Flights of Passage: an illustrated natural history of bird migration

By Mike Unwin and David Tipling


Yale University Press, 2020

Hbk, 288pp; 220 photographs, maps

ISBN 978-0-300-24744-2; £29.99

This large-format, ‘coffee table’ book covers a range of birds that are united in being migrants. The style consists of one or two pages of text including simple maps, supported by a range of photographs, mostly by David Tipling. The choice includes the usual suspects: Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica, White Stork Ciconia ciconia, Honey-buzzard Pernis apivorus and Bar-headed Goose Anser indicus. But the list is supported by a wide range of equally worthy candidates, especially those that have recently been the subject of detailed study using either geolocators or satellite transmitters.

Thus, the remarkable southward, non-stop, trans-Pacific migration of Bar-tailed Godwits Limosa lapponica is documented, as is the ‘dog-leg’ return in spring via the coast of the Yellow Sea. The finding that many Arctic Terns Sterna paradisaea follow a ‘figure-of-eight’ migration from northeast Europe to the Weddell Sea in Antarctica, with some moving on as far as Australia, is also well described. Will there ever be a report of one circumnavigating the southern oceans, rather than turning back to the Atlantic? The authors also include the recent discovery that Shetland’s breeding Red-necked Phalaropes Phalaropus lobatus migrate across the Atlantic, then down the east coast of North America and through the Caribbean to winter in the Pacific off the coast of Peru. This last is, to my mind, one of the most astonishing migration discoveries of recent years and the accompanying photo of a flock swimming behind the tail fluke of a diving Humpback Whale Megaptera novaeangliae is magical.

There are reviews of many other familiar British migrants, including Pink-footed Goose Anser brachyrhynchus, Bewick’s Swan Cygnus columbianus, Red Knot Calidris canutus, Common Swift Apus apus, Willow Warbler Phylloscopus trochilus, Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata and Common Nightingale Luscinia megarhynchos. These are supplemented by a range of birds from other regions. Overall, the accounts are somewhat superficial, although space considerations may have played a part here.

I was disappointed at some of the errors. For example, Snow Buntings Plectrophenax nivalis do not have feathered tarsi – and indeed the illustration accompanying the text supports this. They may grow longer feathers on the femur which overlap the lower leg to give added insulation, but the juxtaposition of the assertion and the photo is slightly unfortunate. I liked the opening paragraph on the Turtle Dove Streptopelia turtur and its place in the Christmas song. Its decline has surely been dramatic across Britain and Ireland, but the implication that the Grey Partridge Perdix perdix and the pear tree are still available is weak: BTO Trends data indicate that both species have declined by over 90%, and they are long gone from my part of Nottinghamshire.

The photographs, as you would expect from David Tipling, are quite simply superb.

David Parkin

Issue 4
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Flights of Passage

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