Artwork by David Nurney
I’m often asked by new birders to recommend a good field guide to birds. I will always start by asking them where they intend to do most of their birding and if they are starting out mainly in Britain and Ireland I always tell them to get hold of a copy of the RSPB Book of British Birds by Peter Holden with artwork by Hilary Burn. This book shows you most of what you need to be familiar with in the settings you’re likely to encounter the birds. A ‘Collins Guide,’ scope and pager should only be awarded to beginners after a year and once they’ve passed a ‘residents and regulars test’ (I am joking… but only slightly).
For me there’s little point in worrying about separating Ortolan Bunting from Yellowhammer if you haven’t (in the right area) ruled out Cirl Bunting first. Start to be confident in sorting out those little green Phyloscs in early autumn in the local sewage works bushes first.
Now I’m not for one minute knocking the Collins Guide, it’s my go to fieldguide in most cases but it is so chock full of birds it can be daunting for a beginner and even ‘improver’ birder. I well remember the advice I was given when I seriously started getting in to birding – learn your common species and build from there. It might sound clichéd but you really do need to know your commoner species in all their ages and plumages in a variety of light conditions. Then you’ll know when you’ve got something different or maybe even rare.
I found that having a few banker species was a help so you can refer to them such as Kestrel, Dunlin, Ruff, Reed Bunting et cetera when you start to expand our birding horizons. Only very recently on a facebook page one very ‘knowledgeable’ birder confused a fair few beginners and improvers by himself failing to identify a very identifiable Kestrel in a photograph. As I said – learn you common birds first.
So, where do you turn for a fieldguide when you want to start improving as a birder and get to grips with some of those confusion species or groups? Years ago there was the The Macmillan Field Guide to Bird Identification, often referred to as simply The Macmillan. This was a superb guide that gave us an in-depth look at separating some of the trickier confusion species. The problem was that the it was a little text heavy for beginners and improvers. Originals now fetch a decent price on ebay – I have two copies, hardback and paperback.
The next big breakthrough, after the Collins Guide was a guide, also from New Holland and indeed Holland: The Advanced Bird ID Guide by Nils van Duivendijk, now referred to simply as van Duivendijk. The pared down text and no illustrations, jarred with some but it instantly became a classic. It is a brilliant book but very much a birders book.
I’ve long thought we needed a new ‘Macmillan’ and now we have it. Birds: ID Insights is very much a new kid on the block. It concentrates on sorting out the more difficult birds found in Britain and Northwest Europe. It combines the excellent artwork of David Nurney, often to be found in the pages of Bird Watching Magazine with pared down text a la van Duivendijk.
Taking a few species that I fell are key ID challenges that are challenging not just for the ‘improvers’ the book is aimed at but for more experienced birders, I will single out Dunlin first. There is an excellent section on Dunlin, covering all plumages and races likely to be encountered as well as tips on aging Dunlin before finally looking at separating the scarcer Curlew Sandpiper. Ruff, often a real ID pitfall for many birders, gets a fully justified four pages with another two pages on Ruff confusion species.
The Buzzards also get a good eight pages that should help reduce a lot of the possible/probable reports on the news services.
Onto the passerines, Marsh and Willow Tit get the full treatment including the recent pale bill spot feature for Marsh Tit. Reed Bunting and it’s confusion species Lapland Bunting and Little Bunting also get very thorough coverage.
I really have enjoyed this book and I know, as I don’t have one of those super-brains that can retain every key ID feature that I will be referring to it again and again. In its 272 pages packed full of information there are some real ID gems such as the (metaphorical) ability to write Black and Bar between the ‘knee’ and belly on the legs of Godwits as a quick way to separate them. I was taught this many years ago now and I’ve always shared it.
The excellent text supported by the superb artwork make this the ‘must have’ book of the year and the only one to take into the field this autumn. You can retire those old Macmillans, the Queen is dead… long live the King!