Bird Observatories of Britain and Ireland


The ways in which birders track down or study migrants and vagrants have changed significantly in the 35 years since the original Bird Observatories of Britain and Ireland was published. Technology and transport now allow instant notification of and response to the rarities that are such a feature of observatories, dispensing with the need to stay at isolated outposts on the off-chance of coinciding with a mega or a downpour of migrants. Moreover, many easily accessed sites around our coast have been found to be every bit as productive for migrants as the established observatories.

So, has the mystique and appeal of the ‘obs’ – particularly those on islands and so alluring to earlier generations of adventurous birders – been lost? Judging from the accounts in this book, the answer is a resounding ‘no’.

The descriptions of each observatory include location, history, birds and other wildlife. Rarities, best migration days, and personalities and events are described at varying length. Appendices include checklists and numbers of birds ringed, firsts for Britain, and observatory staff past and present.

The individual authors’ accounts are, for the most part, engaging and informative, capturing the special qualities of each site. They wax suitably lyrical about vagrants and the amazing – if frustratingly unpredictable and irregular – falls of migrants that are the dream of birding visitors, and the atmosphere of excitement and anticipation that only an obs can generate.

Some of these descriptions are nicely succinct without sacrificing interest and information; others, by contrast, have an unfortunate excess of domestic or personal detail. Space is also sometimes devoted over-generously to the occurrence of a single bird. More disciplined editing would have sharpened the text and reduced the size (and probably cost) without compromising the book’s undoubted usefulness and appeal.

While the ornithological reputations of, say, Fair Isle or Portland are well known, as impressive to me is the respective authors’ unwavering enthusiasm for the likes of Copeland and Hilbre.In terms of migrant abundance and rarities, these spots would barely qualify for the Conference National. Nevertheless, dedicated patch-watchers maintain a passion for tiny west coast islands, peri-industrial sites and seaside enclaves boasting “some of the finest but emptiest Heligoland traps”. And a local rarity at a minor site is every bit as exciting to its devotees as a national first at a major one.

Bird observatories are, as the editors affirm, a mixture of fun and serious business. I cut my migrant birding teeth on the Isle of May and can vouch for the unique thrill that migrants or, more often than not, the unrequited anticipation of them provokes. In general, this book successfully conveys this sensation and I recommend it to everyone who has ever visited an observatory, especially if they have an abiding interest in a particular one. What I’d like to see now is a volume describing the best bird observatories in the world. I’m sure that a few of ours would merit inclusion.

Tech Spec

Bird Observatories of Britain and Ireland edited by Mike Archer, Mark Grantham, Peter Howlett and Steve  Stansfield (T & AD Poyser, London, 2010).

608 pages, 41 colour and numerous black-and-white photographs.

ISBN 9781408110409. Hbk, £60.

First published in Birdwatch 227:46 (May 2011)

Available from Birdwatch Bookshop