Monday, 7 November 2016

Book review - The Arctic Guide - Sharon Chester

This book is aimed at the traveller and naturalist as a portable guide to the flora and fauna of the entire Arctic region. Featuring an amazing list of more than 800 species of plants, fish, butterflies, birds and mammals it certainly delivers the goods in that respect! Whether you are just an armchair naturalist or seasoned traveller, it is the ideal guide to the region. Many of the birds featured and quite a few of the plants too are familiar to me but where this book scores is delivering the ideal single volume guide to the far north...

The introductory map (below) is used as a smaller map accompanying the individual accounts to summarise the distribution of the species concerned.  A clear account of the terrestrial and marine environments will whet your appetite to understand more about the harsh climate and surroundings the creatures here must endure.

Weighing in at just over a kilogram in the soft cover edition, the 542 pages are jam packed with information, superb colour images and interesting facts. The cover uses the same material as my well thumbed copy of 'Sibley' - it looks water resistant and built to last and survive journeys within luggage! Once the book is opened, it becomes a veritable treasure trove of information about the area in question. Whilst some 'field guides' become works of reference, rarely plucked from bookshelves due to their sheer complexity, this book is so eminently readable, picking out the key identification features and then concentrating on the habits of the wildlife in question. You get to 'know' the bird  or creature from the text, rather than just understanding it's distinguishing features.

Here's a couple of pages from the extensive section on birds, covering 245 pages, by far the largest section of the book. For UK readers, naming follows the checklist of the American Ornithologist's Union but the familiar names are easily reconciled from the 'ALSO' section. As an example, Divers become Loons and Goosander becomes Common Merganser but both names can be found in the species descriptions. When searching through the index, Merganser took a while to find as they are listed under Duck in the index. It doesn't take long to get into the 'American way', especially once you've been there! This isn't a criticism, just a pointer for a UK 'beginner'!

And just look at these Petrels, that Fork-tailed Storm Petrel might have me reaching for a brochure or two? The likelihood of this turning up on a Scilly Pelagic is maybe pushing the boat out to far?? With the other three passing through British waters each year, it shows just how far many seabirds will travel.

My daughter picked it up during a recent visit home with an excited look at the cover "ooh what's that"? (Muskox) She then proceeded to absorb the two pages of information, treating me to some amazing facts... "Did you know their fine soft wool is the most expensive in the world"? I won't tell you how much it costs, that would spoil your adventure in getting to know this shaggy coated mammal. Many programmes on TV tend to feature mammals from the Arctic and  it's impossible not to smile when watching an Arctic Fox pouncing on unseen prey through the snow. The white fur transforms into a two toned buff/cream or even blue colouration with many regional variants  for the summer period and boy can they travel, with one individual recorded covering over 2,000 km in search of food.

With the mammals, birds, fish and insects covered, over 100 pages is devoted to the flora of the Arctic. Flowering plants account for about 90% of the flora and everything you are likely to encounter is here plus lichens, mosses, ferns, conifers and delightful dwarf willows of the region. Here's a few of the region's Saxifrages.....

Sharon Chester is clearly 'as one' with the area and her intimate knowledge is conveyed in a very readable style with her photographic illustrations shining throughout. The quality is superb and continues a trend for images (provided they are this good) to supercede the era of drawn illustrations.

The paperback version is retailing on Amazon for just £16.56 at present, discounted against the rrp of £19.95. Princeton books have a winner on their hands here and I'd seriously recommend it for anyone interested in nature. And whether you have already visited (see what you might have missed) or are considering a visit to the Arctic, it's an absolute must have ...

I did, as the book suggests, have a wonderful journey through the wilds of the Arctic from the warmth and comfort of my armchair. There are so many wonderful places, now quite easily accessible that I need to visit? One day...

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