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Keith Betton "Keith Betton" (UK)

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Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding (Kaufman Field Guides)
Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding (Kaufman Field Guides)
by Kenn
Edition: Vinyl Bound
Price: £14.99

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Kaufman at his best, 8 Oct. 2011
Kenn Kaufman created Advanced Birding in 1990 as one of the Peterson Field Guide series. That book assessed the challenges of identifying 88 species found in North America, grouping them into 34 chapters (plus a short introduction on birding theory). This new volume is 50% bigger and only deals with 46 species. Instead, a large section of 135 pages discusses a wide range of bird identification topics, and while there are plenty of discussions on key features, the book is clearly aiming at a wider audience than previously. Subtitled "understanding what you see and hear" this really is a completely new work and feels less like a hard-core birder's book than previously. Some might say it has been dumbed down, but there is nothing dumb about this book. Perhaps the best way to describe the change in approach is that the last book was for advanced birders, and this one is for those wish to become advanced birders.

It is packed with good information, and through clever use of images it offers better opportunities to understand how a bird's plumage changes through its progression from chick to adult. In particular there are great examples shown of gulls, and for me photographs are better than paintings in many cases - although it's a matter of personal taste. Each photo is displayed as a cut-out, so you can focus on the key features rather than be distracted by the background. It also allows for many images to be used on each page.

Among the identification challenges covered are Greater and Lesser Scaup, five species of diver (including Pacific), Sharp-shinned and Cooper's Hawks with Goshawk, Semi-palmated, Western and Least Sandpipers, Red-necked, Little, Temminck's and Long-toed Stints, Ring-billed Gull, various gull hybrids, Common, Arctic, Forster's and Roseate Terns, the three "jaegers" and eight species of hummingbirds. But for me the most useful chapter is that on eleven of the Empidonax flycatchers with plenty of images and close-up shots of bill shape. Warblers are given their own general chapter and there is a separate section on the autumn plumages of Blackpoll, Bay-breasted and Pine Warblers. I was pleased that space was also given to discuss warbler hybrids - which is a growing phenomenon in North America. A similar section on sparrows looks at each of the thirteen genera in turn, and focuses in on Chipping, Clay-coloured and Brewer's Sparrows, plus the "Timberline" form of the latter.

This new book should not replace the old one but should be used alongside it, and if you don't have the original I'd get it now while you still can. Personally I would have liked a detailed section Thayer's and Kumlien's Gulls, which were given the full treatment in the original book and only get brief coverage now. There are plenty of other groups that present identification challenges, so I hope Kenn Kaufman will consider adding those in later editions.

Keith Betton

Birds of Africa: South of the Sahara
Birds of Africa: South of the Sahara
by Ian Sinclair
Edition: Paperback
Price: £19.98

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Birds of Africa south of the Sahara (2nd revised edition), 2 May 2011
When the first edition of this book appeared in 2003 it certainly made an impact! Never before had a single volume covered all of the species found in Africa south of the Sahara. Also within its pages were new splits that were unexpected and some new names that were unfamiliar, so perhaps unsurprisingly, opinions on the book tended to be polarized. In the intervening years between first and second editions I believe that fans of this book have outnumbered its critics, and while it covers too many species to compete effectively as a field guide, it certainly provides a very accessible resource for those who want to compare most of Africa's birds in one place.

In total the book covers 2129 species (an increase of 24 over the first edition). The northern cut-off is at 20ºN and while Socotra and the Gulf of Guinea islands are included, Madagascar or islands in the Indian or Atlantic Oceans are not. However seabirds found within 200 nautical miles of the continent are covered.

With a striking new cover design this edition also has over 500 new illustrations by Norman Arlott with much-improved plates for several groups including francolins, spurfowls, rails, pigeons, coucals, fishing-owls, scops owls, barbets, woodpeckers, larks, drongos, orioles, warblers and white-eyes. The addition of helpful annotations on the plates is very welcome but the removal of gender icons where only the male is shown is a backward step that could cause confusion. The text has been updated and often expanded with useful notes on identification, habitat, status and voice. Birdlife International's conservation designations for the most threatened species have also been added.

Small distribution maps are shown for each species but, as before, no attempt has been made to differentiate between the breeding and non-breeding ranges of migratory species. Similarly Palearctic species that winter in Africa are only shown at their winter range with no indication of likely occurrence on passage. The recent publication of atlas data from Ethiopia, Somalia, Uganda, Malawi and Zambia has allowed the maps to be refined and this is particularly noticeable for some passerines such as weavers and sparrows. Extra-limital records have also been added in many cases.

