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Old Friday 9th January 2009, 11:38   #1
John Cantelo
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Best European Field Guides – a mini-review

The recent resurrection of a thread on European field guides pretty much concluded that the ‘Collins Guide’ was the best field guide which, on one level, is pretty hard to argue with as it certainly has the best ID text, covers all the likely eventualities and is blessed with stunning illustrations. However, what is best for one level of expertise isn’t necessarily best for all levels of competence. Similarly, what works well on the continent doesn’t necessarily work so well in the UK. I’ve put together a set of mini-reviews to suit all tastes and needs. Partly to help make a choice, but mainly to squeeze in all the books I really like, I’ve divided my reviews into seven arbitrary sections (each with a runner-up). Since what started out as a detailed response to the aforementioned thread is now really a different beast altogether, I’ve decided to make this a new topic.

I’ve deliberately excluded all specialist guides (on particular groups or selected species), all books that don’t fit the field guide ‘genotype’ and, with one small exception, all photo-guides (cos they’re totally naff!)

Best Beginner’s Guide

“Pocket Guide to the Birds of Britain & NW Europe” – Kightley, Madge & Nurney £12.99
Pros - good larger than average illustrations (no spectacles needed!). Handy size. Larger maps showing geo-political boundaries (= easier to grasp precise range). Fewer species covered so less confusing for beginners (although some non-British birds included).
Cons – Illustrations not as good as other guides. Only covers NW Europe. Layout means it’s less easy to compare several species. Coverage of only 380 species means it might ‘let you down’ when most needed
Runner-up - RSPB Pocket Guide to British Birds (by Simon Harrap) – covers even fewer species, but good illustrations and very handy.

Best Comprehensive Guide

“Collins Bird Guide”

- Mullarney, Svensson, Zetterstrom & Grant £16.99

Pros – Superb illustrations (by Killian Mullarney & Dan Zetterstrom) with good annotations. Excellent text, by Lars Svensson & Peter J Grant, a masterpiece of systematic organisation and authoritative commentary. Good on calls/song. Covers all European birds & vagrants. Detailed maps. Cons – Coverage of North Africa and the Middle East potentially confusing to a beginner. Crowded plates and text pages can be a little overwhelming. Taxonomic treatment now looks dated (but new edition in 2009 should resolve this)
Runner-up - New Birdwatcher’s Pocket Guide (see below)

Best Illustrated Guide “Birds of Europe with North Africa and the Middle East”
– Lars Jonsson £16.99
Pros – Glorious, accurate, yet lively, illustrations by Europe’s greatest bird artist. Much larger than average illustrations. Larger maps. Covers all European species and most vagrants. Taxonomy now dated (and hence coverage of recently ‘split’ species relatively poor).
Cons – Bulkier than rivals (at the edge of what’s possible for a field guide). Text more anecdotal & less systematically organised so not always so useful as rivals.
Runner-up - Collins Bird Guide (see above) – the toughest decision of the lot – Jonsson just wins out for the breath taking realism of his painting

Most Portable Guide

“New Birdwatchers’ Pocket Guide”
- Hayman & Hume - £9.99 (paperback)
Pros – Very portable being shirt pocket sized. Illustrations the equal (& sometimes more precise than those in the ‘Collins Guide’) with good annotations. Excellent ID text. Covers all key European species. Taxonomy currently more up-to-date than in Collins.
Cons - Typeface (and some illustrations) tiny. No maps. Relatively poor on songs & calls. Some frequently seen vagrants omitted ( e.g. Yellow-browed Warbler)
Runner-up - New Holland European Bird Guide (see below) – a little bulkier but better on calls

Most Underrated Guide

"Philip's Guide to Birds of Britain and Europe” - Lars Svensson & Hakan Delin £9.99 Pros – Revised version of the ‘Hamlyn’ guide now largely superbly re-illustrated (some, but not all, illustrations much larger than average). Excellent text by Lars Svensson (co-author of the ‘Collins Guide’). Clear & easy to read maps. Covers all European birds & most vagrants – so less confusing than ‘Collins’. Up to date taxonomy. A little more ‘handy’ than the ‘Collins Bird Guide’. Cheap often discounted to £6.99 Cons – Inexplicably continues to use some dreadful original plates by Singer. Over shadowed by the Collins Bird Guide.
Runner-up - Collins Pocket Guide – Birds of Britain & Europe (Heinzel & Fitter) – holds up surprisingly well with some races more accurately illustrated than in ‘Collins Bird Guide’.

