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Keith Betton "Keith Betton" (UK)

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Birds of the Masai Mara (WILDGuides)
Birds of the Masai Mara (WILDGuides)
by Adam Scott Kennedy
Edition: Paperback
Price: £15.56

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good book for ecotourists, 1 Sept. 2013
Although Kenya has many amazing locations for birders to explore I still think that the ultimate highlight of any trip there a visit to the rolling grasslands of the Masai Mara. It is certainly one of the finest wildlife reserves in Africa not only for birds but also herds of grazing and their attendant carnivores. Combining the riverine woodlands and grassy slopes of the Oloololo escarpment a three day visit can easily reap you a haul of around 200 species. In fact 550 species have been recorded from the reserve.

This book is packed with good quality photographs, primarily taken by the author, and it provides background information on 202 species. It is clearly aimed at a general market and not at hard-core birders. Identification features are kept to a minimum with the emphasis being on where and when the bird might occur. These texts are organized by six main habitat types, together with a separate section for those species that mainly fly over plus another on night birds.

The choice of species is clearly slanted towards those that are most easily encountered by those on a typical wildlife holiday. Although birders will enjoy the photographs, a lot of species have been excluded so it would be a frustrating book if relied upon other than as an additional resource. Taking cisticolas as an example (a group where photographs can be a real asset) the only species offered are Rattling Cisticola Cisticola chiniana and Pectoral-patch Cisticola C. brunnescens. I can immediately think of five other cisticolas that I saw in the Masai Mara on my last trip - and in particular Stout Cisticola C. robustus which has not been included. Easy-to-see non-passerines are generally better represented however. The only error I spotted was for Bateleur Terathopius ecaudatus, where the underwing pattern is described as having a narrow black edge in males and wider in females (in fact it is the reverse of this).

For general wildlife tourists this book is excellent but birders need to understand that a lot has been excluded, therefore reducing its value to them.

Eastern Rhodopes: Nestos, Evros and Dadia - Bulgaria and Greece (Crossbill Guides)
Eastern Rhodopes: Nestos, Evros and Dadia - Bulgaria and Greece (Crossbill Guides)
by Dirk Hilbers
Edition: Paperback
Price: £23.95

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Raptor heaven, 29 Jun. 2013
Birdwatchers may not be familiar with the term "Eastern Rhodopes", but many will have heard of sites such as the Evros and Nestos Deltas, Arda Valley and Dadia Forest. They support an impressive range of raptors, and 22 out of the 35 European birds of prey breed here, with a further nine being present during winter or on migration.

This is the first nature guidebook to cover this rugged and stunning region which crosses the borders of both Bulgaria and Greece. Like previous Crossbill Guides it describes all aspects of the flora, fauna and the landscape. There are 18 detailed routes across both countries, and this is particularly useful because wildlife tourism is only just developing here. As always with these guides, there is an emphasis on ecology, land use and rural culture, and for those who appreciate local history there are villages in both countries with architecture dating back to the 18th Century.

This is one of the poorest regions of Europe, with many families making a sparse living from sowing and herding cattle. Although much of the area is made up of hills and low mountains, there are several broad river valleys and on the Greek side there are important wetlands along a narrow coastal strip. Other habitats described include Mediterranean scrubland, steppes and deciduous woodlands.

But for most birders the raptors will be the biggest attraction. Griffon Vultures Gyps fulvus returned to the area as breeders in 1978, and thanks to local feeding programmes they are thriving. However Eastern Imperial Eagles Aquila heliaca last bred in 2003 and Bonelli's Eagles Aquila fasciata have probably disappeared too - although both species can be seen at other times. Levant Sparrowhawks Accipiter brevipes breed close to the river valleys, while a further four eagle species are all frequent, particularly on the Bulgarian side.

In total the book lists around 280 species of birds for the area, and similar lists are given for each of the major wildlife groupings. As with previous guides in the series, there is a serious attempt to educate the reader about the area's overall ecology and conservation. While many parts of Greece (and to a lesser extent Bulgaria) have been rapidly developed since the end of the hostilities that kept both countries busy until the mid-20th Century, much of this eastern end of the Rhodopes range has remained relatively unspoiled. A wildlife guide to the area was long overdue.

