Handbook of Western Palearctic Birds
Volume 1 – Passerines: Larks to Warblers
Volume 2 – Passerines: Flycatchers to Buntings
By Hadoram Shrihai & Lars Svensson, 2018. C. Helm / Bloomsbury publishing. 648 pp (Volume 1) and 623 pp (Volume 2). Numerous colour photographs and maps.
Few books have generated such a buzz before being published. In recent weeks, since the first pre-publication copies were sent to selected contributors, wall-to-wall praises for the book have swamped social media. Before I even start my review, it is clear to me that almost everyone who is a potential buyer has already seen images or read byte-sized social media posts about this book. With a bar set so high, is it possible to offer an honest, explicit review of such a mega-book? This is a challenging task for several reasons. First, my full disclosure: I have contributed a handful of photographs to the book; and I know Hadoram since my childhood, have spent much time in the field with him and regard him as my friend. Yet, I was not involved in any other way in the production of this book, and feel that I can provide here a good critique. The second issue with reviewing such a book is its sheer volume. It’s a huge book, 1271 pages across the two volumes. I have no chance to read through every bit of text, check every photo caption and scrutinize every distribution map, not in years, and certainly not in any good time for a review to get published. So I decided to focus on some sections – the introduction, and several species groups, those I am more familiar with and a few of those that I am less familiar with. I did browse through the entire two volumes with some depth, and also received help from others who have looked at bits of the book and provided some feedback. Special thanks to my friend Harry Hussey who provided important insight.
This book is a result of a mammoth project. According to the authors, it took over 18 years to produce, and judging by the list of acknowledgments, it was a real team effort. Even before reading the first page, this is a huge achievement by itself, to persevere and manage a project for so long! The huge size of the two volumes is an advantage and a disadvantage simultaneously. This format allowed the authors to expand and elaborate quite a bit. On the other hand, two volumes of 297x210 mm each, and a weight of 5.2 kg for both volumes, means that these books permanently stay indoors – they don’t travel anywhere! I was told by the publisher that an eBook version is on its way – fingers crossed.
In a way, this book complements two previous publications, Lars Svensson’s ‘Identification Guide to European Passerines’ (last version from 2006) and Nils van Duivendijk’s ‘Advanced Bird ID Handbook’ (New Holland Publishers, 2011). However, it is a major advance, because of the addition of a multitude of photographs that work together with the text to provide a complete identification guide.
As in any ornithological book I read, I started with the introduction. It really helps me to set my mind in line with the scope, aims and focus of this book. The authors state that the book’s focus is ‘identification and taxonomy’, and aim it to be the ‘most complete profusely illustrated photographic guide to Western palearctic birds’. This short statement gives a good idea of what to expect from the book. First, the book deals with the more traditional field-guide approach of field identification – how to tell each taxa from another. Importantly, this book expands what is available in most modern field guides by providing full information about all identifiable plumages and the geographic variation within each taxa. I find the treatment of subspecies exceptional in its detail and clarity – the information provided on identifiable subspecies is definitely one of the major achievements of this book.
The treatment of ‘Greater Western Palearctic’ that includes also all of Iran and the entire Arabian Peninsula was already introduced in Dominic Mitchell’s ‘Birds of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East: An Annotated Checklist’ (Lynx Edicions, 2017). Inclusion of those new sections of the Western Palearctic introduces us to some little-known species to the average Western Palearctic birder, such as Brown Woodland Warbler:
Contra Mitchell, the southern border of the Western palearctic defined in this book runs along the jagged political borders of Egypt, Libya and Algeria, excluding northern parts of Chad, Niger, Mali and Mauritania. This may have caused a ‘loss’ of some Sahel species. In this book, the authors mention that this was done mainly for pragmatic reasons, to keep a birder-friendly Western Palearctic list.
