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Keith Betton "Keith Betton" (UK)

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Penguins: Their world, their ways
Penguins: Their world, their ways
by Tui De Roy
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £35.00

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Penguins, 20 Feb. 2014
One of my favourite books of 2008 was Albatross - their world, their ways in which Tui De Roy and Mark Jones teamed up with Julian Fitter to describe how that fascinating bird family is superbly adapted for a pelagic lifestyle. Now they have given the same treatment to the penguin family and have brought in Julie Cornthwaite to make up the threesome. Like their previous book, this one has been designed and packaged locally in New Zealand but marketed worldwide by Bloomsbury.

Without wishing to detract from this book at all, almost anything to do with penguins is going to be a best-seller. While I think I already have about a dozen books on this, the largest family of flightless birds, none has really taken a proper look at all of the 18 penguin species in this level of detail. It is packed full of excellent photographs, but importantly it contains a wealth of information that makes it much more than a coffee-table book, and apart from discussing every aspect of penguin life, it includes a comprehensive species by species account with descriptions, breeding information and maps.
The book is split into three main sections. The first, by Tui De Roy, outlines the different penguin genera, discussing grouping and their characteristic features. She also looks at a typical penguin year - although these differ considerably with the Galapagos Penguin living close to the Equator and never seeing snow, to the Emperor Penguin nesting on ice sheets some 50km inland away from the sea. Mark Jones is then the lead author in a section which addresses the various aspects on penguin science and conservation. He is assisted in this by a team of 16 authors who each tackle a different aspect of penguin science - from predation and people, to egg size and evolution. Finally Julie Cornthwaite methodically works through each of the species in turn, describing and discussing every aspect of their lives. There is also a guide on where you can see penguins in the wild.

This book is factual, colourful and enjoyable. Only four species of penguins are not threatened in some way. The search for information to help reverse some of those worrying trends is under ,way in four continents, but this book makes it clear that we still know relatively little about some aspects of their lives.


The Crossley ID Guide: Britain and Ireland (The Crossley ID Guides)
The Crossley ID Guide: Britain and Ireland (The Crossley ID Guides)
by Richard Crossley
Edition: Flexibound
Price: £14.86

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Crossley ID Guide, 20 Feb. 2014
The arrival in 2011 of Richard Crossley’s ID Guide to Eastern North American birds certainly opened the eyes of many UK birders to the way that photo montages could be used to great effect, and similarly his recent book on Raptors had us wanting even more. But were we ready for him to give “our” local birds the same digital treatment? A few people were in for a shock!

Let’s look at the book itself. An active UK birder is likely to encounter at least 200 species in a year, and some will get above 250, so the 330 featured in this book cover exactly what most people need. In this book we have all of the breeding and wintering species, plus all of the regular migrants and a few semi-rarities.

Just like the East North America book the layout mostly allows each of the commoner species a page of their own, while those that are rarer either get a third or a quarter page. Each full page species is described in around 150 words giving ID tips and general guidance on how to see it, plus there is a colour distribution map and seasonal abundance data. The rarer species are covered in about 80-100 words without a map or data.

The decisions as to which species go into each category are mostly sensible, but several less common breeding species have been downgraded to have no map - which is really unhelpful. These include Hawfinch, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Woodlark and Goshawk - all of which are widespread even if uncommon. Other breeders that really ought to have a map are Honey Buzzard, Quail, Corn Crake, Eurasian Bittern, Stone Curlew, Storm and Leach’s Petrels, Red-necked Phalarope and Dotterel. Among the wintering species that also lack a map are Jack Snipe and Yellow-legged Gull. Abundance data is not given for any of these - and there seems to be no good reason for this.

Much use is made in the text of 5-letter and 2-letter codes (for example COMTE or CT for Common Tern). These were developed by the British Trust for Ornithology for shorthand use in surveys and ringing, but in this book I find them really annoying - especially when used to caption a page of flight shots. In fact the result was to slow down the speed with which I identified the birds - which is surely not what the authors aimed to achieve!

