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Not the first choice for a UK field guide, but an interesting approach.
on 11 October 2013
I am a big fan of photographic guides - especially Kenn Kaufman's North American series and WILDGuides pioneering UK-centred field guides. I have also enjoyed Crossley's excellent eastern North America guide and love the new Warbler Guide. I've almost worn the cover off my copy of Howell's Hummingbirds of North America. So I was naturally excited when Princeton University Press kindly sent me a review copy of this photo guide to the birds of the UK.
The book is aimed at beginners and intermediate birders. It covers Britain's commonest 300 birds, so beginners will not be confused and daunted by a host of extralimital European species and vagrants. Species are arranged in an order that groups broadly similar-looking birds together to facilitate comparison. Computer-manipulated photographs are the mainstay of the book - those familiar with Crossley's previous work will know what to expect: multiple individual bird images are shown in their typical habitat.
The supporting text is very good: written by an acknowledged expert, it is short and pithy (although to my mind text and plates could be better integrated and more mutually supportive). Population figures are a welcome feature and can help separate commoner species from rarer lookalikes (e.g. Marsh Tit is now ten times more common than Willow Tit in the UK). The accompanying maps are the perfect size and easy to interpret.
At 16 x 24 cm, this is not a field guide - although the authors make no claim that it is: Crossley states that his guides are "a halfway-house between traditional field guides and being in the field". Photographic quality varies from excellent to (occasionally) inadequate, and some images are tiny or blurred. Some common species, like Garden Warbler, do not have a really representative photo and good comparative images (showing similar species under comparable light conditions and in the same pose) are generally lacking. Photo editing is less than state-of-the-art and has left some of the birds at odd angles, in an unnatural perspective, with disconcerting shadow effects, or truncated legs. I wonder how beginners will tackle Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff using these plates?
I find gauging size to be one of the major drawbacks of the book, even though the authors deliberately set out to convey size. The comparative plates in the introduction are confusing, even though they were "carefully measured": oddly the Mistle Thrush looks about the same size as the Nightingale, Coal Tit looks similar to Nuthatch, Woodpigeon appears a bit slighter than Rock Dove, House Martin and Swift have comparable wingspans, and Little Owl is as large as Barn Owl.
A book like this is the product of decades of field experience and years of hard work, and the end result is never perfect, but I think that this book could have been improved by sourcing better photographs, improving the editing and manipulation of images, and by better combining the text with the plates. The Britain & Ireland book is not as well finished as the previous Crossley guides. Perhaps I have been spoilt by the likes of Kenn Kaufman, WILDGuides, Steve Howell, Stephenson & Whittle, and Crossley himself. Nevertheless, with hundreds of bird photographs collected in one place, this is a great book for armchair birding that will undoubtedly help birders hone their skills away from the field.
This "halfway-house" does leave the market wide open for a proper, well-executed photographic field guide to the UK's birds for birders of all levels...
Chris Sharpe, 11 October 2013. ISBN-13: 9780691151946