The authors adopt an ‘independent’ taxonomic that does not necessarily adhere to widely-accepted taxonomic approaches adopted by BirdLife International (BLI) and Clements / IOC. In the introduction, the basis to the taxonomic approach used in the book is coherently explained, and does make sense to me. This book introduces ideas towards new splits (for example Saharan and Levant Scrub Warbler), follows some recently-accepted splits and Lumps (for example split of Dunn’s and Arabian Larks, and lump of Lesser and Common Redpolls) and also lumps together taxa that have been widely accepted as splits (for example Radde’s and Yemen Accentors, and Crested and Maghreb Larks). For some of these splits this is the first full comparative description published. This independent taxonomic approach applies also to subspecies. In the book, several subspecific treatments are quite unique, for example the retaining of hibernicus Coal Tit as a valid taxon. This taxonomic approach that combines more progressive approach with more conservative approach, may seem inconsistent, but I find it in fact quite novel and logical. Throughout the book, taxonomic notes are provided on each taxon with a ‘complex’ taxonomy, explaining why this taxonomic treatment was used. I found these explanations clear, and generally they made sense to me. Just remember that taxonomic suggestions offered in this book are at the moment just suggestions, though likely to initiate processes to adjust lists adopted by e.g. BLI and IOC. One small note: I found it odd that the introduction is repeated in both volumes. I’d be surprised if anyone buys a single volume and not a set of two.
An interesting section of the introduction is the 5-pages long ‘An Approach to Moult and Ageing of Birds in the Field’. Magnus Hellström contributed greatly to this section. It provides tools for birders to assess moult in the field, which essentially aids ageing and identification. As this is intended for birders and not for ringers, I find the depth and level of details adequate, and the images used are very illustrative.
Species accounts of the 493 species considered in the two volumes vary in their length and depth. While some accounts are pretty concise, others receive much more attention, based on the identification challenges they pose, and on the geographical variation they display. All the species with the most elaborate accounts have many subspecies: Great Grey Shrike with 12 pages, Yellow Wagtail with 10, White / Pied Wagtail with 8, and Isabelline Shrike, Eastern Stonechat and Black Redstart with 7. Check the complex map of Great Grey Shrike, showing the range of its many subspecies:
This is a testimony to the huge amount of work behind the production of this book, in two parallel efforts: exhaustive documentation of museum material worldwide to produce a nearly complete set of descriptions and measurements of all sexes, ages and subspecies of all Western Palearctic birds; and collection of a huge selection of photos, of great quality, with very few exceptions. With the ever-growing selection of photographs from every corner of the Western Palearctic in the digital photography era, this was surely an exhausting task. This is major achievement of this book. Some poorly-documented plumages are displayed here, including the juvenile plumage of Striolated Bunting:
Each species account has sections for introduction to the species, identification of all plumages including vocalisations, comparison to similar species, information about determination of age and sex, including moult, biometrics, and geographic variation (subspecies) and range. Written descriptions of vocalisations (‘trrrr… trrrr…’) feel somewhat archaic nowadays, but the authors did their best to transcribe sounds into letters coherently. Not an easy task. In this printed version there is certainly no room for more advanced sound representations, not even sonograms that are in use by many birders. I hope that in coming eBook editions, extra information such as sonograms and sound files will be added.
Each account includes a specially-commissioned distribution map by Magnus Ullman. Most maps I checked seem to be correct to my knowledge. Friends pointed out to me that some range maps of declining species in the UK, such as Willow Tit, Common Redstart and Twite, represent optimistic distributions that were perhaps correct a couple of decades ago. Even species that breed outside of the Western Palearctic but occur on some regular basis received a map, such as Taiga Flycatcher. I find this type of map somewhat confusing though – it would be good to add few text captions for orientation:
The stunning photos on front covers of both volumes set a very high bar, and most photographs in the book don’t fall far behind in quality – most photos range from very good to excellent. Many photos are simply beautiful, taken by some of the best bird photographers of the region. The flight photos of White’s Thrush on page 363 in Volume 1 are part of the few exceptions to the high quality. It is nice to see not only sexy eastern species treated with great depth here, and there is no discrimination against familiar European birds.
