THE EUROPEAN BIRDING JOURNALS AND MAGAZINES 'LOW-DOWN'
by Ian McKerchar
Above:The six main European birding publications Birdwatch, Birdwatching, Alula, Birding World, British Birds and Dutch Birding, here giving a comparison of size in relation to one and other.
Birding magazines, journals, publications, call them what you will, have been around for many years now, typified by British Birds magazine being in it's centenary issue having first been published in 1907! No doubt there are many birders who live their existence happily without ever reading any of them, whilst others simply cannot live without all of them and others still, myself included, rather pick and choose which publications offer the greatest interest and subscribe to them alone. They are very much a personal taste, some are more akin to the usual 'throw away' magazines that seemingly cover every conceivable subject under the sun whilst other are altogether more scientific and require more thorough reading. For me though, a few of them are a necessity in order to keep me up-to-date with current issues and developments in birding and during a short period in the mid to late 90's where I neither subscribed nor read any of them, I felt I missed many important issues and spent a good deal of time trying to get myself 'back up to speed'! So which is which and what's what, to find out, read on...
All magazines reviewed in this article were June 2007 issues and all comments are my own personal opinion and are therefore of course, not necessarily going to be the same as yours!!!
Available monthly, priced £3.60 per issue or £43.20 (UK) for an annual subscription. Publisher and Editor Dominic Mitchell, Photographic Consultant Steve Young, Identification Consultant Keith Vinicombe.
Birdwatch magazine has been with us for a quite a while now and produces an information packed magazine which is perhaps the most successful at encompassing a full range of birders, from 'bird lovers' (is that legal?) to garden or weekend birderwatchers (dudes included...come on, they're out there!) to regular, battle hardened birders, to twitchers, this magazine manages to include something to occupy and interest all of them.
It is well printed on good quality paper but suffers a little from 'death by adverts', although I suppose not only do they come in useful as and when you need them but they also supply a nice little extra income to the publishers! They detract little from the articles in the magazine though which are of course most important and I have to say that the two identification articles contained in the June issue were extremely good. The first, 'Common and Lesser Whitethroats', is written by one of the countries finest birders, Keith Vinicombe and his wealth of personal experience and opinion shines through, helped along the way by 3 photos and a beautiful painting by one of the UK's top bird artists Ren Hathaway, providing an insight that is rarely encountered in some field guides. The second identification article is a step further, again by Keith Vinicombe but this time covering the much rarer and more difficult to identify, Thrush Nightingale. It occupies 3 pages (the Whitethroats was only 2) and has 7 superb photos to illustrate Keith's clear, concise and very easily readable accounts and although there was nothing new there for me it was one of the best treatments on the species I had read for a very long time. Other than these articles there were 4 site guides, an article on birding in Panama covering 4 pages and with 6 very nice photos, a UK bird sightings round-up covering 9 pages and with 16 photos, many of which were unique to this magazine and others on Cyber Conservation, birding with MP3 players and a review of Kowa's new TSN- 770 'scope, letters, information, competitions, events and a tide table, pretty much everything you might require and whilst on the whole it offered me nothing new it was what it was...a pleasant, uncomplicated read!
Below (left), Thrush Nightingale given 'the full treatment' in Keith Vinicombe' s excellent identification article and (right) 'Quetzal Country', a particularly thorough article on birding in Panama by Dominic Mitchell.
Below (left), rarity round-ups from around the country are written by those who really should know and included many photos unique to this publication and (right), think you know everything there is about Common and Lesser Whitethoats? Keith Vinicombe' s very personal study and subsequent treatment of them in the pages of Birdwatch could give you that little insight and edge to assist you when you really need it most.
Available monthly, priced £3.60 per issue, subscriptions available. Editor Kevin Wilmot.
I have to own up to never having read Bird Watching magazine before and on reading it I quickly realised that it really wasn't for me. Despite attempting to cover everything a birder could wish for (including tide tables) it appears to be aimed at the more (dare I say it?) 'novice' birder and I found nothing of real interest for me personally. That said, it has a particular niche market that it appears to cater for admirably and if you should find it to your taste I don't think you'll ever look back!
