Field Guide FAQ
One of the commoner questions in the group is which bird books are recommended.
This is a compilation and summary by Gordon Hamlett of comments made by members of the group on all the various field guides to birds that were available for the UK in 1999 – fifteen of them! (The cover illustrations are not necessarily of the latest edition.) Note also the various addenda at the bottom, on more recent books.
The following is a summary of all the field guides currently available in
the UK. All the comments were culled from a questionnaire posted on the Net.
Responses came from total beginners and first time visitors to the UK, right
the way through to birders who have owned every field guide ever published.
Hopefully, you will find most of their comments constructive. In many cases,
the prices are not given, as the publishers have a habit of hiking them
fairly regularly. Look out too for special offers (often detailed in the
various bird magazines) and remainders.
Birds of Europe with North Africa and the Middle East (Lars Jonsson)
Helm, 560 pp hb and pb
- Wonderful illustrations – an inspiration to birders and bird illustrators
alike. Not only superbly executed plates, but images of a good size and with
a good number of species portraits.
- I really like his descriptions of songs and still can’t hear a Great
Reed-Warbler without being reminded of ‘an un-oiled stone-crusher’ or a
Serin without thinking of ‘glass shards’.
- Very helpful especially on difficult species.
- Good specific plates (harriers, skuas).
- Shows birds in different poses and lights.
- Very detailed treatment on the birds I personally find tricky (gulls and
- Text seems just to describe the bird you are looking at.
- difficult for beginner to find way around plates.
- I find the guide awkward to carry around with me. If I am going to an area
that requires me to walk a long way, this is a book that I leave behind in
- Simply the best.
Birds of Britain and Europe with North Africa and the Middle East (Heinzel,
Fitter and Parslow)
Collins, pb 384pp
- Excellent coverage of subspecies and good range of plumages shown.
- very good for passerines.
- descriptions surprisingly good for such short texts.
- the one guide that I can carry all day without noticing the strain on my
- illustrations functional rather than pretty. They are too small, although
- The waders are horrible, problems on raptor jizz.
- the guide of choice for Morocco and Israel.
- book includes a large number of vagrants and many species at the very
limits of their range.
- I like the many little illustrations of birds in flight or running
around – the authors try to convey the jizz of species in this way and I
find their attempts more often helpful than not.
- Probably not the best book for a beginner.
Birds – A Guide Book to British Birds (Elphick)
BBC, pb 320pp, Price £14.99
- I felt that the individual illustrations were on the small side and
- easily the best book for a beginner who doesn’t mind peering at small
- run of the mill -nothing to make it rate above any others.
- I had the feeling that the pictures were done ‘by order’ for the BBC by
competent ‘jobbing artists’ who weren’t birders.
- the text is quite good and packed with information.
- interesting population figures.
- confusion species are not always shown side by side but are cross
- good for someone looking for just British birds.
- Though there is only – by and large – one species per page, the book feels
crammed with information as all the available space is filled with lots of
pictures and text.
- Expensive compared to its rivals at £14.99 (pb) and oddly under-promoted
given its stable.
Field Guide to the Birds of Britain & Ireland (Gooders)
Larousse, pb, 288pp
- I selected this because of the clarity of the illustrations and layout,
with one species per page.
- I prefer a more verbose guide that describes differences in plumage and
jizz. The design of the book precludes that. I don’t like the use of some
new names – Hedge Accentor for Dunnock.
- The colour coding of families, and chances of seeing a bird at a given
time of the year were great for a first time visit to Britain.
- Very good for a beginner.
- illustrations, largely by the increasingly brilliant Harris, are first
- One bird per page makes comparison a nightmare in the field.
- I find the yellow information boxes irritating and wasteful. Rather brief
text given its size.
- Brilliant layout for non-pictorial information but I find the
- I prefer guides that have a more in-depth description of family groups.
But really, the author never set out to make the book a definitive
- I saw five birds on my trip that I had to mark as unknown, merely because
they didn’t quite fit with the descriptions – they just weren’t in the book.
Birds of Britain and North-West Europe (Kightley, Madge, Nurney)
Pica Press, pb 300pp, £11.95
- An excellent book for the UK.
- Text well done and excellent annotated notes to maps.
- I didn’t like the gulls at all, a problem as this is one of the groups I
- The one I’d now take when leading groups.
