Pipits & Wagtails
Pipits & Wagtails – of Europe, Asia & North America by Per Alström and Krister Mild – Illustrated by Per Alstöm and Bill Zetterström. Helm Identification Guides April 2003 £48 ISBN0713658347
My disappointment in this volume was largely a result of two factors. Firstly, the long wait – like an awful lot of bird books we knew it was coming out a long while ago and delays in publication have been very frustrating. Secondly I read the title without taking in the sub-title and was searching in vain for certain species before the dawning Simpson moment – doh! It doesn`t cover the whole world you dummy!
This will remain the biggest disappointment and finding pictures and species account of African Pied Wagtail but none for Mountain Wagtail or Madagascan Wagtail further confused me. Frankly I still cannot see why this volume wasn`t totally comprehensive. I`d have settled for one book on pipits and another on wagtails but why this division? I don`t doubt many other readers and birders will be equally dumbfounded.
God knows its hard enough to sort out these families anyway. Pipits are very hard work in the filed and I greatly admire those who twitch into mega mode on the back of a strange call or a variation on buff colouration. Pipits are, in my view, the ultimate LBJs – I have enough trouble at home with Tree and Meadow, Water and Rock, let alone the outside chances of Olive-backed or Pechora. Oh sure, if you point out the differences in the field down a powerful scope with a book in one hand I can see that one is larger, redder in the leg, less striped down the flank or whatever but as they bounce past on a spring wind they are all mippits to me. My wife will now rail against me for pleading my own ignorance as she tells me I should not put myself down and am a far better birder than I think but, hey, we`re talking pipits here my love! A Kestrel curtailed my one and only long look at a Blyth`s Pipit cutting it profoundly short and I`m sure he didn`t give a flying fig for its provenance anyway – just the taste! Suffice it to say I find them hard and am not alone. Wagtails on the other hand are not so bad – UK experience being confined to three species (by & large) and separating alba from yarrellii is even within my grasp. OK the flavas are a bit more testing but a little travel brings one into contact with enough races to begin to appreciate the blue/grey/black heads etc.
I have to admit that the remnant twitcher in me was hoping for this volume to sort out the status of more than a few and this was yet another source of disappointment. Frankly I think the authors duck the issue and their exposition of the various taxonomical theories did not seem consistent with their treatment.
On the one hand they conclude that all views of taxonomy keep their hypothetical status and none prove paramount yet they seem almost arbitrarily to reduce flava races to a dozen nearly halving the divisions accepted by others. I found the exposition of the theories hard to follow, which may be because of my status as a non-scientist, but it could as easily ground to the authors hiding behind scientific nomenclature – when in doubt blind with science. I`d sum up that whole section as its all a matter of faith because if they demonstrate that biological taxonomy, phylogenic & DNA supported monophyletic analysis, in all their forms, is not definitive, then they should either set out their way with evidence, or tell us all that it came down to whim! Where do we dumb arts majors start when they say of their own adopted taxonomical theory - such a hypothesis needs not be based on an analysis using modern methods of phylogentic inference and they also say that MSC [ monophyletic species concept] has not been explicitly formulated! Perhaps I should adopt one of my birding companions taxonomy - if it means another tick, split it!
Having got the boot in first its time for some well deserved plaudits. Firstly I very much like the plates (even although they lack any pointers to field characteristics) and believe them to be colour true. The non-glossy print is a positive too giving plumage a quality much closer to reality than a lot of guides do.
The species accounts are amongst the most comprehensive I have seen (leaving aside any taxonomical disputes) and may will applaud the use of sonograms and the very detailed distribution maps.
One real departure and to be greatly welcomed are the use of a great number of photographs at the back of the book – so this volume gives us the best of both worlds; clear paintings and realistic photographs.
I have no doubt I will be spending lots of time with this volume after overseas trips just as I do with most of the Helm guides.
Whilst I have been critical I
still think that this is more comprehensive than any other work on these groups and will grace your bookshelves – English shelves
that support spines with almost as many Swedish Authors as English ones reaffirming the prime place Scandinavian expertise in
Created: 21st May 2003
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