Tuesday 11 March 2014

Archie's Birding Book Review: 'The Helm Guide To Bird Identification'

The latest edition (left) with a copy of the 1996 edition (right).

I remember the moment like it was yesterday. The year was 1990. As a skint eighteen year old I was strutting through Birmingham city centre listening to the critically acclaimed album 'Amerikkka's Most Wanted' by hip-hop artist Ice Cube on my Sony Walkman. A chance encounter with a lad I knew eventually resulted in an argument over an unpaid debt. Eventually I agreed to waive the arrears he owed me as long he 'sourced' a copy of 'The Macmillan Field Guide To Bird Identification' for me that very afternoon. I needed it as a birthday gift for my uncle you see (my credibility on the street would have been severely compromised if the real reason ever surfaced). Nearly 25 years on I work for a bank with default as my speciality. The last I heard, my acquaintance who robbed Waterstones in broad daylight all those years ago was serving a jail sentence for benefit fraud. Isn't it funny how life pans out?

Anyway, I absolutely adored that little book. At the time I considered it to be pure perfection. As a young, closet ornithologist with a grasp of the birding basics, it was everything I could wish for in an alternative field guide. It was just what was needed to take me to the next level of bird identification. Needless to say my fictional uncle never did receive his imaginary birthday gift and the book received more of a thumbing over the next few years than my bumper Christmas 1989 edition of Razzle. Coincidently, much like the aforementioned 'love pamphlet' my beloved Macmillan eventually came to a rather sticky end, quite literally in fact, one of my ex-girlfriends spilt a whole bottle of Hooch over it one Saturday night whilst we were watching Noel's House Party.

A few years later I treated myself to a replacement copy which I have to this very day (see photo above). As you could imagine I was pretty excited when I heard that a new improved, chunkier version would be published this year. It would be a mixture of pure nostalgia topped up with oodles of the latest identification tips. This morning I finally received my copy and I flicked immediately to the Laridae section, which is always a true test of any reputable field guide.   

Hot laridae action!

As you can see from a small sample of the artwork by Alan Harris above, it is pretty impressive stuff indeed. The treatment of the Yellow-legged Gull and Caspian Gull is quite simply the best around and on par with even that contained within the pages of 'Gulls of Europe, Asia and North America' by Olsen and Larsson. Eager for more, I then began to search for American Herring Gull but shockingly it was not there. I started to panic. If the old Smithsonian was missing then what other species would have been omitted too? Running through in taxonomic order there was no sign of Baikal Teal but weirdly Cinnamon Teal was dealt with. There were no illustrations of either Black Scoter, White-winged Scoter or even Pacific Diver. There was just a single paragraph describing Scopoli's Shearwater but Yelkouan Shearwater got practically no mention at all. There were also no illustrations with comparisons for Northern Harrier, Semipalmated Plover, Wilson's SnipeThayer's Gull or American Black Tern and the treatment of both the Stonechats and the Redpolls are disconcertingly vague.

In addition to the disappointments above I also thought it was quite lazy of the publishers to include the old original plates showing the differences between Common Sandpiper and Spotted Sandpiper as well as Sedge Warbler and Aquatic Warbler (see below). The colour reproduction also looks to be out slightly in some instances.

Go compare!
The Macmillan edition (left) and the new Bloomsbury edition (right)

On a more positive note the text by Keith Vinicombe is much more extensive, revised and superbly written in comparison to the original and some of the new wader plates are simply stunning. There are also a few extra treats like Cackling Goose, Grey-bellied Brent Goose, Sykes's Warbler and Eastern Bonelli's Warbler and the entire Shrike section receives a very impressive overhaul. There is no doubting that this is a quality publication and it is definitely worth investing in, if not for the wader and gull sections alone. Despite my gripes I would still recommend this book and would urge you all to order a copy now for you to reach your own conclusions.

I already look forward to the next edition where all my quibbles mentioned above are addressed, where there is a in-depth overview of those pesky Subalpine Warblers and a pull-out guide to the identification of escaped Ardeola Herons.  


  1. I gor the original one umpteen years ago, after seeing a number of people out and about in the UK with it.
    I'll look forward to seeing the new one, in due course !

  2. It's well worth it John. It's just helped us to turn a local female Greater Scaup into some kind of dodgy Aythya hybrid. Oh and thanks for reading pal.

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