The Profit Of Birding
The Profit Of Birding
by Bryan Bland
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £14.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Bland .... never!, 17 Jun. 2013
This review is from: The Profit Of Birding (Hardcover)
Prophet or profit? Bryan Bland could potentially be the former given his supernatural ability to remember facts not just about birds, but music and history, and to be able to recount amazing tales from his countless birding trips across over 70 countries. Take, for example, the story of how on one trip to Libya he accidentally ripped off his little toe - only for it to grow back over the following months! Prophet or amoeba?! You need to read the book to decide.

Of course Bryan needs little introduction to most birders, and if you compare his personality profile back in 1987 (Brit Birds 80:663-666) he hasn't changed much since. Based in Cley, he alternates his highly popular residential birdwatching courses with overseas tour-leading for Sunbird. With his unmistakable long flowing beard and all-weather shorts and sandals, he is easily recognised. However I was thrown slightly by the book's cover which shows him wearing long trousers, while on the back cover he is in a dishdasha - although the sandals are clearly visible!

Each chapter takes a different destination - mostly in the Western Palearctic: Morocco, Israel, Egypt, Austria, Czech Republic, Finland, Russia, Norway, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Romania, but also India, Bolivia, Belize and Costa Rica. Using his trip reports from each destination, Bryan weaves together an excellent spread of birding intelligence with stories of derring-do. No doubt the occasional tale has been embroidered slightly over the years, but his scrapes with terrorists, local police and upitty tourist guides all make for a great read. Throughout the book is illustrated by Bryan's delightful sketches, and there are over 300 colour photographs stuffed into two sections totalling 16 pages. Bryan apologises for the fact that he doesn't like big gaudy photos, but I do wish some of these were a bit bigger!

Amazingly this is Bryan's first book, and I feel the second volume has to be on its way. I'd love to hear about the funny things that have happened on his UK travels - I found myself laughing out loud on many occasions. This is a great book and you will profit from reading it.

The James Bond Archives
The James Bond Archives
by Danny Graydon
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £108.00

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The best Bond book ever, 14 Jan. 2013
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
I have most books that you can buy about James Bond, and this is simply the best to date. The sumptuous quality of the paper and the landscape format make it a joy to hold - although at 6kg you won't be holding it for long. The text is a mixture of interviews with those involved in each film - working chronologically through the films from Dr No onwards. It's fantastic.

Cuckoos of the World (Helm Identification Guides)
Cuckoos of the World (Helm Identification Guides)
by Johannes Erritzoe
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £60.00

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Cuckoos of the World, 9 Nov. 2012
Cuckoos occur in a wide range of habitats from open savanna to dense tropical forests, and from sea level to 4,300m in all parts of the world except the Polar regions. The 144 species in this book include not only the typical arboreal cuckoos that most of us are familiar with, but also ground cuckoos, roadrunners, coucals, couas, malkohas, lizard cuckoos and hawk cuckoos - in fact birds measuring from about 15cm to 70cm in total length, and from 14.5g to 790g in mass.

This book is the latest in a long line of Helm Identification Guides and (like that on Cotingas and Manakins) breaks from the tradition of a white cover. Every species is illustrated across a series of 36 colour plates towards the front of the book by Richard Allen, Jan Wilczur, Martin Woodcock and Tim Worfolk. These are of perched or running birds showing both adult and juvenile plumages and significant races. Later in the book each species has a detailed account spanning up to four pages. This includes an excellent multi-colour map, and usually several colour photographs - of which there are over 350 in total. The text covers all aspects that you would want to know such as taxonomy, field identification, description, biometrics, moult, geographical variation, distribution, habitat, behaviour, breeding, food, status and conservation. A number of these subjects are also dealt with in a 12 page overview at the beginning of the book. There is also an extensive bibliography of over 2500 references and a short glossary.

As is often the case in such books, the authors' opinions on taxonomy differ to some of the major checklists - Clements recognises just 142 species while the IOC lists 149. For the most part they have accepted the genera and species limits set by Robert Payne in his book The Cuckoos (OUP, 2005). That book recognised 140 species, and this one adds four others - Scaled Ground Cuckoo (split from Rufous-vented Ground Cuckoo), Gould's Bronze Cuckoo and Pied Bronze Cuckoo (both split from Little Bronze Cuckoo), plus Rusty-breasted Cuckoo (split from Brush Cuckoo). Keeping in line with Payne they lump Andaman Coucal into Greater Coucal (although this is widely recognised as a split by many) and Burchell's Coucal into White-browed Coucal (split by birders in southern Africa, but lumped by many others), while Pacific Koel is absorbed into Common Koel, which is given a total of 18 subspecies.