The Crossley Guide approach involves birds standing and flying against a habitat background, perhaps with groups of birds together both near and far. These are very realistic for families such as waterfowl, waders, gulls and thrushes, but less convincing for other non-flocking groups such as warblers. Some pages do look rather cluttered, but I think the secret is to focus in on each individual image rather than be overwhelmed by the page in its entirety.

I think that this book is going to surprise those birders that have not seen Crossley’s other works, but having tested out a few pages on friends the response has been very positive. Personally I like the way that many images have been used against a clear background, although I am less pleased by those that are positioned against “busy” habitat backgrounds where it is less easy to pick out plumage features. Clearly I am not alone in expressing that view, but many people are relaxed about it and feel that the montages really reflect the way that birds show themselves in the real world. Let’s face it, birds often present themselves in a rather unhelpful way - skulking around in hedge bottoms and generally trying not to be seen - so having a book that recognises that challenge is actually helpful.

This book is aimed at intermediate birders and I think it will be well received by most people. Those who like their bird books to present species all facing left as if in a Police identity parade will probably struggle with this new concept - but surely it is the way forward.


Finding Birds in South Portugal
Finding Birds in South Portugal
Dvd ~ Dave Gosney

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Gosney in Portugal, 20 Feb. 2014
This latest offering from Dave Gosney explores three areas that have been overshadowed by neighbouring parts of Spain, but have a great deal to offer in their own right - the Algarve, the plains of Castro Verde and the wetlands around Lisbon.

Dave introduces each of the sites with his own personal comments and then explains how a typical visit might develop. The video footage of birds is excellent with over 70 species being featured. The booklet (which can be bought separately) provides really good maps with GPS co-ordinates that can be used to ensure that there is no risk of confusion about where to start.

The sites start with the Tejo estuary which is right next to Lisbon and offers excellent winter birding. The city is also home to a number of exotic escapes, so if you really want to see those a trip to Barroca d’Alva is recommended. For impressive numbers of Glossy Ibis Plegadis falcinellus and raptors Dave visits the Sado estuary and not far away there are the Santo Andre Lagoons.

Heading south to the Algarve, raptor passage is best watched from the Sagres peninsula where seabird movements can also be observed. Advice is given on how to succeed with both. Other nearby sites include the Alvor estuary and Lagoa de Salgado - two of the best wetlands in Portugal. There is also Vilamoura which offers your best chance of getting close to Purple Swamphen Porphyrio porphyrio and Little Bittern Ixobrychus minutus. In addition both sides of the Ria Formosa are featured.

Moving inland we are shown Castro Marim and the Castro Verde plains where Great Bustard Otus tarda, Little Bustard Tetrax tetrax, Black-bellied Sandgrouse Pterocles orientalis, Black-shouldered Kite Elanus caeruleus, Montagu’s Harrier Circus pygargus and Spanish Imperial Eagle Aquila adalberti can be found. A back-up site at Elvas is also shown where some of these can be seen.

The great strength in Dave Gosney’s approach is that he gives a personal feel to the DVD based on what he himself has seen. His commentary includes great advice on how to get the most from each site and also how to be sure you have correctly identified some of the more challenging species such as Crested Lark Galerida cristata and Thekla Lark Galerida theklae.


Handbook of the birds of the world. Special volume (17). New species and global index.
Handbook of the birds of the world. Special volume (17). New species and global index.

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars HBW Vol 17, 20 Feb. 2014
For those who have collected the previous 16 volumes of HBW, this extra one presents an interesting dilemma. All of the others have included details of up to 700 species and this one features only 69. So, the dilemma is about whether or not to buy it. Also about 300 pages of this book are given over to a massive multi-lingual cumulative index to the entire collection. Certainly the book feels very different from others in the set, but in my view, if you have all of the others you really ought to have this Special Volume too. Although the cost per species is high, there is just about enough other material in here to justify the purchase.

