Unofficial bookclub review no 3

Europe’s Birds,

by Rob Hume, Rob Still, Andy Swash and Hugh Harrop, 640 pp, £20, Wild Guides & Princeton.

or ‘Matey: I agree with you’.

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A question. Do you have friends about whom you wonder sometimes why exactly you’re friends? I must confess I do. One of my closest friends is David Tipling the celebrated photographer with whom I worked on a book for ten years. Birds and People is still one of the favourite projects that I have completed in my career, partly because of collaborating with such a talented guy. The problem is he and I probably shouldn’t be friends! Because we agree on almost nothing.

And I’m not just talking politics here. Take any subject you like: the Queen, Terry Wogan, David Bowie, Manchester United, beefburgers, Coke Cola. On all of them we hold diametrically opposed views. In fact we disagree on so much that I once said to him half jokingly (we laugh a lot!) : ‘Matey, don’t ask me what I think of something. Ask yourself whether you like it or not and just assume I’ll be the opposite’. I should add he calls me ‘Matey’ and I him! It’s one of the things on which we are united.

A subject about which we have disagreed is field guides. Needless to say, David, a brilliant photographer to his fingertips, is a proponent of the photographic guide. I, on the other hand, have always loved illustrated field guides. I cherish the artwork in field guides and have always thought the capacity of the artist to arbitrarily include the details necessary for field identification – those subtleties that photographs so seldom once captured – have given illustrators an infallible advantage. These things are so silky; say, the relative length of the primaries, or the slight upward turn in a supercillium, or the patterning in the tertials, that only a painterly eye and hand can convey them.

My lifetime sequence for British bird books is as follows: The Observer’s Book of Birds, and then, from the age of 12, The Hamlyn Guide to Birds of Britain and Europe by Bertel Bruun and Arthur Singer (1972). Next came what was familarly known as Heinzel, Fitter and Parslow. The technical title was The Birds of Britain and Europe, with North Africa and the Middle East by Collins (from the age of 13 onwards). It was the subtitle and all those improbably wonderful, exotic African and Middle Eastern creatures like Dupont’s Lark and Grey Hypocolius that probably did more to change my world view and my life ambitions than any other field guide.

Next came a new generation of books with such beautiful artwork that you couldn’t imagine they would be bettered. I mean Lars Jonsson’s Birds of Europe with North Africa and the Middle East by Christopher Helm in 1992 and then ‘Svensson’. The gold standard for the next generation, its full title is Collins Bird Guide (2nd Edition) The Most Complete Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe by Lars Svensson, Killian Mullarney and Dan Zetterstrom (Collins 1999.

What all of them have done, and do still, is inform our sightings with greater comparative understanding and ever more forensic detail on bird appearances and variation. In turn they fuel our ambitions for future obervations. These field guides – all of them, right back to The Observer’s Book of Birds – tell us how we should look and what to look for. In short, they help us see better. It is a great gift. Collectively they also provide a social history on the birding community and sequential measurement of how optical technology, such as that by Opticron who support these pages, have changed the way we observe.

All of the above I’ve come to appreciate slowly. What I never imagined is that I’d now come round to the idea that the future belongs to photographic guides. Even more difficult to say: I have to admit David Tipling is right. To put it another way: ‘Matey: I agree with you’.

The book that has changed the landcape, for me, is this astonishingly beautifully and technically masterful Europe’s Birds: An Identification Guide by Rob Hume, Robert Still, Andy Swash and Hugh Harrop of Wild Guides under the umbrella of Princeton Press £20.How to begin to capture the scale of their collective achievement? Well, it is a very big book, 640 pages long and 1.4kg (3lb in old money) in weight. This largeness is actually part of the reason for its overall quality. Not only is it roughly 200 pages longer than ‘Svensson’, but each page is a slightly larger canvas with roughly an extra 2cm of height and width. The space has given its creators lots of room to cover all the latest taxonomic changes and give each of 900 species its full due, using 4700 images to go into the details required for making a successful discrimination.

 Here is a family with which I often struggle. Divers. See one in summer on a loch and it is usually straightforward. But out on a choppy sea in winter, when they lose all that tell-tale colour, it is another matter. The beauty of these photographs is that they are able to do all the work I once credited only to illustrations: they capture the exact differences, but they do so with pictures of the actual living beast.

The sheer abundance of photographic images for Wild Guides to choose from – partly because the latest technology has brought decent images within the compass of many gifted amateurs – means that they can find pin-sharp pictures of hard-to-separate species in almost perfect analogue poses. And all can be placed in close proximity to the well-chosen words of a master of fieldguide prose, Mr Rob Hume. The combination is truly superb.

It is in the context of what is, for me, one of the most difficult-to-identify common bird families – the skuas – that you really see all the advantages of photographs and the finely honed text working in tandem. Skuas may be tricky, but having all the finer points of separation for your to pore over, really helps to get it straight in your head.

The various European species – Arctic, Pomarine, Long-tailed and Bonxie – have been minutely trawled in the separate species accounts. Then, for good measure, the authors have put together this hugely economical and information-packed double-page spread to allow you to digest the foregoing data in visual form. All of the necessary words are slotted into the previous pages. This, if you like, is both the icing on the cake AND the nitty gritty revision all in one space. It is a tour do force of digital organisation. The designers have really worked the whole book out in meticulous detail.    

Here’s a page I enjoyed partly because it celebrates a favourite family. Also the photos capture something which my beloved copy of Svensson doesn’t convey through its paintings. I’ve always thought Rook and Carrion Crow have a quite different flight profile. Usually they are instantly separable on a flight view alone because of it. The rook’s outer wingtips are more deeply and finely fingered and the hand (the outer section of the wing sits at an oblique angle to the inner portion). Together they make the whole wing look more like a backward-slanting paddle. Carrion crows, on the other hand, have straighter-winged flight profile. They lack the appearance of a finely fingered hand and the distinctly angled shape. Most of the time, at least.

Pointing out the clarification made by Europe’s Birds is not to denigrate the earlier book but to celebrate again the achievements of the new one. Not only is it a complete and integrated survey of all Europe’s birds and the challenges they pose in terms of identification, it is a beautiful object to have and peruse. And, yes, it has also made me realise that sometimes I’m wrong and my old friend is right.

It leaves me only to say, ‘Matey, I agree with you’. It would appear there are things we have in common. I’m pleased to think we can still be friends.

I include one last page so you can savour the way in which subtle features and sometime glaring differences are synthesised in one complex montage

If you would like to leave a comment for me on this or anything else, you can contact me here. To see what else I am upto and if you would like to join me for a writing course, a Derbyshire break or holiday then go back to my website.

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