I had always intended to review this book but immediately after it's publication in the UK it became apparent that so it seemed did everyone else with their own website or blog. So I thought, 'stuff that then'! However, it now appears that everyone else might have thought the same thing or atleast never bothered, as few reviews actually exist and even fewer with anything to actually say about the book other than that basically, you don't need anything else in your birding life right now but this book. Can that be true though? Is it really all you'll ever need?
The book was written by Dutch birder Nils Van Duivendijk, a guy I first heard of back in the late 1990's when he co-ran the journal Dutch Birding's Masters of Mystery competition, a photographic mystery bird competition which was always a personal highlight of mine (and made the Manchester Birding Mystery Bird Competition seem like a mere Sunday stroll in the park!). I had never realised however that Nils Van Doobrydang had published a book, albeit written in Dutch, which covered the salient identification features of every species recorded in the Western Palearctic. Nor had I any comprehension that the book consisted of information harvested by Nils himself from a colossal cross section of reference material and of course personal field observation. I was blissfully unaware of any of this, until I heard a whisper that it was to be published in English. Brilliant! Oh, and it contained no illustrations to back up all that information either and was merely in bullet point form for each species. Erm, hmmm?
Now, that might not be everybody's cup of tea but it was certainly mine. Don't get me wrong, I love illustrations and they are undoubtably very useful but I don't actually need them. I really like reading through reams and reams of print and often find the variability of illustrations and artists misleading. There's no worrying about that here though, as Nils Van Danglydong's book contains none, other than a small section of topography at the front, which is itself actually rather good. There seems a clear potential problem with this concept though and one for which I raised my own concerns at a very early stage. I find that the book relies on a certain amount of 'base knowledge' from the reader, in fact, quite a bit to be honest. It almost expects that you will have some prior knowledge or experience of a species before you launch yourself into this book and begin to apply the data within to the bird you may have seen. It would therefore be relatively easy to misinterpret and/or mistakenly apply the information from one species to that of a similar other and with it make the mother of all cock-ups along the way! Beginners, or those with less experience may also find the book practically incomprehensible at times due to its genuinely 'advanced' nature, whereas more experienced birders and old stalwarts will appreciated it for what it is, a one-stop-shop for practically all those little identification pointers you might need to know about every species of bird currently recorded in the Western Palearctic. It's concept is in fact a bit like the old 'Let's Revise' books for academical students back in the 1980's (do they still make those things nowadays, the book I mean, not students?). There is essentially nothing 'new' in the book either. No groundbreaking identification features, no 'thinking out of the box'. Instead it merely gathers all the current knowledge on each species from all available sources and presents it in a very easily digestable format and that, it does it rather exceptionally.
It certainly appears very, very well researched and two specific species groups for which I spent both spring and autumn studying in the Middle East this year, the 'Isabelline Shrikes' and 'large white-headed gulls' I felt were very comprehensively dealt with. Whilst there is not the space available within the book to go into the full complexities of such species groups (nor the many others which exist either) it makes a very good fist of it, rightly expressing the use of caution and comparison when dealing with certain identification problems. The reader should however realise that the book is not the be all and end all on such subjects, nor does it intend to be.
Above: So much information in such a small package is a mightily impressive feat and it is only marginally longer but slightly narrower than the Collins bird guide.
Above: The Advanced Bird ID Guide (on the right) is incredibly thin too, partly due to the very small font size utilised and it being very efficiently crammed into each page. Neither detracts from the readability of the book however and the overall look portrays absolute clarity and professionalism. The book on the left in the image is my own personal mighty tome, a first edition Collins bird guide filled with every available piece of additional identification information I could source over the past twenty years or so plus much more of my own personal observations scribbled onto each page. Needless to say, in comparison between my effort and that of Nils, he wins hands down. His is not only smaller and appreciably thinner (his can close, mine can't) but it wipes the floor with mine on content, coverage, readability, portability...well you get the picture. Also, I can't read much of my own scruffy handwriting found within my own effort and many of the illustrations were updated in the Collins second edition too but there was no way I was embarking on another such tome with that one. Luckily therefore, for me atleast, it seems the Advanced Bird ID Guide had come at the right time despite regrettably making my years of hard work now defunct. Clearly, the best man won!
The taxonomic order used within the book certainly takes some getting used to. Having only just become accustomed to now putting the swans where the divers used to go, this book employs shrikes before warblers and wheatears after them. Confused? You will be! It really doesn't take that long to get used to though but I do wish someone somewhere would decide on an agreed universal taxonomic order and stick with it.
No species is ignored in the book either, not with 1300 of them and their subspecies represented! Even the commonest species receive some absolute gems of information for those with an eye to ageing for example. Such information would normally have to be sought from institutions like Svensson's Identification Guide to European Passerines which was primarily aimed at ringers but which was hijacked by forward thinking field birders many years ago. For those inclined, the sort of folk you avoid talking to at parties at all costs, all the cutting edge stuff is on here too, including for example all eleven currently occurring b*#@rd offspring of Canada Goose and the rather complex assessment of gulls such as Common, Heuglin's, Yellow-legged, Caspian and Lesser Black-backed receive over a full page for each species. Birders with lives should turn away now...
Above: the main pages dealing with Yellow-legged, Armenian and Caspian Gull. The layout follows throughout the book with each species' age/sex on the left (in pink) and bullets points for each feature. The bullet points are very succinct and enable even the briefest look to acquire a full set of identification prerequisites. The detail within is really remarkable, even whilst dealing with perhaps some of the most variable species on the face of the earth!
I have failed thus far to locate any glaringly serious errors though I'm sure there might be one or two lurking in there. I have found slight disagreement with or feel one or two sections of the book which could perhaps have received better treatment but these are mainly due to the rapid advancement in certain areas of identification the book has not had chance to catch up with or simply the fact that a fuller discussion or evaluation of certain 'problems' just isn't feasible in such a succinct book. They are my own very minor quibbles though and certainly don't detract from just how admirably this book succeeds in what it sets out to do.
Given all this, you'd probably quite happily pay a fair old premium for such a book at the very cutting edge of current birding knowledge then. Twenty pounds perhaps? I think so. The actual price of £14 therefore seems an absolute steal yet hunt around and it can be had for just under a tenner! Ten whole pounds for this much information. No matter what level of birding you're currently at, you really can't ignore it at this price (or any other come to that!), whether reading it makes your head hurt or not. Even if you cannot understand what the hell it's all on about half the time, sooner or later it is going to come in so handy, that £10 seems like a giveaway.
So, in answer to our original question of 'do you need anything else in your birding life right now but this book?', the answer is of course yes. I mean, it's good, really good but its not all you'll ever need. Perhaps no book could ever be? The Handbook of Birds of the Western Palearctic was once thought to be such an important series of books, timeless and indispensable but look at them now. Lying laden with years worth of dust in old bookcases. Propping up wonky desks. Torn apart and used as wallpaper or simply utilised as improvised hammers.
Nils Van Donkydijk should be commended on his monumental effort in assimilating all this information and then getting it all published in one handy book. I have a feeling that it will be very easy to update in the coming years as the future of bird identification continues to advance and for that, it will be around for a very long time to come. Though I have yet to see one out and about in the field I unfortunately have no doubt it will find it's way into many a birder's pocket or rucksack and some might say rightly so. Be warned though. I carry a gun for just for such occasions!
Ian McKerchar, December 2010