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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.


Lars Jonsson Mitchell Beazley/Hayman Peterson, Mountfort & Hollom
Heinzel, Fitter and Parslow Sterry et al Bill Oddie
Elphick Wings Guide/Couzens Macmillan Field Guide
Gooders Hamlyn/Bruun & Singer Macmillan Guide / Middle East
Kightley, Madge, Nurney RSPB/Holden & Sharrock Rare Birds/Lewington
Results and Winners
Addendum – Svensson et al
Addendum – Holden and Cleeves


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.

The Books

Birds of Europe with North Africa and the Middle East (Lars Jonsson)

Helm, 560 pp hb and pb

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 shoulders.
  • illustrations functional rather than pretty. They are too small, although plentiful.
  • 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.
[Heinzel cover]

Birds – A Guide Book to British Birds (Elphick)

BBC, pb 320pp, Price 14.99

Field Guide to the Birds of Britain & Ireland (Gooders)

Larousse, pb, 288pp

Birds of Britain and North-West Europe (Kightley, Madge, Nurney)

Pica Press, pb 300pp, 11.95

[Mitchell Beazley cover]

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 birding.
  • Pioneered the use of well annotated plates – a development that I greatly appreciate.
  • 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 Little Egret.
  • 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

Wings Guide to British Birds (Couzens)

Collins, pb 256pp

[Bruun cover]

Hamlyn Guide to Birds of Britain & Europe – (Bruun et al)

320pp pb
  • 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 etc.
  • 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 revamp.

The RSPB Book of British Birds (Holden and Sharrock)

Macmillan, hb 220pp

[PM+H cover]

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 illustrations.
  • Not very helpful in letting me know which birds I can expect to find in a particular area.
  • 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 languages.

Bill Oddie’s Birds of Britain and Ireland (Oddie)

New Holland, 240pp hb

[Macmillan cover]

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 at times.
  • 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 so.
  • 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

[Lewington cover]

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. Comprehensive text.
  • 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]

The Results

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.

The Winners

Highly Commended


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 taking orders.

Holden and Cleeves

(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.

FSC Garden Birds Chart

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 table.

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 field.

They sell for around three quid too, which helps!” (Andy Mabbett)

Elphick and Woodward

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 review.