I’ve been reading a lot of bird books lately – the happy result of being sent the potential Christmas best-sellers by a selection of publishers (those of them who are coming round to the view that an online review on a well-trafficed blog will reach more readers than one in a magazine, anyway). It’s a fantastic position to be in. I’m extremely grateful and also fully aware that each and every book deserves to be reviewed carefully and properly – authors take years producing books and it goes without saying that reviewers should always bear that in mind.
I only saying this because Nils Van Duivendijk’s ‘Advanced Bird Id Guide: The Western Palearctic’ arrived in the same package from New Holland Publishers as David Chandler’s beautiful book ‘Kingfisher’, and Dominic Couzen’s sumptuously-illustrated ‘Atlas of Rare Birds‘. Its bright blue cover, dominated by a photo of a banking Montagu’s Harrier, belies the fact that inside the book’s 305 pages there are no illustrations at all bar ten diagrams of topography and no colour whatsoever except for slim pale-flesh/orange sidebars and brighter, rusty-coloured fonts used to denote species. There are no maps, no narrative to speak of, no discussion of jizz, no whimsy or humour. There are instead closely-spaced descriptions and ID points: masses and masses of words covering each and every page(well over 200,000 according to the publisher), arranged in bullet points, and studded with symbols and shorthand annotations. The contrast couldn’t be greater.
To be honest opening it up was a bit of a shock. My first (stupid) reaction was to wonder how the heck I could write a fair and proper review about such a densely-worded, near-monotone volume that looked like the bird-nerd version of a trainspotters list of engine numbers?
Fortunately (and there should be a lot of stress on that word when you read it) I didn’t write a word about my being unconvinced on first impressions or I would rightly have been laughed out of the ‘Reviewer’s Club’ and forced to swallow huge, cold chunks of humble pie for ever more. I would have been the reviewing equivalent of the tourist who goes to Cairo and sees just a triangular pile of bricks, the novice birder who looks at a Skylark and sees only a small brown bird…
I’m exaggerating, but I have no doubt that publishers across the UK would have been taking out their red pencils and putting a line through ‘Send to Charlie Moores, Talking Naturally for review’ if I’d blurted out my first thoughts, because Nils Van Duivendijk, a Chairman of the Dutch Rarities Committee and “an ‘avid’ collector of field characters”, has produced a landmark in – as it says on the cover of this remarkable book – advanced bird ID.
Originally published in 2002 in Dutch this is an updated version of what was already recognised as a tour de force by a rather single-minded type of birder. Take just a moment to actually read what’s in this Guide and you quickly realise that it’s as if the overflowing notebooks of the most astonishingly sharp-eyed field birder have been properly organised and then compressed into one volume. Nils Van Duivendijk evidently sees birds in ways that the most of us are simply incapable of, has found a very positive way to make the most what I can only assume must be Asperger’s, and has the sort of analytical capabilities that makes the Cray Jaguar supercomputer so impressive. He appears to have taken dedication to compiling birding identification minutiae to levels most of us wouldn’t even contemplate aiming at, and as a result the amount of advanced identification information that has been squeezed into this ‘encyclopaedia-in-a-paperback’ is truly astounding.
And it’s scope is enormous, covering the whole of the western Palearctic. The blurb on New Holland’s website says:
[It] accurately describes every key detail of every plumage of all 1300 species and subspecies that have ever occurred in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East…for every species the detailed text lists the key characters of each recognizable plumage, including male, female, immature, juvenile, all subspecies and all other variations. This level of detail includes, for example, all eleven forms of ‘Canada goose’ and all nine forms of ‘yellow wagtail’ known in the region. In the past such in-depth detail has only been available in huge multi-volume tomes such as Birds of the Western Palearctic…
…and that blurb, with it’s emphasis on the word ‘detail’, does not lie. I’ve been using the ‘Advanced Bird ID Guide’ for about a week now, checking it against the birds in my garden, questions posed on bird fora, tricky photographs in bird mags – and the thing just doesn’t fail. If a bird has a pale fringe to a feather for just a few months of the year, this book will note it. If a bird has a pale iris as an adult it almost gives you the day of the week the eye will transition from the dull brown of the immature. Variations between subspecies? You bet. Need to know what shape coverts a particular juvenile has? If they differ from the adult version in any way, Nils will have written it down. Want pages and pages and pages on the large gulls? Lariphiles will be in heaven. Birders faced with what might be either a juv Little Stint or a juv Red-necked (here in the UK or at Jamaica Bay perhaps) will whisper a quiet thanks to the author. And so on and so on.
Somewhat like Lars Svensson’s seminal “Identification Guide to European Passerines” (aka ‘the ringer’s bible’) it is worth noting that identification even with this remarkable book does depend on you having a fair bit of bird ID knowledge to begin with, as without any illustrations, maps, and only diagnostic calls noted this is probably not a book for beginners: the ‘advanced’ in the title could as much refer to the birder using it as to the Guide itself. But take it into the field with, say, the ‘Collins Bird Guide’ and you probably have everything you need to correctly age and identify any bird you’re going to encounter in the Western Palearctic.
It’s worth noting too that the ‘Advanced Bird ID Guide’ is being offered on some retail websites for under £10.00. At that price (which is an insult to the author IMHO) it’s an absolute steal and perhaps the bargain of the year. Get it now before the publishers realise that at even £25.00 there would still be metaphorical queues of birders around the block. Get it and be thankful that there are birders with brains like filing systems putting together books like this one – and publishers willing to put them on the market.
Title: Advanced Bird ID Guide: The Western Palearctic
Author: Nils van Duivendijk (In association with British Birds)
Publisher: New Holland Publishing (Aug 2010)
Size: 130 x 210 (mm)
Images: 10 line drawings of bird topography