COLLINS BIRD GUIDE 2ND EDITION
HAS THE BEST JUST GOT BETTER?
by Ian McKerchar
First published in the UK in 1999, the Collins Bird Guide has, in my opinion atleast, clearly been the best guide of it's kind, period! Of course it 'only' covers Britain and Europe but there is nothing out there for any region in the world to compete with the quality of it's illustrations and of course, the high standard of the information contained within. I have owned three copied of the first edition. An original 1999 hardback version which now resides in Northern Cyprus, a 2001 softback which has now become my 'all-in-one' reference bible complete with covers bulging under stapled identification papers and pagers littered with scribbles of information gleaned from the field. My final copy is the original large edition which quite frankly I have barely even opened but came as a much appreciated Christmas present. So, with three copies in my possession do I even need the 2nd edition? Oh yes!
Out with the old (right) and in with the new (left).
This 2nd and revised edition features no less than 41 new species, 33 of which are as a result of recent taxonomic changes. There are 24 entirely new plates and I found a total of 84 species amongst it's pages which had been either complete redrawn or heavily reworked with many others treated to minor changes and improvements. The artists Killian Mullarney and Dan Zetterstrom have made busy with the pencils and paints and have breathed new life into what was a damn fine set of plates in the first place. They are all to often breathtaking in their attention to detail and quality and that's coming from a reviewer who is particularly fastidious in this area. The changes to the plates though are to be fair, just too numerous to list here without boring the pants off you all but amongst my favourite improvements to them are:
Other than the huge amount of changes to the individual species plates, on the whole the reproduction in the 2nd edition is far superior to the 1st. Each plate looks visibly sharper (compare the pipits for example) and with a few exceptions, the colours much more lifelike. There are many more identification pointers added to the plates too and the vignettes, those small illustrative sketches which enliven each and every page include many new additions too. The vignettes are in fact a particular favourite of mine, they are more than just 'little sketches' and it can be surprising just how useful and lifelike they can be. Amongst the numerous new ones, the Song and Swainson's Thrush vignette on the catharus thrushes plate is an absolute cracker and was my instant favourite, especially as long before I ever saw my first Swainson's on Scilly back in the late 80's, I always wondered just how small they were compared to a Song Thrush. The section on gulls is amongst the most revised in the whole book and has perhaps been long awaited by many. Not me though, as before the book was published I could close my eyes and envisage the huge influx of Caspian Gull submissions to the county rarities committee with the new found knowledge at the fingertips of observers. In fairness, given the often mind-boggling complexity of the subject matter, the new splits and treatments are done just about as well as could be expected with the space provided, helped no doubt by the wise and well chosen influence of those expert gullers chosen to assist the authors in this edition. Fortunately, the Caspian Gulls are portrayed in 'classic' mode with almost grotesque long bills and all the requisite pro-identification features in place. If only it were always that easy!
Old on the bottom and new on top. The accipiter plate (left) is much revised in the 2nd edition and is now less cluttered but the falcon plate (right) in the 2nd edition is unchanged and still omits my precious Taiga and Steppe Merlin data.
Old on the bottom and new on top. The hippos on the left are not necessarily so much of an improvement and are basically just reshuffled but the standard of the written description for Syke's Warbler has been much improved with our new found knowledge. I still couldn't do without the indispensable information scribbled and stapled into my old copy though! The renaming of Western Olivaceous Warbler to Isabelline Warbler in the 2nd edition took me by complete surprise. Where on earth had I been when they changed the name of that! The phylloscopus warblers on the right and in particular the Bonelli's duo are much improved and most of the scribbles in my old copy have been incorporated in some way, especially those on orientalis.
So the plate revisions are an overwhelming success, but they are not without fault. Some are personal perhaps but others are not and in my fairly brief search through the book I found the illustrations of the race samamisicus Redstart to be perhaps misleading, I still don't much like the illustration of Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler, the greys of the male harriers are just too dark, the Oriental Turtle Doves look a tad too dark and rich for my liking, the Trocaz Pigeon illustration has a 'shadow' at the tip of the tail and primaries of the left wing (perhaps where they were shortened by the artist?) and Common Redpoll remains untouched and is therefore still confusing and unhelpful, although the authors and artist may have been very astute indeed in steering well clear of that particular complex!
The species descriptions are also key to the new edition and clearly Lars Svensson has by and large done a superb job of incorporating the most up-to-date information out there in the constantly improving and ground-breaking discipline of modern bird identification. There are many errors however in spelling, punctuation and the like but I personally found none to be distracting and had to have most pointed out to me, perhaps something more to do with the standard of my own spelling and punctuation! They are apparently being taken seriously enough however and should be swiftly amended in future reprints and so if you like your books error free you might be well served waiting for the soft-back edition or later ones still. Personally I think you'll be missing out on all that information in the meantime and you never know, the first editions laden with their minor, unperceivable errors could be worth a bob or two in years to come! Some of the vagrants in the section at the end of the book I found rather curiously chosen and I was surprised (and perhaps a little disappointed) that Double-crested Cormorant didn't receive full treatment this time around but I can forgive all these. The topography section at the very front of the 1st edition is now gone and whilst it exclusion was somewhat perplexing, not least as it now leaves just an empty white page, we really all should know a bird's topography off by heart by now anyway, it really is that important.
If it's not the plates nor the information within the 2nd edition which should appeal though it should be the fact that the book is so up-to-date which ought to force you to purchase it. Such is the cutting edge of it's taxonomy that I hadn't even heard of a couple of species in there! Take a look at the treatment afforded to Great Grey Shrike for instance and you'll see just what I mean when I say cutting edge. Some will no doubt disagree with the inclusion of some species, some of the splits or others which they perhaps feel should have been split but weren't, though for me, like the strange new order for some of the species which will take some getting used to, I'm happy to be led by the hand in that particular arena (although I still wince slightly at the inclusion in a field guide of such a potentially difficult bird as Heuglin's Gull). Some of the 'star' ratings given to those species occurring as rarities in the UK are out of date or incorrect but let's face it, they have little value either way despite it being nice to find your own 'three star rarity' from time to time.
The species maps are yet another major leap forward as practically all of them have been revised substantially and they represent the most comprehensive and up-to-date maps available for the region. There are a few omissions but by and large these are either very local populations or those not stable enough to be worth featuring and have little or no effect on the overall worth of the maps. Lars Svensson is to be commended yet again.
Clearly my old copy is now fit for bursting, filled with stapled articles and scribbled notes throughout. So will the 2nd edition see me disposing of my beloved 'bible'? Not quite. It's good (in fact very good) but it's not that good and all that excess baggage doubling the size of my old copy is practically invaluable. They shall live in harmony side by side.
If you don't already have this book in any of it's previous editions then you really are missing out and at the purchase price of £25 (not withstanding it can be bought considerably cheaper on the internet) it represents incredible value for money and could well be the only guide you'll ever need for the region. If you happen to have the first edition already then shove it to the back of your bookshelf, give it to your local charity, cut the pages out and cover your walls in them but buy this new edition and revel in it's overwhelming improvements. This book should rightly be judged on the quality and quantity of up-to-date, cutting edge information within it and on that it cannot be bettered. The harder and deeper you look the more you realise just how good the artwork really is and just how much information they have packed into what is at the end of the day, a field guide. It's not surprising really considering the esteemed reputation and field experience of authors and artists alike but I have to admit to feeling heartened by their tribute to the honour and involvement of the late, great man himself by their opening comment on the very first page 'with a significant contribution by Peter J.Grant'.
Ian McKerchar, February 2010