The paper it was printed on appears to be the poorest quality here and the photographs contained within, whilst of an extremely high quality photographically, can suffer from an annoying sheen on the paper but some of them such as the Wood Warbler and Hobby on pages 18 and 19 respectively really are top-drawer. There were articles on 'Celebrating June' covering 6 pages complete with 5 photos, 'The Dark Side' by Mike Weedon on night birding, 6 pages and 9 photos, an identification article on 'Swallows, Swifts and Martins' by Dominic Couzens and illustrated by Dave Nurney covering 3 pages (2 of which were of artwork) which was actually very good with Dave's artwork typically refreshing in it's 'straight out of a notebook' quality. There was a 6 page article on Woodpigeons by Dominic Couzens which I have to say didn't 'float my boat' if you know what I mean, ten very good birding site guides and article on birding in Peru by Kevin Wilmot covering 4 pages and with 7 photos, binocular reviews (covering little known but decently priced Vortex and Steiner items) and the usual over indulgence of adverts. The UK bird sightings section towards the back of the magazine, covering 17 pages and with 11 photos appeared on the whole to have been written by the respective counties 'people in the know' but the treatment of Greater Manchester was a little puzzling as despite the individual sites being quite rightly written by their respective 'gurus' the overall highlights and 'other sites' appeared to be nothing more than a brief summary of information gathered from the information services, much of which came form the forum on this website (!) and were written by someone from outside the county! Further more, the 'probable first-summer Water Pipit' photograph which apparently caused some 'ID headaches at Beesands, South Devon' on page 93 is a littoralis Rock Pipit, in my humble opinion anyway!
Below, a nice, concise article on the identification of Swallow, Swifts and Martins by Dominic Couzens, admirably illustrated by Dave Nurney was one of the few items in the magazine that grabbed my attention and was worth more than a cursory glance.
Below (left) Kevin Wilmot' s birding Peru article whilst nicely illustrated lacked enough detail to be of any serious use, whilst the UK sightings round-up (right) was much more readable (the UK bird sightings rarity round-up being written by Richard Millington) but the claimed Water Pipit in Devon was infact a Scandinavian Rock Pipit and perhaps highlighted the magazine's lack of an identification consultant, unlike any of the other publications on review.
Four issues a year, priced at £24 for an annual subscription (£26 for airmail). Editor-in-chief Antero Topp, Editorial Consultants Per Alstrom, Dick Forsman, Hannu Jannes.
Unfortunately as of 2009 Alula has ceased production, a sad day for birding journals indeed!
Undoubtedly one of the less well known birding publications, Alula is a Finnish magazine printed wholly in English and is lavishly illustrated with photographs of the very highest quality available. A frankly beautiful publication, it's large print on glossy, high quality paper is perhaps the most easily readable on review and despite only providing four issues a year it is packed with articles and not burdened with adverts nor unnecessary rarity round-ups that take up room in seemingly every other publication on offer.
Alula is a large publication, infact the same size as the Birdwatch and Birdwatching magazines but it's production is impeccable, clearly amongst the class leaders and a credit to the editorial board. June's issue started with an identification article on 'Red-headed Buntings- juvenile and female plumages' by Pauli Dernjatin and Martti Vattulainen, covering 5 pages and with 18 photographs which I found excellent being brief, precisely to the point (avoiding the all too common waffle and padding of some ID articles) and most importantly, accurate! Other typically lavishly adorned articles included were 'Specific avifauna characteristics in Central Asia' by Kari T. Haataja and Pauli Dernjatin, an excellent 8 page, 26 photo article which was both highly informative and largely 'new' to me, 'Hungary from bird's eye of view' by Gergely Kovacs 9 pages and 13 beautiful photos and 'Birding Remote Peru' by Vincent van der Spek, a very detailed and informative guide, probably indispensable for anyone planning a visit and covering 11 pages with 18 photos. Shorter articles, though no less readable, were included on 'The refugio de vida silvestre Laquipampa: Incredible!' by Willem-Pier Vellinga, 3 pages and 4 photos covering finding your own birds (and birding locations) in Peru and 'Finnish Bird Artists- Hannu Sarvanne', with the inclusion of the Alula Tournament, a mystery bird photographic competition which I am unfortunately excluded form entering this year due to winning it last year!
Below (left), the identification of juvenile and female Red-headed Buntings is very nicely covered by this superb, highly informative article, with (right) another equally engrossing article on the birds and taxonomically interesting species of Central Asia.
Below, with easy to read print and bright, glossy images, articles such as those below covering (left) birding in Peru and (right) birding in Hungary are for me the most readable of all the publications on review and are thoughtfully laid out and superbly presented.
Available monthly, priced at £45 (UK) for an annual subscription. Editors Richard Millington and Steve Gantlett, Identification Consultants Per Alstrom, Arnoud B. van den Berg, Dick Forsman, Martin Garner, Lars Jonsson, Paul Lehman, Ian Lewington, Killian Mullarney, Brian Small and Lars Svensson.
