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Europe’s Birds: an identification guide

By Andy Swash, Rob Hume, Hugh Harrop and Robert Still

WILDGuides, 2021

Flexibound, 640pp; 4,700 colour photographs, colour distribution maps, illustrations

ISBN 978-0-691-17765-6; £19.99 

From the team that produced the well-received Britain’s Birds (reviewed in Brit. Birds 113: 507) comes a new Europe-wide photographic guide. In reality, coverage is ‘Europe-plus’, including everywhere north of the Mediterranean and its islands, thus incorporating the entirety of Turkey and the Caucasus region. In contrast to most regional guides, species from North Africa and much of the Middle East are not included (except those that have been recorded as vagrants to Europe), while the endemic birds of Macaronesia are presented in a separate section.

Careful planning and attention to detail mark all aspects of this book. The best photographic guides require the most representative and revealing images to be sourced and effectively presented, and this guide scores heavily on both counts. The 928 species included are depicted using around 4,700 images from over 350 photographers. The number of images per species varies according to the complexity of identification. For example, Blue Tit Cyanistes caeruleus is covered on half a page with just a single image (plus one of a Blue x Azure Tit C. cyanus hybrid), with two smaller images on other pages. By comparison, Herring Gull Larus argentatus is given a full page with eight images, cross referenced to similar species and to separate pages covering moult, ageing and identification of large gulls more generally, where a further series of images is presented alongside those of the main confusion species in equivalent plumages.

For each species dealt with in the main section, there is a brief identification text, including details of voice, a small range map and text boxes detailing habitat and status. A further text box, where relevant, covers the subspecies occurring in the region and whether these are realistically identifiable in the field. Each image is annotated with salient points relating to species identification, the subspecies concerned, ageing and sexing. Former BBRC member and identification expert Chris Batty has been drafted in to double check the labelling of each image to ensure accuracy. Vagrants to the region receive coverage, though in a little less detail.

Despite the amount of information presented for each species, the skilful design means that the pages rarely feel cramped. Some of the information presented is a little superfluous, such as three images of Skylark Alauda arvensis labelled as different subspecies – yet the text box indicates that subspecies identification relies solely on location rather than observable field characters. While it may seem a little churlish to criticise such thoroughness, there is a chance that less cautious readers might read too much into the subspecies designations and conclude, wrongly, that the differences between individuals depicted are something more than the consequences of individual variation, plumage wear and photographic effects. 

Sourcing precisely the right image to illustrate a particular point can be difficult, and the images showing the different underwing colours of Crested Galerida cristata and Thekla’s Lark G. theklae do not really reveal what their annotations suggest. This, though, is a rare example and overall the images have been selected to show crucial – but often hard to capture – features. In some cases, small illustrations are used to depict features not clearly visible in the images, thus the tail patterns of Turtle Dove Streptopelia turtur and both subspecies of Oriental Turtle Dove S. orientalis are shown, as is the pattern of the adult median coverts in Blyth’s Anthus godlewskii and Richard’s Pipits A. richardi. Every effort seems to have been made to incorporate as much valuable identification detail as possible.

Photographic guides are appearing at an ever-increasing rate but this title is head and shoulders above the competitors, in terms of both detail and presentation. The authors’ label their guide an ‘identification handbook’ rather than a field guide and, while it is certainly a little bulky and rather heavy, it would fit comfortably into the glove compartment of a car.

Europe’s Birds is superbly planned, executed and produced, and is a joy to pick up and browse. It comes highly recommended.

Chris Kehoe

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