Birds of the UK Overseas Territories

28 februari 2021  ·  Diedert Koppenol  ·  2255 × bekeken

Roger Riddington (ed.), 2020. Birds of the UK Overseas Territories. ISBN 978147297726. Paperback. 336 pages. Bloomsbury/T & AD Poyser. London. Prijs:
€ 32,50.

When I first heard about this book, I was immediately enthusiastic. I’m a sucker for far-away islands and unreachable places and the UK Overseas Territories are almost all desolate islands and unreachable by common methods. However, this book is not a standard work. It is not really written as one, but it is a collection of papers published in British Birds magazine, published between 2008 and 2019. They all focus on one of the fourteen UKOTs (United Kingdom’s Overseas Territories), which are almost all outside our familiar biogeographical range, but are all united under Westminster’s government.

The fourteen Overseas Territories are divided across sixteen chapters and all have a similar outline. We first start with Cyprus, followed by Anguilla, Ascension Island, Bermuda, British Antarctic Territory, British Indian Ocean Territory, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Henderson Island, Montserrat, St Helena, South Georgia, Tristan da Cunha and Gough Island and we end with the Turks and Caicos Islands. There is no indication why this is the line-up, but there is also no real reason why there should be a structure in this. I just wondered if it was based on something, but publishing date of the original article or geographical position do not seem to be it.

Being transferred from a magazine to a book didn’t change their format, so all chapters start with an abstract summarizing the content of the chapter. This is followed by an introduction of the UKOT, including its climate, some key species and its location. Some chapters include more details on the history of the region, but it is stated at the start that politics are mostly omitted, ‘covering the territories as they currently exist and makes no comment on sovereignty or other related issues’. This most obviously comes into play during the chapter concerning Cyprus, clearly lacking any mention of illegal hunting pestering the island. Of course, the book is about UKOTs, but especially birds do not care for man-made borders and political boundaries. Birdwatching itself might not be a political hobby, but it is certainly affected by it.

After this introduction, a rundown of the avifauna of the UKOT is given. Some short chapters contain an overall summary, but many split their avifauna in seabirds and landbirds. These paragraphs seemed most interesting to me and they were. However, even though they were the most enjoyable component of each chapter, the book wasn’t. To stop beating around the bush, I would almost say that calling this book a book is somewhat of a cheat. There is no story, there is just a big overview of facts, numbers and other legal constructs. It is way too technical. Part of my gripe might be due to my own expectations of this work, but it is just a bundled publication of papers. Were BirdLife International to hand out pamphlets about the importance of the IBA’s (Important Bird Areas) within these UKOTs separately, all these papers would be perfect. Were you to say: “I want to read a cool book about region X’, then this would not be it, in my opinion. To give an example to illustrate my point, a quote could prove useful. At the start of the ‘Seabirds’-paragraph of the ‘Anguilla’-chapter it is said: “Since 2000, 16 species of seabird have been recorded breeding, out of 17 current breeders in the Lesser Antilles.” Then follows some recounting of monitoring projects and their establishment and some species are highlighted as to their breeding success and population numbers and only then we find out, after three pages, which species are the breeding species of Anguilla. Not by story, but by a table containing numbers of breeding species. Clean and factual, but boring to read. I understand the importance of the numbers, but for most people birding is not a numbers game, especially not in something they would read for pleasure.

Comparing with recent books I read that cover a region or place, TSA’s “Sharing the Birds: Morocco” immediately comes to mind, but also “Around the World for Albatrosses” which covers many of the same sites as Birds of the UK Overseas Territories. Those books have a soul, a narrator, an overall guide to take your hand and show you all these sites and I really feel that this work lacks that. It also lacks in the visual department, in my opinion. By current standards, I expected a lot more pictures, especially relevant ones. The pictures that are included usually do show birds and their surroundings, but most key species are missing. For instance, it is mentioned that Cyprus is the best place in Europe to see Demoiselle Cranes, has globally important numbers of Saker Falcon and holds breeding Spur-winged Lapwings, but none of these cool species are shown in drawing or photograph. The British Virgin Islands chapter only contains three pictures of birds, all showing rather common species. If you are to advertise your UKOT, show off some cool birds! Not only the lack of pictures is somewhat disappointing, I would also have liked to have more maps per chapter, to get a good sense of the region the chapter is concerned. There is one world map on page 9, but it is annoying to constantly have to look back to see where the UKOT is again. The Cayman Islands chapter doesn’t even have a map to show what islands it concerns, as do the Falkland Islands and some others. It is weird to expect readers to know all about these areas, especially since the introduction specifically mentions that British Birds traditionally concerns the WP and most UKOTs  “[…] are situated beyond that biographical region, so in this series readers have been entertained by species and populations mostly unfamiliar […]”. Aware of the unfamiliarity, one should allow the reader to make oneself acquainted. Maps are a useful tool in this process, at least for me.

After the overview of birdlife in each UKOT, there is usually a paragraph on other important flora and fauna followed by an overview of the current threats to the UKOT and the bird populations residing within them. These contain some cool information about endemic reptiles or rare plant species and the threats usually list the well-known issues with invasive species, habitat destruction and other human pressures. Most chapters end with the current conservation projects and a blue box containing information as to how one can participate or support this work. However, since most of these papers are severely outdated, there is no knowing if the information listed is up-to-date. Most chapters do include a blue box with ‘Update, July 2020’, but this is mostly an update on the current status of an endangered species. For example, the chapter about Bermuda contains an update about the population of the Bermuda Petrel, which is still increasing.

A technical issue with this work, or at least with my copy, is that it seems like the printer ran out of ink. Every other page of my copy does not have black but grey letters and the bold letters have a shadow making it feel as if the letters are washed out. There are also some obvious type errors and spelling mistakes, with “Cyrpus” in the index for example, but these issues are of minor detail compared to the main problems of this book.

Overall, I would recommend someone looking for a factual overview of some of the most unique areas in the world to buy this book or get a subscription to British Birds, since the separate articles contain valuable information. However, someone looking for stories of far-away places, wanting to read about which species one can see there or how you would be able to reach these areas, should skip this one. Especially for the retail price of this work, I would also not recommend this as a nice piece for your library. There is simply not enough worthy substance to look at or flip through.

Diedert Koppenol


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