- The best buy for beginners/intermediates.
- Quirky area of coverage – no Mediterranean species but some eastern
- Bucks the trend of modern field guides by actually fitting in the pocket.
- Clearly laid out, I like the way the information is presented. It takes
the Gooders book one stage further.
- large portraits showing a good range of plumages.
- Though very competent, Nurney’s illustrations fail to reach the dizzy
levels exhibited by Lewington, Harris and Hayman.
Birdwatcher’s Pocket Guide (Hayman)
Mitchell Beazley, hb 192pp
- Because of its slim size, the best bar none for carrying around with you.
- It is a rite of passage as a birder when you don’t need this book any more.
- Good pictures – but small – of all the birds you see when you start
- Pioneered the use of well annotated plates – a development that I greatly
- I hate the eccentric layout – the order of the birds is roughly by size.
- Hayman’s multiple image technique conveys jizz well.
- Lack of maps is irritating, as is choice of species: eg Siberian Jay but no
- Now I’ve joined the reading specs brigade, the text is too small.
- Far too little information, and not nearly enough illustrations.
- I wouldn’t be seen dead using it in the field!
Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe (Sterry et al)
AA, 416pp, pb, £9.99
- book does everything quite well, but nothing outstandingly so – was it
designed by committee?
- Some beautiful individual portraits.
- rather anodyne.
- totally inconsistent scale used for drawings which means appreciation of
relative size is difficult.
- Though I admire the many of the individual portraits, in a strange way the
sum is not as good as the parts.
- Text on the brief side.
- plates suffer both from being lifted from a coffee table book, rather
than purpose designed, and from the use of over a dozen artists.
- too much variation in artistic styles, which can jar.
- rather an old fashioned feel to it, with many fewer illustrations than many
- very pale – you lose some white birds against the white background.
Wings Guide to British Birds (Couzens)
Collins, pb 256pp
- the pictures are very small given the size of the book.
- too many of the pictures are so close to the centre of the book that you
are forced to break the spine to see them properly.
- extra pages for flight shots work well.
- the extra articles on behaviour and jizz are excellent – by far the best
part of the book.
- there are problems with the scale of the illustrations, eg Crested Tit
appears larger than a Rook.
- the plastic cover is ok but the book is still too big for most pockets.
- id text is too brief for my liking but might be ok for beginners.
- smacks of being a rush job to tie in with the television series.
- tries to sit on too many stools at once and misses most of them.
- comments such as ‘a flatter, less emphatic sound than the wheeze of a
Greenfinch’ for a Brambling’s call is not helpful for a beginner at whom
this book is presumably aimed.
Hamlyn Guide to Birds of Britain & Europe – (Bruun et al)
- The quality of the illustrations is very variable – marks range from 3-7.
- an excellent well compressed text.
- Nice three-colour maps but they fail to show political boundaries.
- Dreadful plates by Singer should have been abandoned years ago.
- The only field guide I’ve ever given away.
- Brilliant plates for waders, gulls and terns but pitiful warblers, pipits
- a real curates egg. I loathe Singer’s crude cartoons.
- inadequate text for really thorny problems.
- small waders and Phylloscopus warbler plates poor.
- This has the potential to be quite a good guide but it needs a major
The RSPB Book of British Birds (Holden and Sharrock)
Macmillan, hb 220pp
- a totally average beginners’ book – nothing outstanding, nothing horribly
- I don’t like the composite paintings of several species all shown in the
same field/bush. It gives the wrong impression.
- Strange that they pay more attention to the behaviour and habitat articles
than they do to actually identifying the birds.
- Would prefer the maps to be in with the main body of the text rather than
in a separate section.
- I wish they had devoted more time to painting the birds and less to
painting the backgrounds which are often distracting.
- I was given this as a present when I was taken to my first RSPB reserve so
I have sentimental reasons for liking it.
- Out of date. No Little Egret for example. The inclusion of a tiny Great
Grey Shrike is a joke.
- The chosen painting style works against them too often with the
illustrations you are most interested in – such as flight shots of birds of
prey – being the smallest ones on the page.
- feels dated now. There are many better books available
- When I showed this book to my beginner’s group, every one of them
preferred something else.
