The BB/BTO Best Bird Book of the Year - 2018

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 2018 were eligible for consideration for this award.

A total of 65 books were reviewed by British Birds and/or BTO during the year, and a whopping 34 of those made the initial shortlist and were available to look through on the day of judging. Once again, we gathered at the BTO annual conference at Swanwick, in early December 2018, with three representatives from  BTO and three from BB. That such a large collection of books made it to Swanwick in the back of one of the BTO cars suggested an unusually open competition. That was confirmed when, at the end of the afternoon session, we sat back to survey the unusually large number of books that gained one or more points in the final round of voting. Counter-intuitively, perhaps, there was a stand-out winner (no fewer than five of the six judges placed it at the top of their selection) but beyond our winner, the judges’ opinions and votes were widely spread, with relatively little agreement amongst us, reflecting our different interests and priorities and not least the inherent difficulty in deciding what, exactly, makes a book a contender for this award. There was no clear theme for this year’s top-rated titles, although all of the first five could perhaps be classed as primarily factual rather than literary offerings.

Handbook of Western Palearctic Birds: Passerines

Winner: Handbook of Western Palearctic Birds: Passerines by Hadoram Shirihai & Lars Svensson

Christopher Helm, London, 2018.

This is a big book in every sense. You realise that you have a serious piece of work on your hands when the two volumes arrive on the doormat in a sleeve. This book, co-authored by two juggernauts of Western Palearctic ornithology, has been eagerly awaited for many, many years, and it will more or less sell itself to the majority of Europe’s keen birders, at least those who have an interest in bird identification. Despite the long gestation period, we felt that it seems likely to remain a standard-bearer well into the future.

The BB reviewers made the following comment towards the end of their review: ‘One downside to so much content, however, is that it still has to be bound within two volumes… one has to wonder about the decision to publish this as a hefty, slightly cramped hard copy rather than a well-presented online version.’ Some birders will be aware that this issue has been resolved already – the book is now available from Bloomsbury in digital format. You can buy it from their website either as a fully functioning e-book, or as a watermarked pdf. Given the limited portability of the paper copies (the two volumes’ weight getting on for six kilos), this format has to be a serious consideration for most birders. This is one book you’d want to take on any Palearctic birding trip, and having it on a smartphone, tablet or laptop is an ideal solution. The phenomenal amount of content in the paper copies inevitably means that the layout is a little cramped, and some of the photos a bit small, but the electronic format enables you to view the figures and photos full size, and mean that you can appreciate and enjoy the content that much more easily. The paper vs digital debate is not going to be won or lost by either side in the near future, but for a work like this the option of a digital format is a significant step forward for anyone birding away from home.

Rare and Scarce Birds of Cheshire & Wirral

2nd: Rare and Scarce Birds of Cheshire & Wirral by Allan Conlin & Eddie Williams

Privately published, 2018.

This is a book that four of the six judges gave points to in the final reckoning, and it was highly regarded for being a particularly attractive example of the genre. Its layout and artwork in particular contribute to a beautifully produced little book that will be well-thumbed by local birders and visitors to the birding county of Cheshire & Wirral for many years to come.
Far From Land

Joint 3rd: Far From Land by Michael Brooke & Bruce Pearson

Princeton University Press, Woodstock, 2018.

There are very few, if any, birdwatchers who do not get excited by seabirds at some point. Even the most landlocked patch-watchers and garden birders get to the coast at sooner or later – and whether it is Fulmars Fulmarus glacialis at Hunstanton, Northern Gannets Morus bassanus at Bempton, Puffins Fratercula arctica on the Farnes or Manx Shearwaters Puffinus puffinus on Skomer, seabirds will stir your senses. If you are interested in what seabirds do and why they do it, as opposed to simply what they look like, this book should be high on your list. It is primarily a tour of what modern technology and our increasing ability to track birds throughout the year can tell us about the lives of seabirds when they are far from land – which is most of the time for many species. Not surprisingly, there are many references to the OxNav group which is headed by Tim Guilford, and Mike Brooke has presented an extremely readable summary of the progress of modern seabird researchers.
Gulls of the World: a photographic guide

Joint 3rd: Gulls of the World: a photographic guide by Klaus Malling Olsen

Bloomsbury, 2018.

