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Birds We Ought to Know Better

A review by Keith Betton

The Helm Guide to Bird Identification: Comparing Confusion Species, by Keith Vinicombe, Alan Harris, and Laurel Tucker

A & C Black, 2014

396 pages, $42.95—softcover

ABA Sales–Buteo Books 14335

The internet tells us that the term “game-changer” was not used outside of sports until 1993. But one of the best bird books on my shelves, The Macmillan Field Guide to Bird Identification, was published in 1989—and its 224 pages of useful tips were a true game-changer. That book changed the way we looked at some of our regular, familiar birds in Britain, with comparisons of species pairs and groups helping us make clearer identification choices in the field. Each chapter of this classic guide was a master class, and it made us better birders.

A quarter century later, much has changed, and this guide with it. This thorough update, now titled The Helm Guide, includes many more species and in much greater detail; the waterfowl section, for example, now treats in detail Snow and Ross’s geese, Cackling and Canada geese, all the races of Brant, and Common and King eiders.

Particularly impressive are the new illustrations and text to help in the separation of Semipalmated, Western, and Least sandpipers and Red-necked and Little stints. The American Black Tern has been added to what was already a strong chapter in the first edition.

Helm Bird ID Comparing

Those examples and many more make it obvious that although The Helm Guide is written from a British and European perspective, North American birders will find much valuable information here. Observers in the U.S. and Canada will profit from the sections on many of “our” common U.K. birds that are only vagrants in the New World, among them the Graylag Goose, Gray Heron, and Western Marsh Harrier. And all of us, in Europe and in America, will learn new details allowing the detection and identification of a range of first-rate rarities.

Yes, this book will be a game-changer for ABA Area birders, too.

From the perspective of an ABA member who lives in the U.K., the most striking change since the appearance of the first Macmillan Guide has been the recognition of new species. We now have the Caspian Gull (split from Yellow-legged Gull), Daurian and Turkestan shrikes (from Isabelline Shrike), Steppe Gray Shrike (from Great Gray Shrike), and Moltoni’s Warbler (from Subalpine Warbler), while Olivaceous and Bonelli’s warblers have each been split into two, eastern and western species.

We also know more today about the status of certain rare visitors. For example, we now know that Pallid Harriers arrive in the UK in small numbers annually, and we’re just now realizing that Northern Harriers from America occasionally visit as well. If you are lucky enough to find a vagrant Booted Warbler, now you have to be sure it’s not the much rarer Sykes’s Warbler, and you can’t be certain of a Richard’s Pipit until you’ve ruled out the possibility of a Blyth’s.

As a result of all this new knowledge, our birding has become more challenging, and I think it’s the same wherever you go. A guide like this helps all of us come to grips with the key identification features of “new” species, previously undetected rarities, and the “lesser rarities” that we all ought to know better.

BINbuttonThis new edition is the work of the same author and illustrators as the first. Keith Vinicombe has completely reworked the text, and Alan Harris has created many new plates. Sadly, Laurel Tucker died while the first book was being created, but her work lives on in some of the plates retained in the new book.

Among the innovations in the new edition is a separate section for white herons: In 1989, all of the egrets were vagrants in Britain, but Little Egrets colonized shortly thereafter, and now we have Great Egrets and Cattle Egrets starting to settle here, too. We’re also seeing more White-tailed Eagles, thanks to recent increases in northern Europe and the reintroduction scheme in Scotland; a new section outlines the differences from Golden Eagle.

The new illustrations and text for the smaller sandpipers cover Semipalmated, Western, Least, White-rumped, and Baird’s sandpipers, plus Temminck’s, Red-necked, and Long-toed stints.

The new information on the American Black Tern—the distinctive and field-distinguishable subspecies surinamensis—should help increase the number of accepted U.K. records beyond the current four, and just may help the well-prepared birder find a European niger in North America.

The warbler sections have been enlarged, with an additional focus on the relatively common but skulking Cetti’s Warbler, plus rare vagrants such as Greenish and Arctic warblers and the more frequent Dusky, Radde’s, Yellow-browed, Hume’s, and Pallas’s warblers. Among the featured UK breeders are Goldcrest and Firecrest, and Common Nightingale is compared with the rare vagrant Thrush Nightingale.

ABA Area birders will be happy to find excellent pages devoted to the Yellow Wagtail taxa, including the Eastern Yellow Wagtail. With the expansion of the European Red-rumped Swallow, more individuals of that species are appearing outside of its traditional range; the new guide also offers advice on identifying the Asian race. The Rustic Bunting, increasingly encountered in the U.K. and regular in the ABA Area, has also been added.

The pipit chapter now includes more information on distinguishing Blyth’s, Pechora, and American (Buff-bellied) pipits. The various subspecies of the Eastern Stonechat and the eastern subspecies of Lesser Whitethroat, now recognized as winter visitors in several European countries, are also treated at greater length.

Conversely, the first edition’s section on Eurasian Treecreeper and Short-toed Treecreeper has been left out, probably because only banders consistently obtain the views necessary to separate them. Not treated here, the American Herring Gull is now regularly found in Ireland, and has been detected elsewhere in Europe, too; including that species would have been of interest to both European and American birders.

Even with those omissions, The Helm Guide is a significantly bigger book—by 172 pages—than its predecessor, covering almost 100 different groups and in much more detail than in the earlier edition. Vinicombe’s approach is a practical one, describing new features that you can observe in the field rather than the sort of feather detail visible only in a museum.

It leaves me wondering how much else remains to be discovered about all those birds that we think we know well!

Keith Betton

Keith Betton is a UK birder and long-time member of the ABA. Having worked in travel over most of his career, he has seen over 7600 species of birds in nearly 100 countries. Vice-President of the African Bird Club, Betton’s particular passion is Africa and its birds. 

Recommended citation:

Betton, K. 2015. Birds We Ought to Know Better [a review of The Helm Guide to Bird Identification, by Keith Vinicombe, Alan Harris, and Laurel Tucker]. Birding 47 (1): 67.

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Birding Book Reviews publishes Birding magazine's reviews on line. Book reviews are edited by Rick Wright.
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