The editors had several reasons to create this extra tome. For example, since the arrival of the first HBW volume in 1992 the number of new species being described has grown steadily. Most of these new forms are actually not unknown but are races that have been upgraded to form a species in their own right. Here the editors have taken the decision not to feature these new species because they have appeared as races in the previous volumes. I would guess that there might be around 300 such splits, and I would also guess that many people who have bought past volumes would have liked these to receive the proper HBW treatment. Not to include them seems to be something of a missed opportunity to me. Some of these will have significant plumage characteristics that birders will want to know about. At least to have them acknowledged in some way would seem sensible. However the editors assure us that the issues of lumps and splits will be covered in detail in the forthcoming HBW and BirdLife International Illustrated Checklist of the Birds of the World - also to be published by Lynx fairly soon.

So the 69 that are included are all species described as new to science since the publication of their respective HBW volumes. All of these have been illustrated by Hilary Burn, and they are treated like all others in HBW with a description, plus details of taxonomy, distribution, habitat, food, breeding, movements, status and conservation. Of course most new discoveries are doubted by at least someone, though given the ongoing debate about the reliability of Hocking’s Parakeet Aratinga hockingi as a true species I was surprised to see that included.

There is an authoritative overview by Jon Fjeldså on how avian systematics has developed over the last two decades. He also provides extensive background and covers numerous taxonomic challenges before running through the individual cases of the various bird groups, explaining recent findings and current opinions concerning their origins and relationships. There is also an informative chapter on the history of BirdLife International on its 20th anniversary, and looking back to the creation of ICBP some 90 years ago.

An unusual aspect of this Special Volume is that it includes the peer-reviewed scientific descriptions of a further 15 new species. Eleven of these are endemic to Brazil, while the others are to be found there and also in Peru and Bolivia. This is the largest ornithological development from the area since 1871 when 40 species were described by August von Pelzeln. With the exception of one species these are all passerines, and all are illustrated by Hilary Burn.

HBW has always taken great care to use good quality photographs, and in this volume the bar is raised even higher with the inclusion of a collection of 200 stunning photos selected from the images presented in the HBW World Bird Photo Contest 2012.

Finally, there are five separate indexes covering all of 16 HBW volumes for the scientific, English, French, German and Spanish names of every species. These also include a small number of corrections where photographs were misidentified in the earlier volumes. Although I thought I would use the index very rarely I have already found it to be an invaluable reference.

So HBW has finally come to an end. But of course this also signals a new beginning with the arrival of the online version, called HBW Alive. Having signed up to this I have found it to be a useful resource. The result of that is that my HBW volumes now rarely leave their position in my bookcase!


The Mandarin Duck (Poyser Monographs)
The Mandarin Duck (Poyser Monographs)
by Christopher Lever
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £50.00

4.0 out of 5 stars The Mandarin Duck, 20 Feb. 2014
There are 179 species in the Anatidae – the world’s ducks, geese and swans, and I think there are few that match the Mandarin Duck in terms of being gaudy and, to some degree, unmistakable. Perhaps only the relatively similar Wood Duck comes close in the fashion stakes. Needless to say we are talking about the males here!
The females of both species are dull and greyish-brown.

Some of the things that you’ll often hear said about the Mandarin are untrue. For a start, there are not yet more of them here in the UK than in Asia, and secondly the species was not introduced into the UK. In fact it was effectively reintroduced, as fossil remains show that it was here many hundreds of years ago.

Relatively little has been written about the species since its return to the UK as an escape from captivity in Surrey in the early 1930s. A book by Christopher Savage appeared in the 1950s, and more recently he co-authored another book on this and the remarkably similar Wood Duck in 1996. In parallel Sir Christopher Lever has written a number of books on the naturalised animals and birds of the world, and the Mandarin adorned the cover of his authoritative Naturalised Birds of the World (Poyser, 2005). This new Poyser monograph brings our knowledge of the species up to date.

The author’s research has been exhaustive and initially he focuses on the species’ native range in Asia, particularly in China, Japan and Russia, but also India, Taiwan and Myanmar. Much of the book focuses in great detail on the UK population by county. Birds have also been introduced successfully into the United States where there are small pockets in places such as California, while in Australia, New Zealand and Tahiti the species has not managed to get a toe-hold. Each of these populations is described in great detail.