What comes across clearly in the text is that this is a fascinating group of birds. For example, cuckoos exhibit the full range of breeding systems. Some are brood-parasites, others rear their own young, while at least one does both! Some are co-operative breeders, some are monogamous while in other species a male might mate with two females, or a female may be served by two males. An interesting fact is that brood-parasitic cuckoos have smaller brains than those that make their own nests. It is perhaps not surprising that with all this variation many biologists have chosen cuckoos for their research.

If you already own Robert Payne's book you will find much of the same material here - but with better maps and illustrations, and plenty of photographs to make it a worthwhile purchase.

Keith Betton

Peregrine Falcon
Peregrine Falcon
by Patrick Stirling-Aird
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Peregrine, 9 Nov. 2012
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This review is from: Peregrine Falcon (Hardcover)
For me, the Peregrine Falcon is one of a small group of special birds that I vividly remember seeing for the first time, and I believe it holds a similar significance for most birders around the world. This is a truly global species, being on the checklists of more than 200 countries and thankfully making a comeback from decline in many of them.

This is the third in a series of well-illustrated short monographs that aim to give the reader an overview of the subject without getting bogged down in the detail, and previous subjects have been the Kingfisher and Barn Owl. Patrick Stirling-Aird has studied birds of prey in Scotland for over 25 years, and is Secretary of the Scottish Raptor Study Group.

The first chapter deals somewhat unnecessarily with the Falconiformes as a group and the genus Falco in particular. Thankfully much of this information does relate quite well to Peregrine Falcons but I'd suggest the publisher rethinks the need for this in future volumes.

The author recognises 19 races of the species, choosing to lump Barbary Falcon, although almost everyone (except HBW) splits it as a full species. There are eight chapters describing aspects of the Peregrine's life. Distribution is described in some detail for Europe and North America, where the species has increased greatly since the 1970s. Indeed Peregrines now have "Green" status in the UK and are nesting in very public places while in the USA a reintroduction programme has had impressive results.

The two longest chapters cover feeding and the breeding cycle. Food items from across the species' range are discussed and compared - with 137 different bird species having been taken in Britain. These actually include other Peregrines in a small number of cases! Most aspects of this well-studied bird's life are covered - but this is not designed to be an in-depth assessment, and so there is little detail. The author draws on his own wealth of experience with Peregrines in the Scottish highlands but I would have been interested to read a bit more about urban nesting which really is where the population increases are now occurring.

In particular this book has a very good selection of 80 high quality images which are used to great effect and (as with the previous titles in this series) make it very good value for money and an enjoyable read.

Keith Betton
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 28, 2012 2:11 PM GMT

The Mating Lives Of Birds
The Mating Lives Of Birds
by James Parry
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £19.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Mating Lives of Birds, 9 Nov. 2012
The Mating Lives of Birds
James Parry
New Holland. 2012. 160 pages, 140 colour photos.
Hardback. £19.99
ISBN 978-1-84773-937-7

Given the scope of this book, the title is perhaps a bit misleading - after all, mating usually takes a few seconds, and this lavishly-illustrated work covers everything from the establishment of a territory right thorough to the young becoming independent. In a very readable style, James Parry has identified all of the key stages and grouped them chronologically. Within each group he writes essays of around two or three pages to explain different aspects of the ways birds behave, and he answers all of the key questions. For example what is a territory, and what does it need to contain to be of any use? How are territories defended and maintained? What use is song in this process? How do birds use their plumage and other physical features to attract a mate? These are all questions that most of us will have asked ourselves at some point. The essays are neither heavy nor light, but find a middle ground where information is provided in an engaging style.

Other major sections look at display, personal relationships, nests, eggs and young. It is hard to think of an aspect of breeding that has not been covered - including the murkier side of breeding with unmated male Ospreys Pandion haliaetus mating with paired females when the territorial male is away, and Barn Swallows Hirundo rustica killing the young from a nest where the original male has disappeared, before taking up with the female and building another nest. There are plenty of useful examples of activity such as role reversal in breeding, monogamy, polygamy and polyandry and also speculative nest building.

The book is liberally illustrated with great photos to back up the situations being explained, and many of these are full page images and double-page spreads. This is an excellent book for someone who wants to understand the processes of breeding, and is looking for an approachable text that explains the facts without becoming too engrossed in detail.

