Rob Hume, Robert Still, Andy Swash, Hugh Harrop & David Tipling, Princeton University Press / WildGuides, New Jersey / Oxford. 560 pp, more than 3,200 photographs, numerous maps. Paperback. Price: € 19,95
Rarely a newly published field guide generates heated discussions and attracts everyone’s attention. Such has been this book. Published in August 2016, it has been reviewed by many reviewers, and has featured in lengthy, sometimes rather violent online discussions. I am not an expert in social psychology, but the polarized opinions on this book are intriguing. Even in the huge UK birding scene, everyone knows everyone, and quickly online discussions became quite personal. In this review here, I will try to look at the book’s face value, and try not to get messy with responses to reviews from this ‘side’ or the other.
This book was written and designed for British birders. It provides a multitude of British-related information, that includes distribution maps, main migration routes, conservation status, and migration / breeding / vagrancy status in Britain. However, this book is extremely relevant for European birders as well, especially from Western Europe. Because the book includes accounts of all species ever recorded in Britain, even extreme vagrants, and many European subspecies too, almost all species recorded in Europe are treated in the book. Despite the Robin on its front cover, this is a book that aims to cater for pro birders too. One way to test this is how it treats gulls, and I find the plate that treats the identification of Yellow-legged and Caspian Gulls (p. 132) of high standard, despite the lack of space to dive into the depths of identification of young gulls.
The main power of the book lies in its photographs. Its starting point, as a photo book, is potentially problematic compared to classic illustrated guides, but the authors managed rather well to collate here a large enough collection of photos to compensate for the limitations of photo guides. The book is jam-packed with almost invariably high-quality images (full disclosure - one image of mine is in the book, arguably not the best image in the book…). There are only few images that do not stand up to the high standards, for example spring Eastern Bonelli’s Warbler (p. 430).
In almost all cases, images represent what most field birders would encounter in the field, at least in Britain. Relevant plumages are generally treated, but for few species some important plumages are lacking, for example first-summer and second-summer plumages of Mediterranean Gull that are commonly seen in Britain (p. 107), or adult Buff-breasted Sandpiper - there are two very similar images of juveniles (p. 226). The composite plates, that include sometimes quite many images of the same species, are generally well designed and give a good feel of the birds’ jizz, habits and habitat. One beautiful example is Ptarmigan (p. 267). The Common Scoter plate (p. 63) reminds me of Crossley plates.
The text and additional information provided for each species are functional, but sometimes lack detail, which is understandable when the main focus of the book is on the images. Identification criteria are shorthanded, but bold highlights are useful allowing quick reference to identify species. I find all the coded information such as legal protection and three conservation status indices not intuitive to interpret, and probably not very important or useful for field identification, especially as this information is repeated in a table (pp. 527-540). It is clear that the authors dealt with the trade-off between amount of information and space / size of the book in a way that the book is very tight and crowded. In some cases, slightly too crowded. This affects the functionality of the book as a field guide. It is rather heavy (1.3 kg) and pretty bulky too. In direct comparison with a main competitor, the Collins guide, it is considerably larger and heavier. For me it reaches the upper limit of a book I would carry with me in a rucksack. And despite trying to use an approach that would make it more appealing for beginners, e.g. the thumbnail index in pp. 8-13, and the systematic order the authors define as ‘practical’, if I were a beginner I don’t think this would be my first book of choice while taking my first steps in birding.
The biggest problem with the book is the large number of errors reported by some people. Most worrying are the mislabelled species. I know of five; juvenile Audouin’s Gull that is a Yellow-legged Gull (p. 139), juvenile Little-ringed Plover is a Ringed Plover (p. 182), first-winter Common Sandpiper is Spotted Sandpiper (p. 211), first-winter Richard’s Pipit is Tawny Pipit (p. 360), and juvenile Serin is Citril Finch (p. 485). There might be more. Additionally, there are quite many mistakes in ages and sexes, for example adult White-crowned Wheatear is juvenile (p. 399), and adult female Bluethroat is first-winter female (p. 400). I haven’t gone through all the maps, and I am no expert on distribution of breeding birds in the UK, but it seems that there are some inaccurate maps. In my opinion, this number of errors is beyond acceptable for a book that took so many years to produce, especially the mislabelled species. Surely the book should have gone through a stricter circulation of proof-readers? No book is perfect, but this amount of acute errors implies a hasty publication process. I would expect the publishers to collate all errors, publish them online, and correct them in future reprints and editions.
To conclude, this is a book that collates a huge amount of high-quality images of most European species, and is useful for British and European birders alike. It is most suited for advanced and professional level birders, but also for beginners. It is a good quick-reference book, but possibly too large and heavy to become a favourite field guide. I do not see it as a game changer - it is a good book to have at home, but it did not become an epic book because of its substantial faults. The many errors in the book damage the reputation of its authors, and this should be dealt with as soon as possible.