Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Favorite Field Guide

My favorite field guide is a bit of a weird choice for someone living in the middle of North America, but format, style, artwork quality, and overall feel of a field guide transcend the day to day utility (I can still use it for some of the species and the small section on diving behavior of scoters has come in handy even in Montana). As you might have already guessed it is not a North American field guide. Here is my slightly edited review of The Birds of Europe originally published in The Journal of Field Ornithology a few years ago.

Birds of Europe. K. Mullarney, L. Svensson, D. Zetterstrom, and P.J. Grant. 1999. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. Paperback. 392 pp., $30.00. This is a delightfully well done field guide, more than 15 years in the making and well worth the time. The authors recognized the trade-off between comprehensive information and field guide size, and state in the preface that they made the decision to limit the number of pages to 400 to ensure its use as a true “field” guide that can be easily carried in a pocket.

The Birds of Europe begins with an extensive introduction that explains the taxonomy and names used, specifies the abundance symbols, and details the distribution maps. The introduction further provides a glossary for terms describing plumages and ages, and general terminology. Perhaps the best part of the introduction is the section that describes molt and feather wear and the section that is a primer on bird identification. In particular the explanation of the affects of light and color perception when identifying birds is illuminating and particularly helpful for inexperienced birders.

The 195 color plates and species description follow. The color plates are remarkably consistent in style and accuracy even though they were done by two illustrators, Killian Mullarney and Dan Zetterstrom. The only exception is the section on North American vagrants done by the American artist Larry McQueen. McQueen is an excellent artist in his own right but with a distinctly different style than either Mullarney or Zetterstrom and this section seems out of place I the field guide. Given the obvious talent of both Mullarney and Zetterstrom, I am surprised that they didn’t paint these plates as well. The range of plumages depicted for each species is extraordinary for a field guide of this size. For instance the Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) account has 11 separate images illustrated and this is not an extreme by any means. The color reproductions in the field guide are excellent. The only plate with colors that seemed “off” was the plate of the Asio owls that appeared to be excessively yellow. The layout of the plates is well thought out. The main images on a plate are all the same scale, the postures and positions of adult males , adult females, juveniles, etc. are the same between species, small pointers and captions are place on the plates to help point out distinctive field marks, and the species illustrations are separated by thin lines. This layout greatly facilitates comparison between similar species. Small vignettes are also included I many of the plates and I found these both charming and powerful in their ability to capture species in the settings an observer would likely find them.

In addition to extensive and accurate illustrations, the Birds of Europe also contains informative species accounts opposite the plates. Each account includes the length of the bird and numerous instance of wingspan as well. A brief description of habitats and habitats is followed by test describing the identification of a particular species with important features italicized. The voice descriptions are extensive. Written descriptions of bird sounds are inevitably inexact and personal but often very helpful for identification. This inexact and personal nature of written sounds is complicated in this book by the translation to English from Swedish; however with practice the sounds described can be interpreted.

The species accounts are entertaining as well. The description of the adult male Lady Amherst Pheasant (Chyrsolophus amherstiae) as an “unmistakable, pyrotechnical display of feathered splendor!” is refreshingly exuberant in what are usually dry technical sections of most field guides. The species descriptions also include practical information such as “Caution: very aggressive when young are about to leave nest and can attack intruder fiercely; keep your eyes on the parents if you stumble on an inhabited nest and leave area quickly!” in the Ural Owl (Stix uralensis) description.

There are a number of special identification sections for groups of birds that may be problematic such as the skuas, gulls, waders, and Sylviidae warblers. Also included are panels on waterfowl hybrids, watching seabirds, diving patterns of scoters, and molt sequence in gulls. The last section in the book concerns vagrants and introduced and escaped species and has small illustrations and limited text for each species.

This is an extremely dense, informative, and entertaining field guide. Therein lays its only fault. To fit so much information into the “field” guide size, the text and illustrations are small and may be difficult to read for a number of birders. Despite this drawback, I believe this is the field guide that others should strive to emulate. It is indispensable for those planning on birding in Europe, but also provides an excellent supplement to North American field guides for those species we share, in particular the waders and gulls."


djringer said...

As someone who owns field guides for much of the world, I have to say that this book may be the best I've seen for any region anywhere. It's really very excellent.

Steve Bodio said...

You convinced me years ago that this was the one.