Review Europe's Birds Frank Lambert Birding.jpg

Europe’s Birds: An Identification Guide by Rob Hume, Robert Still, Andy Swash and Hugh Harrop 2021. Production and design by WILDGuides, Hampshire UK. Published by Princeton University Press, New Jersey USA and Oxfordshire UK. ISBN: 978-0-691-17765-6. Flexicover. $29.95 / £20.00. 640 Pages.

Review by Frank Lambert

My first birding trip to Europe, outside of my native UK, was to southern France. We travelled from UK in a minibus full of birders including the legendary Pete Grant and Tim Inskipp, and since I was only 16 at the time, my companions provided me with considerable assistance, including plenty of advice on field marks to look for. At that time, the only field guide I owned was the Peterson Guide (A Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe) which was undoubtedly the best available for that trip.

 
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Since that time, the 1970s, there has been a proliferation of field guides on birds in UK and Europe, culminating in the wonderful Collins Bird Guide: The Most Complete Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe (2010). As a field guide, it is unlikely to be surpassed, assuming the authors revise it from time to time. With the publication of the WILDGuides identification guide, however, we now have a second excellent book to help with field identification. Unlike the Collins guide, this is a photographic identification guide, an appropriate name given that it is probably twice as heavy, and certainly considerably larger than the Collins field guide. Indeed, in the introduction, it is described as an Identification Handbook. Despite its size, it is an invaluable guide that will be useful to have in the field, and I intend to carry it on future European birding trips.

 
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This latest WILDGuides identification guide is a natural progression from the bestselling Britain’s Birds: An Identification Guide (2016, revised in 2020). It covers all the countries of Europe east as far as the Turkish borders with the Middle East, the Caspian Sea (hence including Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan) and the Ural Mountains of Russia, as well as Cyprus and the other islands of the Mediterranean Sea, the Azores, Madeira and Canary Islands.

  • Europe's Birds is a natural progression from Britain's Birds (WildGuides 2020)

 

With 4,700 photos of 928 species, and 540 colour maps, it is a hefty book of 640 pages. Treatment of species and subspecies, including scientific names, follows that of BirdLife International rather than the IOC list that many users will be more familiar with, whilst Common names are those most frequently used by birders in Europe (hence divers, not loons, and skuas, not jaegers). All species accepting as occurring in the region up until the end of March 2021 are included. Unsurprisingly, most of the photos used in Britain’s Birds (with 631 species, about 30% fewer than feature in this book) also appear in Europe’s Birds, but with coverage of an additional 297 species there are of course numerous new photos (at least 1,200), contributed by 349 photographers.

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The guide is packed with information, and although it may seem cluttered at first, it is in fact remarkably user-friendly and well designed, with minimal waste of space. Unsurprisingly, the book begins with an introduction that defines the area covered, with a clear topographical map showing national boundaries, and information on how to use the book and interpret the symbols and abbreviations used throughout. It also explains the layout used in the species accounts. Also included in the introduction is an illustrated explanation of aging, sexing and moult and a four-page pictorial index (photos) that will assist the user to find the correct pages for the birds they are interested in. There is also a useful short index inside the back cover.

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For each distinctive grouping of birds, such as Wildfowl, Skuas, Pipits, ‘Warblers, crests, cisticolas and prinias’, and ‘Finches and Sparrows’, there is a useful introductory section, varying in length and composition, which basically helps the user by providing an illustrated outline of what features are important, or simply provides a photographic overview comparing similar species.These sections do not follow any particular format, allowing the authors the flexibility to zone in on what is important within each group covered. Hence for gulls, there is a detailed description of moult sequence, essential to understand when identifying many individuals, whilst for pipits there is an overview of flight calls alongside photographs neatly presented on a single page. For buntings, there is a useful photo gallery comparing the heads of both sexes.

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Each species has a section of succinct text, a colour map and a selection of photos that depict different age or sex-related plumages. The number of photos for each species depends on the identification challenges they present. Stone-curlew, Jack Snipe, Spotted Crake, Iberian Green Woodpecker, Alpine Accentor, and Red-flanked Bluetail for example, are relatively straightforward, and require only two photos.

