Published by Irish publishing house The Collins Press, ‘The Birds of Ireland’ (BoI) is the latest book in a series by two of Ireland’s natural history / birding stalwarts, broadcaster and former Chair of Birdwatch Ireland Jim Wilson and photographer Mark Carmody. I had the good fortune to interview Jim and Mark a few weeks ago to talk about their book and the resulting conversation forms the podcast linked to just below.
I suppose in the interests of full disclosure I should say that The Collins Press both sent me a review copy of the BoI and arranged the interview, but I’m assuming everyone knows how the system works. However, I have never written a positive review on a book I didn’t think deserved it and what follows has nothing at all to do with the fact that I found Jim and Mark to be charming, intelligent and funny interviewees. I just really like Birds of Ireland!
I should explain why I’m so enthusiastic, of course, because at first sight there really doesn’t seem to be a need for a field guide to the birds of Ireland when so many other guides that cover Ireland already exist. BoI does though fit very nicely into a gap that Jim and Mark clearly thought needed filling, and I’d suggest that they’re in a very good position to make that call!
Rather than attempting to cover every single bird ever recorded in Ireland (which given how many vagrants places like Cape Clear, Ballycotton, and Tacumshin attract might possibly have appealed to a rather small group of twitchers both in and outside of Ireland), BoI details species that have been seen in Ireland more than 300 times (though there is the odd valid exception as Jim points out in the podcast), divided into related groups and then sub-divided into common and Scarce & Rare.
It’s a well-thought out approach and the book is therefore aimed squarely at the much larger markets of both new and intermediate birders, though having said that you’re never too old or too experienced to learn something new and I certainly enjoyed rummaging around inside its pages. It has a very well-written introduction that covers the basics of Bird ID, proper binocular use, and bird topography as well as pitching some interesting ideas about digi-scoping and conservation. The species accounts are concise but accurate and thoughtful – and entertaining: who couldn’t love the description, for example, of Grey Herons at the nest sounding like ‘a fairy-tale monster or someone getting sick’?
On top of this pluses BoI is also one of the few field-guides I’ve seen recently that a birder could – hurrah! – actually carry around in the field. It’s small (just 190mm/7.5″ tall and 114 mm/4.45″ wide), weighs next to nothing, and is wrapped in a laminated cover that looks both shower-resistant and wipe-clean. It’s very easy to hold and use, and I’d be willing to bet that would be true for almost anyone no matter their age or sex.
But let’s face it, the truth is that it won’t be the text or the dimensions that clinches whether a bird book flies off the shelves or not. Birders are predominantly visual, and it will be what the birds inside look like that seal the deal. And it’s here that the book really triumphs. Inside this relatively small package is packed more than 1600 high-quality photos – many of them taken by Mark. It’s a bit of a Tardis-like trick actually, but it’s carried off with real skill. Photographic guides (as Jim reminisces on the podcast) used to feature just a single photograph of each species (often of the more visually attractive male) which made them nigh on useless as a field-guide. Here each of the common species is shown at least eight times! We get males, females, young birds, birds in flight, birds near, birds far, and birds from all seasons. Lots of birds in other words.
And remarkably they’re all sharp and they don’t get lost in the background. And that’s because Jim and Mark took the very sensible decision to not have a background in the style of the far larger pages of eg the Crossley series of guides (which have more than twice the real estate to place the birds against), but just to leave in the perches the birds are standing on or a halo of water that the bird is swimming in and photoshop the whole onto a coloured page.
Additionally all the birds face the same way – beaks/bills pointing to the right. That’s not to say the birds are all lined up in little rows though – the pages are vital and dynamic, full of movement and life. It all works extremely well, and kudos to Jim who developed RSI as he arranged and re-arranged the thousands and thousands of photos into such well-ordered pages!
And of course well done to Mark, because if the photos hadn’t been up to scratch it really wouldn’t have mattered how good the layout was. His brief was to take as many birds as he could, in as many different poses or from as many angles as possible, and he succeeded (all the while holding down a very demanding, full-time job). There isn’t a weak photo in BoI which is really saying something (heaven only knows how many photos were actually taken for this book, and I can only imagine that the culling process must have been very harsh indeed).
One point that has been picked up on by other reviewers is that there are no distribution maps. I must admit I hadn’t really noticed – or more to the point I hadn’t missed them. Ireland is not the size of (say) the US, common birds are widespread, and it’ll be obvious to even a novice that if you want to see auks you need to go the coast, if you want to see woodland birds you’ll need a wood etc. Yes, just for interest’s sake it would have been nice to have a breakdown of the key rarity sites, but that’s not what this book is all about and maps would have taken up a lot of space sacrificing either text or photos. I personally think the decision (and it was taken carefully) to leave them out was the correct one. Other opinions are, of course, available…
So, is BoI worth buying? It’s on sale on Amazon at the almost give-away price of just under fourteen pounds stirling which is a steal for a book that is this good. It probably has more limited appeal outside Ireland, but if you enjoy good books and would like to know more about the birds of Ireland then it really shouldn’t matter where you live. If you do happen to live in Ireland and are looking for a Christmas present for the budding birder in your life, I can’t see how you could make a better buy in all honesty (and if you’re still not convinced, have a listen to the podcast with Jim and Mark and get a better understanding just how much work these two rather lovely conservationists and flag-waving Irishmen put into presenting your birds in the best way they possibly could…and then go and buy it).
Book Format: Paperback
Dimensions: 190 x 114 mm / 7.5″ x 4.45″
Number of pages: 280
Illustrations: Full colour, Colour photos