With Peter Ryan being an adviser to the IOC World Bird List it is no surprise that the book mainly follows the nomenclature used by that project. There are exceptions and the authors have removed three species ahead of the IOC. These are White-crowned Cliff-chat (into Mocking Cliff-chat Thamnolaea cinnamomeiventris), Reichenow's Batis (into Short-tailed Batis Batis mixta) and both São Tomé and Príncipe Kingfishers (into Malachite Kingfisher Alcedo cristata). Species now lumped in line with IOC include Heuglin's Gull (in Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus), Bale Parisoma (in Brown Parisoma Parisoma lugens), Agulhas Clapper Lark (in Cape Clapper Lark Mirafra apiata), Damara Canary (in Black-headed Canary Crithagra alario, while Western, Eastern, Gabon and Sangha Forest Robins are all now lumped into Forest Robin Stiphrornis erythrothorax. Also deleted are Bulo Burti Bush-shrike and Degodi Lark - both of which are widely accepted as misidentifications of other species.

The authors confess in their opening chapter to a certain amount of "kite-flying" with the splits that they included in the first edition, and once again they offer more splits that will raise a few eyebrows, but most are already accepted elsewhere. New species added include Southern Royal Albatross Diomedea epomophora, Arabian Shearwater Puffinus persicus, Tropical Shearwater Puffinus bailloni, Socotra Buzzard Buteo socotrae, Archer's Buzzard Buteo archeri, Caspian Gull Larus cachinnans, Socotra Scops Owl Otus socotranus, Usambara Greenbul Phyllastrephus albigula, Rubeho Akalat Sheppardia aurantiithorax, Siberian Stonechat Saxicola maurus, Hartert's Camaroptera Camaroptera harterti, Atlas Pied Flycatcher Ficedula speculigera, Western Black-headed Batis Batis erlangeri, Dark Batis Batis crypta, East Coast Boubou Laniarius sublacteus, Somali Boubou Laniarius erlangeri, Willard's Sooty Boubou Laniarius willardi, Príncipe Whitye-eye Zosterops ficedulinus, Abd al-Kuri Sparrow Passer hemileucus, Jameson's Antpecker Parmoptila jamesoni, Lufira Masked Weaver Ploceus ruweti, Katanga Masked-Weaver Ploceus katangae, Vincent's Bunting Emberiza vincenti and Striated Bunting Emberiza striolata.

This is a monumental work, and it spends more time on my desk than on the shelf. However I have no intention of taking it into the field. For me it brings together in one place a huge amount of information in a design that allows rapid access, and for that reason above all others I recommend it.

Parrots of the World: A Field Guide (Helm Field Guides)
Parrots of the World: A Field Guide (Helm Field Guides)
by Joseph M. Forshaw
Edition: Paperback
Price: £22.94

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Parrots of the World, 8 April 2011
Subtitled by the publisher as a Helm Field Guide, this is a softback version of the plates and selected text from Parrots of the World: an Identification Guide - published by Princeton University Press in 2006. That book, in common with most of Forshaw's previous works, was an attractive large format volume, and received little attention in the UK and was never reviewed in BB.

I am sure many will compare this new book with the similarly-titled Helm Identification Guide Parrots - A Guide to Parrots of the World written by Tony Juniper and Mike Parr in 2003. That volume is still available, and remains a valuable reference work. However, at half the price and half the weight, this new book will at least have a better chance of accompanying me on an overseas trip. But is it helpful to have all of the world's 356 parrot species in one field guide? I am inclined to think not, but I really like the layout of this guide and Frank Knight has included flight illustrations (from above and below) for most species and the birds are clearly shown in similar perched poses against a white background. Clear colour maps accompany a text which covers the main points on identification (with descriptions of differing subspecies), distribution and typical localities.

The choice of nomenclature often proves to be a challenge as Forshaw has always preferred to adopt names that are popular in the world of aviculture. For example, in around forty cases the choice of common name had me searching the internet as it was not in regular use by any of the leading checklists or HBW. Also the term "conure" has been used for about sixty of the smaller parakeets - and so I will adopt the same for this review. Forshaw's preference for avicultural names might not matter to those who buy his sumptuous art books but it is unhelpful in a field guide. A cross reference to the names used by others would have been very helpful.

