Reed and Bush Warblers


Keeping, storing and dumping. These are the three categories that each book in my birding library has to periodically pass through. I don’t like chucking any, but family life and restricted space means common sense must prevail. The truth is that a relatively small percentage remains in the category of ‘keeper’; Reed and Bush Warblers has already been accepted, though.

The book covers three families of archetypal ‘little brown jobs’: Locustellidae, Acrocephalidae and Cettiidae. These families contain several genera including Bradypterus, Iduna and Hippolais. At the risk of bamboozling Birdwatch readers with Latin words which I scarcely know myself, broadly speaking it includes those species at the frontiers of challenging identification (such as Blyth’s Reed and Sykes’s Warblers), taxonomy shift (including Eastern Olivaceous, Western Olivaceous and Thick-billed Warblers, and maybe even Grasshopper Warbler) and species ‘discoveries’ (Large-billed Reed Warbler and several insular taxa).

Having been fully captivated by the challenges and subtleties of Blyth’s Reed, Sykes’s and Lanceolated Warbler on last autumn’s Birdwatch reader holiday in Shetland, never mind the Acrocephalus warblers I just ‘throw away’ on annual visits to Central Africa, this book seems like an Aladdin’s cave of both existing and new material skilfully brought together.

The opening sections include 42 colour plates in familiar Brian Small style; pleasing on the eye and replete with details you know will be spot-on. I particularly liked the Aquatic Warblers. Some plates (beginning with the Savi’s and River Warblers) have been printed too dark. Nevertheless, there is so much to glean. Some straminea Grasshopper Warblers look scarily Lanceolated-like, and I now have a much clearer search image of Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler, in preparation for my ‘big find’ day! The remarkable appearance of some of the Pacific island taxa, quite unknown to me, opens up a whole new world – check out the bill on the Tahiti Warbler.

While my own focus tends towards identification, do not be fooled by the content of this review. There is so much more to this book. Each chapter has sections on voice, habitat, behaviour, breeding, distribution, movement, in-hand characters, geographical variation, taxonomy and systematics. Phew! It’s all well written and thoroughly researched.

The mid-text coloured maps are excellent and easy to comprehend. The final section of each species account has a selection of colour photos illustrating different ages and stages. The biggest disappointments to me (and apparently the authors) are the sonograms. Voice is a critical aspect of these birds, both for themselves and human observers, yet the reduced-size sonograms seem a wasted opportunity. Web space with larger sonograms and recordings would be the ideal follow-up companion.

I was recently in conversation with Peter Kennerley about the book and have I cheekily cut this out from an email correspondence: “A book like this is never finished, there is always more to add and much has crossed my desk in recent months that I would like to have included. Just this week I received some stunning photographs of what appears to be juvenile kashmirensis Spotted Bush Warbler – an undescribed plumage.”

Full of amazingly comprehensive data, yet extending an invitation to a world in which so much waits to be discovered, Reed and Bush Warblers is a Premiership-level ‘keeper’ for sure. A magnum opus, worthy of addition to any birder’s library.

Tech spec

Reed and Bush Warblers by David Pearson and Peter Kennerley, illustrated by Brian Small (Christopher Helm, London, 2010).
712 pages, 48 colour plates.
ISBN 9780713660227. Hbk, £65.
Order for just £52.99 from the Birdwatch Bookshop.