Saturday, April 3, 2010

Birds of Europe: Second Edition

The wait is over! The much anticipated and much delayed 2nd edition of the Birds of Europe is finally out. Known to many as the 'Collins Bird Guide' but published in North America by Princeton University Press as the more fitting 'Birds of Europe', this is handy-sized book sets the bar for field guides, both in terms of the superb illustrations and phenomenal amount of information packed within its covers.

When rumors of a new edition first began to circulate, I naively assumed that it would amount to little more than a reprinting with some minor corrections to the maps and so forth. After all, how could such a superlative guide be improved? Glancing through the new edition the changes aren't immediately obvious but there are changes, many changes.

The first edition was published in 1999 after a difficult, decade-long gestation but was immediately and justifiably heralded as one of the most impressive bird books ever produced. Since then it has been published in no less than 13 languages and sold more than 700,000 copies - a 'Da Vinci Code' in bird book terms. So why the new edition? As Killian Mullarney explained in a perspective published in the March 2010 issue of Birdwatch magazine, "Gratifying as it was to receive such a positive reaction, as one of the authors I was acutely aware of where many weaknesses lay and the huge potential for making it that people were actually using the book in the field, the list of things in need of attention grew longer and longer". Almost by definition guide books are works in progress and should evolve and I am no fan of the reissues of the Peterson Field Guides for this very reason.

So what cries out for updating in the Birds of Europe? Naturally some of the plates needed improving but according to Mullarney, the main impetus was to keep pace with (a) changing taxonomy, (b) improved understanding of some ID challenges and (c) the fact that some vagrants have become sufficiently regular in Europe that they now deserve fuller treatment. Case in point, Caspian Gull (Larus cachinnans), which is now much better understood in terms of its field identification and as a consequence appears to range much more widely and more regularly across western Europe than was realized. The new plate which shows 13 versions of the bird is a gem.

As Mullarney recounts, a number of the original taxonomic decisions were not universally accepted and this will be the case with the 2nd edition. Some of the 'upgrades' from subspecies to full species will come as no surprise. Madeiran Firecrest (Regulus madeirensis) for instance gets the promotion, as does Taiga Flycatcher (Ficedula albicilla). Indeed, more than 30 taxa are elevated to full species. Although many were well differentiated subspecies in the first edition and received fairly decent treatments, other new species are less well known. I'd never heard to Maghreb's Wheatear (Oenanthe halophila) but quickly discovered that it was formerly lumped with Mourning Wheatear (O. lugens), a handsome 'pied' wheatear resident in the barren mountainous of North Africa.

For the most part, the new plates are as good as, if not superior to, the original artwork. I have always felt that Mullarney and Zetterstrom have very complementary styles that give the birds a natural but crisp look and accurately portray the shapes and postures. One significant criticism is that many of the new plates are not well integrated into the existing structure. For example, Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis) is separated by 14 pages from Greater Scaup (A. marila), the only species you'd really need to compare it to. Depictions of Common/Black Scoters (Melanitta nigra/americana) and Velvet/White-winged Scoters (M. fusca/deglandi) are similarly partitioned. As Mullarney explains in the Birdwatch article, this unfortunate arrangement came about because of limited communication and cooperation between the authors/illustrators (a candid admission) and other production issues. I'm sure nobody associated with the project is happy with the outcome but the flaw is not fatal and certainly better than no 2nd edition at all.

As a birder, I prefer to see birds set against their natural habitats and have a weak spot for the artful vignettes included in many of the plates. The new paintings of Laurel Pigeon (Columba junoniae), an endemic to the montane forests of several of the Canary Islands is particularly successful in this regard and the original Caucasian and Caspian Snowcocks set majestically on snowy mountain ridges are still as good as ever.

To sum up: I strongly recommend this guide to anyone with more than a passing interest in birds. Even if you don't have plans to bird in the area of coverage (Europe, North Africa or the Middle East), the guide has much to offer. North American birders will find plenty of familiar species as well as valuable information on regular vagrants. I also recommend the guide to all as an example of what a field guide should be like.

Now we begin the wait for the release of the large format edition!

Title: Birds of Europe: Second Edition
Text and Maps by Lars Svensson
Illustrations and Captions by Killian Mullarney and Dan Zetterström
Publication date: 2010
North American Publisher: Princeton University Press
Dimensions: 416 pages, 5 x 7, 3,500+ color illus., 848 maps
Retail Price: US$29.95