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 Not the perfect book, and now massively outdated, but still this masterpiece is present in every ringing box, and generations of ringers have trained using this book.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.