Another chapter looks at conservation issues in the Far East where the future of the Mandarin is far from secure. Deforestation, pollution and shooting have all combined to reduce its numbers, and although measures to protect the species have been introduced in Japan and Russia, the importance our UK population may be of significance in the years ahead.

Other chapters explore the Mandarin’s annual life cycle and its feeding preferences. There is also a summary of some interesting associations between the species and Oriental legend and a brief account of the closely related Wood Duck of North America. Appendices covering topics such as classification, status, nestboxes, and trapping and ringing are also included.

The book is well-illustrated by 16 pages of photographs and attractive drawings by Katrina van Grouw, but in common with all Poyser monographs it is a heavyweight and authoritative production and therefore not a light read.


Kenya: A Natural History
Kenya: A Natural History
by Steve Spawls
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £50.00

4.0 out of 5 stars Kenya - a natural history, 20 Feb. 2014
Sub-Saharan Africa is second only to South America for its bird diversity with around 2,100 species on offer - and just over 1,100 of these are known from Kenya. Apart from vagrants, all but about 160 of these are resident, and to give you an idea of the birding potential, during a competitive race one team saw 342 species at Lake Baringo alone!

The first really big birding trip I did abroad was to Kenya. I was 23 and despite going to many other parts of Africa since, that trip remains as clear in my mind as if it had happened last month. It was in fact 30 years ago and since then I have returned once - about ten years ago. The excitement for me was still as fresh then as it was all those years ago and there is no surprise really that birdwatchers treat Kenya as a kind of Mecca.

This book is about general natural history, and it gathers together in once place a massive amount of information. Early chapters describe the geology and geography of the country. They explain how nomadic people moved to Kenya from different parts of Africa and how they established roots around 5,000 years ago. The landscape is described as are the climate and weather that have helped to shape it. Vegetation and habitats are assessed as well and you begin to realise that the authors of this book really know their country. Each of the animal groups is described in thirteen separate chapters - mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish and arthropods - although I was disappointed not to see more on butterflies.

Much of the book is written in the style of a lecturer teaching a group of students, and given that Stephen Spawls is a respected university academic that is perhaps not a surprise. But given the audience for this review, how well does this book serve birders?

Only about a tenth of the book deals with birds, but this still equates to around 20,000 words. I was hoping that the chapter on birds would analyse them in at least some detail. Instead it primarily provides an overview of birds and birding - much of which would apply to any country in the world. We are told how birds evolved, how they live, fly, feed and migrate – and I was frustrated to see this valuable space being used in this way. However each of the main habitat types is described and in plain English we are told why each is important in its own way, with an indication of the birds that can be found. There is also a very useful summary of the published material about Kenya’s birds, and I was particularly interested in the work undertaken by bird collectors in the nineteenth century. Bird taxonomists such as Hartlaub, Cabanis, Reichenow, Heuglin, Pel, Vieillot and Swainson were sent specimens and described them at their desks in Europe. Their names live on in the country’s birds in so many ways.

The book is illustrated by many colour photographs, many of which were taken by Stephen Spawls. These are mostly very good - but this is not designed to be a lavish coffee-table production; it is essentially a well-illustrated text book.

To answer my earlier question I think that birders will find this to be a useful book, particularly to understand Kenya’s key position in the overall biodiversity of Africa - something that has never been documented before in one place to this degree. If you are visiting Kenya it would well worth reading before your trip, and probably then again once you have returned to put it all into perspective.


The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors (The Crossley ID Guides)
The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors (The Crossley ID Guides)
by Richard Crossley
Edition: Flexibound
Price: £22.95

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Raptors the way they really look, 4 Dec. 2013
Richard Crossley has done more to ignite debate about how to display field guide photographs than anyone else in two decades. His ground-breaking The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds (2011) created much debate with up to 16 photographs digitally superimposed onto a common background landscape. These busy scenes had several individuals of each species in all types of plumages posed in every kind of position. The book's production values were high but it divided birders into two camps. Those who liked to see birds lined up as if they were on a Police identity parade probably found that book to be somewhat surreal. However many others - and I would suggest that these were in the majority - were pleased that the images presented birds in a way that truly reflected the way they are seen in the wild.