Birds of Britain & Europe (Peterson, Mountfort and Hollom)
Collins, hb c500pp
- system of arrows pointing out key identification features is extremely
helpful, especially to beginners.
- I still think the quality of the art work is very high. Unfortunately
some of the plates have deteriorated with each successive edition, with the
colours especially getting worse.
- lots of thumbing forwards and backwards is required, with maps,
illustrations and text all in separate sections, which I hate.
- This book was recommended to me 24 years ago. I have upgraded to newer
editions but not seen the need to change to another guide.
- Somehow the figures just don’t seem to come to life.
- Very poor on Mediterranean species.
- There is little attempt made to convey behaviour or jizz in the
- Not very helpful in letting me know which birds I can expect to find in a
- Lack of illustrations of passerines in flight.
- the text is generally well-written when you manage to find it!
- Particularly helpful is the inclusion of the names in five different
Bill Oddie’s Birds of Britain and Ireland (Oddie)
New Holland, 240pp hb
- aimed very much at the absolute beginner – you will probably need to
upgrade to something more comprehensive fairly quickly.
- I loved the text – there seems to be absolutely no jargon. It’s like
having Bill talking to you.
- the pictures are huge compared to other books.
- it reads like an adult ‘Janet and John go birdwatching’.
- the section on rare, escaped and localised birds is at best quirky.
Beginners have surely got a much greater chance of seeing a Little Egret
- Why are Capercaillie and Ptarmigan in the main section, but Crested Tit
and Golden Eagle relegated to bits and pieces at the back of the book?
There’s no logic here.
- Far too big for the pocket and not helped by being hardback.
- the sort of book bought by non-birders who recognise the name on the cover.
- some idiosyncratic vocal descriptions. Saying a Siskin is like a
speeded-up Greenfinch doesn’t help if you don’t know what a Greenfinch
- No distribution maps at all!!!
The Macmillan Field Guide to Bird Identification (Harris, Tucker and Vinicombe)
Macmillan, hb 224pp
- I love this book. It is superbly written with each essay nicely judged
according to the problem with which it deals.
- wonderful at making points.
- The grouping of difficult groups is a good idea but layout is a bit messy
- The paintings are a joy to behold.
- I find this book extremely helpful and often carry it with me, even when I
take no other books.
- I believe that this book has done more than anything else to improve the
quality of bird identification by the average birder over the last decade or
- Well annotated plates a big plus. Excellent for sorting out problem groups.
- A bit between worlds... Ring-billed Gull and Spotted Sandpiper on one side,
with sparrows and harriers on the other – too complex for learners and
simplistic for mad birders.
- not everything which is in the text is depicted, and visa versa.
- beautifully illustrated and very well written.
The Macmillan Birder’s Guide to European and Middle Eastern Birds (Harris,
Shirihai and Christie)
Macmillan, hb 248pp
- At last, good warblers and eagles!
- First rate plates by Harris – even better than in the companion guide.
- The only book that really tackles awful problems like
Pied/Collared/Semi-collared Flycatcher and ‘Herring’ Gull complexes though
the latter now needs updating again.
- If you know your birds pretty well, the two Macmillan books (plus
Lewington) are the only books you need.
- It would be brilliant if they could publish a synthesis of both books.
- Unsuitable for beginners.
- The text can be somewhat convoluted and lacks Vinicombe’s fluency.
- The texts provide an incredible and comprehensive knowledge.
- Very dry text; really requires concentration to study it.
- Well annotated plates a big plus.
Field Guide to Rare Birds of Britain and Europe (Lewington et al)
Collins, hb 448pp
- a good book to dream, but a dangerous stringer weapon.
- I love Lewington’s portraits; technically they’re quite superb.
- thorough (and generally reliable) listings on frequency, time and place
of sightings of rarities.
- Very thorough and detailed coverage of rarities, including wonderful
information on the ‘expected’ plumages.
- I personally prefer books with the plates distributed throughout rather
than collected together in one place, which requires lots of thumbing
forwards and backwards.
- limited interest, not really worth buying (but I did!).
- I question whether a book of this kind is suitable for anyone other than
the extremely advanced birdwatcher.
- On almost no account should it be taken into the field, as there could be
a great temptation to see what is described in the book rather than what is
shown by the bird.
- This is the book that birds use to check that their feather tracts are all
in the right place!
