The Birds of Sussex

Published on 14 June 2014 in Book reviews

Birds of SussexSussex Ornithological Society (SOS)

BTO Books, 2014; hbk, 608pp; numerous coloured maps, photographs and tables

ISBN 978-1-908581-31-0 – £35.00

This impressive book is the third recent publication from BTO Books, following the Norfolk Bird Atlas and Bird Atlas 2007-11. Like its two predecessors, it is a large-format volume, which permits the inclusion of superb colour photographs for most species, clear maps showing the results of the recent tetrad atlas survey in the county, and tables showing the patterns of occurrence of many species over various time periods.

The book, which has been edited by Adrian Thomas, features contributions from 27 account writers, 56 photographers and three artists. The foreword by Tony Marr, one of the founder members of SOS in 1962, sets the scene superbly for the current volume, which is the seventh Sussex avifauna, following (among others) Walpole-Bond’s seminal three-volume A History of Sussex Birds, published in 1938, and the most recent Birds of Sussex (1996). The first chapter, Sussex Habitats and Climate, explains the importance of various habitats and includes some breathtaking images, most notably a full-page photograph of heathland on Ashdown Forest. It concludes with a succinct review of the effects of climate and weather on the county’s birds. This is followed by Bird Migration and Ringing – which describes the importance of Sussex as a stopover for many species and the history of bird ringing in the county – and Bird Conservation in Sussex, which reviews developments since the early twentieth century and the part played by SOS in the creation of many important nature reserves.

The majority of the book is devoted to the species accounts. The introductory County Headlines lists new species recorded since the last avifauna was published, describes winners and losers (with a particular focus on breeding species), reviews previous atlas surveys and explains clearly how to interpret the species accounts and maps. Each account begins with its county status, UK conservation designation and a brief introduction. This is followed by various sections with headings such as Winter, Movements, Breeding and County Totals, which seem to have been somewhat inconsistently used, although every account concludes with Outlook, which principally summarises the future issues facing the species in the county (and farther afield) and suggests appropriate actions in some cases.

All the maps from the atlas survey were previously published by SOS on a CD. Here we get an interpretation of those results, although only a selection of the maps have been included. Most frequently utilised are Breeding Distribution and Winter Distribution, together with Winter and Breeding Relative Abundance and, most interestingly, Breeding Change, sensibly included only for species with clear trends since the 1988-91 atlas. The maps are mostly very clear, with red symbols used on breeding maps and turquoise on winter maps. The change maps would have benefited from different colours being used for gains and losses rather than upward-pointing bright red triangles and downward-pointing pale red triangles respectively. Unfortunately the proof-checkers didn’t notice that the Breeding Distribution map was included twice for Green Woodpecker Picus viridis and the Breeding Change map omitted, although the text and captions do confirm a 17% net increase in occupied tetrads between the two atlases.

Wintering and migrant birds are treated in detail, with tables displaying five-year means of peak WeBS counts for many species that occur in internationally important numbers in the county, such as Dark-bellied Brent Goose Branta b. bernicla and Dunlin Calidris alpina, and tables analysing the monthly and/or annual totals of migrant waders and seabirds such as the Pomarine Skua Stercorarius pomarinus, the spring passage of which is a major focus for the county’s seawatchers. Passerine migrants receive a rather more qualitative treatment, with, for example, no tables for either Ring Ouzel Turdus torquatus or Pied Flycatcher Ficedula hypoleuca. Vagrants, which help to swell the county list to an impressive 397, have their recent records listed in detail and are placed in a national context.

Possibly the stand-out feature of the species accounts, apart from the wealth of detail included, is the collection of superb photographs which the A4 format allows to be reproduced at such a large size. The detailed captions, with date and location, confirm that all have been taken within the county, and they present a wonderful pictorial display of Sussex birds, notwithstanding the bikini-clad young woman featured in the picture of the Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus! The book concludes with references, gazetteer and information about SOS.

Recent county and national publications seem to be showing a trend almost towards a coffee-table type avifauna, with a profusion of colour photographs and tables, brief headline extracts in bold text and perhaps a little less detailed analysis of the actual bird records. This is clearly an attempt to attract a wider readership, with sales to less serious birders as well as hardened county survey workers and listers. The present Sussex book certainly comes into this newly emerging genre; but it is still a superb book, which is testament to the expertise and talents of the members of SOS. It deserves to sell well to lots of extra buyers, and I’m sure that, with BTO promotion behind it, it will. It is tremendous value at £35 and comes highly recommended to Sussex residents and those from farther afield interested in the avifauna of this bird-rich county.

John Clark