Birdwatcher`s Pocket Field Guide
Birdwatcher`s Pocket Field
Guide – Mark Golley - New Holland £9.99
By Guest Reviewer John Cantelo
This book`s dimensions, design and layout clearly owe much to the confusingly similarly named (New) Birdwatcher`s Pocket Guide (Peter Hayman, Published by Mitchell Beazley). However, unlike that book, and most field guides, this volume is aimed squarely at the British market since it covers only 280 species. For the kitchen sink/novice/intermediate birdwatcher there is much to be said for this approach; such a guide can be smaller, thus more portable, and, uncluttered by irrelevant species, less confusing. Despite the ever growing range of field guides available, this is a niche that has yet to be satisfactorily filled. The author, Mark Golley, certainly knows his stuff and the principle artist, Dave Daly, is a remarkably talented artist. Inevitably, the number and choice of birds in a book like is debatable, but in this the guide has got it about right. So is this the guide for the tyro birder? Sadly not.
First there are those plates. Delicate, artistic and reminiscent of some of Lars Jonsson`s finest work, Daly`s paintings are simply gorgeous. It is very regrettable that such a fine artist does not enjoy equal billing with the author, but instead has his name tucked away in the acknowledgements. This, perhaps, indicates the publisher`s failure to understand the crucial role of the plates in a work of this sort. This seems to be confirmed by the fact that they have been recycled from earlier New Holland publications rather than specifically designed for a field guide. Hence the range of plumages illustrated is more limited than it ought to be and not all species are shown in flight (e.g. Ruff & Curlew Sandpiper). Further, whilst very attractive, Daly`s loose style isn`t always best suited for identification. In this respect the small number by Stephen Message, being more precise and less arty, tend to be of more practical use. Ironically, the fewer still entirely executed by Clive Byers seem to show a better grasp of the demands of field guide illustration. Were they alone specifically prepared for this guide? If you`re attracted by the artwork, then buy one of the 4 or 5 alternative books in which they appear, usually on a larger scale. The recommendations given in this volume, of these and other New Holland books, three-quarters of the total in all, is overly self-serving of the publisher.
The text is written in a lively, refreshing style; any account of male Mandarin that starts with Wow has to be welcomed. Compared to other guides the descriptions are brief and lack detail, but generally they do the job as long as species with complex or subtle plumages stay out of sight. The lack of maps isn`t a problem given the restricted scope of the book and textual distribution notes are generally sufficient. The symbols used to indicate habitat and status are useful, but to a large degree rendered superfluous by succinct descriptions of the same within the text. These two elements are not always well co-ordinated; Cormorant only has a symbol for coastal but the text also describes it as being found inland in the southeast and Midlands. Similarly Spoonbill`s status, according to the symbol, is uncommon, but the text informs the reader that spring flocks are not uncommon! There is a similar inconsistency in the section on Confusion species; Song Thrush`s sole confusion species is given as Mistle Thrush`, yet the Redwing`s lone confusion species is given as Song Thrush!
Although it has some weaknesses and could not be recommended to an avid birder, thus far it doesn`t sound unsuitable for the casual birdwatcher being concise and simple with handsome, if not always entirely utilitarian, illustrations. However, the chosen arrangement of species has sabotaged what might have been a useful, if limited little book and rendered it near useless as a field guide. The birds are organised neither taxonomically nor by similarity, but by habitat. In the introduction the author explains that The most obvious habitat you think of for the species is where you`ll find them!. This sounds simple enough, but presupposes that a novice birder must already know what the species is for how else may they divine its obvious habitat? Even the experienced birdwatcher will have problems decoding the logic of some decisions. For example, Hoopoe, Wryneck and Short-toed Lark are located in the section on coastal birds. To be fair, whilst this isn`t really their favoured habitat, it is where most of them are actually found in the Britain. However, by the same token Icterine, Melodious and Barred Warblers ought to be in the same section, but they`re to be found under woodlands.
The absurdity of this arrangement can be seen by the treatment of waders. These are split, sometimes arbitrarily, between sections coastal and wetland birds. Grey Phalarope is defined as a coastal bird whereas Red-necked is a wetland one. This also means that their species accounts are sixty pages apart, which hardly aids comparison. In contrast, being on the same page Little Ringed Plover and Ringed Plover can be compared, but only at the expense of defining the gravel-pit loving LRP as a coastal species. A result of this stupefyingly crass organisation, many species can only confidently be located by thumbing through the index and even when located are not conveniently treated together. Unfortunately, as noted above, the designation of confusion species doesn`t always tell the whole story so the observer may well be blissfully unaware of potential identification problems.
As an experienced birdwatcher
familiar with the taxonomic order I clearly have a bias against the novel arrangement used. However, when I field trialed it with a
group of novice birdwatchers, they too quickly spotted the inherent weaknesses in the guide. It is a pity that the publishers
themselves seem to have spent more time in the design studio than in the field. Had they done so then an attractive and moderately
useful book might have resulted.
Created: 17th May 2003