Gulls of Europe, Asia and North America


More than 20 years after the publication of the seminal Gulls – a Guide to Identification by the late Peter Grant, we now have its successor, Gulls of Europe, Asia and North America by Klaus Malling Olsen and Hans Larsson, the third in a series of major collaborations by these two authors. Those familiar with the two previous titles, Terns of Europe and North America and Skuas and Jaegers, will be familiar with the formula, but at just over 600 pages Gulls is a much larger book, and the inclusion of more than 800 photographs and 83 colour plates makes this a particularly impressive and attractive tome.

I believe anyone with a serious interest in gull identification, and many more who have yet to discover the allure of this fascinating and, from an identification perspective, most challenging group, should have this book. Apart from the considerable first-hand experience of the authors, it draws on a comprehensive array of reference material, and the end result is a thorough and up-to-date compilation that reflects the current general understanding of the identification, moult, taxonomy, distribution and migration of the 45 or so gull taxa that occur in the northern hemisphere. I dare say even the most experienced and critical ‘Larophiles’ among us will appreciate having so much information and so many images between the covers of a single volume.

Klaus Malling Olsen’s text is not always the easiest read, but he does his best to liven up the introductory ‘Identification’ sections with useful comparisons and personal impressions, which helps considerably. The ‘Description’ sections of each species account are, inevitably, more turgid, but by and large the information is clear and accurate.

As in previous titles by these authors, there seems to me to be far too much repetition of information in these separate sections, and I can’t help thinking that with better editing much of this could have been eliminated. Indeed, there are many indications of lax or careless editing throughout this book. The most frustrating element in the text, however, is the habit of bundling a whole lot of references at the end of passages of text, which makes it very difficult to identify and follow up particular sources. A minor irritation, which as an Irishman I feel obliged to mention, is the author’s apparent failure to realise that Ireland is not part of >Great Britai!

Hans Larsson’s plates are generally excellent and his confident, not overly laboured style suits the subject matter well. In almost all cases his sensitivity to the all important subtle characters of his subjects results in birds that can be identified as much by their jizz and ‘personality’ as their detail, and there are few artists in the world who do this as well and as consistently as Larsson. I particularly like his portrayals of the more attractive smaller species, such as Franklin’s and Sabine’s Gulls, but his plates of the larger gulls are, for the most part, every bit as successful, if not quite as intrinsically pleasing. Here and there I found myself reacting to what seemed like too bright bare-part colours (for example the bright yellow bill of adult Kittiwakes on plate 82, or the atypically pinkish leg colour of second-winter Ring-billed Gull) but given the high standard of Larsson’s work perhaps I need to look afresh at these birds! In the review copy a couple of plates (65 and 83 in particular) seem to suffer poor reproduction.

The quality of photographic reproduction is remarkably high and it seems likely that this is in no small way due to the efforts of the legendary Dutch repro-wizard Rene Pop, whose knowledge of the birds themselves must be a great asset in this kind of work.

It is a great pity, however, that this corrected reprint of the seriously error ridden (and subsequently withdrawn) first printing is still not fully correct, as evidenced by information put into the public domain by some of the photographers whose work appears in the book. It is difficult to determine where the responsibility lies for the failure to at least attribute correct date and location information (as provided by the photographers) to each photograph, but with so many of the errors in the first printing clearly being a result of carelessness in the final stages of production, it may be that it is the publishers rather than the authors who are at fault. The fact that one photographer, who highlighted errors in eight consecutive photograph captions first time around, can testify that four are still incorrect is difficult to excuse. One wonders how many other captions incorporate erroneous information.

Notwithstanding the quite large number of errors, inconsistencies and typographical mistakes that have been highlighted in a number of already published reviews, the authors are to be commended for having had the dedication to undertake and complete such a daunting task and provide us all with a much-needed source of reference. It is likely to be the standard ‘gull book’ for the foreseeable future.

First Published in Birdwatch 156: 54 (June 2005). To order a copy of Gulls of Europe, Asia and North America, please click here.

Tech spec

  • Gulls of Europe, Asia and North America by Klaus Malling Olsen and Hans Larsson (Christopher Helm, London, 2004)
  • 608 pages, 823 colour photographs, 96 colour plates, numerous maps, graphs and tables
  • ISBN 0713670878. Hbk, £45