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Review: Europe's Birds: An Identification Guide

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Europe's Birds: An Identification Guide by Rob Hume, Robert Still, Andy Swash & Hugh Harrop Pub: WILDGuides 2021 ISBN 978-0-691-1765-6 £20.00 (or less)

book ‘Britain’s Birds’, particularly the improved second edition, established itself as the premier photographic guide to our birds and, arguably, the best bird guide of its type on the market anywhere (see here birdingcadizprovince.weebly.com/cadiz-birding-blog-page/review-britains-birds-an-identification-guide-to-the-birds-of-britain-and-ireland-2nd-edition-2020-hume-et-al-wildguidesprinceton-university-press-isbn-978-0-691-19979-5). Much of this reputation stems from the cleverly crafted multiple-image plates showing a variety of plumages, depicting birds in different poses and generally employing larger than images its rivals. Less recognised, perhaps, but just as important, were the excellent introductions to bird families (waders, skuas, etc.), good annotations, succinct ID text and the clever use of tables to highlight key identification features for similar species. All of this, however, takes up a good deal of space which meant ‘Britain’s Birds’ was a hefty tome more suitable for the glove-box or rucksack than even the most generous pocket. Like many birders, from the outset, I was hoping for a similar guide on European birds and now, at last, it has appeared! ‘Europe’s Birds’ covers almost a third more species (from 631 to 928) and the number of photos has risen to a similar degree (3,500 vs 4,700). With only c60 more pages the question must be whether it maintains the standards of the original guide and what compromises would have to be made to shoehorn so much more information into such a (relatively) limited space.

The book’s name is something of a misnomer as the whole of Turkey plus Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia (not usually considered as within ‘Europe’) are covered by this book. Together these push that the list of regular species up by 30+ species to c540. With another dozen or so Macaronesian endemics plus 300+ vagrants and several dozen established exotics, the task of doing them all justice becomes dauntingly difficult. So this too is a hefty book although it’s surprising to discover that not only does it share the same dimensions as ‘Britain's Birds’ but is actually 68g lighter. So where has the space been saved? The first clue isn’t long in coming as by turning a few more pages past the section showing waterfowl in flight you arrive at a double-page spread, instead of three generous pages, on swans. Gone are the attractive, atmospheric images of flocks of swans feeding or at rest and the text has become almost staccato in its brevity. The basic description of Mute Swan reads as follows “Very large; approachable in most of range. Neck ‘S’ shaped or straight with head typically down-tilted. Wings often slightly arched (dramatically in threat). Tail pointed, usually raised Ad| all-white; orange bill has black knob, base and tip. Juv| brown wings whiter” - a mere forty-one words where the earlier book took over twice as many (eighty-nine to be precise). The only points omitted from the main description are that it’s “the familiar swan of park lakes and riversides”, that it's “often stained reddish/olive on head and neck”, some basic comparisons with wild swans (which you can deduce by reading the texts on those species) and that the male has a larger knob on its bill (which is noted in an annotated photo). The determination to reduce the amount of text extends replacing ‘ADULT’, ‘ADULT BREEDING’, ‘ADULT NON-BREEDING’, ‘JUVENILE’ and even ‘VOICE’ as per the older book with abbreviations (Ad, AdBr, AdNbr, ‘Juv’ & ‘V’). The heading ‘IN FLIGHT’ has been replaced with a terse ‘FL’ but extended to cover most (but not all) passerines and a selection of vagrants, doubtless reflecting the influence of its ‘companion volume’ the “Flight Identification of European Passerines”.

