The BB/BTO Best Bird Book of the Year

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 and BTO members. Details of the most recent winner can be found below.

The BB/BTO Best Bird Book of the Year 2017

A total of 67 books were reviewed by British Birds and/or the BTO during the year, and a higher-than-average 30 books made the extended shortlist and were 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 (the result of which will be published next month). As usual, there were six judges on the panel, three each to represent BB and the BTO.

There were no obvious ‘blockbusters’ this year although, as so often happens, the top book won by a comfortable margin in the end. The runners-up were more difficult to pin down and a wide selection of books received at least one vote in the final analysis. Three 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.

Winner: Farming and Birds

By Ian Newton; HarperCollins, 2017; reviewed in BB by Ian Carter (Brit. Birds 110: 685–686) and by Rob Fuller in BTO News (issue 325: 28).

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 that 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 since 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.

2nd= The Cuckoo: the uninvited guest

By Oldřich Mikulica, Tomáš Grim, Karl Schulze-Hagen and Bård G. Stokke; Wild Nature Press, 2017; reviewed in BB by Ian Carter (Brit. Birds 110: 181–182) and on the BTO website by Justin Walker.

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 taken mostly 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.

2nd= Charles Darwin’s Life With Birds: his complete ornithology

By Clifford B. Frith; Oxford University Press, 2016; reviewed on the BTO website by Ruth Walker

This is a more academic offering than 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 crystallise 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.

4th Flight Lines: tracking the wonders of bird migration

By Mike Toms; BTO, 2017; reviewed in BB by Stephen Menzie (Brit. Birds 110: 766) and by Sorrel Lyall in BTO News (issue 325: 28).

 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.

5th Multimedia Identification Guide to North Atlantic Seabirds: Albatrosses & Fulmarine Petrels

By Bob Flood and Ashley Fisher; Scilly Pelagics, 2016; reviewed on the BTO website by Paul Stancliffe

The third book in this series will not disappoint those who enjoyed the first two volumes. It covers just 11 species but contains an incredible amount of information, including hundreds of colour photographs and some fabulous illustrations, together with an engaging but comprehensive text. Add to the mix the distribution maps, based partly on the use of data from geolocators, and two DVDs with helpfully narrated footage of each species, and it really is a comprehensive package for seabird enthusiasts.

6th= The Australian Bird Guide

By Peter Menkhorst, Danny Rogers, Rohan Clarke, Jeff Davies, Peter Marsack and Kim Franklin; Christopher Helm, 2017; reviewed by Andy Musgrove in BTO News (issue 325: 29).

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, while it has significant competition from existing guides, it stands head and shoulders above the rest. 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, this was unavoidable.

6th= Birds of the Indonesian Archipelago: Greater Sundas and Wallacea

By James A. Eaton, Bas van Balen, Nick W. Brickle and Frank E. Rheindt; Lynx Edicions, 2016; reviewed on the BTO website by Neil Calbrade

The authors of this guide had even more of a job on their hands than their Australian counterparts (above), 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 welcome for a region where many similar species are best identified by 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.

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 and Faye Vogely, c/o Blagrove Farm, East Worlington, Crediton, Devon, EX17 4SU; e-mail iancarter28@googlemail.com