The BB/BTO Best Bird Book of the Year - 2016

Every year, British Birds and the British Trust for Ornithology get together to review the best bird books to appear during the previous 12 months. All books reviewed in British Birds, in BTO News and on the BTO website are eligible for the award. There are no formal judging criteria - instead, the judges are simply looking for books of special merit that will be appreciated widely by British Birds readers, BTO members and a wider audience of birdwatchers.

This year, a total of 80 books fulfilled the criteria for consideration, 18 of which made the extended shortlist for discussion by the judges. In contrast to the previous year’s competition, it took a while for the overall 2016 winner to emerge – although, in the end, it won by a comfortable margin and was the top choice for three of the six judges. It was also more difficult to pick the runners-up this year with so many high-quality books in the field. As a result, there were a higher than usual number of books that failed to make the top six but received votes from at least one of the judges and so receive an ‘honourable mention’ below.

Birds of Sprun

Winner: The Birds of Spurn by Andy Roadhouse

The Spurn Bird Observatory Trust, 2016.

Stretching to over 700 pages, this hugely impressive volume combines a comprehensive and well-organised text with a superb assemblage of artwork and photographs (the majority of which were taken at Spurn). There is the expected detailed analysis of records for each species and the results are presented clearly and effectively so that the reader can take in the key points without being submerged by a sea of statistics. The overall result is a book that will provide the definitive work of reference for this site for years to come as well as being a pleasure to read. Those with a particular interest in Spurn will no doubt already own a copy but it deserves a far wider audience. Anyone with an interest in the work of bird observatories, bird migration, rarities, coastal birding or patch watching will learn a great deal. It sets the bar very high indeed for future books of this type.
The Most Perfect Thing

2nd: The Most Perfect Thing: Inside (and Outside) a Bird’s Egg by Tim Birkhead

Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 2016.

Tim Birkhead has an enviable track record when it comes to producing readable and engaging books about birds and in the last decade he has not only won this award (with The Wisdom of Birds in 2009) but made the runners-up spot on two previous occasions as well. He has the happy knack of being able to convey information in a straightforward way that is easy to read, and those familiar with his previous work will not be disappointed by this latest volume. The book tells the story of how eggs are produced as well as explaining the evolutionary aspects behind their design and the role they play in reproduction. The author guides us effortlessly through the history of our expanding knowledge, points out mistakes made along the way and highlights the significant areas where more remains to be learnt. The winner of this award last year, Nick Davies, is clearly a fan, describing The Most Perfect Thing as being ‘full of wonder and surprise and beautifully written’.
Birds in Norfolk

3rd: Birds in Norfolk: a national and international perspective by Andy Brown & James McCallum

Langford Press, Kings Lynn, 2016.

This is another excellent addition to the Langford Press Wildlife & Art series. It is perhaps unusual for a large-format book in that the text and artwork are given roughly equal weighting. Both could easily stand alone as the basis for a separate book but when combined the result is truly impressive: a book that is a delight to look at as well as an enjoyable and educational read. It makes a convincing case for conservation on two levels, highlighting the sheer beauty of the avifauna and wildlife habitats of this county as well as explaining their importance for bird conservation in Britain and farther afield. The book ends with Andy Brown’s inspiring and passionately argued vision for how Norfolk’s avian landscapes might be enhanced in order to restore some of the ornithological marvels that have sadly already been lost or degraded.
Wildfowl of Europe, Asia and North America book cover

Joint 4th: Wildfowl of Europe, Asia and North America by Sébastien Reeber

Christopher Helm/Bloomsbury, 2015.

This book has been widely praised for its comprehensive and up-to-date coverage of the identification of Holarctic wildfowl. It is especially useful when dealing with hybrids, focusing on those combinations that provide significant pitfalls for birders. It is also very strong when discussing the complexities of moult in wildfowl, and its use of a modified version of the Humphrey and Parkes system seems a sensible option. The 72 high-quality plates are complemented by many excellent photographs, with captions highlighting key identification and ageing characteristics. It is far more than an updated version of Wildfowl (one of a trio of groundbreaking Helm Identification Guides published in the 1980s, and which won this award back in 1988; Brit. Birds 81: 483); it’s a wholly new book and another member of this year’s top six that raises the bar for others of its kind.

Joint 4th: Challenge Series: Winter by Martin Garner

Birding Frontiers, 2015.