Best Newcomer

“New Holland European Bird Guide” – Barthel & Dougalis £10.99
Pros – Very attractive and accurate illustrations (often with delightful backgrounds hinting a habitat preference). Very handy size (bettered only by Hayman & Hume). Very up to date taxonomic treatment so excellent coverage of ‘new’ species.
Cons – Mixed scale of illustrations can confuse (e.g. Quail appears as big as Grey Partridge). Maps small to the point of uselessness. Limited text struggles to deal with more difficult species.
Runner-up - RSPB Pocket Guide to Birds – confusingly similar title to Simon Harrap’s book, but this one is illustrated by photos; it almost makes photo-guides respectable.

Best Regional Field Guide

“Guia de las Aves de Espana”
– de Juana & Varela €15 (hardback)
Pros – excellent and larger than average Jonsson-esque illustrations. Handy size. Clear, good sized maps of Iberian (and Canarian) distribution. Easily decipherable population/distribution notes. Fewer species (only regular Iberian and Canarian species) so less confusing. Improved second edition.
Cons – Only available in Spanish. An enlarged and suitably amended version would make a superb guide to Mediterranean birds.
Runner-up - Shell Guide to the Birds of Britain & Europe – long out of print, but still THE definitive regional guide!

Personally, I rarely use a field guide in the UK since if I don't know what a bird is (which rarely happens after 45 years birding) I'd prefer to draw/make notes than burrow away in a guide. When taking out beginners I use Kightley et al and when birding in Europe I tend to use Hayman. I hope this proves useful to browsers and, perhaps, a little contentious!
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Old Friday 9th January 2009, 12:11   #2
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Nice work, John!
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Old Friday 9th January 2009, 12:49   #3
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Kightley, Madge & Nurney
No good, covers some of Sweden and Norway and even Estonia, map cuts off Finland.
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Old Friday 9th January 2009, 14:04   #4
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Kightley, Madge & Nurney
No good, covers some of Sweden and Norway and even Estonia, map cuts off Finland.
I think this judgement a little harsh - it still covers most (all?) species a beginner is likely see in the areas you mention even though that the maps don't show distribution is an admitted drawback . Despite the 'NW Europe' in the title, it's still, surprisingly, useful for Mediterranean birds too. Of the 35-40 'core European species' missing most are relatively scarce or obscure (i.e. real birders' birds) and restricted mainly the the Balkans and, to a lesser extent, Iberia. In fact, with 2 species per page and fewer pages than most other guides (298pp) it's surprisngly they've never published a slightly larger edition to cover the whole of Europe as you'd only need 20 odd more pages. (Incidentally, the Dutch did much the same thing with the old Shell Guide, but somewhat puzzlingly, this was never taken up as a European field guide in the UK),

In my view, the larger illustrations, clear layout and fewer unecessary 'confusion' species more than makes up for any shortfall in the species covered as far as the inexperienced are concerned.
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Old Friday 9th January 2009, 16:56   #5
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Interested in John's comments re the cons of the Collins'. Talking to a French birder last summer he felt that its main problem was overcrowding of species, not a million miles from John's point. Is it really necessary to have so many vagrants? Given the difficulties often associated with vagrants, a guide to European and MENA birds, designed to be carried in the field, is unlikely to be conclusive and, in many cases, won't do justice to their identification. His suggestion was to cut out most of these vagrants (perhaps leaving in a few of the "regular" vagrants (e.g. Pectoral Sandpiper) and devote more space to the finer distinctions of the birds of the area stated on the cover. I must say that I have some sympathy with this view.

