Andy Stoddart, 2016. Privately published, 177 pp. (some b/w photographs and drawings). Paperback. Price: £ 12 or €15 (incl. postage). Order through: http://andystoddart.weebly.com/siberias-sprite.html.
I’m pretty sure that every European birder thoroughly enjoys seeing - let alone: finding! - a Pallas’s Warbler. There’s something about these ‘seven-striped sprites’ that is probably universally appealing: they are cute, beautiful and rare. Well, in some parts of Europe they’re not as rare as they used to be, and they’re not rare on their breeding and wintering grounds either, but at one point in ornithological history (when proto-birders shot birds rather than study them in the field) they were considered somewhat of the holy grail in birding.
It is how, when and by whom this warbler was discovered, its change in status in the UK since then (from super-rare to a scarce migrant) and all kinds of interesting facts, stories and theories that are being presented in this little book.
However, it is not a monograph that details all of the ecology and biology of Pallas’s Warbler, everything there is to know on that has been published before. Instead it documents the trials and tribulations involved in the initial discovery by Peter Simon Pallas in May of 1772, and the subsequent travels of several naturalists in Asia (not an easy task in those days!) who added facts to the mystery of this warbler. This takes up roughly half of the book, the rest is devoted to the occurrence in Britain. There the species was recorded for the first time in 1896, followed by a drought until 1951 and (near-)annual appearances from 1957. Still a mega, there was a double digit spike in 1968 and from 1974 this was basically the norm (with 127 in 1982 and a whopping 317 in 2003!). And although in 1990 it was scrapped as a national (BBRC-)rarity, it has never stopped to enliven an autumn’s day of birding.
This part the book could’ve used some context from a more European point-of-view, for example comparing the status in various European countries. It is interesting to note - for example - that in the Netherlands (where the species ceased to be a national rarity from 1996) the first Pallas’s Warbler was recorded only in 1963 and that some very good years in the UK generally did not match those in Holland, and vice versa, although the overall trends are similar. Moreover, in some (mostly central and southern) European nations it is still a mega rarity, despite growing numbers of birders.
How and why these birds reach Europe, and in increasing numbers, is being dealt with in a separate chapter. Here various theories and hypotheses are being formulated, from Gätke’s pioneering work on Helgoland and the early ideas of wind drift, to reverse migration, vagrancy shadows and pseudo-vagrancy. This makes for a very interesting read and (as always) the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.
Another part mainly deals with how Pallas’s Warblers have been depicted by artists over the centuries, from the first drawing (after the first European record in Croatia in 1829) ‘made’ by Gould in 1830-32 to the magnificent and lifelike drawings of Lars Jonsson in his 1992 ground breaking field guide. This is the chapter that really needed more colour reproductions to truly appreciate the evolution from museum ornithology to field ornithology being described here. And especially for a bright little bugger like the Pallas’s Warbler it’s a shame that only the cover picture is in colour, it sure would’ve enlivened the book more. That said, there probably aren’t too many colour paintings and photographs of the ornithologists of yesteryear that were traveling the length and breadth of Asia in the late 18th and 19th centuries.
The final chapter then details the rather rich taxonomic history of the species, which has been variously treated as monotypic or polytypic; with up to five subspecies. Currently the consensus seems to be that it is actually a super-species comprising of four or five species. This piece is followed by the bibliography and an index.
I for one really enjoyed reading about the exploits of early ornithologists, literally hunting for rare birds, and how this little creature manages to cross entire continents to reach our shores each autumn. And I’m sure that because of this book I will be looking at ‘my’ next Siberian Sprite through different eyes!