A birder’s bookshelf – some titles for enthusiasts
Most keen birders will have any number of field guides within easy reach. Some of them will be on their bookshelves, others are probably scattered around the house, and there is quite probably one or two in the car and/or caravan. I have one in each of our cars, so no matter which car we are in, a field guide like the one pictured above is within easy reach. Even non-birders – that rare breed of people who only occasionally look at birds – will have at least one bird guide lurking on their bookshelf. Over the years I have reviewed some of these guides on this site – just type ”
Even non-birders – that rare breed of people who only occasionally look at birds – will have at least one bird guide lurking on their bookshelf. Over the years I have reviewed some of these guides on this site – just type “reviews” or “books” or “field guides” in the search box.
Other bird books
Books about birds are not confined to just field guides. There are thousands of other titles out there which are all about birds. I recently came across a list of titles in an article called A Birder’s Bookshelf: Essentials for the well-read Avian Enthusiast. I must admit that I have only ever heard of two of the titles listed, This is because the list is centred on American titles (though there is one Australian title) and my bookshelves show that my collection is more inclined towards Australia, but not exclusively.
The following is a list of the books on my shelves, or books I have read, which I would recommend as good reads. I should point out that there are no field guides on this list – don’t be fooled by the first title; it’s a novel. The first two titles have links to my reviews.
- A Guide to the Birds of East Africa: a novel by Nicholas Drayson. This is an absolute delight to read and is all about the eccentricities of the birding fraternity.
- Brushed by feathers by Frances Wood – this is a delightful, lyrical recount of the birds in the life of the author over the course of one year.
- The Birdwatcher – by William McInnes – a novel about the conflict between finding an elusive Australian bird, and developing a sound romantic relationship. Written by one of Australia’s favourite actors. it is not a soppy romance, by the way.
- Bill Oddie Unplucked: columns, blogs and musings by Bill Oddie. This laugh-a-page book in typical Oddie fashion includes many excerpts from his blog and his many newspaper and magazine columns about birds. It covers birding on most continents.
- Bill Oddie’s Gripping Yarns by Bill Oddie – similar to the last item above.
- The Malleefowl: the Bird that Builds and Incubator by H.J. Frith – this is a very old title (published in 1962) but is still an authoritative work on this amazing Australian species. I bought mine via eBay. It is a classic work.
- The Big Twitch by Sean Dooley – an exciting account of one man’s quest pitted against a continent and a calendar. Sean’s account tells how he gave up working to chase after over 700 species of Australian birds in one year.
- The Birds Our Teachers: Biblical Lessons from a lifelong bird-watcher by John Stott – written from the perspective of Christian faith by the well-known writer, lecturer, scholar and preacher.
Good reading. Good birding.
Review: Brushed by Feathers
Review: Brushed by feathers: a year of birdwatching in the west by Frances Wood (2004, Fulcrum Publishing, Colorado).
What a delightful book. I was given a copy by someone (a friend of a friend) who attended one of my bird talks. I am normally reluctant to let people lend me books to read, no matter how interesting the subject matter because I have so many books and magazines of my own waiting for my attention. Still, out of politeness I accepted this title, and I’m so pleased that I did.
At first I only read a few pages in bed before turning off the light. As I moved further into the text I became hooked – no, spellbound. This is one special book, and all about birds I know nothing about. The author lives on Puget Sound in Washington State near the Pacific Ocean. It is a significant body of water for many water-bird species and the hinterland a passageway for many other migrating species.
The book is an account of a year, month by month, in the birding life of one small area: the author’s small acreage around her home – with occasional trips elsewhere or reminiscing accounts of earlier trips and experiences. From the Barn Swallows nesting under the eaves to various hummingbirds visiting her feeder through to rare encounters, the author takes the reader on a journey of wide-eyed, wondering and fascinated observations of the daily lives of her feathered friends.
Her descriptions of the house and garden, the local environment, weather and daily happenings take the reader into her confidence until we feel almost part of her family. Her lyrical style draws the reader on from bird to beautiful bird, each described with care – as if each was her personal favourite.
The author’s web page can be seen here.
Review: A field guide to the birds of Colombia
Colombia in South America is every birder’s dream destination. With well over 1800 species – more than any other country – its vast range of wonderful species is an attraction many find irresistible. With the relative stabilisation politically in the last few years, many birders are making this a “must visit” country. I wish I could join them. Maybe one day.
I bought a copy as a gift for a family member with close ties to Colombia. Before giving the guide as a present I must admit I spent quite a few hours browsing – and dreaming. Would I one day be able to afford to travel there and see some of the colourful birds covered by this guide?
Colombia has been without a modern field guide for some decades. This volume fills the void admirably, covering every species ever recorded there. The authors note, however, that the forthcoming Spanish edition may well have a few additions to this, the English version. Species are being added every year as new knowledge of the nation’s natural environment emerges.
The authors have done an amazing job covering every bird species in a country so rich in bird life. This guide, despite covering every species, is lightweight, compact, thin and would travel easily in a backpack – or a large pocket. It is arranged in an easy to use manner with every species illustrated, many with both male and female plumage as well as some juvenile plumages. Where helpful to identification, species are shown in flight. That’s no mean feat with over 1800 species in only 225 smallish pages!
They have achieved this compactness by keeping the illustrations small; most are 3 – 4 cm and are to scale compared with others on the same page. Most pages cover 6 – 8 species on average. In addition to the illustrations, the information is very succinct and basic:
- Common English name,
- Taxonomic name,
- Size from head to tail (centimetres and inches)
- A short one or two sentence description of its preferred habitat and diagnostic behaviours.
- A tiny map of known distribution appears in each species’ box, including an altitudinal indicator which is especially helpful in the mountainous regions.