That said, I still think it's the best and am looking forward greatly to the new edition.

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Old Friday 9th January 2009, 17:56   #6
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One of my few criticisms of Collins Bird Guide is that, albeit necessarily so, the plates are very crowded. I think that the only book that's resolved the problem of beginers' 'rarity confusion' was the old Shell Guide which partitioned off rarities in a separate section at the back. Beginers automatically went to the main text and, only after failing to find the species before them, did they look in the back at the rarities.

The biggest failing of field guides in general is that they are too even handed in dishing out the available space. I've never undertood why Hoopoe and Kingfisher after often allotted a similar amount of space as, say Marsh and Reed Warblers. Some judicious trimming for the blindingly obvious would fee up space for the seriously tricky,
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Old Friday 9th January 2009, 20:18   #7
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But I guess at the same time, some birds that were not so common have become so since the book was published, so it's not always so easy to guess which species this will happen to. F'rinstance, Little Egret numbers in the UK are quite different between now and when the book came out, same with Caspian Gull, Cetti's Warbler, etc.
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Old Friday 9th January 2009, 20:35   #8
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The biggest failing of field guides in general is that they are too even handed in dishing out the available space. I've never undertood why Hoopoe and Kingfisher after often allotted a similar amount of space as, say Marsh and Reed Warblers. Some judicious trimming for the blindingly obvious would fee up space for the seriously tricky,
Which is why the 2 Macmillan books are so good, they don't bother about the easy stuff, and just concentrate on the problem birds. It's such a shame they are out of print.

For those who don't know the books, they are

1 The Macmillan Field Guide to Bird Identification - Harris, Tucker and Vinnicombe

2 The Macmillan Birder's Guide to European and Middle Eastern Birds - Harris, Shirihai and Christie

You can occasionally pick them up in second hand book shops
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Old Friday 9th January 2009, 21:31   #9
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Colonel Boris wrote - "But I guess at the same time, some birds that were not so common have become so since the book was published, so it's not always so easy to guess which species this will happen to. F'rinstance, Little Egret numbers in the UK are quite different between now and when the book came out, same with Caspian Gull, Cetti's Warbler, etc".

Actually changes in distribution or increases in poulation haven't really made that much difference since the 'commoner' omitted birds haven't really changed their distribution or numbers in Europe. Little Egret & Cetti's, for example, are very well established within the books self imposed limited remit. However, changes in taxonomic status, particularly subspecies being raised to full specific status (cf Caspian Gull, Balearic/Mamora's Warblers etc) have changed markedly.


Keith Dickinson wrote - Which is why the 2 Macmillan books are so good, they don't bother about the easy stuff, and just concentrate on the problem birds.

I couldn't agree more. However, I still think that nobody has tried to tackle the 'middle ground' by producing a 'traditional' field guide with elements of the MacMillan books.