At the core of the book are the 500 pages covering c540 regular species of the region (plus a selection of introductions, escapees and the odd vagrant generally those that may be regarded as 'confusion species'). Of these c40% are afforded a whole page, a handful a double-page spread (e.g. Long-tailed Duck) and the rest (particularly passerines) half a page or a third of a double-page spread. The remaining pages are occupied by good introductions to various bird families (ranging from 3 or 4 pages to a brief paragraph) and useful comparative photographs of birds in flight (particularly for wildfowl, waders, raptors and gulls). Arguably, this book has the best and most comprehensive photographs of gulls outside a specialist book on that tricky group (although whether they are entirely adequate will surely be debated). However, the selection of species allotted a full page is sometimes surprising as it includes several distinctive species that scarcely need additional space (e.g. Shelduck, storks, cranes & Purple Gallinule) whilst some trickier or more variable species have less space than in ‘Britain’s Birds’. For example, the stonechats, which were masterfully covered in three generous pages and 23 photos in ‘Britain’s Birds’ are now addressed in half the space and only 11 photos. Redpolls have suffered a similar fate, down from three pages and 13 photos to two pages (albeit with only one less photo). Several difficult ‘sister species’ have been allowed less space than expected. Oddly, for such a tricky species Thekla's Lark is covered in only half a page (and denied the now customary apostrophe 's'!). Another example is that benchmark amongst waders, the Dunlin which is down from a double-page spread to a single page squeezing out interesting illustrations of the species’ subspecies.

However, the innovative use of tables goes a long way to make up for any deficiencies in individual species texts. Although the information presented may not always be totally exhaustive, I find it far easier to digest ID details in this format than in conventional text. Such comparative tables are given for many similar species including an assortment of waders, various birds of prey, treecreepers and several challenging groups of warblers, The taxonomy errs on the side of conservative with stonechats and redpolls, for example, ‘lumped’ although, perhaps surprisingly, the three ‘red’ crossbills have survived intact. However, there have also been a few welcome splits such as Iberian Green Woodpecker and Cyprus Scops Owl.

Beyond the section on these ‘core species’ there are three ‘appendices’: “Endemic birds of the Atlantic Islands”, “Vagrant birds in Europe” and “Established introductions” (usefully marked by colour coded tabs green, pink and greyish-blue respectively). The seven-page section on the endemic land birds of Atlantic islands makes sense as they lack obvious confusion species where they are found but might sow confusion for beginners if covered in the main text. Note, however, that wide-ranging seabirds found in the islands are treated in the main part of the book as is African Houbara. The coverage of these endemics is a little briefer than in the main section but still entirely adequate. The recognition that Plain Swift (treated in the main text) occur on mainland Portugal is remarkable as it is something that was only confirmed this year.

The term “vagrants’ doesn’t seem to be defined anywhere in this book but it covers both species that are annual in small numbers in some areas (e.g. Rüppell's Vulture in SW Spain and several Phylosocopus warblers in the UK) and those that have appeared only a handful of times in scattered locations across the continent (Black-crowned Tchagra, Basra Reed Warbler, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, etc). Personally, I would have preferred it had ‘annual vagrants’ been given more space by omitting those hardly found here at all (vagrants found, say, fewer than a dozen times or even those 'regular' species only found in difficult-to-visit locations on the rim of the area). Most users of this book, being UK based, would find more detailed coverage of Radde’s, Dusky, Pallas’s and Hume’s Warblers, for example, more useful than details of Chestnut-shouldered Bush-sparrow (aka Yellow-throated Sparrow) which barely manages to get a toehold in the extreme SW Turkey. However, a few vagrants are covered in the main text so that they can be more easily compared with confusion species and these are generally better illustrated and described than those crammed into the 90 page section devoted to them. Space given per species in this “appendix” varies enormously; just over a dozen species luxuriate with half a page each (mainly fairly regular but rare gulls and waders) but most of the rest are covered three or four to the page. This scant coverage is usually adequate to allow identification but for some more detail is needed. Most American passerines get very short shrift being squeezed in 8-9 to a page hence giving the feeling more of an illustrated checklist than a field guide. For those vagrants that have been found in the Britain and Ireland ‘Britain’s Birds’ generally provides better coverage.

