Identification Guide to Birds in the Hand

26 juli 2016  ·  Yoav Perlman  ·  11291 × bekeken

Laurent Demongin, 2016. Privately published. 392 pp. (numerous line drawings, B&W thumbnail photographs and diagrams).  Paperback. Price: € 44,95

Ringers are funny people. Each ringer has their own style of scribing data in a notebook, their own knots and their own perfect ringing box size. But always ringers need to be efficient, save time, space and weight to maximize their efforts. This book is a typical ‘ringing box book’ - a reference that sits in the bottom of the ringing box, or on the ringing table. And as such, it needs to trade-off richness of data and information with space, weight and efficiency. For decades, the supreme reference for ringers to identify and determine sex and age of European Passerines was Lars Svensson’s ‘Identification Guide to European Passerines’ (1992). Not the perfect book, and now massively outdated, but still this masterpiece is present in every ringing box, and generations of ringers have trained using this book. A new edition by Svensson is just about to be published for approximately 10 years now, so there clearly is an urgent need for an updated, comprehensive identification guide for ringers. Jeff Baker and BTO have just recently announced the publication of an update to their famous guide to non-passerines. So within this rather busy playing field, Demongin’s guide has a challenging position to acquire - to find its way into every ringing box in Europe.

This book is rather large (larger than A5) and printed on relatively thick paper, so it is not lightweight. It is jam-packed with information - this is its main advantage but also its main drawback. 301 species appear in it (154 non-passerines and 147 passerines), and the author mentions they are the most commonly ringed in Western Europe. I am not sure whether Great Snipe gets ringed in large numbers anywhere, so I’m not sure that the criteria for most commonly ringed is applied consistently, but in any case the list of species is rather comprehensive and I couldn’t come up with any terrible gaps in respect to Western European species that do not appear in the book. However, it is certainly catering for Western European ringers, and some species that are regularly represented in southern, eastern and south-eastern European ringing stations do not appear in the book (e.g. Black-headed Bunting, Rufous Bush Robin). The book does give brief accounts of many vagrants, mainly Siberian. With today’s information available in apps and online, I am not sure that a ringer in the field needs the text in this book to identify Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler. I’d rather see the extra space used for a different layout of the book.

I took the book out with me to ringing sessions in the UK recently. I used it with a selection of common European birds. The information in the book covered all species and plumages encountered, and it did help the ringing team to identify the sex and age of all birds correctly. The data for common species like Dunnock or Wren is comprehensive. However, in the field I found the book somewhat difficult to work with. There is so much information in the book, almost too much. The font size is tiny, and accounts of different ages are clumped together in the same paragraph to save space. Species accounts are not limited to full pages, but rather start and end in mid pages, again to save space. The result is that during a busy ringing session, data is not easy to access. It was not easy to find the species I was after, and within species I had some difficulties to find the information I was looking for.

The focus on western European birds is again a pro and a con. For western European ringers, this book is useful and important, certainly until Svensson publishes his long-awaited update. However, in eastern Europe and certainly further afield (in the Caucasus and Middle East for example) this book does not provide the complete reference for ringers. Intra-species variation depicted in the book is based mainly on western European data, and it seems that some eastern European variation had been left out. Species with broad breeding ranges across Eurasia such as Willow Warbler, Reed Warbler and Lesser Whitethroat are described mainly using data from western Europe - birds that migrate through the East Mediterranean Flyway are on average larger and longer-winged than what’s given in the book.

