Collins Bird Guide 2nd Edition
Well, has the wait and all the hype been justified? Like the current blockbuster movie Avatar, which had a comparable gestation period, the initial impact is proof positive. The look and feel of the guide has been substantially improved with some excellent new artwork.
Like the movie, beyond the initial breathtaking visual experience some will be disappointed by a lack of substance in parts. However, for most it will simply be the best bird book they will buy this year. The first edition redefined the field guide with its combination of fine art, evocative vignettes and invaluable identification snippets. No wonder it sold over 250,000 copies in Britain alone. That said, there must be a lot of birdwatchers out there still without a copy!
Produced in the same format as the original, the new guide has 10% more pages to accommodate the 50 additional species described in the main section. The second edition includes 33 "new" species recently recognised or treated as such due to taxonomic changes, although many of these had already been illustrated in the first edition and treated as distinctive subspecies. The taxonomic treatment of different families appears to be heavily influenced by the main author's (LS) own area of interest and expertise. Therefore warblers and shrikes are treated in far more detail than redpolls or crossbills. Purists will cheer the return of the Lapland Bunting; Bearded Reedling remains, but thankfully no other parrotbills appear in this edition.
The species order has changed, following proposed taxonomic changes, but only at the front of the book. Wildfowl and game birds now come first, followed by the divers and seabirds. The reasoning behind adopting the new order is explained by the authors in the preface. But these taxonomic changes do not form the main thrust of the book and rather reflect the changing nature of this subject, which of course renders elements of the book out-of-date even before it is published.
So how does the new edition treat some of the contentious species recently discussed amongst the birding groups and forums? Well the Canada Geese have been simply split into two, Canada Goose Branta canadensis and Cackling Goose Branta hutchinsii, and most of the latter turning up in Europe are apparently Richardson's Canada Geese B. h. hutchinsii. That should make life a lot easier on those wild goose chases, but why not include Ross's Goose in the main section? Some of those occurring in Europe are surely as wild as some of those Cackling Geese!
Shearwaters have been given some new plates, but remember they are now further back in the book, on pages 69–73! Scopoli's Shearwater makes a first appearance and is here treated as a race of Cory's Shearwater. Macronesian Shearwater Puffinus baroli appears as a new species, so no Little Shearwaters now in the North Atlantic. Mediterranean Shearwater has so far only become two species: Yelkouan Shearwater and Balearic Shearwater. The new plates provide a better comparison with them and their confusion species, Manx Shearwater and Sooty Shearwater.
Caspian Gull is in there and will produce a mixed response. "At last!", some will say, as it is now appears in a field guide. Others will groan as the number of large white-headed gull plates doubles. This is where I feel the format fails and becomes too overcrowded. When the first edition came out ten years ago I wasn't taxed by the small text. Now as my close-focus vision fails before my very eyes, I can glimpse myself grasping for the reading glasses in the field.
Black-throated Thrush is also one of the popular splits now treated as separate from the closely related Red-throated Thrush. However, these are both extralimital species within the context of the boundaries of the book. Of more relevance for many potential readers is the inclusion of Isabelline Warbler Hippolais opaca, also known as Western Olivaceous Warbler. A new species, now split from Olivaceous Warbler Hippolais pallida, which, although rather localised, has a widespread distribution through North Africa and Spain.
This new edition has been re-illustrated with an additional 24 plates and many of the original plates have been redesigned. Several illustrations have been updated or altered (such as the juvenile cranes) whilst new ones have been added. The only drawback here is that some of the original unaltered plates lose their edge up against the fresher new ones.
Technically the plates must be the best to accompany a field guide anywhere in the world; well, with the exception perhaps of Lars Jonson's Birds of Europe.
The reproduction of the plates is good and in general there is an improvement on the first edition, although in my copy the odd plate lacks accurate colours or precision. For example, the harriers are too dark, and the Madeiran Trocaz Pigeon Columba trocaz on page 217 shows a shadow tail and primary projection. This somewhat spoils one of the best new plates in the book.