In some species accounts, identification to the species level gets much attention, with elaborate descriptions and mostly very useful comparative plates. I found these combos generally very useful, but they might become a bit confusing because the captions are in very small text and it’s not always easy to intuitively identify the species in the comparative photos. See examples of stonechats here:
In general, species accounts I read in-depth were of very high quality. I focused on species I know well, and found very few issues. In my experience, female hemprichii Eastern Stonechats hardly ever show any white bases to tail feathers that are visible in the field. In the book it is written that females usually have some white at the tail base, always visible in the field. In Black Scrub Robin, photos of the African subspecies podobe are missing, and I find the statement that melanoptera has no or little rufous on the inner webs to flight feathers unsubstantiated, because both photos in the book show extremely extensive rufous wing patterns. Also, the breeding found in Israel since 2015 (Ottens et al. 2016) is not mentioned. Nor is the breeding of Common Chiffchaff found on Mt. Hermon in Israel since 2013 (Perlman et al. 2017). I find the way Water Pipit subspecies are treated in the book somewhat disappointing, by subsuming blakistoni in coutellii – there is some evidence that the opposite is true, and that coutellii might be separate from spinoletta (Garner et al. 2015). There are some further small inaccuracies in distributions and in status and number of records, but this is inevitable in a book that took 18 years to produce – records of rarities happen all the time, and this is no big deal in my opinion. Status of vagrants is not the focus of the book anyway. I could not find any mistakes in identification of birds in photos or in captions.
As mentioned above, this book introduces several proposed splits, that are dealt with in detail and illustrated for the first time in a publication. Headline bird is Basalt Wheatear. With it appearing on the front cover photo, it is clear why the authors highlight this beautiful bird. This enigmatic taxon has slowly climbed up the taxonomic ladder to finally reach full species rank here – will it pass the scientific publication test and get widely accepted by other taxonomic authorities? While I personally agree with this split, I am not sure that the reasons provided in the book why to split Basalt Wheatear, rather briefly, are sufficient to pass the scientific hurdle.
Also in the wheatear family, a three-way split of Variable Wheatear to Blyth’s (O. picata), Gould’s (O. capistrata) and Strickland’s (O. ophistholeuca) is introduced here, with necessary caveats. I found their explanation of why to split very detailed and convincing.
To conclude, in my opinion this is one of the most important and potentially influential books of this decade. Its high standards shine through every page. It will most probably win some ‘Bird Book of the Year’ prizes. It is not a perfect book - no book is; but it’s as close as it gets to perfection, and by all accounts it’s a top-quality publication. For that the authors and the large team who worked on this book need to be congratulated and appreciated. It is a book that many ornithologists, keen birders and professionals won’t even hesitate to buy. If you’re serious about bird identification and taxonomy, you must have this book. It contains so much information, and essentially also much new information, that it can’t be ignored. For amateurs and for field birders who don’t necessarily spend their summer holidays at Tring, there is the dilemma around the heavy weight and heavy price tag, currently at e.g. £120 on Bloomsbury website. Regarding weight, if the eBook does get published, that will alter the equation considerably. For the time being, each person will have to make their own mind up about the trade-off between quality and money. Regarding quality, I hope that nobody will get disappointed by the book.
With the publication of the two Passerines volumes, starts the anticipation for the non-Passerines volumes. I was given some inside information that it may take quite a bit of time; I hope that less than 18 years!
Garner, M., Perlman, Y., Kiat, Y., & Collinson, J. M. (2015). Water Pipits: three species rather than one? British Birds, 108, 42-58.
Ottens, G., Perlman, Y., & Shanni, I. (2016): Black Scrub Robin in the WP and breeding record in Israel in 2015. Dutch Birding, 38, 219–227.
Perlman, Y., Granit, B., & Cohen, A. (2017). Changes in the breeding avifauna of Israel during 2003–2016. Zoology in the Middle East, 63, 8-16.