The BB/BTO Best Bird Book of the Year - 2017

British Birds and the British Trust for Ornithology announce the winner of the award for Best Bird Book of the Year. All books reviewed in BB, BTO News and on the BTO website during the year 2017 were eligible for consideration for this award.

A total of 67 books were reviewed by British Birds or BTO during the year, with a higher than average 30 books making the extended shortlist and available to look at on the day of judging. Local/regional atlases and avifaunas were not considered as they are the subject of a separate award (ref).  As usual, there were six judges on the panel, three each to represent BB and the BTO.

There were no obvious ‘blockbusters’ this year making it a rather unpredictable competition, though, as so often happens, the top book won by a comfortable margin in the end. The runners-up were more difficult to pin down with a wide selection of books receiving at least one vote. Several titles were picked as the first or second choice by at least one judge and yet still failed to make it into the top six, highlighting the fact that an appreciation of good books can be a very personal thing.

It is always tricky to compare books that range from the academic and almost entirely text-based to those where photographs or artwork provide the primary interest. As it turned out, a high proportion of the highest-ranking titles this year gave roughly equal weight to images and text, part of a welcome trend encouraged by improvements in design and printing technology.

Farming and Birds

Winner: Farming and Birds by Ian Newton

William Collins, London, 2017.

One of these days Ian Newton might write a mediocre book, but 2017 was not destined to be the year it finally happened. This superb volume was first or second choice for four of the judges, all of whom were impressed by the clarity of the writing and the way that a difficult and complex subject has been made easily accessible to a wide audience. It is said than  many books in the New Naturalist series are bought by avid collectors who place them lovingly onto their shelves without a second glance at the contents. Hopefully some in that category will make an exception for this book as it is relevant to anyone with an interest in the way the countryside looks or the wildlife it supports. Its appearance is timely as we are in a period when there is much debate about the impacts of intensive farming on wildlife and how the current system of farm payments, greatly influenced by the EU, could be changed for the better. Ian Newton has won this award no fewer than three times before and this latest book adds to a body of work that is perhaps unsurpassed by any other author writing regularly about Britain’s birds. 

Uninvited Guest

Joint 2nd: The Cuckoo: the Uninvited Guest by Oldřich Mikulica, Tomáš Grim, Karl Schulze-Hage and Bård Gunnar Stokke

Wild Nature Press, Plymouth, 2017.

Although 2017 saw a larger than average group of books combining images and text, with roughly equal weight given to each, this book stood out as by far the best of its kind. The photographs are the work of Oldřich Mikulica and were mostly taken at a single site in the Czech Republic. He has won European awards for his photography and it is not hard to see why in this stunningly-presented book. His co-authors have contributed a text that is lively and informative, helping to explain behaviours that are captured in such detail in the razor-sharp images. Karl Schulze-Hagen won this award in 2012 as a co-author of The Reed Warblers; a book commended for its beautiful design. This volume raises the bar for design and presentation even higher.

Charles Darwin's life with birds

Joint 2nd: Charles Darwin's Life with Birds: His Complete Ornithology by Clifford B Frith

Oxford University Press, 2016.

This is a more academic offering that the others in the top six and the only book that relies largely on words rather than images. It is no less appealing for that. It deals with all aspects of Charles Darwin’s interest in birds from his formative experiences as a young birdwatcher, through to observations that helped crystallize his new theories and changed the way we think about the world. It is meticulously researched and includes a 150-page appendix listing every ornithological reference made by Darwin in his published books and papers, encompassing hundreds of different species. It is a fascinating and enjoyable read.

Flight Lines

4th: Flight Lines: Tracking the wonders of bird migration by Mike Toms

NHBS, 2017.

Flight Lines is another volume that combines a stunning collection of images with an informative and readable text. The book contains numerous photographs but it is the artwork that really grabs the attention, with many well-known artists contributing some of the best examples of their work. The accompanying text is broken down into short sections and does an excellent job of explaining some of the key aspects of bird migration. If you are drawn in and captivated by the artwork, it is well worth resisting the temptation to skip ahead too quickly as there is much to learn from this book.

Multimedia Identification Guide to North Atlantic Seabirds

5th: Multimedia Identification Guide to North Atlantic Seabirds: Albatrosses and Fulmarine Petrels by Bob Flood and Ashley Fisher, with illustrations by John Gale

Pelagic Birds & Birding Multimedia Identification Guides (in association with Scilly Pelagics), 2016.

The third book in this series will not disappoint those who enjoyed the first two volumes. It covers just eleven species but packs in an incredible amount of information including hundreds of colour photographs and illustrations, and an engaging but comprehensive text. Add to that the distribution maps, partly based on the use of modern geolocators, and two DVDs with helpfully-narrated footage of each species and this really is the complete package for seabird enthusiasts.  

