Sunday 4 September 2016

Book Review - A sky full of Birds

Matt Merritt, a familiar name on the birding scene is editor of Bird Watching magazine. Not surprisingly his main passion is birds but he is an award winning poet with an obvious love of history too. Setting the scene for the book, he delves into the roots of his inspiration as a youngster and you come to realise that this is a book about birding excess, but Matt is not a 'twitcher', it's not high mileage for the sake of a 'tick', he simply loves 'watching birds'. The excess refers to the exceptional avian gatherings which can occur throughout the British Isles.

There is a lot of travelling as the journey takes us down motorways, along country roads, into cites, countryside and some the best reserves or natural areas Britain has to offer. There are already plenty of books about twitchers, this is first and foremost about the birds and one man's mission to see a hell of a lot of them, starting in January and covering a calendar year.

There are no pictures, other than line drawings used to break up the text. You don't need pictures, the scene is usually set in your mind, from the first page or two of each chapter, as Matt delivers his highly readable prose into the next birding feast. It's not all about large gatherings either as plenty of individual species, including the not so common birds like Wryneck and Red-backed Shrike turn up along the pages. It's literally peppered with lots of fascinating facts too!

The throng holds centre stage; whether it's a dawn chorus, the three species of Swans summed up in a 'blizzard of wings' or Pink-footed Geese in their thousands. From Ravens in Anglesey,  raptors on the Wirral, Kent Nightingales and Scottish Capercaillies it is a truly complete UK tour. Less popular crowd pullers are included, for instance the Rook, plus settlers to these isles like Ring-necked Parakeet or Mandarin and the here today gone tomorrow flocks of Waxwings. For some of the gatherings, timing and choice of season is critical but I'm not going to give them all away...  there's many more species and many more spectacles to behold!

Matt writes in a style that makes it difficult to put the book down and takes you to places, often contrasting the present to the past, it truly is 'by turns poetic, informative and entertaining'. I've already personally witnessed most of the spectacles and well remember walking along the Newcastle Quayside to the unexpected late night din of... 'k-wake, k-wake, Kitt-i-waake'... I was immediately transported back by the chapter and could almost taste the food and wine of Sabatini's et al!

This is a book for everyone with an interest in birds, I really enjoyed it - bringing back memories from the past plus temptation for the future. It would make an excellent gift / stocking filler. If you haven't particpated in the spectacles contained within the book, there's going to be some amazing days, weekends or longer trips away pending! Or why not enjoy them all as Matt did and in the process have an amazing birding year spent 'bird watching'? You will save a lot of the angst inherent in twitching a yearlist - the vast majority of these birds are guaranteed...

Available in hardback (£12.99), paperback (£8.99) or Kindle (£9.49)