The book is rich in visual material - diagrams, graphs, thumbnail photographs and line drawings. For almost all species elaborate moult diagrams are provided, which is very important. In most cases I have checked, moult data seems correct. There are some errors, though curiously the author acknowledges in the foreword that the book includes errors. One example is Barred Warbler - adults often have three generations of secondaries, while the book mentions only two generations. Generally, there is a bias in the book towards moult data of western European birds. For instance, the book provides moult of Western Orphean Warbler only. While Eastern Orphean Warbler receives attention in a small text box, nothing is mentioned about differences in moult between eastern and western. This is an important ID feature to distinguish between the two: Eastern Orphean Warbler juveniles do not do a suspended moult. The thumbnail photographs, mainly of head patterns, are good and instructive. I found the line drawings of lesser quality and some are quite poor, for example Olive-tree Warbler. For every species, a list of references used is given. However, oddly, the references themselves are not in the book (but available online).

To conclude, this is an important book to have on a ringing table or in a library. Its wealth of data is also its main drawback – I suspect that some ringers will not find the book easy to work with in the field. It is very useful and relevant in western Europe, but less so in the eastern Mediterranean Flyway.

Yoav Perlman



Ton Eggenhuizen  ·  26 juli 2016  15:54, gewijzigd 27 juli 2016  15:30

I hope by using the guide intensively, a lot of the disadvantages Yoav pointed out will solve. Indeed the information packed on pages makes it in the beginning hard to use. But on the other hand, where can one find so much up to date info on (ie.) waderID in the hand? 

Indeed I also missed some species-accounts. I've had more rough-legged buzzards and ruddy shellducks (to name a few) in the hand than great snipes.  The first one is only mentioned in the account on the common buzzard to point out the differences. But really, does one deserve a ringing-permit if he doesn't know a rough-legged buzzard has rough legs and a common buzzard hasn't?

And for the Ruddy shellduck, it outnumbers the great snipe easily on the Dutch ringing totals (329 Ruddy's and 5 great's, Op het Vinkentouw 2016). But this Ruddy shellduck isn't in the book. 

Perhaps it deserves some thoughts to make a web-place for additional species accounts and where errors can be placed?

Anyway, Laurent and the translators deserve a big thank-you for this work. I will use and enjoy it a lot, I'm sure!

Joost Mertens  ·  27 juli 2016  09:57

I do not agree for quiet a bit what Yoav point out as disadvantages. First of all: the book handels over Western European birds, you can find  that on the front cover(!). So it looks to me that it is normal you find less or no East- or south European species.

Secondly, all publications have their own way of building up a structure, so if using it for the first time immediately in the field, as Yoav did, seems in my opinion not to be a good option. So start reading the text of at least some species at home already and the structure comes out realy well, it wil help you to speed up in the field. I'm convinced that if you would do this (have done) with the Svensson, you would encounter the same problems.

To me this is the best thing on the market and any West European ringer should have it on it's book shelf, or better out in the field! To be honest?! I do not us Svensson anymore... Maybe until it's long awaited update comes out?!

Steven Wytema  ·  27 juli 2016  10:28

Well done to Laurent and the translators for this fantastic work, and of course also thanks to Yoav for a thorough review. As i already had the book (knowing basic French), It was already useful for several infrequently caught species  especially the cut-out photographs of details of Treecreeper, Black-headed Gull, Moorhen, Green Sandpiper etc. I agree its not easy to find species in the book, but since we use so many literature on the ringing station, and taxonomy is changing so much over time, I dont mind using the index (except for the Collins). It would however be one of the best improvements on a new print.

I love the book as its one of the first that covers all common species (non-passerines and passerines combined), and includes both old proven id features, as well as new knowledge. I also think it might become more and more interesting for non-ringers due to the improvement on photographs, where details are often very well visible (as I recently experienced with a picture of a 1cy Savi's Warbler by Rene van Rossum).