Australian Bird Guide

Joint 6th: Australian Bird Guide by Peter Menkhorst et al

Christopher Helm, London, 2017.

There are parallels between this book and the Collins Bird Guide covering Britain and Europe in that it took almost a decade to complete and, whilst it has significant competition from existing guides, it stands out head and shoulders above the competition. The team of three authors and three artists have produced a superbly well-organised and detailed text accompanied by high-quality illustrations and accurate, if rather small, distribution maps. The size (and weight) perhaps stretch the definition of ‘field guide’ to its limit but as almost 1,000 species are covered in detail, including around 160 vagrants, that was unavoidable.

Birds of the Indonesian Archipelago: Greater Sundas and Wallacea

Joint 6th: Birds of the Indonesian Archipelago: Greater Sundas and Wallacea by James A Eaton, Bas van Balen, Nick W Brickle & Frank E Rheindt

Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, 2016.

The authors of this guide had even more of a job on their hands than their Australian counterparts having to accommodate over 1,400 species (including no fewer than 600 endemics) into a field guide format. This they have done admirably, although the text for most species is necessarily brief and many species have only one or two accompanying images, taken primarily from the Handbook of the Birds of the World. The maps are clear and well-produced, which is very welcome for a region where many similar species are best identified from their different ranges. As the first guide covering the whole of this diverse and popular region it will be widely used and appreciated by visiting birders.   


 

The following books all received votes from at least one of the judges and are mentioned below in descending order of the overall number of votes received. 

Shorebirds in Action: an introduction to waders and their behaviour
(By Richard Chandler; Whittles Publishing, 2017 – see Brit. Birds 110: 764-765)
Much of a lifetime’s interest in waders and photography is combined in this book to provide an absorbing introduction to the group. The photographs have been carefully chosen to help illustrate key aspects of plumage and behaviour, using examples from every continent and encompassing a high proportion of the world’s waders.

Birds in Pictures
(By Markus Varesvuo; New Holland, 2017 – see Brit. Birds 110: 688-689)
This large, lavishly-produced volume showcases some spectacular images of birds, including many which go well beyond the typical or standard portraits. Lighting and angle are used to full effect to achieve some striking and surprising results for some of our most iconic species, as well as a few that are more common and familiar. 

Raptors in Focus: a quest to find birds of prey in Europe and beyond 
(By Dick Forsman; New Holland, 2016 – see Brit. Birds 110: 63)
The author is well known for his raptor expertise and has featured previously in this competition with his handbooks and fieldguides. This book is a more lavish offering, using a large format and minimal, but perfectly phrased text to showcase some of his most impressive photographs and experiences.

Birds of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East: an annotated checklist
(By Dominic Mitchell; Lynx Edicions, 2017 – see Brit. Birds 110: 633)
Keen bird listers will appreciate this valuable reference which deals with over 1,000 species, including rarities, recorded up to the end of 2015. There are brief notes on distribution and taxonomy as well as the number of records for each country for the rarer species.

Bird Brain: An exploration of avian intelligence
(By Nathan Emery; Ivy Press, 2016)
This striking book covers a difficult and  complex subject using a series of attractive, magazine-style, double-page spreads. It deals with navigation, migration, problem solving and many other related topics and whilst pitched primarily at the non-specialist it has enough detail to be useful to the more academically minded.

Winter Birds
(By Lars Jonsson; Bloomsbury, 2017 – see Brit. Birds 110: 764)
A delightful combination of inspiring artwork and a warm, engaging text, describing some of the most familiar birds seen around the author’s studio on the island of Gotland in southern Sweden. It conveys the knowledge and enthusiasm of both artist and ornithologist, and will challenge all who read it to look more closely at the birds they see regularly.

Bowland Beth: the life of an English Hen Harrier
(By David Cobham; HarperCollins, 2017 – see Brit. Birds 110: 633-634)
David Cobham, a former film producer, has written an unusual but engaging book about the short life of a satellite-tagged Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus. It tells the story of the bird using information derived from remote tracking as well as imagined snippets of its life, weaving in wider aspects of the debate about moorland management and its unacceptable impacts on our birds of prey. 

A Bird Guide to the Fields of Experience
(By Frank Jarvis; Chatterpie, 2017 – see Brit. Birds 110: 491-492)
This is a highly individual book presenting paintings, sketches and extracts from the late author’s diaries. It focuses on parts of Scotland and Norfolk in the 1980s and early 1990s, and will no doubt reignite some fond memories for keen birders active at that time.    

Acknowledgments

As always we are grateful to the BTO for making facilities available for judging at Swanwick, and especially to Carole Showell for sourcing books from the Chris Mead Library at Thetford.

Ian Carter, Tom Cadwallender, Sarah Harris, Stephen Menzie, Roger Riddington, Faye Vogely, c/o BTO, The Nunnery, Thetford, Norfolk IP24 2PU