Is there space on your shelf for another book on gulls? Some birders live to see gulls but for the rest of us, what does this guide offer that others have not? Brian Small’s review is a good place to start if you think that this could potentially be the book that finally persuades you to spend all your winter birding hours at the dump… In terms of this award, the judges felt that it is, perhaps, the single best all-round book on gulls currently available. With reference to the earlier discussion of paper vs digital, this one is reasonably portable in terms of living in the car (or perhaps a rucksack) for day-to-day reference in the field. The trickier taxa are treated pretty thoroughly but – given the complexity of the subject – it’s unlikely to provide the answer to every single odd-looking gull you encounter. The in-depth treatment from online sources such as will be needed for that. Perhaps this book’s USP is Klaus Malling Olsen’s ability to explain difficult subject matter with a remarkable clarity and simplicity; it makes any one of his exceptional bird books a serious consideration for any birder’s collection.

The Ascent of Birds

5th: The Ascent of Birds: How Modern Science is Revealing their Story by John Reilly

Pelagic Publishing, Exeter, 2018.

This is a book that both BTO and BB reviewers, respectively Rob Robinson and Martin Collinson, extolled the virtue of; the former summarised it as ranking ‘among the best popular science books and provides a great guide to our current understanding of where, and how, birds evolved.’ It traces what modern scientific studies can tell us about the key events in evolution and biogeography of the birds that we see around us today – and surely every birder will find chapters of particular interest. It’s all too easy for birdwatchers to get morbidly depressed about the current state of our environment, about climate change, the loss of species and habitats and various other aspects of humans trashing our planet. On the other hand, scientific endeavour and research is continuing to open doors and open our eyes to aspects of the natural world that we know little or nothing about. This book, along with Far From Land above, falls neatly into the category of the sort of book that is worth every BB reader and BTO member spending some time with before the dark nights of winter give way to spring.


The second tier

Below the top five, a clutch of eight titles gained between three and eight votes, and these are listed below in the order of the number of points gained:

Birdwatching London: all the best places to see birds in the capital
By David Darrell-Lambert; Safe Haven Books, 2018; reviewed in BB by Tony Blake (Brit. Birds 111: 770) and for BTO by Samuel Levy.

The Red-necked Grebe – a monograph of a vociferous inhabitant of marshy lakes
By Jan Johan Vlug; Corax 23 (1): 1–318. Special issue of the journal of Ornithologische Arbeitsgemeinschaft fur Schleswig-Holstein und Hamburg, 2018; reviewed in BB by Mike Everett (Brit. Birds 111: 769–770).

Waders of Europe: a photographic guide
By Lars Gejl, translated by Peter Sunesen; Bloomsbury, 2017; reviewed in BB by Chris Kehoe (Brit. Birds 111: 114).

Pressing on: a decade of new linocuts
By Robert Gillmor; Mascot Media, 2018; reviewed in BB by Dan Powell (Brit. Birds 111: 487) and for BTO by Katharine Bowgen.

Mrs Moreau’s Warbler: how birds got their names
By Stephen Moss; Guardian Faber, 2018; reviewed in BB by Mike Everett (Brit. Birds 111: 766) and for BTO by Paul Stancliffe.

Birding Without Borders: an obsession, a quest, and the biggest year in the world
By Noah Strycker; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017; reviewed in BB by Keith Betton (Brit. Birds 111: 234–235).

Bird Photograph of the Year 3
Foreword by Chris Packham, Collins, 2018; reviewed for BTO by Andrew Mason.

Abernethy Forest: the history and ecology of an old Scottish pinewood
By Ron Summers; RSPB Centre for Conservation Science, Inverness, 2018; reviewed in BB by Alan Knox (Brit. Birds 111: 767–768).

The third tier

And finally, the following five books all received at least one point in the final judging and are mentioned below in alphabetical order of the first author.  

The Wonderful Mr Willughby: the first true ornithologist
By Tim Birkhead; Bloomsbury, 2018; reviewed in BB by David Parkin (Brit. Birds 111: 354) and for BTO by Claire Boothby.

By Martin Brandsma; Oscar Lourens Book Production, Arnhem, 2016; reviewed in BB by Stephen Menzie (Brit. Birds 111: 55).

Birds New to Science: fifty years of avian discoveries
By David Brewer; Bloomsbury, 2018; reviewed in BB by Keith Betton (Brit. Birds 111: 407–408).

Extinct Birds
By Julian Hume; Bloomsbury, 2017; reviewed in BB by Mike Everett (Brit. Birds 111: 58).

The Long Spring: tracking the arrival of spring through Europe
By Laurence Rose; Bloomsbury, 2018; reviewed in BB by Ian Carter (Brit. Birds 111: 409).


As always we are grateful to Carole Showell for sourcing books from the Chris Mead Library at Thetford, and to Roger Riddington for his write-up of the judging and results.

Roger Riddington, Dawn Balmer, Tom Cadwallender, Sarah Harris, Stephen Menzie and Faye Vogely.