Keith Betton

Birds: Through Irish Eyes
Birds: Through Irish Eyes
by Anthony McGeehan
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £25.34

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Birds Through Irish Eyes, 9 Nov. 2012
Birds Through Irish Eyes
Anthony McGeehan & Julian Wylie
The Collins Press. 2012.
Colour illustrations. 336 pages.
ISBN 9781848891623

Anthony McGeehan's reputation for expressive and entertaining writing is legendary. His articles in columns in magazines nearly always hit the spot, while his book Birding From The Hip attracted much favourable comment - although if you were not on his wavelength it possibly went over your head! Here, he joins with fellow Cork birder Julian Wyllie to tell the stories that explain what most people want to know about Ireland's birds. About 200 species are featured, with a articles of 500-1000 words on each. There are a couple of surprises - as included within these are Great Auk (lost to the world in 1844) together with Capercaillie (which became extinct in Ireland in the 18th Century). White-tailed Eagle and Crane are also included - and with luck reintroduction plans for both may see them return to Ireland in the way that Red Kites are starting to thrive. Amazingly Great Spotted Woodpeckers have made the return on their own.

Much of the text refers back to days when Ireland's wildlife habitats were in better shape than today, and there are frequent references to William Thompson's 4-volume milestone The Natural History of Ireland, and the works of other Irish authors. At the beginning and the end of the book are short chapters covering issues such as the loss of woodlands and the advance of farming, plus ways to look for birds and the equipment to use. In addition, scattered amongst the species texts are short essays on subjects such as moult, uncommon gulls, Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler identification and bird migration.

The photographs have been compiled by the authors and a further 27 photographers and all are stunning - often filling the page. I only noticed one error - a juvenile Red Kite labelled as an adult (p 102).

This is an excellent book. It is beautifully illustrated - and in every species account I felt I learned something about the bird that might be useful in my own local patch which is a long way from Ireland!

Keith Betton

Fighting for Birds: 25 Years in Nature Conservation
Fighting for Birds: 25 Years in Nature Conservation
by Mark Avery
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fighting for Birds, 9 Nov. 2012
Fighting for Birds - 25 years in nature conservation
Mark Avery
Pelagic Publishing. 2012. 324 pages.
Softback £12.99

Did you see the Black-winged Pratincole at Cley in 1974? No, me neither, but Mark Avery was one of the three finders. Not many people know that! But I think most people know that he spent 25 years working for the RSPB, much of it as Conservation Director, where he was instrumental in shaping the way the Society protected birds. In fact there are 17,000 internet references to his work there - an indication that he had a lot to say. And so he should - the last two decades have seen major changes in the way our countryside has been managed and the way that those in authority have responded to the implications.

Often a controversial figure in the media, he could always see both sides to an argument but he did not let that weaken his position. Having observed him in action during my own time on the RSPB Council I would say he had a rare knack of being prepared to say what everyone in the room was thinking, particularly when they were lost for words. That last attribute can be a strength or a weakness, and one rarely displayed by those whose first interest is in their career path. Perhaps that is why he decided to change his own career path last year to become a freelance writer and consultant?

In this book we learn about his early interest in birds and wildlife, followed by research at Oxford and Aberdeen and his early days at the RSPB. But for me the most interesting chapters are those that outline his views on some the key issues in bird conservation - namely hunting, loss of protected areas, agricultural intensification, reintroductions, establishing nature reserves, climate change, persecution of raptors, understanding the infrastructure of conservation and lobbying those in power. He also gives his view about the future of the RSPB. There are a great many stories in each chapter, with personal anecdotes from interactions with various organisations including the Royal Family, and I know for sure that Mark could have written at least as many again, although perhaps his lawyers advised him not to!

When you read a chapter entitled "Is it ever right to be nasty to birds?" you immediately sense that those who carry a gun in preference to binoculars are likely to find themselves under unfriendly fire in this book. Indeed Mark states clearly "A person goes down in my estimation a little if they derive pleasure from killing things unnecessarily". On the other hand he is in favour of Ruddy Duck control because there does not seem to be an alternative solution to the conservation problem that they pose. Hunters would describe that as double standards, although to me it makes sense if you can really justify the conservation threat.