- Ugly style, lumpy birds, not my taste (but still accurate).
In the Pipeline
A new guide published by Collins is due out in May 99. Written by Svensson,
Mullarney, Zetterstrom and Grant, pre-publicity suggests that it will be something
special. [Further details at the end of this article – SP]
We don’t perhaps realise just how lucky we are in this country. Many of the
books listed are more than adequate for everyday use and you should be able
to come up with a short list of three or four to look at before making your
final decision. Compare this to, for example, the United States where there
is only really one top-notch field guide – the National Geographic.
Trying before buying is just as important with field guides as it is with
binoculars. Every artist who has contributed plates to any of the 15 books
considered here seems to have as many detractors as fans. It’s the same old
story. Your preferred book might not be one receiving the greatest critical
acclaim, but if it works for you, then fine.
There was one very clear winner though. Lars Jonsson’s guide came in for
near universal praise, the only real caveat being that it wasn’t really
suitable for beginners. Certainly the text is far more comprehensive than
any other guide and most people really like the paintings.
What was perhaps more surprising was the huge amounts of praise heaped upon
the Macmillan guides. These books aren’t particularly well known and they
adopt a very different approach to the standard field guide in so much as
they don’t include every bird that’s to be seen in a given area. Assuming
that you know what the common birds look like, instead they concentrate on
giving you as much help as possible when it comes to separating tricky
species – Marsh and Willow Tits, falcons in flight or small brown finches to
give a few examples. If you know your common birds and are looking to
improve, then these books can’t be praised highly enough.
When it comes to books covering just British birds, then the new BTO
endorsed guide is the pick of the current crop even if it does include
North-west Europe as well! Clarity of layout and large pictures also made
this the top choice for beginners.
- Birds of Europe with North Africa and the Middle East – Lars Jonsson
- The Macmillan Field Guide to Bird Identification – Harris, Tucker and
- The Macmillan Birder’s Guide to European and Middle Eastern Birds – Harris,
Shirihai and Christie
- Pocket Guide to the Birds of Britain and North-west Europe – Kightley, Madge
- Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Ireland – Gooders
- Birds – A Guide Book to British Birds – Elphick
- Birds of Britain and Europe with North Africa and the Middle East – Heinzel,
Fitter and Parslow
Svensson et al
Since the original article appeared, the new Collins Bird Guide
(Lars Svensson, Killian Mullarney, Dan Zetterstrom and Peter J. Grant) has appeared and is absolutely superb – generally
reckoned to be the best field guide available anywhere in the world. Amend
the recommendations accordingly.
It is also due for imminent release in a large A4 format. [Now released – SP]
Obviously this is unsuitable for use in the field, but there is supposed to
be a lot more text and the illustration size will be noticeably increased
(the one criticism of the field guide is that some of the pix are a bit small)
So now you will have to buy two copies, one for the car, one for the house.
Lets hope you’ve all been good little boys and girls before Santa starts
(Originally posted 10 May 2002)
If you are looking for a Britain-only field guide, try the RSPB
Handbook of British Birds by Holden and Cleeves, published by Helm at
£9.99 isbn 0-7136-5713-8 – published last week.
The illustrations are taken from the Handbook of Bird Identification
by Beaman and Madge and range from pretty good to very good overall.
There are large-ish maps covering just Britain and Ireland with
sensible colours apart from offshore distribution. 280 species shown
via 1150 illustrations, one species per page. Includes a good number
of the ‘commoner rarities’.
A tad too big for the pocket but excellent value for the money.
At the other end of the spectrum from Svensson et al, at least as far as number of species covered, is the “Top 50 garden birds” fold-out chart from the
Field Studies Council.
(Originally posted 26 July 2003)
“While perhaps of limited interest to birders, it would suit many
‘ordinary’ people, who want a guide to what they see on their bird
Its format is ideal for keeping on a window-ledge or in a kitchen
cupboard, or in a car, briefcase or suchlike.
Other titles, such as those on Dragonflies and Butterflies, may be of
interest to birders, who want to know what else they've seen in the
They sell for around three quid too, which helps!” (Andy Mabbett)
Yet another addition is the RSPB Pocket Guide to Birds by Elphick and Woodward, published in 2003. It doesn’t seem to have been reviewed in the group, but Amazon has a positive