Parrot taxonomy has been the subject of a number of revisions since 2006 and several recent well-documented splits are not included. However three pages are devoted to the many forms of what was formerly known to many as Rainbow Lorikeet Trichoglossus haematodus - which is either split into seven species or lumped by various authors. Forshaw lumps them. However there are also examples where Forshaw splits species where the checklists prefer to be conservative. He splits the frontata and minor races of Aratinga wagleri (here called Red-fronted Conure, although better known as Scarlet-fronted Parakeet) to create Codilleran Conure. Similarly the alticola race of Mitred Conure Aratinga mitrata is split as Mountain Conure. The taxonomy of Painted Conure Pyrrhura picta has always been in a state of flux, and while some authors are cautious, Forshaw splits it into four species. Also split is Rose-fronted Conure Pyrrhura roseifrons which becomes three species.

With so many excellent field guides appearing for regions of Africa and South America it is hard to imagine many travelling birders carrying a parrot field guide as well. This book is well illustrated and available at a good price, and given that the large-format original is now out of print and sells for more than £100 it offers great value for money.

Reed and Bush Warblers (Helm Identification Guides)
Reed and Bush Warblers (Helm Identification Guides)
by David Pearson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £65.00

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Reed and Bush Warblers, 13 Feb. 2011
In size and feel, this book is closest to the Helm volume on Sylvia Warblers, and similarly it is also an impressive tour de force. At the outset the authors deserve praise for tackling such a challenging group of genera which contain some of the most secretive species in the world! The families covered are Locustellidae, Acrocephalidae and Cettiidae - 112 species in 13 genera, of which 21 are on the British List.

The 42 colour plates by Brian Small are grouped together at the front of the book. These really are excellent, with usually just one or two species per page and a selection of distinctive races being shown with brief descriptions on the facing pages. The main species texts are really comprehensive, giving detailed accounts of structure and plumage and comparisons with similar species. Vocalisations are described and sonograms are shown, although - rather like the text - they are a bit on the small side! In contrast the colour distribution maps are superb - being large and clearly annotated to show the ranges of each race for both breeding and winter distribution. These ranges are also described, as are the choice of habitats. Movements, breeding habits, behaviour and moult are all treated in separate sections, as are in-hand measurements, which are also accompanied by diagrams of the wing formulae. A section on taxonomy and systematics allows for an explanation of recent changes. In my view it would have been helpful to include here the various names that readers may encounter when reading about the species elsewhere. Good colour photographs are included for all but the most obscure species, and helpfully these are positioned at the end of each species text. No detail has been spared in presenting information. The various appendices give information about the type localities and synonyms for each species, as well as body measurements based on fieldwork and museum specimens.

In creating this book the authors have taken advantage of molecular analysis based on DNA comparisons. These studies have turned some of our understandings upside down. For example, research strongly suggests that two accepted races of Aberrant Bush Warbler are in fact races of Sunda Bush Warbler. Also who would have thought that Grasshopper and Lanceolated Warblers were not closely related? It appears that that they are seated in different clades, and Grasshopper Warbler is actually more closely related to Chinese Bush Warbler - and therefore is likely to be a Bradypterus and not a Locustella!

A number of these taxonomic issues are discussed in the introductory chapters. The authors have adopted a pragmatic approach and have been flexible in deciding the scope of the book to ensure the inclusion of the most challenging genera. Among their decisions is the adoption of Iduna as a sister genus to Acrocephalus for four species usually accepted as being in the genus Hippolais (Eastern and Western, Sykes's and Booted Warblers), while Thick-billed Warbler is put in the genus Phragamaticola. Similarly Chestnut-headed Tesia is on its own in the genus Oligura. The recent splitting up of Spotted Bush-Warbler is only partly followed, with the authors recognising the creation of Baikal Bush-Warbler (Bradypterus davidi), but not West Himalayan Bush Warbler (Bradypterus kashmirensis). Similarly Anjouan Brush-Warbler (Nesillas longicaudata) is lumped into Madagascar Brush-Warbler.

When it comes to the use of English names, the choice stays fairly close to the IOC List, although occasionally the Clements name is favoured instead, and on some occasions the authors have adopted names that are used by neither - such as Kinabalu Bush-Warbler (for Bradypterus accentor) and Kiritimati Warbler (for Acrocephalus aequinoctialis). One species that followers of Clements will find missing is Victorin's Scrub-Warbler. Although treated as a Bradypterus in that list, it has been renamed as Victorin's Warbler by IOC and placed in the genus Cryptillas next to the Crombecs and Longbills in the family Macrosphenidae. Those who are interested in the choice of races will again have plenty to discuss - although space does not allow details to be listed here.

