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Friday, October 15, 2010

Best Bird Field Guide Ever...Again

Earlier this year Princeton University Press (in the US) published Lars Svensson, Killian Mullarney, and Dan Zetterström's Birds of Europe: 2nd Edition (published in Europe by HarperCollins as the Collins Bird Guide). There are some glowing reviews out there (see links here), to which I need to add my own.

The 1st edition was the best field guide I had ever seen, and I can now say the same thing about this 2nd edition.

As one reviewer noted, many of the North American species included here are treated better than they are in most American field guides. If you are birding in Europe, are a North American birder who dreams of finding Eurasian vagrants, or just want to rediscover the fun of reading a field guide (seriously, how much fun are most field guides to read these days, with most including dense telegraphed lines of bird description?), then you really need to pick up a copy of this guide.

A fairly random example of the fun and useful writing in this masterpiece:
(Northern) Hawk Owl Surnia ulula
L. 35-43 cm, WS 69-82 cm. Mainly resident in boreal forests, often in upper tree zone on mountainous slopes (mixed conifers and birch), preferring vicinity of bog, meadow or clearfell. Fluctuating numbers, some years locally fairly common. In some autumns considerable numbers move south. About five records in Britain in 20th Century. Partly diurnal. Food voles (main prey, taken on ground after watch from treetop) and birds (e.g. thrushes; capable of catching prey as large as Willow Grouse). Nests in tree-hole ('chimney' or vertical) or abandoned raptor's nest. Caution: Can fiercely attack intruders when young leave nest; do not go near, and keep your eyes fixed on parents while in sight of young just out of a nest!

What's not to like about that!?! And this is just the intro section to the species account. There is twice as much text following this section, where the bird is described in an Identification section and a Voice section.

Which leads me to the characteristic that makes this the best field guide ever. The identification section for each species focuses on the characteristics that most clearly identify the bird. In many modern field guides, there is a tendency to describe the species completely, and a lot of space is used to describe plumage characteristics even if they aren't that important for identifying a bird. Call me crazy, but when I read a field guide I'm looking for information on how to identify a bird--so give me that information in as tight and clear a manner as possible. I shouldn't have to dig, I shouldn't be scratching my head at the end of the description section wondering out of all that information what is the most important things to look for in identifying the bird and making sure it isn't some other similar species. This Birds of Europe guide is a great example of how to do this--by concentrating of field marks useful in identifying the bird (with most important identifying features indicated in italic text), rather than on an overall description of features readily apparent in the illustrations.

Which brings me to the illustrations. Most reviewers focus on the illustrations. Again, best illustrations in any field guide. I love them. I'm a big fan of Sibley's field guide paintings, but these paintings by Killian Mullarney and Dan Zetterstrom are simply amazing, conveying the shape and plumage of the birds as they are most likely to be seen in the field. There are over 3500 illustrations of the 772 species included in this guide, and since some of those illustrations show multiple birds (e.g. flocks of birds), it is common for most species to be shown in have five or more illustrations, which include almost all sex and age differences.

Captions of text with lines pointing to relevant plumage features as well as notes on important behaviors are included on the illustrations themselves, putting the information right where you need it most. If you are a fan of photo guides, you really need to get this guide so you can see how much better good illustrations are at conveying the information needed for comparing and identifying bird species. The text in the main section and the caption points out what are most important--be they details of feathers, or more general impressions of shape and size (GISS or jizz). I love how Hawk Owls are noted to have a "grim look" while Tengmalm's Owl--our Boreal Owl--is noted to have an "astonished look" and the European Pygmy Owl is depicted as having an "austere look"--important and unique facets of a bird's overall appearance that you won't find in most other guides.

The voice section of each species account provides more information than found in most field guides, describing many different songs or calls, often accented notes marked in bold type), which helps convey even more of the quality of the notes.

There is so much more to be said about this guide. Great maps. Extremely valuable sections on how to ID tricky groups of birds (like gulls and jaegers). A comprehensive, yet concise glossary in the introduction section. Did I mention how it does all this in a highly readable format?

Let me just end by repeating this point: the purpose of a field guide is to help you identify birds. Birds of Europe: 2nd Edition makes that easier than almost any other guide for almost any bird you may find in Europe. The illustrations and text are wedded and presented in a concise format that gives birders the most important information needed for bird identification. It is a gem by which all other gems are to be compared.

This review is written on the basis of a review copy of the second edition provided by Princeton University Press.


Patrick B. said...

I haven't personally seen the new edition yet, but the 1st is definitely phenomenal. I guess I should upgrade to the 2nd edition.

Bird Feeders said...

I'll definitely have to check this one out, thanks for the great review. I really value a field guide that presents the type of ID features you describe in the various "looks" and "expressions" of the owls. This information really goes a long way in the field (and is very easy to commit to memory, it's kind of a mnemonic).

Grant McCreary said...

Great review - I totally agree. I still haven't done a review of this new edition myself, but I'm not sure what I'd say any differently!

Anonymous said...

Just to echo your post: Birds of Europe is the single best field guide available on the market right now, as far as quality of artwork, design, and layout. It's brilliant. Killian, in particularly, just blows it away. North America needs to get in line, and fortunately, there's a new guide in the making that will echo Birds of Europe in quality and detail. We should be holding it in about 5 years if the team continues to truck away...

jen brumfield

Pat ODonnell said...

Great review and so true! That field guide is so darn good that even though I live pretty far away from Europe, I find myself spending as much time gazing at the pages as I do with guides for my region.

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