Sutherland Birdlife

Published on 14 January 2019 in Book reviews

By Fraser Symonds and Alan Vittery 

Privately published, 2018; pbk, 200pp; numerous colour photographs and artwork; ISBN 978-1-78808-492-5

£16.50 buy it from the BB Bookshop

The first modern description of Sutherland’s birdlife was in Alan Vittery’s The Birds of Sutherland (1997). This new book (written by Alan Vittery, with artwork by Fraser Symonds and photographs by the authors and local rarity-finder Dean MacAskill) has a front-cover illustration of a pair of Black-throated Divers Gavia arctica, the species being among the emblematic and really special breeding birds of the county. This work is a much-anticipated update and reassessment, with details of the records in the 20 years since that first publication.

The book starts with an outline of the county, describing the geology, glaciation, soils and climate that together make the landscapes here so special. This is followed by a detailed section on habitats and then the major conservation issues.

The birdlife comes next, with a description of the breeding specialities and an interpretation of migration at a county level. The key birding sites are listed and described before a section showcasing Fraser Symonds’ work. The watercolours here, especially those of the waders, are simply breathtaking.

Next are the species accounts, each with a description of the species’ distribution and any notable records. Most of the accounts are well researched and detailed. However… there are many that include records – both national and local – that have either not been submitted for review or have been found ‘not proven’; and this is the most frustrating aspect of the book in general. It is written and designed to appear as the definitive record of Sutherland’s ornithology, and without prior knowledge many would unknowingly take it as such. 

In terms of the not proven/unsubmitted British and Scottish (BBRC and SBRC) rarities, there is a long list of species, from Harlequin Duck Histrionicus histrionicus, via a staggering collection of rare seabirds (the auks alone run to both Crested Aethia cristatella and Cassin’s Auklets Ptychoramphus aleuticus, as well as Brunnich’s Guillemot Uria lomvia), to Black-headed Emberiza melanocephala and Red-headed Buntings E. bruniceps. It’s quite a list! At a local level, it’s a similar story; for example, in the Black-necked Grebe Podiceps nigricollis entry, two records are noted, neither of which were submitted/accepted by the local records committee, the same for the single Eurasian Bittern Botaurus stellaris record. Mystifyingly, many good records have been left out, for example the 1973 Bonaparte’s Gull Chroicocephalus philadelphia at Scourie. All of this really destroys the book’s value as a complete avifauna for the area, although it is an intriguing case study into the psychology of local-patch birders and the intricacies of their relationship with the birding powers that be.

Peter Stronach (Highland Recorder)