It would be a mistake to think that there is little left to learn about these Old World families. For example, how did we overlook the Large-billed Reed Warbler? Identified from a single specimen collected from India in 1865, it was 140 years before it was detected again - and yet since 2006 three have been trapped in Thailand. Similarly Timor Bush Warbler was described from two specimens collected in 1932, and then not seen again. But just a year ago it was rediscovered in good numbers, while nearby on the island of Alor this or perhaps another species has now been discovered. Recognising that the relationships between the species in this book will probably change before a second edition is printed, the authors have wisely included an appendix which summarises some of the likely revisions likely to result from recent research. For example Little Rush Warbler and Evergreen Forest Warbler are both likely to be split into several new species, while Javan Bush Warbler and Russet Bush Warbler may be lumped, as may also Styan's Grasshopper Warbler and Middendorff's Grasshopper Warbler.

An amazing amount of work has gone into this volume, and it certainly gets my personal "book of the year" award.

The Eagle Watchers: Observing and Conserving Raptors Around the World
The Eagle Watchers: Observing and Conserving Raptors Around the World
by Keith L. Bildstein
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £22.95

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Eagle Watchers, 5 Nov. 2010
If you spend even just a short time with raptor enthusiasts you quickly realise that they exhibit a passion for their subject that makes most of us look rather dull. My own raptor activities involve chasing around after radio-tagged Red Kites with a radio aerial, but I am humbled by the dedication of the contributors to this book.

Covering four continents, 29 authors tell the story behind their studies of eagles. In each case it is a tale of dedication with personal sacrifices, often involving various degrees of risk that you probably wouldn't want your mother to know about. The first chapter sets the scene with Mark Watson unexpectedly coming eyeball-to-eyeball with a female New Guinea Harpy Eagle at her nest long after the chicks have fledged. Thankfully the incident passed without injury, but it sent a chill through my spine when I realised that he was balancing precariously on a branch with minimal support some 20 metres above the ground.

Other Asian species to be covered in this book are Eastern Imperial Eagle, Philippine Eagle, Grey-headed Fishing Eagle, Javan Hawk-Eagle, Wedge-tailed Eagle, Steller's Sea Eagle and White-bellied Sea Eagle.

From Africa there are chapters by authors working on Verreaux's Eagle, Martial Eagle, Madagascar Serpent Eagle, African Crowned Eagle, Wahlberg's Eagle, Madagascar Fish Eagle, African Fish Eagle and Bateleur. From the Americas there are tales of dedication involving studies of Solitary Eagle, Bald Eagle, Golden Eagle, Harpy Eagle and Black-and-chestnut Eagle.

Closer to home Justin Grant and John Love write about the reintroduction of White-tailed Sea Eagles in Scotland, while Björn Helander describes his work on the species in Sweden. Working in Spain, Miguel Ferrer outlines his studies of the Spanish Imperial Eagle, while Bernd Meyburg's work with Lesser Spotted Eagles in Czechoslovakia and Germany shows how satellite tracking can reveal so much new information. The book is dedicated to two of the greatest eagle watchers of all time - Leslie Brown and Jeff Watson. Both of them were trailblazers in the world of raptor conservation, and thankfully Jeff was able to contribute a chapter on his Golden Eagle studies in Scotland before his untimely death.

You don't need to be a dedicated raptorphile to enjoy this book. Each story is short enough to be read in about ten minutes and each author brings a different insight to watching eagles while maintaining an editorial approach that makes the book both engaging and factual.

Keith Betton

A Complete Guide to Birds of Malta
A Complete Guide to Birds of Malta
by Natalino Fenech
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £50.90

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Birds of Malta, 5 Nov. 2010
I first visited Malta some 30 years ago, and while I saw relatively few birds I saw many hunters. In fact I chased after some of them with the legendary Joe Sultana. He and his colleagues in the Malta Ornithological Society so impressed me that I immediately joined as a Life Member.

Here, lying in the centre of the Mediterranean, the island is a crucial stop-off for migrants, and yet here too live some of the most obsessive shooters that I have ever encountered. This book is a hefty tome and it is not a field guide, although a section of almost 200 pages gives a detailed account of every species that has occurred on the island - including several previously unpublished records. A large section of the book also looks at the way birds use Malta as a migration stop-over, and what has been learned through ringing recoveries. It also demonstrates how birds have played a role in Malta's history - in folklore, art, stamps, coins and antique embroidery.