Incidentally, how do you use the 'quote' button for two contributions?
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Old Friday 9th January 2009, 21:55   #10
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Quote:
Originally Posted by John Cantelo View Post
Incidentally, how do you use the 'quote' button ...
Quote:
...for two contributions?
Copy, paste, add
Code:
<quote></quote>
tags (replace those brackets with square ones). You can also use <quote=User> to show who said what, so:
Quote:
Originally Posted by Egon Spengler from Ghostbusters
I'm terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought, Ray...
That's the manual way, but there's also the button next to the 'quote' button - this allows you to make multiple quotes.
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Old Thursday 29th January 2009, 22:00   #11
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Regarding the Shell Guide, who was it by? I've got here The Shell Easy Bird Guide by Hume and Hayman that I picked up at a motorway services a couple of years ago for a fiver. It's also got a rarities section at the back. It's dated 1997, but I guess it might be a rehashed version...? The Mrs likes it a lot more than Collins as it has photos as well as paintings of the birds.
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Old Thursday 29th January 2009, 22:40   #12
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It's a completely different book. 'The Shell Guide to the Birds of Britain & Europe' was written by James Ferguson-Lees, the maps complied by J T R Sharrock and the plates painted by Ian Willis; names perhaps not so well known by a younger generation of birders but a very distinguished and expert team. It was published back in 1983 by Michael Joseph. It covered 488 species (i.e. every bird then on the British List other than species then not recorded since 1930). About 260 'core' species were treated in detail in the main section of the book with UK maps, status details, food & breeding biology. In this section each double page spread covered between 2-3 species (occasionally 4). The last 80 pages covered all vagrants with each double page covering about 4-5 species (with smaller illustrations and no maps the ID text in this section remained very good). Personally I've always felt that this seperation of common birds and gross rarities worked very well. I've always thought that this was the ieal template for a good UK field guide. It was only let down by rather wishy washy reproduction of the plates.

A German edition of this book (Vogel Mitteleuropas), covering 540 species and arranged in conventional taxonomic order, was published in 1987. I was always somewhat disappointed that this version never appeared in English since it would have been a very useful European field guide - not a Collins guide perhaps, but in many ways superior to what was then available. As you will appreciate from this (overly) exhaustive response it remains a favourite book!
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Old Saturday 31st January 2009, 19:35   #13
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Excellent review. Any chance of a thumbnail depicting the front covers, or a link to the books??

This was a long time ago now (well years not decades I guess), the Mitchell Beazely guide was always put down but seemed ok/good to me. The other best one for beginners/basic use was one one published by Kingfisher or someone, I really can't recall. Anyway, it included the little arrows/lines on the ilustrations pointing out key id features to note on a bird, which I've thought an excellent aid.
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Old Saturday 31st January 2009, 19:45   #14
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By using the Colonelboris's method, it does also allow liberal use of misquoting


As for fieldguides, I think the little 'Mitchel Beazly' is a good little starter book for new birders, is it still pubished?

Edit, I see Dan has said the same, albeit with a better spelling of the title
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Old Saturday 31st January 2009, 19:51   #15
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Edit, I see Dan has said the same, albeit with a better spelling of the title
But still not quite there

Mitchell Beazley
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Old Saturday 31st January 2009, 19:58   #16
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I feel I have been quoted out of context and will seek redress through my esteemed lawyers.*


*This may contain lies...

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Old Saturday 31st January 2009, 21:23   #17
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"The New Birdwatchers’ Pocket Guide” I mentioned is a thoroughly revised and re-illustrated update of the old 'Mitchell Beazley' guide. This time all of the plates are by Peter Hayman (the old guide used an inferior artist for the ducks and some other groups because, I'm told, Hayman was too painstakingly slow for the publishers. The second improvement is that it now includes pretty much all regular European species (excepting speces like Y-b & Dusky Warblers that are essentially vagrants). I think it's a superb little guide and not just for beginners either.

