A good identification guide is a necessary tool for anyone with an interest in the bird life that surrounds them. The difficulty is choosing which one, either as a first step in taking a more informed interest or as a replacement for one which has either fallen to pieces through hard use in the field, or has become hopelessly out-dated by the rapid advances in bird recognition in the past ten years.
There are several established guides on the market, each with a loyal following convinced by the approach it has adopted for a very specific task. A new guide has to be not only easily usable in the field and accurate, but to have features that mark an advance in an already overloaded market.
These Larousse guides are written by John Gooders, the doyen of British field ornithology with a lengthy list of titles to his name. Excellent as many of these books are, he has also lent his name to some really rather poor enterprises. These fortunately fall into the good category.
The guide to Britain and Europe is kept to manageable proportions by restricting its scope to birds normally encountered in the region (including Turkey and Cyprus) and omitting rarities. A handful of the more frequent vagrants from outside the region are included among the 484 species described and illustrated, roughly two species to a page. But the emphasis is heavily on providing straightforward guidance to aid identification of the likely suspects rather than the super-rarities.
As well as three to four good-quality illustrations of each species in various plumages, the text gives a brief description, defines its status (resident, winter or summer visitor etc) and favoured habitat, describes its voice and warns of other species with which it may be confused. The text is accompanied by a distribution map and a chart illustrating relative abundance throughout the year.
The text is minimalist, and the illustrations compare well with the established market leaders. However the guide's unique selling point - pull-out panoramas giving greater comparative detail of difficult groups - is limited to warblers, smaller waders and birds of prey. This amplifies the otherwise economic text usefully and could have been extended to other difficult groups, for example the yellow wagtail complex, pipits and gulls.
The book is thus a good alternative to all but the best guides, suitable both for newcomers to bird identification and for those with a reasonable depth of knowledge.
The guide to Britain and Ireland covers 256 most regularly seen species with effectively one to a page. A more systematic "check-list" of identification features makes this an ideal novice's starting point but its limited scope - all rarities and the majority of scarce migrants are omitted - rule it out for anything more than casual use, particularly for anyone travelling in Europe.
David Jobbins is foreign editor of The THES.
Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe
Author - John Gooders
ISBN - 0 7523 0014 8
Publisher - Larousse
Price - £14.99
Pages - 319