Given this history of the Maltese with bird culture it is hard to understand why so many hunters (recently calculated as 47 per square kilometre!) continue with bird trapping and shooting. The sad fact is that hunting is also part of that culture and so strong that it is never likely to cease. While the author is well-known for his efforts to condemn hunting he explains the social aspects of the sport and tries to understand why so many Maltese people hunt and trap birds - and what it mean to them.

Some 30 years on from my first visit there are signs now that the breeding birds of Malta are on the increase. New breeding species include Little Egret, Cattle Egret, Black-winged Stilt, European Bee-eater, Long-eared Owl and Great Reed Warbler, while Peregrine, Kestrel and Quail have all resumed breeding once again.

The book is full of photographs, which are of varying quality. I noticed that the image of Red-breasted Merganser is a Goosander and that of Little Gulls actually shows Black-headed Gulls. But for me the book's strength lies in its account of how birds are considered by the Maltese both in the past and today.

Keith Betton

Finding Birds in Southern Cyprus
Finding Birds in Southern Cyprus
by Dave Gosney
Edition: Paperback

5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Finding Birds in Southern Cyprus, 5 Nov. 2010

The whole of Cyprus offers excellent birding opportunities at almost anytime of the year apart from mid-summer. This DVD features the southern half of the country. In winter it hosts interesting migrant waders such as Greater Sand-plover Charadrius leschenaultii, during migration periods it is a valuable stop-over for species crossing the Mediterranean, and in summer it is home to two endemics - the Cyprus Pied Wheatear Oenanthe cypriaca and Cyprus Warbler Sylvia melanothorax.

A total of 70 species are shown in this DVD which was filmed in March. Dave Gosney visits over twenty sites and personally presents his views on each in front of the camera in a friendly and informative style. Starting with the Paphos headland in the south-west, the journey continues through sites including Phinikas, Aspro pools, Mandria fields and Paphos Sewage Farm, Cape Drepanum and the Avagas Gorge. Apart from daytime activities there is a night visit to look for European Scops Owl Otus scops at Mavrokolympos Dam.

In the north-west there are visits to Polis and the Akamas peninsula, Evretou and Theletra including details of a site for Long-legged Buzzard Buteo rufinus. The Troodos Mountains are featured with footage of the endemic races of Coal Tit Periparus ater cypriotes, Eurasian Jay Garrulus glandarius glaszneri, Short-toed Treecreeper Certhia brachydactyla dorotheae and Common Crossbill Loxia curvirostra guillemardi. Just south of here on the coast we are taken to Kensington Cliffs and all the popular sites around Akrotiri. Dave's journey continues well to the east and around Larnaca we are shown sites suchy as Akhna Dam, Paralimni Lake, Sotira Pools, Ayia Napa, Cape Greco, Oroklini Marsh and Larnaca Sewage Pools.

The footage is of good quality (with stereo sound) and while the expected species are shown there are a few surprises with isabellinus race of Isabelline Shrike Lanius isabellinus (Daurian Shrike) and Cream-coloured Courser Cursorius cursor - both very rare in Cyprus. The commentary on this DVD is very helpful, and while it must have been tempting to show just a dozen sites the coverage is really thorough. The accompanying booklet gives excellent sketch maps which are all referenced back to the DVD, and GPS references are given to help with finding the exact locations.

Keith Betton

Birds of the Middle East (Helm Field Guides)
Birds of the Middle East (Helm Field Guides)
by Richard Porter
Edition: Paperback
Price: £29.99

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Birds of the Middle East, 5 Nov. 2010
Appearing as Field Guide to the Birds of the Middle East in 1996, in hardback form this first edition became the standard work for anyone planning a trip to the region. Indeed my own copy has made well over a dozen visits and served me well. In this new edition Richard Porter partners with former UAE resident Simon Aspinall to create a better version of the same product. While the original book was very good, a revision was certainly due as we now have a much better understanding of distribution in countries such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia. A number of additional species have occurred in the region over the last 14 years, and taxonomic changes have resulted in a number of splits that deserve full treatment in any modern field guide.

While most plates from the first edition remain, many have been updated and others have been replaced. Three of the original artists have been retained (John Gale, Mike Langman and Brian Small) and major changes include a complete revision of the plates depicting gulls, terns and larks. In particular I like the gull section which really is a huge step forward for those of us who rarely see the likes of Heuglin's, Steppe and Baltic Gulls - all of which are treated in detail. Many other plates have been substantially improved to show additional races and new species that have been split.

