Klaus Malling Olsen, 2018. Christopher Helm / Bloomsbury, London. ISBN 978 140818 9115. Hardback, 368 pp. 600+ colour plates, many colour maps. Price: £31.50 (www.bloomsbury.com) / €31,20 (veldshop.nl)
Klaus Malling Olsen published in 2004, together with Hans Larsson, a mammoth book: ‘Gulls of Europe, Asia and North America’. That book set a gold standard for family monographies. The amount and quality of detail provided in that book were outstanding. Back in the offline era, that book opened the door to many new gull enthusiasts.
Time has passed since, and much gull knowledge accumulated in various sources, especially on the internet. Most importantly, in the fabulous website gull-research.org. However, despite the huge progress made in understanding gull taxa, especially in the WP, and the multitude of information available, gull identification is still often perceived as ‘difficult’, ‘elite’ or ‘impossible’. I know several excellent birders who don’t ‘do’ gulls, while they would easily identify a Siberian Chiffchaff or a Blyth’s Reed Warbler with good views. Strange… And very often, amateur birders ‘skip’ the gull pages in the brand-new bird guides. This new book has the potential to become a game-changer in this respect. This is an appealing book: it has an attractive front cover; it is much slimmer than its predecessor; the text is concise and the images are large and brilliant.
As mentioned above, this book is much slimmer (368 pp) compared to the 2004 book (608 pp) and covers more taxa (61 vs. 43). As a result, less information is provided for each taxon. As mentioned in the introduction, this book is a photographic companion to the 2004 book, even though it does cover more taxa. This ‘diet’ has pros and cons. On the pro side, the text is much shorter and succinct. From 6-8 pages per taxon, including two plates with beautiful art by Hans Larsson in the 2004 book, down to one or two pages in this new book. I loved Hans’s art, and found it instrumental in allowing ‘neutral’ descriptions of taxa. However, unlike the previous book, this is not a family reference book or a family monograph – it’s a field guide specialised for field identification. The text in the new book isn’t quite in bullet-points, but paragraphs are often just a few lines long. This allows easy access to the important bits of information and brings you down to the main identification points very quickly. The number of images per taxon has not dropped, in the sample I checked, and the images are generally the same size. All images are of supreme quality, most previously unpublished. Photo captions are useful – few words that point you straight to the important ID features. I did not find any errors in ID or ageing; it is clear that the book was carefully written and meticulously edited.
The new book is much slimmer than the previous book.
The book is organised in a generic order, now that gulls are divided into nine genera. From an identification point of view, most action is within the Larus section. I find the page headers somewhat uninformative. Currently, all page headers of odd pages are simply ‘Gulls’. This makes searching for species in the book more complicated, especially if you open the book up randomly on 1st-winter plates… I would want to see species names in page headers too, not only genus names. Olsen follows outdated taxonomy (del Hoyo et al. HBW from 1990) with some ‘exceptions and rearrangements… for practical reasons’. For example, treatment of Thayer’s Gull or Heuglin’s Gull as full species conflicts with current ‘mainstream’ taxonomy. I have no problem with that, as long as the taxonomy used in this book highlights identifiable taxa.
Baltic Gull (a subspecies) – note the generic page header.
The book begins with a useful introduction, providing essential information for gull identification, ageing and understanding moult. These two identification skills, crucial for any serious gull enthusiast, are explained here with adequate detail. Another important section in the introduction deals with the need to understand the breadth of variation in plumages and moult within taxa. This topic is dealt with in good depth; other sections, for example ‘Oiling’ are somewhat awkwardly short (just over 4 lines of text).
The gull topography illustrations are informative, but lack few bits of terminology used in the book and by gull experts elsewhere, that aren’t quite intuitive to those who are not in the clique. For example, ‘bayonet’ is used to describe the grey knife-shapes in P6-P8 of American Herring Gull, or ‘string-of-pearls’ is used to describe the row of white circles across the primaries of Slaty-backed Gull, but are missing in the gull topography plates.
Species accounts consist of text that focuses mainly on identification, map (sometimes separate maps for subspecies, such as canus and heinei Common Gulls) and anything between 5 images (Swallow-tailed) to 38 (Herring). I found the maps generally accurate and of good quality. I found few inaccuracies. Yellow-legged Gull – they breed in Israel but the map does not show this. My friend Terry Townshend told me that gulls tentatively identified as Mongolian Gulls breed along the Yellow Sea coast in China, but the book doesn’t show any pale-mantled large gulls to breed along that coast. In general, European and N American gulls seem to receive more attention in this book compared to e.g. southern hemisphere gulls. This is understandable because those northern gulls are much better studied, and with research comes better understanding of variation, hybridisation and general headache.
White-eyed Gull – short text and one map.
Common Gull – two maps and more text.
In the introduction, Olsen declares that this book does not contain ‘highly detailed descriptions of plumages, moult and measurements’. Still, the book certainly includes almost all the important information needed to identify any gull. However, a few common features that are used in identification discussions in gull groups, and other books, are missing in this book. When separating 1st-winter Herring, Caspian and Yellow-legged Gulls, tertials pattern is very important, but unmentioned in this book. Also, the pattern of pale tongues extending onto primaries in the underwing is very important in separating some taxa, but the text and images in this book hardly address underwings at all. Vocalisations seem to be the new frontier in gull identification. It is not easy to describe vocalisations in a book. However, I think it would be useful if the book paid more attention to differences in vocalisations between taxa.
ID challenge for every W European birder – first-winter Caspian Gull.
Gull hybrids pose a real challenge to gull identification. Several ‘prominent’ hybrids are treated explicitly in the book (for example Glaucous-winged X Western, known as ‘Olympic Gull’). However, I miss explicit treatment of other difficult but well-known cases, such as the mysterious pale-mantled gulls breeding in W and C Asia, Caspian Gulls that mix with just about everything in C and W Europe, or the pale fuscus gulls breeding in mixed colonies with Baltic gulls in N Norway. In his recent raptor book, Dick Forsman dedicated sections to special challenges, like hybrid Greater Spotted X Lesser Spotted Eagles, or Black-eared X Black Kites. I found this very useful, and would be happy to see a similar level of depth demonstrated in this book. Also, the comparative plates in the 2004 Olsen and Larsson book are extremely useful – I would have loved to see updated versions of these plates in this book.
Glaucous-winged Gull hybrids.
Comparison plate from Olsen and Larsson (2004). I miss Larsson’s artwork in the new book.
To summarise, this book handles well the trade-off between providing enough detail to allow identification of one of the most challenging groups of birds in the world, and the need to keep the book slim and concise. In almost all cases, species accounts cover all the necessary information for identification; the images are superb and informative; the maps are accurate. There are few small gaps that I think would have improved the book if cleared, but still it is a top-quality book. A book that every gull enthusiast will have in the car, but also a good photographic identification guide for beginners and ‘average’ birders. I assume it will become more popular in regions where gull-watching is more advanced, especially Europe and N America. However, I was personally very keen to learn more about Southern Hemisphere gulls that I was not very familiar with, and I am pleased to find them all inside this superb and important book. Hopefully this book will motivate gull researchers to extend their knowledge in other parts of the world.
Grey Gull – nice to meet.
An important question is: If you have the 2004 book, should you get the new one? I think you should. This book contains new knowledge about taxa that appeared in the previous book; it is suited for field identification – fits better in your backpack, or in your glove compartment; and includes all the gull taxa in the world. Go and get it!