Wednesday 13 June 2012

Book Review - Extremely Rare Birds in the Western Palearctic

Just last week my eagerly awaited copy of Extremely Rare Birds in the Western Palearctic by Marcel Haas fell through the letterbox and on to the doormat. The book was released back in February and I had already read a little about it over on BirdForum and more recently read the Birdwatch Review and intrigued by what I had read I decided to buy myself a copy.

It has a RRP of £25, although it is currently on offer (there's a link at the bottom of this review). The book is available only as a hardback and is roughly the same size as the average Poyser monograph (24 x 17 cm). My first impression, as I removed the bubble wrap was a good one, as I was welcomed by the fantastic image of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker on the front cover.

The book is 244 pages long and contains over 300 colour photographs, some of the images contained in this book are published for the very first time.

A slight bugbear of mine is when the title of the book is written "upside down" on the spine (I know...I'm picky). I'm not sure if this is a continental thing but to me it just doesn't look right, maybe I've just got a little bit of OCD.

But the most important thing about any book is of course the content.

The book describes the 155 species of birds that have occurred less than ten times in the Western Palearctic (Europe, North Africa and the Middle East) and have been accepted by the relevant rarities committees. The book covers the period from 1800 to 2008 although three species recorded since then (African Openbill, Asian Koel and Ashy Drongo) are added as an appendix.

 Each species account starts with a description of the bird's distribution and movements. I personally would have preferred to have seen this summarised in a map, as if your knowledge of geography isn't great you might struggle a bit picturing the normal range of the species being described.

The records are then briefly described (sometimes just a bit too briefly) including important records that have been rejected, when most records have occurred and other such details.

For each species there is also a table, listing alphabetically by region where and when each record occurred. This I feel would have been better presented chronologically, so that each species account started with the earliest record and ended with the most recent.

The images include many museum specimens either mounted or as skins. Some of the older records I must admit to often having a little doubt over. I guess my opinion has been clouded by the "Hastings Rarities" records and the Meinertzhagen Bird Collection. So it was both interesting and reassuring to read the comment that four spectacled eiders recorded by Meinertzhagen in Russia should be considered doubtful.

Although the museum specimens are of interest, I personally feel that they don't offer a great deal to the book. If no photograph of the actual wild bird was available I would have rather seen an image of a different bird. I want to see what the bird really looks like! So after seeing the rather sad looking Long-tailed Shrike (right) I was pleased to turn over the page and see this beautiful image (below) taken by Ole Krogh. It's a shame that there aren't more images like this throughout the book. I completely understand why the author has chosen to use the museum specimens but in my opinion the book would have been enhanced with more high quality images.

On several occasions there is a photographic record shot of the bird within a group of other birds and it's not automatically obvious which bird is the rarity. This could have been very easily remedied in the photo caption.

Conclusion: Due to the lack of any maps and not putting the records into chronological order it is often quite difficult to quickly retrieve the information on a given species.  This combined with the lack of  more "useful" photographic images means the book doesn't quite reach it's full potential.

But this is still a worthwhile book to have. The author has gone to a lot of trouble gathering all the information and photographs together and it's great having all that information readily at hand. It's not really a book to read cover to cover but it is nice to dip in and out of to help whet your appetite for what might be waiting for you out there.

Overall Extremely Rare Birds in the Western Palearctic gets an rbnUK rating of 7/10

Extremely Rare Birds in the Western Palearctic is available from both the Birdwatch Bookstore (currently on special offer until July 31st 2012) and NHBS

Extremely Rare Birds in the Western Palearctic is published by Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, (ISBN 978-84-96553-83-5).  To see more plate images and a full list of contents visit the Lynx Website.

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