Also new are colour maps that show breeding and winter ranges, together with occurrence on passage. The first edition put all of the illustrations and maps in the first half of the book with most of the text at the back. Now the layout brings plates, text and maps together on a double page spread - a huge improvement. Information on rarities has been updated and is right up to date.

The result is a major step forward and at a much lighter weight - a useful consideration in a hot climate. The only criticism I'd make is that the first edition had a really useful double-page map of the region covered, while now this is crammed onto a page with an unhelpful dark tint which accidentally excludes Cyprus (which is covered in the book). So while this book will feel familiar to those who own the first edition, it is in fact a complete revision and certainly well worth buying.

Keith Betton

The Golden Eagle (Poyser Monographs)
The Golden Eagle (Poyser Monographs)
by Jeff Watson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £50.00

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Golden Eagle, 5 Nov. 2010
This comprehensive monograph first appeared in 1997 and gathered together everything that the world knew about the Golden Eagle - both here in the UK and around the world. Jeff Watson, who died while working on this revision, was one of the foremost eagle experts. His work has been completed by his colleagues Des Thompson and Helen Riley. The book has grown from the original 374 pages - but the page size is also smaller in line with other recent Poyser monographs.

This book covers all aspects of the Golden Eagle's life - with 22 chapters on everything from food, nest sites, ranging behaviour, population estimates and trends, moult, movements, threats and conservation. In particular there is a huge wealth of information on the species' breeding cycle. A set of seven appendices give extra information, including a new section on diet.

Much new research has been undertaken on Golden Eagles since the first edition appeared. For example the use of DNA analysis has greatly helped researchers to understand more about the complicated issue of adult mortality. Similarly satellite telemetry has revealed interesting facts about movements along the Appalachian ridges of eastern North America from Labrador to Tennessee. Meanwhile in Scotland Jeff Watson was himself behind the development of a new population-scale approach towards the conservation of eagles - so an update on the species is well timed.

While the first edition did not include photographs there has been a real attempt to improve on this aspect with a range of shots depicting Golden Eagles in flight and at the nest, together with examples of the habitats in which they live around the world. There are many line drawings throughout the book - mainly by Keith Brockie, but also Donald Watson (Jeff's father).

Poyser are known as a publisher of thorough monographs and this book keeps that standard high. Despite its professional and authoritative approach to the subject the text is highly readable and easy to navigate. This will remain the standard work on Golden Eagles for many years to come.

Keith Betton

In Search of Harriers: Over the Hills and Far Away (Wildlife Art Series)
In Search of Harriers: Over the Hills and Far Away (Wildlife Art Series)
by Donald Watson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £38.00

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars In Search of Harriers, 5 Nov. 2010
If I had to pick my five favourite bird artists, Donald Watson would definitely make the final cut - following Archibald Thorburn, whose work influenced Watson in his early days as an art student. Both of these men loved raptors, and Watson's particular fascination with harriers has resulted in this splendid book. Watson had in fact completed writing the text before his death in 2005 and his friend and publisher, Ian Langford, has now ensured that the book has made it into print.

Watson illustrated over 30 books, and his characteristic scraperboard images of birds are really memorable. This drawing technique requires the artist to use sharp knives and tools to etch the image into a thin layer of white China clay that is coated with black ink, and for me Watson used this technique to great effect. A few examples are in this book, which mainly features his watercolours that again are so distinctive. While his individual bird paintings can be very pleasing, personally I prefer his landscapes in which the birds are not the main feature. They are really evocative, and for me nobody's art can better the way he conveys the dull light of a cold Scottish moorland where you can spend hours seeing nothing, and then suddenly a Hen Harrier or a Merlin appears before you, and the long wait is worth this reward. If that's the kind of birding you enjoy, then I think you'll like this book.

Watson's interest in harriers dates back to the mid-1940s when in India he was lucky to watch Pied and Pallid Harriers at close quarters. Back in Scotland he then began studying raptors in detail right up to his death. This book takes some excellent examples of his work, and paintings appear on almost every page. Hen, Montagu's and Pied Harriers share the space with others including Short-eared Owl, Merlin, Peregrine, Kestrel, Golden Eagle and Whooper Swan, with a few smaller sketches of passerines thrown in.

Of course each painting has a story behind it and often we are told this together with other information based on the author's extensive knowledge based on fifty years of study. Watson's fascination for the Hen Harrier led to his monograph of the species published in 1977 by Poyser. While that book was mainly fact with a few images, this book is lavishly illustrated on quality art paper. This would make a great present for a raptor enthusiast, while those who love wildlife art will enjoy the images, most of which have not been published before.

Keith Betton

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