He is worried about our protected areas as often these are paid for by wildlife NGOs who receive money not only from the public but also from agri-environment schemes that come and go with political changes. In these tough economic times both sources of income are under threat, and so too our treasured sites. With so many "conservation" organisations in the UK it is hard to make progress without stepping on toes. Mark thinks there is a need for fewer organisations and more resources to come to their aid. On the whole issue of farmland he says that the declines in bird numbers are real and the most striking sign of ecological change that we have seen in the UK in recent decades - the cause being changes in farm practices. His solution is to overhaul the current payment systems and find ways of working with farmers who are warm to wildlife and working with decision-makers to make the whole system more wildlife-friendly. Meanwhile on reintroductions he is quite positive although recognises that we need time to see whether some will work - but he is dead against deliberate or accidental introductions of non-native wildlife. He thinks that big nature reserves are better than small ones and gives his own views on some of the RSPB's prime sites - and he is very worried about climate change, as left unchanged it will ruin much that we value in the natural world.

I suspect many people will turn first to the chapter entitled "The raptor haters". A précis of this might be that too many raptors are killed by gamekeepers who are under huge pressure to maintain ridiculously high numbers of grouse on driven moors for shooters to aim at every August. You can count the number of Hen Harrier breeding pairs in England on one hand when you should really need dozens of hands. The only solution is to ban driven grouse shooting. (This is where lines of beaters flush the grouse towards the guns, rather than shooters taking a pot at the odd grouse as it flies past. It could be described as the shooting equivalent of factory farming). This chapter will once again divide readers into two camps.

I was particularly interested in Mark's views of the RSPB. He thinks that it should do more to canvass the opinions of its members concerning its work, and he wonders if most of them would wish to retain the benefit of a Royal patron - and indeed it might be renamed. As always he is controversial, and in that way I suspect he will find life as an independent commentator much to his liking. If you care about conservation you should read this book. I found myself agreeing with about 80% of his views, but regardless I learned a lot from his experiences.

Keith Betton

Wildlife Crime
Wildlife Crime
by Dave Dick
Edition: Paperback
Price: £15.90

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Wildlife Crime: The Making of an Investigations Officer, 4 Sept. 2012
This review is from: Wildlife Crime (Paperback)
While a number of people have done much to protect birds of prey in Scotland I don't think any can claim to have done more in recent years than Dave Dick. This is the inside story on his role as the RSPB's Senior Investigation Officer into wildlife crimes in Scotland for more than two decades. We also learn of Dave's travels abroad to Malta, India and Thailand to help local authorities understand wildlife crimes such as bird trafficking.

Having had an interesting childhood and early career in a band Dave joined the RSPB to work on a variety of short contracts. This led to his appointment in 1984 as a Species Protection Officer. Each page reveals incidents through his career where some clever (and not-so-clever) individuals are followed and investigated. I was struck by the way that in some cases the police went out of their way to help with the early investigations and even if there was insufficient evidence the Procurator Fiscal might get involved to make sure those who had just escaped justice were made aware that their actions were frowned upon.

What is very clear is that while the threat of egg-collectors has diminished greatly the number of people intent on killing raptors has increased and as time has passed it is clear that those who seek to harm wildlife have got more confident and have found better ways to kill their targets as the range of deadly chemicals on offer has expanded. Thankfully most of these chemicals are now outlawed across the UK but despite this they are still widely used.

Dave tells of endless cases where keepers are caught red-handed by the police but walk away with relatively small fines, or where the case takes so long to go to court that the matter is dismissed. A recent RSPB report showed that in Scotland from 2003 to 2008 only 35% of those charged with offences were found guilty.

There are some sad cases in this book - not least the occasion when an egg-collector realised that the Greenshank eggs that he was stealing were in the process of hatching. He dumped the eggs, but the female returned and was still incubating them two days later in spite of everything that had happened. In another case Dave was able to take confiscated Peregrine chicks straight back to their nest and see the parents return to feed them after a few minutes.

During the last twenty years more than 450 birds of prey have been killed by illegal poisoning in Scotland, with a further 320 confirmed as shot, trapped or with their nests destroyed. The result is that there are substantial areas of suitable habitat in Scotland currently unoccupied by breeding birds of prey as a direct result of such illegal activity.

This book is a fascinating insight into the challenges faced by those whose job it is to stop wildlife crime. While there are some pleasing cases where those responsible for carrying out illegal acts are punished, too often the outcome can only leave a committed conservationist to feel disillusioned at the inability of the authorities to apply the law effectively.

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