- Some species descriptions also cover a brief indicator of the song or call.
All that in only 225 pages. Amazing.
I’d recommend this book just for the fun of looking at all the beautiful birds even if you are not planning a trip to Colombia. Warning: looking at this book may have you busily planning your next birding trip – to Colombia.
Authors: Miles McMullan, Thomas D. Donegan, Alonso Quevedo
Title: Field Guide to the Birds of Colombia.
Publication: 2010 by ProAves in Bogota, Colombia.
Review: Field Guide to the Birds of Australia 8th edition
Everyone interested in birds needs at least one field guide to help with the identification of the birds being seen.
I have several. Ten, in fact. Six of them are Australian field guides, plus I have one covering the birds of South East Asia, one of the Indian sub-continent and two for the British Isles and Europe.
Now I have another one! This field guide is being published TODAY.
Field Guide to the birds of Australia 8th edition
by Ken Simpson and Nicolas Day
(with Peter Trusler)
Ease of use
Many years ago I was given the first edition of this very popular field guide. It has remained largely on my bookshelf in my office, referred to from time to time but never taken out into the field. This was because of its bulky size and being in hardback couldn’t really be called a “field guide” as it was too big to carry around. Recent editions have been far more portable, and this new edition is excellent: convenient size, portable, and at 826 grams just the right weight.
There are many fine features in this edition. There are so many I can only highlight those I think are worth mentioning.
There are 132 full page colour plates throughout which illustrate every bird found in Australia. The publisher’s use of the word “comprehensive” on the cover is no idle boast. Each colour plate shows about five or six different species, most shown in typical poses to help identification. Birds most often seen in flight, such as eagles and sea birds like terns, are also shown in flight. The colour rendition of each species appears very good in most cases, especially those I am very familiar with. One page I’d take exception to is the plate showing White-eyes and Silvereyes, as the birds I’ve seen in this group have far more vibrant colours. The ‘red’ robins suffer the same fate, along with some of the fairy-wrens. On the other hand, the rendition of the cuckoos, parrots doves and pigeons are very colourful and well done. The birds of prey (owls, hawks, eagles and kites) are brilliant.
Opposite each colour plate where the birds are illustrated is the text page. Each species has a short description of the bird, including sexual and race variations. The text also includes details of size, juvenile plumage, voice and preferred habitats. Breeding information is included in a separate section. The text is the part of this guide of which I am most critical. For my needs it is too short, too concise. In many cases I will need to go elsewhere in my library to find the information I need. For the casual bird watcher it is quite adequate. I concede that to expand this section to please me would probably add 20-30% more pages to the volume making it less portable in the field. The authors must have had some tough decisions to make along the way.
Next to the text they have included some 900 black and white sketches showing identification features hard to include in the text. This is an excellent feature. The text section is complete with a small map showing normal breeding and non-breeding distribution. Another excellent feature of the maps is to delineate the range of each race of the species, along with extra notes on some species where deemed necessary.
A separate section details comprehensive breeding information. This includes a brief description of the nest, number and colour of eggs, incubation periods and what the hatchlings look like. It includes fledging periods and some notes about the care of the young until independence. Each species also has a bar graph showing typical breeding seasons.
Special note must be made about the 21 pages of vagrant species included at the end of the colour plates. These pages show sightings of species not normally present in Australia (ie vagrants) but which have been officially accepted on to the Australian list of birds. Some have only been seen the once, others on only a handful of occasions.
Other features: these are too many to review here. All I can do is add a list:
- A water resistant cover – useful on wet days in the field.
- Help for beginners on how to observe a bird.
- Where birds live – a useful, informative section on variations in habitats.
- Australian island territories checklists
- Hints for birdwatchers
- An extensive glossary of words used by birders.
- A list of bird-watching organisations.
- Core library – an extensive list of publications the authors suggest for keen birders to build up their own reference library.
We are so blessed here in Australia with so many excellent birding field guides. Each has strengths and weaknesses, so the choice of which to buy becomes an agonising one. I have no hesitation in recommending this new edition because of the comprehensive coverage of Australian birds in a compact, easy to use volume. An truly incredible amount of information has been packed into its 381 pages. The publisher claims to have sold over 500,000 copies in earlier editions. This new, completely revised 8th edition will continue that trend and sell many more copies in the future.
While I would like more information in the text this is just a personal need; not everyone needs the detail I require. For the vast majority of people with a passing interest in our birds, this is an ideal guide to have on the bookshelf or in the car or rucksack when travelling. At a RRP of $39.95 it is also very affordable.
Disclosure: The publicist of Penguin Books Australia kindly sent me a review copy a few weeks ago. Thanks Leisel.
- Simpson, Ken, and Day, Nicholas, 2010, Field guide to the birds of Australia 8th edition. Viking (Penguin Books), Camberwell, Victoria.
- Penguin Books Australia – click here to visit their web site. Click here to read an extract.
My bird photos go near and far
It always amazes me how far reaching my blog ventures in the Big World out there. Last time I checked I have readers from over 120 countries. That’s impressive, and not little humbling.
I also get many requests regarding birds and birding, including:
- help with identifying birds
- care of injured or orphaned birds
- where to see birds
- guest speaking engagements (I’ll go anywhere – just provide the airline ticket please; I have a current passport)
- requests to use my photos
The last one is interesting. I’ve have many requests for the use of my photos, including:
- illustrations for school projects
- features in newspapers
- use in magazines
- illustration in pamphlets and posters
And now I’ve been asked if a publisher of children’s books in LITHUANIA can use the photo below of an Australian Magpie in a children’s book about magpies of the world. (Note: this species is not a true magpie).
Amazing where my photos find themselves!