The Kingfisher guide (aka Larousse guide) by John Gooders with illustrations by Norman Arlott & Alan Harris never quite fulfilled its promise. Later editions even tried to give more space to problem species. It should have been great but somehow falls flat - too few illustrations and a so-so ID text,
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Old Friday 31st July 2009, 20:55   #18
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Just found a book on my parent's shelf that looks rather good (they tend to buy me stuff from charity shops and boot sales): The Birds of Britain And Europe by Heinzel, Fitter and Parslow (Collins, 1972). Smaller than Collins, but goes into some really nice details (diagram of the song flight of the Ortolan Bunting) and shows some nice plates of things like the variations in Blue Tits in the Canaries. It also seems to catch a lot of the splits that occurred years later by treating many of them as separate illustrations. The range of birds is also larger and the text is quite a bit easier to read than Collins. Anyone else seen this one?
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Old Friday 31st July 2009, 23:22   #19
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When I lived in Europe and made my three visits later (1972-1981), the Heinzel, Fitter, and Parslow quickly became my favorite guide. For my one visit to Israel it was of course the only guide that covered that area so it proved to be indispensable.
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Old Saturday 1st August 2009, 10:39   #20
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Just found a book on my parent's shelf that looks rather good (they tend to buy me stuff from charity shops and boot sales): The Birds of Britain And Europe by Heinzel, Fitter and Parslow (Collins, 1972). Smaller than Collins, but goes into some really nice details (diagram of the song flight of the Ortolan Bunting) and shows some nice plates of things like the variations in Blue Tits in the Canaries. It also seems to catch a lot of the splits that occurred years later by treating many of them as separate illustrations. The range of birds is also larger and the text is quite a bit easier to read than Collins. Anyone else seen this one?
This book used to be my standard FG between the Peterson and the Collins-Mullarney/Svensson. It came in different editions from 1972 to (at least) 1995. It was also published in various languages. The German version was called Pareys Vogelbuch. Unfortunately, some colors used to be a bit dark when printed. Thus, those Blue Tits from the Canaries look virtually black on the head instead of the more accurate dark blue. But overall, this had long been my favorite. And it used to be the only one that covered the areas to the east and south of the Mediterranean. However, the Mullarney/Svensson is hard to beat, and in its paperback edition, it is not all that much larger.
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Old Saturday 1st August 2009, 11:48   #21
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The range of birds is also larger .........
Actually, the range is not larger than in the Collins-Mullarney/Svensson. It only seems so, as the title is misleading. The book covers only the NEAR East, but the addition to the main title says MIDDLE East.
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Old Saturday 1st August 2009, 14:56   #22
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Actually, the range is not larger than in the Collins-Mullarney/Svensson. It only seems so, as the title is misleading. The book covers only the NEAR East, but the addition to the main title says MIDDLE East.
Ah, sorry, I meant the number of birds rather than the geographical range. And even by that, I mean those treated in the full text (like Hooded Merganser, etc). The copy I've got here is from 1972.
Thanks for the comments on it!
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Old Saturday 1st August 2009, 15:36   #23
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Actually,
the geographical range is a little bit larger, covering e.g iraq and kuwait which collins does not
so some species like grey hypocolius, iraq babbler, indian roller, hume's wheatear, crab plover etc. are included which aren't in (the main part of) collins..
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Old Saturday 1st August 2009, 17:12   #24
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Which is why the 2 Macmillan books are so good, they don't bother about the easy stuff, and just concentrate on the problem birds. It's such a shame they are out of print.

For those who don't know the books, they are

1 The Macmillan Field Guide to Bird Identification - Harris, Tucker and Vinnicombe

2 The Macmillan Birder's Guide to European and Middle Eastern Birds - Harris, Shirihai and Christie

You can occasionally pick them up in second hand book shops
Just to say as mentioned on another thread I have just put a spare copy of the Harris, Tucker and Vinicombe in very good condition on an internet auction site.

Stephen.
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Old Saturday 1st August 2009, 17:48   #25
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I'd pretty much agree with John's review. I think the trouble with the Collins is they were limited to 400 pages and tried to jam too much in to that format with the result that it looks crowded and not easy on the eye. As a beginner the Knightley, Madge is much nicer to look thru and you get max 2 birds per page as opposed to 4-5 in the Collins. The large format Collins is lovely to look thru though and you don't notice the crowding quite so much on the larger format.
In the Knightley Madge I also prefer the fact that you don't have to wade thru large sections of species that you're unlikely ever to see, also its more portable and the book is better designed with a nicer easier to open cover.

Possible solution in my view would be to have pared down Collins version of British birds or the same species list as the Knightley, Madge with much better layout that would give you, you could still have the full version, seems would be much more appreciated by beginning birders.

Last edited by DavidP : Saturday 1st August 2009 at 17:53.
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