Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Improving on a masterpeice

Like many birders I have long enjoyed thumbing through field guides from exotic locals, marveling at the stunning avian wonders that can be seen there. This day dreamy habit has generated a strong interest in field guides and their relative strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps not surprisingly, there is a considerable range in quality in field guides. A good field guide enhances your birding experience; a bad one can lead to considerable frustration. If I had to rank the field guides I have read in terms of quality, I would say that beyond any shadow of a doubt, the best ever produced, to date, in my humble opinion (IMHO), is the Birds of Europe by Lars Svensson, Peter Grant, Killian Mullarney and Dan Zetterstr̦m (first published in 1999). Naturally, therefore, I was delighted to learn that a second edition has now been released! I should add though that, at the same time as being delighted, there was a little trepidation that they might have messed with a good thing Рfortunately that fear was unfounded as overall the GISS of this new edition is much the same as the first!

The second addition is, in a nutshell, an improvement on a masterpiece. The same superb illustrations and ingenious format, cramming in an extraordinary amount of information in a small amount of space and presenting the reader with a wealth of tools to improve field identification. Killian Mullarney and Dan Zetterström’s illustrations are truly remarkable in their accuracy and beauty and the way they seem to capture the GISS of each species along with the intricate details of plumage and structure.

Allow me to illustrate this with an example — I have added a scan of the illustrations of the European Honey Buzzard. As you can see there are 18 different illustrations for one species crammed into half a plate. The level of detail in both text and illustration is extraordinary and so many of the variations in plumage of this highly variable species are accounted for. Compare the photo I took of this species on the right with the plate and see how identification and ageing and sexing (the bird in this photo is a darker juvenile – note the dark eye among other features). Very few field guides can match this level of detail! If any of thee pictures in this post seem too small to be legible, click on them for a larger version.


Another feature I love about the Birds of Europe is the way they compare and contrast similar species or common versus rare species from various angles and postures. Look at the illustrations for the North American vagrant Spotted Sandpiper (sorry for the poor quality scan). In a tiny amount of space they capture the GISS and illustrate all the subtle difference that enable separation from the Common Sandpiper, which as the name suggests is common in Europe.


Likewise look at this full plate on the three species of golden plovers. Again, so many points of comparison in plumage, posture, age, sex, on the ground versus in flight – you name it! I also love the way they frequently include a “zoomed out” picture that portrays the way one might see the species under field conditions – in this case compare the illustration of a feeding flock with my photo of a loafing flock of European Golden Plovers. These “small” pictures really help one in learning and appreciating GISS. The “floating captions” with the picture also serve to direct the reader’s attention to the key points.


But perhaps above all, is the just the truly extraordinary quality of the illustrations themselves. To illustrate this allow me to juxtapose the illustrations of two North American species, Greater Yellowlegs and Lesser Yellowlegs in the Bird of Europe and the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. In both cases these two species occupy half a plate and these two field guides are very similar in size. You might expect the North American guide to have more detail or better portray the species but as far as I am concerned, in terms of “capturing the species’ likeness”, quality, detail, comparative merit, and utility in the field, the Birds of Europe is the hand-down winner. In addition to the comparison between these two species, you’ll also notice the comparison with other potentially confusing species, Common Greenshank and Wood Sandpiper, on the same page (in addition to the more detailed treatment of those European species on previous pages) and other useful extras like a size comparison (as viewed from a distance) with a very common species, Common Redshank.


Another useful comparison is these plates of North American Thrushes (Birds of Europe on the left versus National Geographic on the right). Both are excellent for field identification but again the European guide does at least as good, and in my opinion even better, a job of the North American vagrants as the American guide does. The Birds of Europe also makes several comparisons with Song Thrush (not necessary in North America). Small wonder I often keep a copy of the Birds of Europe with me as I bird around the North American continent!


But is this new edition worth buying if you have the old? I would say yes — there are enough good changes to make it worth owning. Of course, this includes treatment of the various splits that have occurred since the publication of the first edition and, clearly, the taxonomic treatment is consistent and carefully considered. The text has been updated and the results of various recent publications as they pertain to field identification incorporated, especially if you are a “larophile” (lover of gulls) – there is a lot of new information on gulls! The maps have also been improved where relevant; for example, I was happy to see that the new map for Rock Partridge had been corrected to show the southern Italian population. Some of the drawings are redone and others added (love the new half plate on scops owls!), with about 16 extra pages from the first edition. The Nearctic Wood-Warblers have been redone by Killian Mullarney in a style that is much more consistent than previously (in the first edition the two plates by Larry McQueen were in a different style than the rest of the book). As always, the additions and changes are treated with superb precision and care (perhaps only the illustration of Yellow Warbler is a little below the usual high standard in terms of capturing the GISS).

Now, even a masterpiece cannot be perfect and, unfortunately, some of the inconsistencies that weakened the first edition have also crept into the second. There are still inconsistencies in the treatment of rarities and vagrants as to whether or not they get included in the main section of the guide or get relegated to the appendix (in which case quite a few are not illustrated). There has been some shuffling of species, especially the introduced ones, with species like Mandarin Duck and Wood Duck moved from the main section to an appendix, but not nearly enough for consistent treatment.

North American readers, many of whom, like me, consider this book a highly valuable resource, will be frustrated that there has still been no effort for consistency in nomenclature. Some Holarctic species are given both British and American English names, e.g. under Lapland Bunting the text reads (Am: Lapland Longspur), and after Slavonian Grebe in brackets we see (Horned Grebe) but many others still lack this “courtesy” such as Goosander, Guillemot and Kentish Plover (Common Merganser, Common Murre and Snowy Plover respectively).

It is wonderful that the book treats new splits so well, but an oversight was made in not indicating their former names or what they were split from. For example, a person who had the first edition and who wanted to compare Little Shearwater will not find it anywhere in the second edition (not even in the index nor anywhere in the text nor is there any table of splits or additions) unless they already know to look for Macronesian Shearwater.

Typesetting is expensive, so perhaps the authors wanted to make some of these changes but space or cost meant sticking with the old. On the whole though, a great amount of care has gone into improving most aspects of this guide and I am delighted to conclude that the very best modern field in the world (IMHO) is now even better! Looks like I am going to need two copies again – one for the book shelf and one for the glove compartment! Maybe it’ll help me find a European stray (in Manitoba not too likely but hey…).

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