There certainly is still a place for books that line up birds facing the same way, but as we all know, raptors are the least generous of birds when it comes to offering you such easy comparisons. In his preface Crossley gives several pointers that this book is more for reference than use for in the field. In fact it is not a field guide but a master class in raptor identification, and in many ways the best part consists of 32 plates that are designed as tests to see what you have learned. Here there are busy compilations of unlabelled raptors flying over in different directions and angles. The answers are given at the back of the book which encourages you to try harder to work out the identities, but is a bit annoying when you really want the answers easily.

In each plate the birds are shown near and far, often perched but mostly in flight and always at every angle possible - front, back, side, above and below, and often in silhouette. A total of 34 raptor species are considered. There is always an impressive background photograph of a stunning habitat - even including a cityscape. Many of these, such that for the American Kestrel Falco sparverius are really great because of the clear sky and uncluttered background. Those with busier backgrounds of mountains and canyons are a bit more challenging on the eye - but the truth is that many raptors do not make life easy!

While Richard Crossley provided most of the photographs, the species texts have been predominantly written by Jerry Liguori and Brian Sullivan. The Introduction describes the concepts of migration, moult and topography, and then outlines the various raptor groups. Each account covers from two to four pages with detailed sections on Flight Style, Size and Shape, Plumage, Geographic Variation, Moult, Similar Species, Status and Distribution, Migration, and Vocalization. A decent-sized colour map shows the breeding and wintering zones for each species, although there is no colour to indicate main passage routes.

I was impressed by the amount of space devoted to the commonest species - the Red-tailed Hawk Buteo jamaicensis, which has several geographic morphs. No less than ten pages are used to show how the species may appear across the range, with particularly excellent photographic studies of the harlani and kriderii races found in the north-west and north-central regions respectively.

In the 1950s it was Roger Tory Peterson who changed the way field guide plates were presented with arrows pointing at each bird's main features. That general style of education has served us well for more half a century. Although this photographic montage style departs hugely from the path that Peterson guided us along, I suspect he would have approved of its ability to improve our identification skills.


A Photographic Guide to the Birds of the Cayman Islands
A Photographic Guide to the Birds of the Cayman Islands
by Patricia Bradley
Edition: Paperback
Price: £30.00

4.0 out of 5 stars Much better than the 1985 book, 25 Sept. 2013
About 250 species have been recorded from the Cayman Islands (which are located just south of Cuba), although only 50 of these breed - all but three of them being resident. A short trip to the three islands (Grand Cayman, Little Cayman and Cayman Brac) over a four day period will possibly only result in you seeing around 70 species, but there are several interesting targets. The islands' only endemic species is the resident Vitelline Warbler, which is close in taxonomy and looks to the Prairie Warbler which is present as a migrant present from August to May. Other targets for many are the Cuban Bullfinch and Cuban Parrot, which are potential future splits from the birds found on Cuba.

The authors produced a previous photographic guide to the birds of the islands in 1985 (Birds of the Cayman Islands, privately published) but this new work provides photographs and details of 193 species. These are mostly residents and regular visitors although a few rare migrants are included. A further 47 species are mentioned briefly as they are rare vagrants for which there are few records. A concise text of around 150 words is given for each species and covers identification, voice, habitats, confusion species, status and distribution. No maps are included - even for resident species. In most cases two good quality photographs are given for each species, but there are often more - primarily by Yves-Jacques Rey-Millet. There is a very useful section on places to visit, giving brief details together with maps of each island and an explanation of habitats. This is a useful guide and is a huge improvement on the previous book.