I distinctly remember the launch of Birding World or Twitching as it was called then, as it coincided with a twitch to see the Ivory Gull in Saltburn, 1986 and the excitement and anticipation the publication created passed away much of the long train journey to see the bird, yes...train journey as I was only 16 at the time! Despite it's name change (a wise decision if you ask me) Birding World has improved no end over the years and in it's current format remains one of the most professionally produced and information packed publication for the more serious birder, with it's list of Identification Consultants hinting at the quality and accuracy of it's content, reading like a who's who in world birding.
Birding World has built up a reputation for attempting to push the boundaries of birding and more specifically bird identification more than most other publications and June's issue was no exception with two fine short articles, one on 'Moult and Fea's Petrel Identification' by Steve Howell and Brian Patterson (2 pages and 2 photos) and the other typically thought inducing and 'out-of-the box' thinking item by Martin Garner on 'Where do our Lapland Buntings come from' (5 pages and 6 photos). Other articles within include 'The Birding scene in Estonia' by Uku Paal (2 pages and 1 photo), 'Guatemala- the new birding Mecca in Central America' by Bryan Bland (6 pages and 13 photos) and 'Finding naturalised birds in France' by Frederic Jiguet (4 pages and 5 photos). One of Birding Worlds most consistently impressive features is it's superior monthly 'Bird News' section taking up a full 17 pages and featuring 43 superb, mouth-watering photos and is easily the most detailed and comprehensive monthly UK rarity account out of all those publications reviewed here, often featuring very useful short notes on identification or further details of the sighting after each photograph.
Below (left), easily amongst, if not surpassing the quality of rarity photographs in the other publications they make for a good proportion of the pages in the issue, although all is forgiven when you clasp eyes on them and (right), two fine and forward-thinking articles which typically set Birding World as a 'must have' for serious birders.
Below, foreign birding articles such as these typify Birding World's pioneering spirit and are predictably detailed, informative and necessary.
Available monthly, priced at £47 (UK) for an annual subscription. Editor Roger Riddington, Editorial Board Dawn Balmer, Ian Carter, Richard Chandler, Martin Collinson, Chris Kehoe, Robin Prytherch, Nigel Redman, Roger Riddington and Steve Votier, Art Consultants Robert Gilmor and Alan Harris, Photographic Consultants Robin Chittenden and David Tipling.
Bill Oddie got it right when he used to advertise British Birds with the slogan 'you can't call yourself a real birder until you read British Birds' and those words still ring true today, it is without doubt the most important publication of all those on review, on the odd occasion coming close to being 'over scientific' for my tastes but on the whole the one I could do least without.
June's review edition was a classic and the majority of it's pages were taken up with two main articles, 'Rare Breeding Birds in the United Kingdom in 2003 and 2004' by Mark Holling and the Rare Breeding Birds Panel and 'A Survey of Breeding Black-necked Grebes in the UK: 1973-2004' by Brain Martin and Judith Smith. The former takes up the most room at 47 pages and is in information terms, an absolute gold-mine, filled with breeding details of wonderful species perhaps hinting at possible colonisations or more sadly at species we seem likely to loose, it has numerous graphs, charts, photographs and pieces of artwork and contains enough 'little gems' to surprise anyone. The latter article is co-written by our very own county recorder (incidentally, she is also part of the Rare Breeding Birds Panel from the former article!), it runs at 11 pages, has several pictures, charts and maps and is typical for British Birds articles in it's thoroughness, detail and comprehensive coverage of it's subject. The regular British Birds features are no less important or readable with the 'Notes' section uniquely providing continual advancement of our knowledge and understanding of everything from this issues 'Slavonian Grebe breeding with Great Crested Grebe' to 'Reed Warbler apparently using willow-bark pieces in nest construction' and remaining one of the few routes for birders of all levels and knowledge to contribute to ornithological study. The 'Reviews' section does 'exactly what it says on the tin' but the 'News and comment' section continues to relay important (and sometimes not so important!) information to it's readers in a very 'friendly', readable and often light-hearted manner. Finally there is the usual 'Recent reports' section of 3 pages and 4 photos covering recent UK rarities which despite being short and sweet I personally find no where near as readable as the rest of the publication and much poorer compared to those similar sections in other publications on review here, it seems a little bit of a token gesture in it's current format and one I'd rather see improved or dropped completely.
Below (left), the annual Rare Breeding Birds Panel's report is an absolute mine of information and is, for my personal tastes, only superseded by the British Birds Rarities Committee's report later in the year in the same publication but is probably more important in ornithological terms and (right) another survey reaching British Birds impeccably high standards and providing informative reading.
