By Verena Keller et al.
European Bird Census Council and Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, 2020
Hbk, 968pp; colour illustrations, photographs, distribution maps
ISBN 978-84-16728-38-1; £84.99
The mammoth project to present the distribution of Europe’s breeding birds began in 2010 and resulted in the second European Breeding Bird Atlas (‘EBBA2’) in late 2020 (see Brit. Birds 114: 6–7). EBBA2 is big: the book weighs in at 4.6 kg, measures 320 x 255 x 50 mm and is uncomfortable to read without a table. Readers need good light too, as there is so much information crammed into almost 1,000 pages, especially in the maps. The introductory chapters (68pp) cover the organisation of the project, methods (including the use of modelling techniques), coverage and a summary of results (including patterns of distribution and change). Many readers will skip these sections, but they are worth reading to fully understand the project and how the results have been presented and interpreted. The text is accompanied by helpful explanatory graphs and relevant photographs of birds and key habitats. Species are mapped at a 50-km square resolution based on breeding evidence collected across the whole of Europe, with fieldwork completed in all but a handful of squares in the far north of mainland European Russia – a remarkable achievement. Abundance at the 50-km square level (presented at the same scale for all species to allow direct comparison) was assessed using direct counts for localised species, statistical inference for more widespread species or by expert assessment where most appropriate. Additional bespoke timed surveys (transects or timed counts) were undertaken and the data used to model the relative probability of occurrence in a 10-km square.
The results for all regular breeding birds are presented in the species accounts. Most species occupy a double-page spread, with an illustration, explanatory text and three maps, usually an abundance map, a modelled map showing probability of occurrence, and a change map. For some species the modelled map is replaced by one showing breeding evidence. Generally, this approach is used for colonial or cryptic species, but not always. On the evidence maps I found it difficult to distinguish dots for confirmed and probable breeding but at this scale these differences are not so important ecologically. The maps have been printed to a very high quality and provide a lot of valuable information at a glance. The change maps show gains at the 50-km square level since EBBA1 (Hagemeijer & Blair 1997) in blue and losses in orange, with no change in grey; lighter colours are used to denote that the squares were insufficiently covered to make a definitive judgement. With virtually complete coverage in EBBA2, but with more limited coverage in EBBA1 (mainly in Russia, Turkey and the Caucasus), these maps show changes only where coverage was comparable. They are interesting in their own right, and also provide a strong conservation message.
A total of 348 authors and 46 artists contributed to the species accounts. The text is admirably succinct and written to a standard sequence and format, which makes comparisons and finding key information easier. Even though English is not the first language of many authors, this is rarely apparent; the published texts are a great credit to the editors. The illustrations are rather less successful. All species are illustrated in colour and the artwork was provided free by the artists but the quality is distinctly variable.
EBCC adopted the HBW-BirdLife checklist for its species list in 2017 and this taxonomy has been used for EBBA2. In terms of names, we thus have loons, jaegers, longspurs and Orange-flanked Bush Robin Tarsiger cyanurus. More significantly, there is just one redpoll species, one stonechat and one bean goose, while Carrion Corvus corone and Hooded Crows C. cornix are also treated as one species – it would have been interesting to compare how these two taxa are faring across Europe. On the other hand, Siberian Chiffchaff Phylloscopus (collybita) tristis is treated as a full species, which is of interest given the numbers seen in Britain in autumn nowadays.
Compared with EBBA1, only one species native to Europe has truly colonised the region: Little Swift Apus affinis, first reported breeding in Spain in 2000. Three formerly regular breeders have been lost: Small Buttonquail Turnix sylvaticus, Lesser Crested Tern Thalasseus bengalensis and Pine Bunting Emberiza leucocephalos. But among all the other species there have been considerable changes in distributions: 187 increased their ranges, 135 decreased and 85 did not change or the trend was uncertain.
Many shifts in range are explained by our warming climate but not all, such as the increase in the range of the Mute Swan Cygnus olor to all points of the compass. Some of these changes may be due to protection measures, reintroduction projects (Red Kite Milvus milvus for example) and new areas of suitable habitat being created. The overall net change in the number of breeding species differs greatly between regions, with the coldest regions (Arctic and Alpine) gaining the most and the warmest (Mediterranean) showing a net loss. Overall, the distribution of native species has moved consistently and significantly northwards since EBBA1, matching the predictions of climate change studies.
Non-native species receive equivalent treatment to natives. Some non-native breeders in the UK, for instance Ruddy Shelduck Tadorna ferruginea, are native to other countries and the maps clearly show three disjunct ranges: from the shores of the Black Sea east, the Canary Islands and one centred on Germany, Switzerland and the Low Countries. Most of the squares in the last group of countries are ‘new’, having been first occupied in the years since EBBA1. This area is where the majority of the 57 non-natives reported breeding in EBBA2 occur: 24 receive full treatment in the species accounts while the others are summarised in appendices.
EBBA2 provides an opportunity to see where British species occur across the whole continent and to contrast their fortunes there with our own experiences. And maybe we can use the maps to predict what species expanding westwards might be a future UK coloniser. Caspian Gull Larus cachinnans, Waxwing Bombycilla garrulus and Blyth’s Reed Warbler Acrocephalus dumetorum?
Using my background and interest in UK rare breeding birds, I looked closely at these species to assess the accuracy of the maps. Generally I found that they were accurate but also found some oddities in the modelled maps. For example, Montagu’s Harrier Circus pygarus appears to be as numerous across central and eastern England as it is in France and Germany, with a higher probability of occurrence in England than Willow Tit Poecile montanus. There is breeding evidence in Britain in locations not known to the RBBP for Glossy Ibis Plegadis falcinellus, Whiskered Tern Chlidonias hybrida, Common Rosefinch Carpodacus erythrinus, Great Reed Warbler A. arundinaceus and Blyth’s Reed Warbler. Only some of these records were submitted to the RBBP (for which the breeding evidence required is more stringent). In the greater scheme of things, these differences are not so important but perhaps they give a false impression of range expansion. There are misleading statements in the text for a few species too: Red-necked Phalarope Phalaropus lobatus is described as facing a high risk of extinction in Scotland and Ireland, whereas recent RBBP reports show quite the opposite.
This book is an incredible achievement and should be an inspiration to those who see ornithology and conservation from a global perspective. It is an essential addition to any ornithological library.