It’s not often that I buy books unless it’s something that grabs my eye, something that is a little different from the norm and Martin Garner’s new challenge series of books is exactly that. There is little in the way of identification guides these days, though recently the old birder’s (I think I probably fall into that category) favourite the Macmillan Guide was given a rebirth and just a few years back the unique Advanced Bird ID Guide by Nills Van Duivenduk describing every species within the Western Palearctic, was published. In his first guide Martin covers some of the rarer species or races that we may come across in the Autumn, and also a few that some of us (including me) had no idea actually existed let alone might turn up on our shores.
Martin appears to have taken some of the best bits from the aforementioned guides; the descriptive style of Duivenduk’s book coupled with the Macmillan style miniature sketches detailing key areas to look for along with a good selection of comparison photos. With the aid of a smartphone or tablet pc even more content - additional photos, video and audio - is available via QR codes at the start of each chapter.
Broken down into eighteen chapters this guide deals with some of the trickiest and in some cases the most contentious of bird ID subjects e.g. South Polar Skua. Martin’s mantra is “always discovering” and the first six chapters certainly give you a feel of what’s constantly going around in his head - how many of us have ever considered the possibility of Sharp-shinned Hawk or even Japanese Sparrowhawk after a fleeting glimpse of a small accipiter at an East or West coast birding hotspot? Those early chapters will certainly open your eyes, but for those of us who like the safety of their chosen comfort zone the remainder of the book will further educate and have you wishing you’d booked that Shetland trip.
Ray Scally’s artwork should not go unmentioned, it is excellent, educational and has a feel of Lars Johnsson, not at all two dimensional like some of the images that grace many field guides. Whilst some illustrations show the species in full, others break it down into parts. I found this method a better aid to ID, drawing your attention to the salient points rather than lots of arrows pointing in all directions.
Presumably Martin intends this series to cover the four seasons and presumably four books? Though given the huge spectrum of possible Autumn species, the Leaf Warblers and some of those tricky eastern buntings for starters, it could run and run until we’ve had enough. However, judging how Mr Garner’s enthusiasm rubs off onto others that could make for a very long series indeed.
The first tantalising glimpse of the Challenge Series had this frugal Yorkshireman reaching to the dark (rarely ventured) depths of his pockets and having now been privileged to have a review copy I can honestly say it was money well spent. This will certainly be part of my baggage allowance on my trip north this autumn.