Given that the text concedes that some introduced species “are more likely to be seen than many rare native birds” it’s disappointing that so many are poorly treated with 30 species covered in just over four pages. Wildfowl are a little better treated than most but widespread and increasingly common birds like Rose-ringed (meriting a full page in ‘Britain’s Birds’) and Monk Parakeet, Common Waxbill and Red Avadavat get very short shrift being squeezed in eight to a page (and not afforded maps showing their distribution).

In my view, the maps in ‘Britain’s Birds’ were that book’s Achilles’ heel so I’m disappointed to find that the same is the case here. The admirable ambition to cover such a wide area doesn’t help since maps stretching from the Caspian to the Canaries makes showing small isolated populations very difficult indeed and the use of arrows to highlight isolated populations is inconsistently used. (In this respect, I’ve always been puzzled why field guides (with few exceptions) use maps based on a single standard scale. This may be unavoidable where a species is very widely distributed across their chosen area but if they have a more restricted range why not use maps of a more appropriate size to give greater clarity?) This weakness is compounded, I think, by the map projection used which evidently makes it more difficult to accurately map distribution in southerly regions (see examples). Given that they appear only as tiny black dots, it seems pointless to extend the maps out to include Atlantic islands; better to have used the space to make the maps larger (a simple letter code on the maps could indicate presence on those islands). Coastal waders are particularly badly served as a glance at the maps for Sanderling, Grey Plover, Bar-tailed Godwit, Purple Sandpiper, etc. do not obviously show that they commonly occur around the coast of Britain and elsewhere. The weakness of the maps is also compounded, in my view, by their colour coding: dark green/green/blue/sandy rather than the easier to see red/purple/blue/pale orange to show summer/resident/winter/migratory status. The comparison with maps from the Collins Guide (which are almost precisely the same size) is telling as they are much easier to understand, show isolated populations more clearly and are often more accurate (even though they’re a decade or so older). A still better comparison is with the maps in the main rival photoguide, Jiguet & Audevard’s “Birds of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East”, where the maps, despite being still smaller, are also easier to use thanks again to the colour scheme and map projection employed. Some maps are also inaccurate. Examples from Iberia include Little Swift and Bald Ibis (despite the Swiss population being acknowledged) which are entirely absent from the map whilst the ranges for Black-winged Kites and Egyptian Vultures are depicted as far more restricted than is the case. Even status in the UK is unclear as Dartford Warbler is not mapped there. Conversely, some species are shown breeding where they are absent (e.g. Willow Tit is depicted as being present across southern England where it’s been absent for decades).

This review has turned out rather more negative than originally intended so I’ll use this conclusion to focus on the positives. First and most importantly, this is by far the best photo-guide to European birds on the market. No competitor comes close. It may not cover some extreme vagrants as well as ‘Britain’s Birds’ but in compensation the coverage of many essentially continental species is better and, of course, it includes many continental species not found in Britain at all. It also notes the existence of various subspecies (even if many cannot be safely identified in the field) which most other books entirely ignore. It would, perhaps, have been a better book if it had, as the title suggests, actually restricted itself to Europe (sensu stricto) but not all will agree where to strike the balance between size vs comprehensiveness vs detail. Like its predecessor, the tables showing key differences between similar species are a very useful and helpful innovation. Whilst the Collins Guide continues to be the indispensable guide to the area’s birds, for the many people who like photographic guides to birds this book will undoubtedly appeal. Certainly, the larger size of most images compared to those found in most artist-illustrated field guides will make it very helpful for showing novice birders what to look for. Some are already muttering that they'll wait for the (inevitable?) improved second edition but unless the original sells well that won't happen! The bottom line is that, despite some flaws, with this book, you will be able to identify every bird that you’re likely to see in Europe and most of the ones that you’re not. In essence, it "does what it says on the tin"! Recommended.

- a version of this review with photos can be found on my blog 'Birding Cadiz Province'

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John Cantelo
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