Some plates still appear busy with too many illustrations on one page, particularly the gulls. For the beginner or casual user all this achieves is a state of bewilderment. Although to be fair most plates, for example the finches and buntings, are perfectly laid out. This is a book to be enjoyed by all levels of birdwatcher. For example there are many nuggets buried in this format for the more experienced birdwatcher to pluck out. Check out the sixth primary finger which helps create a broader hand on Crested Honey Buzzard or the black tertial markings present on some adult American Herring Gulls.
Despite the wealth of detail this book still works very well as a general field guide and it will also shortly be available in a more "field-friendly" softback version. The plates are on the right-hand facing page with the text opposite and the distribution maps underneath. The maps are still small but in exactly the right place and just where you need them in the field. This combination allows the observer to scrutinise the illustrations first before checking the maps to make sure they are in the right ball-park before consulting the text.
Another impressive feature of this guide is its relevance not only across Europe but beyond. It has proved to be an extremely valuable companion in countries as far apart as Morocco and Mongolia. The former country is a popular destination for European birders so, for example, how would one fare with the new edition in Morocco?
Well, this is where the second edition scores highly as it both illustrates and describes several recently separated species. In addition to the already-mentioned Isabelline Warbler, there is the African Desert Warbler Sylvia deserti. At the airport prepare to be greeted by the (African) House Bunting Emberiza sahari; Maghreb Wheatear Oenanthe halophila is here separated from Mourning Wheatear Oenanthe lugens; and Seebohm's Wheatear Oenanthe seebohmi, a bird of the High Atlas Mountains, is split from Northern Wheatear. The list goes on as the Atlas Flycatcher is immaculately illustrated, as is the Atlas race of Crimson-winged Finch Rhodopechys sanguineus alienus. African Blue Tit Cyanistes t. ultramarinus is a complete stunner you do not want to overlook. There are more illustrations in this new edition of the smaller "Steppe Buzzard"-like citensis race of Long-legged Buzzard. There is a mention of the newly discovered population of Dunn's Larks in southern Morocco that may yet prove to be a different species!
The "Grey" Shrikes have suddenly become more interesting/complicated with the dark birds encountered in Morocco not lumped any more with those of Iberia. The book also illustrates what could become potential splits in the third edition. What price on Maghreb Owl and Maghreb Magpie?
In the first edition the North African and Middle Eastern race of Eagle Owl Bubo bubo ascalaphus was depicted as a subspecies. In this latest edition it is accorded full species status as Pharaoh Eagle Owl Bubo ascalaphus. This has resulted in a partial revision of the owl plates and what an inspiring reworking it has been! Four of the six owl plates are new and for me these are amongst the real stand-out illustrations in the new book.
Wonderful stuff, but here and there the new guide lets itself down, despite the wonderful illustrations. There is no map for either the Atlas Flycatcher or the African Blue Tit. If you are looking for a Bald Ibis there is a map, though a rather optimistic one given the species' current range.
The core of this work is undoubtedly an ornithological gem and overall this new second edition is (nearly) the perfect field guide. It is therefore disappointing to see it rather badly packaged. The cover is still an off-putting all-black, front and back, and has been treated to a rather skimpy make-over. What a shame the space wasn't used to showcase some of the eye-catching new illustrations in a larger format. Killian Mullarney's Laurel Pigeon and Dan Zetterström's Grey Hypocolius would get my vote.
Inside there are four blank pages before the introduction and there is another blank space where illustrations should be in the margin on page 413 and again another large expanse of white paper at the end of the accidentals section on page 421.
The useful bird topography illustrations previously occupying the inside cover in at least the softback issue of the first edition have disappeared. According to the publishers, these diagrams will be available as a sticker so they can be applied to your personal copy if required at a later date!
Footnote: Despite some reservations I went to see Avatar twice and I am now anticipating the arrival of the large-format hardback edition of the new Collins Guide.
Available from BirdGuides at the special price of £19.95. Click here.
Hardback. 448 pages. 3500 colour illustrations, 700 maps.
RRP, £25. 978 0007267262