Birds of Berkshire review
30th November 2016 | Marek Walford
The Birds of Berkshire is a fully revised edition of the atlas and avifauna first published in 1996. The book is an A4 hardback with a dust jacket that depicts a colour lino-cut by Robert Gillmor of a family of Little Ringed Plovers. It has also been embossed onto the front hard cover. The book has 520 pages and includes over 600 maps and figures, line drawings of every species, and 150 photographs. It covers all of the 328 species recorded in Berkshire. It's so up to date that it even includes the two additions to the county list that occurred in 2013, Pallas's Warbler and Bonaparte's Gull.
The book starts with chapters on the history of bird recording in Berkshire; the physical geography, habitats and climate; and the survey of breeding and wintering birds in Berkshire. In a diversion from the norm the traditional site gazetteer has been expanding into an entire chapter on where to watch birds in Berkshire. This covers 21 sites in Berkshire and each site includes a large map, lists of species to expect by season, and details on access and available facilities. The maps, which are in colour, provide detailed visual information on where to park and the main footpaths in the area. This chapter will prove invaluable to those birders not familiar with Berkshire's best birding sites.
The meat of the book is the systematic list. The species order follows the latest BOU British List which means that some species aren't where you expect them to be. However, an index has been included to help you locate the correct page. Regular occurring species are afforded at least a page which includes text, maps, charts, drawings and photos. The text discusses the species in a historical context and the changes that have occurred over the last twenty years since the last survey.
Most accounts include maps showing distribution and relative abundance based on fieldwork carried out between 2007 and 2011. For the breeding season they also show the status during the previous survey so you can easily see the gains and losses. Snipe, Wood Warbler, Tree Sparrow and Hawfinch no longer breed in the county and Turtle Dove, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and Willow Tit are only just clinging on. However, there are several success stories: Cormorant, Little Egret, Red-crested Pochard, Red Kite, Peregrine, Oystercatcher, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Herring Gull, Dartford Warbler and Raven and have all started breeding since the previous survey.
There are many fascinating stories revealed by the distribution maps. For instance, the population of Yellow Wagtails has almost entirely moved from lowland river valleys to arable land on the Downs; Willow Tits have retracted to the extreme south-west of the county; Cetti's Warblers have spread east along the Kennet Valley; Ring-necked Parakeets have spread west as far as Reading; Buzzards have spread eastward, and Red Kites have gone from being recorded in zero tetrads to being recorded in virtually every tetrad in the county.
The abundance maps use a colour scale to represent relative abundance. This works well for most species but for species recorded in very small numbers in only a few tetrads it becomes harder to interpret. On some of the winter distribution maps the palest blue is virtually indistinguishable from the pale grey of the built up areas. As a result some of these maps can look completely blank. Maps have also been included for some of the migrant species. However, for some of these there isn't a lot of data and maps plotting one or two tetrads don't really add much value. Despite these shortcomings, on the whole the maps provide a valuable representation of the survey data.
In addition to the maps there are many charts and graphs presenting the data in a multitude of ways, including average monthly counts; average number of birds recorded per year; and records by month of arrival.
Every species is illustrated with a line drawing. These vary in quality but some are truly stunning. The raptors by Jan Wilczur are particularly good. There are also 150 photos scattered throughout the book and they are generally of a very high standard. Many of these photos have been given a large proportion of the page and the majority of these bleed to the edge of the page and fade to white as they meet the text. The quality of the photo reproduction is very high and the high quality paper really does the images justice. Some of the highlights include a beautifully lit Glossy Ibis, a roosting Nightjar, and a hunting male Montagu's Harrier.
There are also photos of some of Berkshire's most famous rarities, such as the Maidenhead Black-throated Thrush, the Reading Laughing Gull and the Queen Mother Reservoir Buff-bellied Pipit. It is nice to see that most of the photos of birds used in the book have been taken in Berkshire and location details are included with many of the photos.
Additionally, there are many full page photos of habitats which are really effective at setting the scene of the Berkshire countryside, from West Woodhay Down in the west to Queen Mother Reservoir in the east. These pages also include insets of bird species associated with these habitats.
The book finishes with a series of appendices including: the participants in the 2007-11 Atlas Surveys; site gazetteer; tetrad survey data; bird population estimates; the Berkshire List; habitat areas; museums; and references. There's some really useful and interesting information in these and they deserve as much attention as the rest of the book.
A website (berksoc.org.uk/county-atlas/) has been created to accompany the book. The site features interactive maps which allow you to apply overlays of habitats, contours, relief shading and 2km/10km grid lines. Clicking on a tetrad will show you breeding statistics and a complete list of the species recorded in the tetrad. The data archive section contains downloads to the raw data used to create the maps, giving you the opportunity to analyse the data yourself. The data has already been used to demonstrate the impact of weather conditions on the Stonechat population.
Putting minor criticisms of the maps aside, this is a very impressive book. It's visually stunning and is the definitive reference on the status of the birds of Berkshire. It should be on every Berkshire birder's book shelf and will also appeal to birders that may only occasionally visit the county. It stands as a model of how a county avifauna should be approached. The authors and every Berkshire birder should be justifiably proud.