Below (right) the 'News and Comment' section is not only a hive of information but is unique in it's detail and readability, whereas the recent reports section (right) is short and sweet, all it needs to be really but a bit of a token gesture for me!
Available bi-monthly, priced at £25 for an annual subscription. Chief Editor Arnoud van den Berg, Editorial Advisory Board Peter Barthel, Mark Constantine, Gunter De Smet, Dick Forsman, Ricard Gutierrez, Anthony McGeehan, Killian Mullarney, Klaus Malling Olsen, Magnus Robb, George Sangster, Hadoram Shirihai Brian Small and Lars Svensson.
June's issue was perhaps not the greatest from a British birders points of view, there being a larger than normal proportion of Dutch worded articles but that on 'Falcated Ducks in the Netherlands and the WP' by Max Berlijn at 8 pages long and complete with 13 photographs was of genuine use and both very thoroughly researched and presented, as you'd expect from this top-class publication. Other articles such as the occurrences of Marbled Ducks and Eastern Imperial Eagle in the Netherlands despite being 7 and 4 pages long respectively, provided no more than half a page at best of English summary and other short articles throughout provided similarly brief summaries yet one or two, including book reviews and a very nice short piece on Diademed Plover complete with 2 beautiful photographs were in English? Almost half the publication is taken with summaries of Western Palearctic bird reports (15 pages and 32 photos), Dutch rarities round-up (11 pages and 22 pictures) and those for Belgium (3 and a half pages and 5 photos) with all but the Western Palearctic round-up being written in Dutch but this matters not as the Western Pal. section is head and shoulders better than anything produced by any other publication and those 59 photographs in the three sections are often of literally stunning quality and make the best use of the wonderful quality of the paper and print the publication utilises.
Below (left), the treatment of occurrences of Falcated Duck in the Western Palearctic is well up to Dutch Birding's excellent reputation, whilst the summary of Western Palearctic reports (right) not only contains many stunning and truly mouth-watering photos but is easily the most detailed and comprehensive coverage of any of the publications on review here.
The review of Dutch rarities (left) and of occurrences of Eastern Imperial Eagle in the Netherlands (right) are both written in Dutch, albeit with a short English summary for the latter but this detracts little from the visual impact of their excellent photographs.
Each publication has something different to offer the reader and whilst some are clearly more readable than others this will largely depend on exactly what you desire and expect from your material. For me personally, I don't subscribe to either Birdwatch or Birdwatching as basically there's usually not an awful lot I can learn from either of these two publications although I do subscribe to the remaining four and find them each as necessary as the others although their content obviously varies from month to month, for example the July edition of British Birds contained a world-class identification article on the small northern hemisphere petrels which was easily worth the annual subscription fee alone and one on a review of moult and ageing in Jaegers (smaller Skuas) in August's Alula was similarly worthwhile! That both my copies of Birdwatch and Birdwatching regularly found themselves being left in the bathroom (☺) is testament to their true 'magazine' qualities in containing nothing too taxing on the brain, complicated or complex and in making light reading, easily dipped into without getting too involved. Whilst the others all provide similar qualities in smaller doses they more often contain articles that require a greater depth of concentration in order to absorb and assimilate their content and more often also a greater degree of 'base knowledge' to facilitate that understanding, something I personally relish.
If I had to pick a favourite it would possibly be Alula, for me the most readable and perhaps, well produced publication but then again Birding World probably most often has the best and most thought provoking identification articles (always my favourites) and British Birds is quite frankly the one I could least live without such is it's importance, afterall the British Birds Rarities Committee report on rare birds is a personal annual highlight even if my own name never features enough for my liking, Dutch birding is more hit and miss but when it does feature identification articles they are invariably absolutely essential and it's relatively low price and high content of wonderful photographs make it another must subscribe for me. So there it is, I personally cannot live without British Birds, Birding World, Alula and Dutch Birding, without doubt the four highest quality and most professionally produced publications on review here and whilst I don't purchase either Birdwatch or Birdwatching myself, I wouldn't refuse the opportunity to peruse the pages of Birdwatch without actually having to dip into my own pocket for the privilege.
The only other publication available but not reviewed here is Birds Illustrated, self appointed as the 'world's most beautiful bird magazine' and published four times a year. Having never seen the publication, their claim is intriguing to say the least so if anyone out there has a copy they would be happy to lend me in order to review, especially one from June 2007, then please contact me here.
Ian McKerchar, September 2007