehensive guide to the continent’s 51 bat species, though, gives you no excuse not to get familiar with the only true flying mammals. It arrived at a good time for me. Last spring, a chance sighting of a Pipistrelle hawking insects in broad daylight set me thinking about bats generally, and more recently I’ve been trying, in the style of Coronation Street’s Roy Cropper, to find out more about the bats at a site close to home threatened by developers. One of the great appeals of bats, I think, is precisely that they are often so close to home – wildlife literally right outside our back doors – and this makes them far easier to get to grips with.

For the curious beginner like me, then, this volume is hard to beat. The ‘field guide’ section of the book is as thorough as you could possibly want, well illustrated with more than 400 colour photographs, and comes complete with good clear distribution maps and plenty of measurements. It includes recent taxonomic changes and new species descriptions, too, making it bang up to date.

Each species account includes a lengthy bibliography, a nice touch if you do get completely hooked and want to learn more. Better still, though, there’s a good 120 pages of material at the front of the book on bat behaviour, movements, roosts, habitats and their conservation status in Europe, complete with some excellent drawings and graphics.

Not only does it help put any one species in a wider context (and of course most of us will only regularly be seeing a small proportion of the species detailed here), but it’s a really good read in its own right. Quite apart from anything else, it starts you thinking about the bats’ prey species, and that’s a whole new area of study again. It hits a fine balance between not assuming any prior knowledge, and being comprehensive and even academic enough to be of interest to the real expert.

One slight problem, I suppose, is that it is rather too large and heavy to actually take around with you in the field, so perhaps you’d want a smaller companion volume as well, but then it’s not intended to be anything other than a mine of information to refer to in between your bat-watching expeditions. It does that job quite superbly.

So, if you want to supplement your birding reading by looking at the wider wildlife picture, there aren’t many better places to start. This exemplary handbook opens up the night-time world and places bats in their ecological context – buy it and find yourself hooked immediately.


Handbook of the Bats of Europe and Northwest Africa
By Christian Dietz, Dietmar Nill, Otto Von Helversen

The Barley Bird

Author Richard Mabey, images by Derrick Greaves, Full Circle Editions, 2010, HB, ISBN 978-0-9561869-1-1

The subtitle of this handsome hardback volume, Notes On The Suffolk Nightingale, undersells it a little, because this very personal look at the Nightingale’s links with the Suffolk landscape is anything but notes.

Mabey takes in everything from Keats and John Clare to popular songs such as A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square to show just how ingrained in the popular imagination this sadly declining species is, very much in the same vein as his 1993 book Whistling In The Dark.

This time, his mixture of autobiographical sketches, cultural investigations and close observation is accompanied by vibrant images by Derrick Greaves.

As with the above-mentioned Clare, Mabey always allows enough of the living, breathing bird to come through – it’s never treated as merely a symbol or a cipher.

If Nightingales are your thing (and it’s hard to imagine any birdwatcher who has heard one who isn’t enraptured by them), then this is the book for you.


Atlas of Rare Birds

Author Dominic Couzens, New Holland, 2010, ISBN 978-1-84773-535-5, HB

BirdLife International endorses the Atlas of Rare Birds, by Bird Watching favourite Dominic Couzens.

This volume looks at the subject more from the point of view of the birdwatcher, telling the story of 50 of the rarest bird species in the chatty, engaging but information-packed style we’ve come to expect from Couzens. There’s less discussion of just why the species are facing extinction than in the previous book, but then the author is aiming to let the birds’ stories speak for themselves.

They’re split into categories which include those few that have come back from the brink, as well as those causing controversy, such as the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

That particular bird is illustrated with a truly remarkable photograph from the 1930s, while elsewhere there’s a wealth of colour photographs to help bring a wide variety of species to life.

Full marks, too, for the colour maps provided for each species. They’re simple, but clear and informative enough to put each bird in the global context they need.

It all adds up to an enjoyable package that nevertheless does an excellent job of educating and informing. For that reason, while it has plenty to offer the adult reader too, it’s a perfect introduction to the subject of extinctions for the younger birder or naturalist.

It’s good to be able to endorse two books which approach such an important subject in such an intelligent but accessible way – they complement each other beautifully, and deserve to do well.


Atlas of Rare Birds
By Dominic Couzens

Advanced Bird ID Guide: The Western Palearctic

Author Nils Van Duivendijk, New Holland, 2010, ISBN 978-1-84773-607-9, PB

At first sight, the thought of an ID guide without either drawings or photos seems daunting to say the least, if not downright unusable.

As soon as you look a little bit closer though, the true value of this volume, published in association with British Birds, becomes obvious.

In essence, it lists all 1,300 or so bird species ever recorded in Britain, Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, providing the essential ID features for all of them. And when I say essential, I mean the whole lot. Key characters of every plumage (including variations down to age, sex, morph and race) are included, set out very logically and clearly for ease of use in the field.

If you’re serious about your birding, and especially if you travel widely in the Western Palearctic, then this is going to be pretty essential, whether alongside a conventional field guide or on its own.

The fact that it’s a highly compact, portable little book means that few hardcore birders would want their rucksack or coat pocket to be without one.

For those of us whose birdwatching is of the more close-to-home, low-key variety, though, there’s still a great deal to be gained from this book.

I thought I’d test it out in the field by matching the descriptions of common birds to what I was actually watching. And the thing is, I soon realised just how easy it is to fail to pay really close attention to the birds we’re used to seeing. We see each of those familiar species as an instantly-recognisable whole, rather than a collection of ID features.

As Bird Watching regular Dominic Couzens has pointed out before, ask yourself what colour a Robin’s face is, and you might well struggle to answer unless there’s one in front of you (it’s red). A book like this gets you into the habit of building up ‘jigsaw IDs’, which can only help when you come across more unfamiliar species. That’s not to say you can’t still enjoy birds just in themselves, of course, just that having the mental ID tools at your disposal always helps your enjoyment.

So, there’s something for most levels of birdwatcher in this unusual and impressively exhaustive book. You’ll certainly learn something, and you’ll be well equipped to identify even the most challenging species.



Advanced Bird ID Guide
By Nils Van Duivendijk