Perhaps the approach adopted by this series is becoming more widely appreciated: although the first book in the series, Autumn, failed to make the final shortlist in 2014, Winter was much
admired and included in the top six by five of the six judges. The coverage is selective, focusing on 15 groups of birds that provide a particular challenge in this season. This enables an in-depth coverage, with a detailed text supported by superb artwork, excellent well-chosen photographs, and line-drawings, sonograms and maps where relevant. The design and layout is attractive and it is a book that is almost impossible to resist flicking through as soon as it is in your hand. Sadly, with Martin’s death last year, we shall miss his unique take on some of the key challenges for birders in spring and summer.
Reclaiming South Georgia book cover

6th: Reclaiming South Georgia: the defeat of furry invaders on a sub-Antarctic island by Tony Martin and Team Rat

South Georgia Heritage Trust, 2016.

The story of this hugely ambitious and challenging project is skilfully told in this book with a highly readable text that has been married with many superb photographs. Having introduced the islands and their importance for birds, the book summaries the huge problems caused by the introduced Brown Rats Rattus norvegicus and then explains how they were dealt with, from the initial planning stages through to completion of the project. The work carried out is already starting to pay dividends, though further checks are required to make sure that the islands really are now completely free of ‘furry invaders’. Proceeds from the book will help to raise funds for this monitoring work, providing an additional reason (if you needed one) for investing in this book.


 

In addition to our collective top six, the following books were all included within the top six of at least one of the judges. They are mentioned below in descending order of the number of votes received.

Guests of Summer: a House Martin love story
(By Theunis Piersma; BTO Books, 2016)
This slim volume is a highly enjoyable, and readable, account of the author’s fascination for this popular bird. As a scientist, he is well placed to take his interest in the species further than most, but all readers will relate to the affection he feels for one of his favourite birds. The style is engaging and crammed with intriguing nuggets of information; a perfect balance between describing his own feelings for the bird and presenting knowledge about the species.

Flight Identification of Raptors of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East
(By Dick Forsman; Christopher Helm/Bloomsbury, 2016)
Dick Forsman is lauded for his expertise in this field and for his previous publications on the subject. His latest book would surely have been ranked even more highly if it had been his first foray into the subject. Yet this guide is far more than simply a revision of The Raptors of Europe and the Middle East; it presents a wealth of new information on raptor identification, and showcases the dramatic advances that digital photography has made possible for the portrayal of birds in flight.

Fingers in the Sparkle Jar: lessons in life and death
(By Chris Packham; Ebury Press, 2016)
This is not a typical book to feature in this competition. It is a memoir of troubled childhood years and it is only the young author’s interest in natural history (birds especially) that brings it within the competition’s scope. It is a startlingly refreshing read and a book that is both painfully honest and full of intense, almost poetic, descriptions of formative events.

History of Ornithology in Malta
(By Joe Sultana and John J. Borg; BirdLife Malta, 2015)
The two authors are well placed to write this book and have combined their knowledge as a campaigning ornithologist and a scientist respectively to provide a balanced and absorbing account of ornithology on this island. The coverage spans several thousand years, though ornithology developed especially from the mid 1800s, culminating in the formation of BirdLife Malta in 1992 (and its subsequent well-documented battles against illegal hunting).

Britain’s Birds: an identification guide to the birds of Britain and Ireland
(By Rob Hume, Robert Still, Andy Swash, Hugh Harrop and David Tipling; Princeton University Press, 2016)
This is an impressive addition to the WILDGuides series, and one that continues the increasing trend of using photographs and modern design technology as the basis for a field guide. The organisation and layout have produced a book that is a joy to use and represents excellent value of money. It is not unusual to find mistakes in a book with such comprehensive coverage but this one does have more than its fair share, which detracts from an otherwise high-quality offering.

Siberia’s Sprite: a history of fascination and desire
(By Andy Stoddart; privately published, 2016)
Not the most lavish of publications but this is an enthralling account of the history of this bird, from its first discovery in the east to its more recent appearances on the east coast, and very much focused on the human side of the story.

The Life of the Robin
(By David Lack; Pallas Athene, 2016)
This is a welcome new edition of this classic species monograph, first published in 1943 and rarely bettered for the clarity, precision and readability of its text. This edition has new chapters by David Harper (bringing the story of this species up to date) and by David Lack’s son Peter, providing an insight into the author and the great legacy of his book.

Acknowledgments

We are grateful to the judges for giving so freely of there time, and especially to Carole Showell for sourcing books from the
Chris Mead Library at Thetford.

Ian Carter, Dawn Balmer, Stephen Menzie, Roger Riddington, Viola Ross-Smith and Peter Wilkinson
c/o BTO, The Nunnery, Thetford, Norfolk IP24 2PU