I am half way through A Sparrowhawk's Lament. This is a WILDGuides publication, but quite different to their usual photographic field guides. It is a personal look at the status of the UK's 15 breeding diurnal raptors, written by someone who has a long history of involvement in their conservation. The writing is a little quirky and takes some getting used to, but the passion and experience shine through to make this a rewarding and thought-provoking read.
Most of the UK's species follow the same sad trajectory of abundance before the industrial age, persecution and near extinction or extinction in the 19th and 20th centuries at the hands of gamekeepers (combined with egg-collectors and subsequently organochloride pesticides), and resurgence in contemporary times as a result of conservation programmes. The Kestrel and Merlin have, unfortunately, not turned around. But the glaring exception is the Hen Harrier, still illegally poisoned and shot by the managers of grouse moors and teetering on the brink of extinction in England. With outrage about continuing illegal persecution of raptors fast becoming a political issue, this is quite a topical read. The author takes great pains to make this a celebration of these birds, rather than a tirade against their persecutors and, although he does not shy away from the facts, this is an uplifting read.
A book for the layperson as well as the expert: everyone will gain some new appreciation of our formidable, yet vulnerable birds of prey. A Sparrowhawk's Lament is a fitting tribute to our breeding raptors and those who work to conserve them.
Anyone with a real interest in diurnal raptors will learn something from this book; if you think you know a few species well, here's a shortcut to the rest. Nicely written in proper English, packed full of information, but also a very engaging read and further enlivened by many of Bruce Pearson's paintings (which typically capture the bird and the setting to perfection). This is not a 'quick & dirty' desk study using sources on the internet but a reflection of decades of the author's engagement with his subject and of contact with like-minded observers and activists. Taking each breeding species in turn, the author gives an overview of their historical and recent status, based in part on key published sources but primarily on notes from his own long and varied experience, both observing, and learning from specialists involved in field studies, reintroduction projects or other conservation work. The emphasis is always on the fascination, beauty and excitement of encounters with raptors, but the book also surveys aspects of breeding biology, the theats they face, reviews recent conservation projects, and gives some insight into raptor conservation politics. To my mind this is now the third key multi-species work on British birds of prey, joining Dick Orton's "The Hawkwatcher" and Leslie Brown's now somewhat dated volume in the New Naturalist series. Definitely rates five stars because of the scope and depth of coverage, and the authority it derives from the author's long practical involvement. But not perfect: it would have been great to have at least one illustration per chapter in colour (I know, too costly) and the detailed passages describing plumage don't work well without supporting illustrations. The subtitle is potentially a little misleading: among birds of prey it only covers the diurnal raptors not owls. Oh, I nearly forgot: I usually cringe at 'nature' poetry, but this includes a piece (by David Harsent) on the shooting of Bowland Bess,among the last English Hen Harriers, that brought a tear to my eye.
This is a wonderful look at birds of prey today and an essential for anyone with an interest or passion for wildlife, conservation and/or birds of prey. David Cobham injects his decades of experience into the very fabric of the book and his life-long fascination and relationship with wildlife jumps off the pages. A very readable book that will give you a better understanding of the birds and their habitats.
If I could recommend one book on diurnal British raptors, it would undoubtedly be this one. Though it is most definitely not a book to be read cover to cover, it is rather one to be dipped in and out of as one pleases. How David Cobham has packed in the information on these raptors as he has done is extraordinary; each chapter features an extensive overview of the bird in question, its current conservation status, its history in British Isles, its behaviour and breeding habits, and then some, accompanied by fascinating anecdotes of Cobham's own experiences of the bird in question, all wonderfully tied together and enlivened by some truly exquisite illustrations by Bruce Pearson. There are muses on conservational politics and surprisingly poignant nature poetry but on the whole, the scales of the book are in perfect balance.
It's certainly not all sun and rainbows however; the status of many of the 15 birds is currently in decline and at some point in history, it seems every single raptor has been at the mercy of deluded, trigger happy countrymen to the brink of extinction, or near enough. Any pride that stems from the slowly recovering populations of, say, the White-tailed Eagle is surely offset by the horrible truth of their untimely demise in the mid 19th or 20th century due to false beliefs and intolerance. Our collective abhorrence for, our indisputable witch hunt of these birds makes me hugely ashamed and A Sparrowhawk's Lament certainly doesn't make me feel any better. But sadly, on the subject of raptors, it isn't meant to. But what it does encourage is the collective respect and admiration for these majestic creatures whom we are lucky enough to host in this country and the support of conservational efforts to sustain and increase current populations. It's an educational and thought-provoking read that satisfies as much as it inspires.