More challenging species, such as Bean Goose, which has two distinctive subspecies, has six photos; Velvet Scoter, with breeding and non-breeding male plumages, as well as first winter plumages, has eight photos, whilst ‘four-year’ gulls such as Lesser Black-backed Gull, which also has distinctive subspecies, has eleven photos under its species account, as well as additional illustrations of the wing patterns of adults and young birds, and three photos of immatures (on a separate comparative gull plate).

Review Europe's Birds Frank Lambert Birding.jpg
 
Review Europe's Birds Frank Lambert Birding.jpg

All the images are very clearly labelled as to age and sex, and subspecies where relevant. Within the text, key identification features are mentioned in bold type, whilst succinct notes are found alongside the images to assist the user to quickly home in the most important features that differentiate the bird from other plumages or other species, or to pick out which subspecies is illustrated.


Whilst the main text for each species is succinct, it is generally very thorough, mentioning differences from similar species, how to differentiate the sexes and Juv/Imm birds, as well as how to identify the species in flight. Voice is usually also described, although for obvious reasons, these descriptions are relatively short, and certainly not comprehensive.

 
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For a few of the more difficult identification challenges, the book provides tables that compare features (e.g. large ‘brown’ eagles in flight, rare ‘peeps’, Willow vs Marsh Tit, certain Acrocephalus warblers, and Iduna warblers), whilst for species where wing formula or pattern is important, such as those very same Acrocephalus and Iduna warblers, Ficedula (‘Pied’) flycatchers, certain pipits and buntings, small illustrations of the relevant parts of the wing are provided. For other species, where the tail pattern is of more consequence, most notably among the wheatears, the tail pattern is clearly shown (in the case of wheatears, as drawings rather than just in photographs). Potential confusion species that are found elsewhere in the guide are clearly highlighted in a coloured box within species accounts.

 
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The maps are perhaps the weakest part of Europe’s Birds. They are relatively small, resulting in difficulty in seeing the ‘exact’ range of less widespread taxa, but this does not mean that the maps are in anyway misleading or inaccurate. I would merely suggest that it would perhaps have been better to have some additional base maps for some parts of the area covered. It should also be mentioned that in poor light, the green used to denote ‘present all year’ looks quite blue, and on some maps, such as that for Steller’s Eider, it may appear that the range extends all the way along the eastern coastline of Scandinavia because, for some reason probably relating to the printing, that coast appears to be narrowly shaded (dark blue) on this and every other map, as does the coastline of western Scotland.

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After the bulk of the book covering the regularly occurring species there is a short section featuring ‘Macronesian Landbirds’ (16 species), followed by an 87-page section on Vagrants (loosely defined, but basically the rare species in the region). Oddly, not all vagrants are included in this section. Pacific and American Golden Plovers are incorporated in the main part of the book alongside Eurasian Golden Plover, under a subheading of ‘Annual Vagrant’. Other Annual Vagrants, including relatively commonly occurring species such as Ring-necked Duck, Ring-billed Gull, White-rumped Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, Pallas’s Leaf Warbler, and Dusky Warbler are regulated to the Vagrant section.

This section on Vagrants, at the rear of the book, generally provides less information on each species, with 3-9 species covered per page (compared to 1-3 for the more common species covered in the main part of the book). There is also a five-page section at the very back dealing briefly with ‘Established Introductions’, mostly parrots and finches. Introduced or Escaped pheasants, guineafowl, quail etc. are, however, dealt with within the main section on Galliforms.

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Although I have not been a great fan of photographic guides, primarily because they are usually incomplete in their coverage, there are an increasing number of excellent photographic guides that are extremely useful to own if you are a keen world birder (such as Birds of Chile and Birds of Western Ecuador). Now that so many photographers are taking incredible pictures of birds throughout Europe, a photographic guide makes complete sense, and can be as comprehensive as a traditional guide based on artwork. Whilst it seems unlikely that such a guide can ever be as compact as a traditional field guide, unless in digital form on your phone or tablet, it is clear from Britain’s Birds (and now Europe’s Birds) that such guides are much appreciated and in high. demand

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Europe’s Birds really is comprehensive, and beautifully designed, and I find myself referring to it regularly. Indeed, I fully agree with a statement in the Introduction: ‘With thousands of informative pictures, it is also a joy to browse its pages’. At such a modest price, this is surely an essential book to add to your library if you ever watch birds anywhere in Europe.

Review Europe's Birds Frank Lambert Birding.jpg