The Snowy Owl (Poyser Monographs)
The Snowy Owl (Poyser Monographs)
by Eugene Potapov
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £50.00

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The first serious book on the Snjowy Owl, 25 Sept. 2013
The Snowy Owl needs little introduction, even to non-birding audiences. This is partly down to Hedwig, Harry Potter's pet Snowy Owl, but also because it is such a stunning bird. So it came as quite a surprise that this is the first serious book to be published about the species.

This the latest in the long-running series of Poyser monographs, and in some ways it is quite different to its predecessors. Many of the earlier Poyser books were written by people who had devoted their lives to their chosen species (Bryan Nelson on the Gannet, Derek Ratcliffe on the Peregrine, Donald Watson on the Hen Harrier ) while this book is written by two raptor enthusiasts with a huge knowledge of the wildlife beyond the Arctic Circle. In this book they have undertaken a massive literature review (much it in Russian) to put in one place everything that anyone knows about Snowy Owls.

With a distribution from Canada and Greenland across to Scandinavia and Russia the Snowy Owl is widespread, but interestingly it is clear that much less is known about the birds present on the west side of the Atlantic compared to the east side. The authors start by explaining the basic facts about the species and then move on to describe the breeding range in detail, followed by palaeontology, systematics and evolution. The difference between winter and summer habitats is explained and many pages are devoted to information about breeding and the timing of hatching. There are also sections on diet, numbers and population density. The birds can wander quite widely in winter so there is a specific chapter on winter range and records. The birds interact with humans in those winter months much more than at the time of breeding the book records how these can be friends or foes.

The text is somewhat heavy at times but is supported by attractive drawings by Jackie Garner and a wide range of photographs. Most of these are good but a number by the authors fall below the levels that I would accept - for example those on pages 84 and 103 (both supplied by the authors). However if you need to know all that has been published about the Snowy Owl it is all here and well organised.


Birds of South Asia: The Ripley Guide
Birds of South Asia: The Ripley Guide
by Pamela C. Rasmussen
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars This review is about the second (softback) edition, 25 Sept. 2013
When the first edition of this book appeared in 2005 it created a lot of interest and an equal amount of debate. The authors' decision to create and adopt many splits - sometimes ahead of peer-reviewed publication - angered some while delighting world listers! In the years that have followed, most of those splits are widely accepted, and I feel that the book has grown in popularity. It has always faced a tough battle against the much praised Birds of the Indian Subcontinent by Grimmett, Inskipp & Inskipp (newly updated in 2011). As with so many field guides, my instinct is to buy them all, but the big question is whether you now need to buy the updated version of this new book?

The change from hardback to softback has reduced the weight by about 15%, which is actually not very much. Once again Volume 1 has 180 colour plates and over 1,450 distribution maps, plus a brief text., while Volume 2 describes each species in detail.

Changes incorporated in this new edition are initially quite hard to detect. There are in fact six species new to the region: the newly-described Bugun Liocichla, the yet-to-be-described "Great Nicobar Crake" and four vagrants (Band-rumped Storm-petrel, Long-tailed Skua, Blue-and-white Flycatcher and Chestnut-cheeked Starling). There are also 82 taxonomic changes in this edition but many of these are likely to be of little significance to the visiting birder. There are also over 250 changes to the English and scientific names used in the second edition, although many of these are not in common use yet.

From the start one of the key features of the book has been the inclusion of sonograms in Volume 2, and in the second edition new recordings have been added for species for which weak or no representation of their vocalisations was previously available. However a big plus is the addition of brief descriptions of vocalisations in Volume 1 (basically a field guide) and there are also larger plumage descriptions for many species. I well remember trying to use the first edition to understand the plumage of Pygmy Wren-babbler. The description of "Tiny and scaly; has pale spots on wing-coverts and tertials, but not about head" left me feeling a bit let down! This is now much improved.

So should you buy it or not? If you don't already have the first edition they what are you waiting for? No other book contains anything like as much information about the birds of South Asia, so it is an essential work. If you bought the first edition then unless you visit the region a lot I doubt that you'd see this as a worthwhile investment.


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