Book Reviews

Here are some of my reviews.

Britain’s Birds:
An Identification Guide to the Birds of Britain and Ireland
Rob Hume, Robert Still, Andy Swash, Hugh Harrop & David Tipling


This book is a masterpiece – I have never seen so much information on bird identification in a single guide; if all field guides were like this birding would be much easier. I grew up using Roger Peterson and Guy Mountford’s Birds of Britain and Europe, which was one of the definitive guides of the day, but today’s young birder, armed with this new guide, will be off to a flying start, while those with more experience will still find it an invaluable resource. Every time I look through it I find more new invaluable identification features that have not been included in previous field guides.

Britain’s Birds is a complete photographic guide covering 648 species of bird that have occurred in Britain and Ireland with photographs showing all plumages. All rarities are covered including recently occurring potential firsts for Britain like Kent’s Acadian Flycatcher. It also presents an up to date estimate for populations of each species and in the case of rarities, the number of occurrences for Britain and Ireland is given.

There are distribution maps for the regular breeding, wintering and summer migrant species, they also show typical migration routes where relevant. Below each map there are boxes explaining the likely habitats where a particular species can be found and for rare species information is given on their status. These details are very up to date and the distribution maps are extremely accurate.

At the end of the book there is a very useful and interesting list covering all the species on British and Irish lists, the list includes the conservation status for each species, this is especially useful as it shows which species are on Schedule 1.

Something I find particularly useful are the step-by-step pointers showing the key identification features for each species not just for rarities but also for the more common species. In the case of difficult groups such as waders, skuas and gulls the defining plumage and identification features are clearly indicated, with great expertise. Forty pages are dedicated to the gulls alone and on the more variable gull species, a double page spread gives as many at fourteen photographs of one species showing differences in age and the different races that can be encountered. The level of photography is remarkable!  Even for something as simple as a Blackbird the authors have given the reader seven photographs depicting all the different plumages.

One species that I personally have an interest in is Willow Tit, so I do feel that more could have been done to show the differences in plumages within that species and with only one photograph for both Willow and Marsh more could have been done to point out differences for these two sometimes confusing species. Photographs of a Willow Tit in juvenile plumage would have been useful, as they look very similar to Marsh Tits at this stage of maturity.

Aside from that small criticism, I cannot fault this book, it is truly a remarkable piece of work and I find it one of those books I enjoy flicking through knowing I can learn something each time I do so. I offer my huge congratulations to the authors for collating all this information – I simply love it.

Ashley Banwell


Birds of New Guinea – Distribution, Taxonomy and Systematics

Bruce Beehler and Thane Pratt


This is the first complete revision of New Guinea’s birds since Earnest Mayr published his list of New Guinea birds in 1941. Coming hot on the heels of the second edition of the Birds of New Guinea field guide every birdwatcher now visiting the island of New Guinea is now armed with as much up to date information than at any other time before. This new book updates the  taxonomy and covers all of the resident species and their sub-species as well as the migrants that have occurred there, which is now just short of 800 of which over 350 are  endemic species.  Details are given on the distribution of all of the species and all the sub species which is very useful as it is important for the serious birdwatcher as its useful  to know which race they have seen and where it occurs.

The only colour pictures in the book are photographs of museum specimens which are on a double sided page before the species accounts, all labelled with their scientific name which will be rather frustrating for the majority of people who use this book. One of them is a Slender-billed Prion collected in the mouth of the River Fly in 1876, surely one of the strangest Papuan records

For those interested with the current splitting debate on the Red-bellied Pitta complex will probably be pleased that they all still remain as one species as in the new field guide.  One interesting  but not surprising decision is to place Archibald’s Owlet-nightjar as a race of  Mountain Owlet-nightjar, I had long wondered what the differences really were, the answer is probably not that much.  There are two more  Kingfishers that have been recognised as full species since the field guide has been published – both were subspecies of Collared Kingfisher – Islet and Torresian have been elevated to full species, Islet now becomes another endemic species, I wish I had been aware of that when I went to Duchess Island – Tagula here we come.

After the species accounts there is a very comprehensive  seventy page geographic gazetteer detailing the various villages, rivers, mountains and rivers that are of some ornithological significance.

For those who have a keen interest in the bird classification of New Guinea this book will be an essential  addition to their library and a book that will be referred to many times.  I for one will find it an invaluable resource of information and facts all provided  by two of New Guineas most knowledgeable and respected ornithologists.

Ashley Banwell

The Birds of New Guinea (2nd ed)

Thane Pratt and Bruce Beehler

This eagerly anticipated book is something that every birder who has visited or who is going to visit the incredibly diverse island of New Guinea has been waiting for as the first edition has frustratingly been out of print since 2006. This edition has been completely revised and it has 111 colour plates compared to just 55 in the 1986 edition and also has range maps for almost all the 779 species covered, an increase of 70 species. The species accounts have been expanded to cover behaviour, nesting and diet, something which may prove useful to visiting birders.

A lot of effort has gone into describing and illustrating the various subspecies and the many geographical variations that occur on this huge island. The authors – Thane K Pratt and Bruce M Beehler have drafted the text solely by themselves and it reflects their vast knowledge of the avifauna of this region. The illustrations are mostly painted by John C Anderton and Szabolcs Kokay and are of a very high standard, most species are illustrated in each of their plumages showing both male, female and immature plumages.

With most new field guides there will be many taxonomic issues – species split or lumped and this book is no exception. Pheasant Pigeon has been split recently into 4 species by some taxonomists but here remains just the one species, which I think is the sensible approach. The Crowned Pigeon family remains 3 species rather than the 4 that has recently been suggested. Pitta lovers maybe pleased to see that the much discussed splitting of the Red-bellied complex has not been adopted by this book but the number of the much sought after Paradise-Kingfishers goes up by one so Rossel Island will no doubt be getting more attention from kingfisher hunters in the future. White-eye ‘collectors’ now have another tricky species to search for – the Oya Tabu White-eye will have them looking at their maps of PNG a little harder. The widely accepted split of Barred Owlet-nightjar into 2 species has been followed here but the terborghi race has been placed under Barred rather than the recently elevated species Allied Owlet-nightjar which is where some authors place it. Further investigation may well reveal another species or two in that challenging family for those who want to go off the beaten track into un-birded areas. Getting that vital recording may well prove to be the key in proving a new species of Owlet-nightjar.

I would have liked to have seen the Bismarck Archipelago included in this edition as it is all part of New Guinea and many travelling birders and bird tour companies often include New Britain, New Ireland and Manus in their itineraries. There is no doubt that this book will be a very popular addition to many birders libraries over the next few months and those visiting PNG next year will armed with a great deal more knowledge than before – the real test of a new book comes in the field and I like many more am looking forward to giving it that test.

Note: An important point to consider when deciding to order the hardcover over the softcover. The hardcover only weighs 180g more (1.38Kg as opposed to 1.2Kg) and is likely to be much more robust so well worth considering over the soft cover even in the field!

Ashley Banwell