Catching the Bug

OUR VERDICT: This really is a unique book, a local avifauna with a national, international and intellectual perspective; every birder will benefit from reading it.

There is a tried and tested formula for local avifaunas, but this tome on Poole Harbour isn’t it. In this fourth title in The Sound Approach series, a wide-ranging natural history of Britain’s largest natural harbour and especially its birds, Mark Constantine, Nick Hopper and friends have – as before – thrown convention to the wind.

There can’t be many avifaunas which open with an IRA bomb attack, meander through the geology and landscape of an ancient ecosystem and then balance the trials and tribulations of local birding with one eye permanently on cutting-edge ID and the other on the local pub. This eclectic mix makes for a highly readable, entertaining and informative experience.

Of the sometimes intriguingly named chapters (‘Bill Oddie, Bill Oddie, rub your beard on my body’, for example), I particularly enjoyed those featuring Dartford (or ‘Bibby’s’) Warbler, Poole Harbour rarities, cormorants (with detailed plates of carbo and sinensis by Killian Mullarney), gulls, seawatching, visible migration and chiffchaffs. This last chapter already featured as an extract in Birdwatch (242: 35-38) and led to some controversy with its comments over Siberian Chiffchaff ID – claims subsequently supported by the extraordinary findings from birds trapped and DNA tested in The Netherlands.

Like other Sound Approach titles, this one comes with two CDs. The recordings support the text and are designed for playing at particular points during reading. Dorset birders will particularly enjoy the atmospheric soundtrack of key sites and species in their home county, but others can also sit back and soak up the scratchy songs of Dartford Warblers, the less appealing guttural utterances of those cormorants, ‘Glip Crossbill type C’ (certainly subtle), a plethora of chiffchaff vocalisations from Anatolia, the Caucasus and Siberia (educational) and both ‘Reedbed Cuckoo’ and ‘Forest Cuckoo’ (fascinating). The flight calls of numerous diurnal migrants are especially helpful.

This really is a unique book, a local avifauna with a national, international and intellectual perspective. When I originally heard it mentioned in the same context as Gilbert White’s 1789 The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne the parallel seemed misplaced, but having now enjoyed it at length it is easy to see Catching the Bug as a modern incarnation of that kind of classic work. Knowledge of or interest in Dorset in general and Poole Harbour in particular is not a prerequisite to sharing that enjoyment: every birder will benefit from reading Catching the Bug.

  • Catching the Bug by Mark Constantine, Nick Hopper and The Sound Approach (The Sound Approach, Poole, 2012).
  • 287 pages, numerous colour photos, illustrations and sonograms, two CDs.
  • ISBN 9789081093309. Hbk, £29.95. Birdwatch Bookshop: from £26.95.