Garry Bakker  ·  27 juli 2016  11:33, gewijzigd 27 juli 2016  11:34

A short review of the French predecessor of this book by Arnoud van den Berg has been published on this site before (Hence, one might wonder what his opion is on this strongly improved new version of the book ... :))

Ton Eggenhuizen  ·  27 juli 2016  21:30, gewijzigd 28 juli 2016  09:32

got some time to look in detail at the account on common buzzard. For age, eye colour is said to be a key feature (put in italic). Adult  birds would show a dark iris. This is not always correct. Light coloured adults commonly show medium brown coloured iris. Also de broad dark tail band and trailing edge of the wing for adult is not that clear in light coloured birds. The dark bar has often quite a big light mirror and this mirror can be an almost complete light band. In the text light coloured birds are mentioned but it is stated that "iris, tail bars and wing trailing edge usually remain reliable for aging". 

Best feature (in winter in the Netherlands anyway,  over 1500 trapped birds) for age is moult of primaries and accompanying coverts. All primaries in one generation = first winter. Inner primaries (5-8) fresh, outer primaries (2-5) old = second winter. Two (sometimes three) moult generations without the neat "inner new-outer old" lineage = >second winter. Feather patterns must be used as "secondary features". Using moult for age is not clearly mentioned in the text, but it should be the first thing to look at. A bird ringer confronted with the odd buzzard can easily misidentify the age of a light coloured bird, using only the info that is put onder de age caption.

Laurent Demongin  ·  27 juli 2016  23:29

To answer Ton's comment about ageing of Buzzard, I agree that in the Adult age section I don't refer to moult. But isn't it the main part of Imm age section (13 lines out of 18) with a reference to moult figure? Anyway, you have a great experience with this species and I can certainly improve the description of light birds by using your remarks.

Laurent Demongin  ·  28 juli 2016  01:37

First, thank you to Yoav for his serious review of my book. I have to say that I agree with most of his remarks. However, I would like to add a few comments mainly based on the following sentence: [it needs to trade-off richness of data and information with space, weight and efficiency].
Because it is a field guide, I wanted a [relatively thick paper] and I wanted to keep the weight under one kg. That's why [it is jam-packed with information; the font size is tiny; species accounts are not limited to full pages; in eastern Europe and certainly further afield this book does not provide the complete reference for ringers]. Please, consider the size of such a book: maybe size A4, more than 1000 pages... Not anymore [a typical ‘ringing box book’].
- I fully agree that sometimes it is a bit confused and that [some ringers will not find the book easy to work with in the field]. I hope that this feeling will disappear when they will be familiarized with the layout.
- Is it really [oddly that the references themselves are not in the book]? Seriously? Who needs 69 pages of references in the field?
- About the list of species selected for this edition, of course, it is subject to critics. Unless to be exhaustive, as Svensson's guide, every ringer will be disappointed because some of his favourite birds are missing. And yes, the book focus on Western Europe. It is the subtitle, I don't try to hide it. If the book is well received, I will think about an additional volume for Eastern Europe...
- No doubt that the forthcoming book of Shirihai and Svensson will be a new masterpiece. But with 1200 pages, I am not sure that it will be a guide usable in the field during ringing session.
- [curiously the author acknowledges in the foreword that the book includes errors]. For me, it is not curious to recognize that I am not infallible. I don't know yet where are the errors, but unfortunately I am sure there are some. As said in the foreword, I will be grateful to persons who point out mistakes.
Just for information, according to reports available on Euring website, several hundreds Great Snipe are ringed every year in Sweden and Belarus.

Please, consider the book for is what it was designed for – a general ringer’s reference field guide for Western Europe.

Ton Eggenhuizen  ·  28 juli 2016  09:27, gewijzigd 28 juli 2016  09:30

My comment on the aging of buzzards is indeed a demonstation that one should read the complete account and not just the "Age" bit. But I think this will not happen in the field. Having ringed and measured the bird, the ringer wants to put an age-class on the captured bird. He will skip directly to the age paragraph. I think it is the best policy to put the best usable feature first. I always use the primary moult pattern first and use the plumage pattern  with care in (mainly light patterned) buzzards.

And yes, I consider the book for what it was designed for – [in my view more than] a general ringer’s reference field guide for Western Europe. And I will use it as such. Great work!

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