A bible for dedicated followers of feathers

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IT COULD be called the bird-watchers’ Domesday Book: its combination of 1,664 pages, 905 photographs and 1,500 diagrams catalogue all 509 species of birds that have fluttered, flapped or flown over Scotland.

The Birds of Scotland, which is being launched on Wednesday, 9 January in the British Bird Hall at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, is the most detailed record of Scotland’s birds – or avifauna – that has ever been published.

A team of 157 experts and 213 photographers contributed to the book, the text of which was poured over by a team of nine editors, led by Ron Forrester and Ian Andrews.

The Birds of Scotland is the successor to two previous tomes that have chronicled the changes in Scotland’s avifauna: Evelyn Baxter and Leonara Rintoul’s The Birds of Scotland, which was published in 1953; and Valerie Thom’s 1986 work, Birds in Scotland.

Those behind the book believe that the amount of information added to the new book in the 20 years since Thom’s volume – and their ability to present those fresh details – will far exceed the amount of data that Thom added in the 33 years between her book and that of Baxter and Rintoul.

The new work, which is published by the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club (SOC), is spread across two hardback volumes, which include at least one photograph, where available, for each species of listed in the mammoth text.

The Birds of Scotland is the culmination of more than five years of work. It includes 12 chapters that introduce Scotland’s geography and habitats, alongside the history and migration patterns of its birds.

The book’s seven appendices include details of Gaelic bird names and summaries of population figures.

The first estimate put the page count at around 850: the final version runs to nearly double that number.

“Everybody was very keen to contribute,” explains Andrews who, along with the book’s other editors, brought together passages from both professional writers and talented amateurs, all experts in their fields.

“Nearly all of our first-choice authors said ‘yes’. They all saw it as a major piece of work and wanted to contribute. We wanted to get the best person to write about each bird.

“The book really has been a team effort. The whole group is around 300-strong and all of the authors and lead editors have worked voluntarily. This project would never have got off the ground if we had to pay people – it wouldn’t cost 75, it would have cost more like 175.”

Demand so far has been high – by the end of August, 1,560 advance copies of the book had already been sold, 45 per cent of the planned print run. By Christmas, 50 per cent of the copies had been pre-ordered.

“It’s aimed at a whole range of people,” explains Andrews. “We’ve tried to make the information available to as wide a range of people as possible. It’s bound to appeal to the professionals, as many professionals contributed to it, right through to active bird watchers and garden bird watchers.

“By putting photographs in, we hope it’s also going to make the book appealing to people who just want to browse through it and pick information out. It’s not just data from beginning to end, it also includes maps and pictures.”

In among the hundreds of thousands of words, a host of stories come to light about individual species and sightings.

“It was very interesting delving into the records and discovering facts that I didn’t know,” Andrews says.

“There was a breeding record for a long-tailed skua, back in the 1980s, which hadn’t been published before. So we did a little detective work and found a painting of the sighting, which is included in the book.

“There are some interesting old photographs, including one of a nesting Montagu’s harrier, which appeared in the 1950s and which we were able to print in the book.”

Following on from such a major piece of work – and with many SOC members taking part in fieldwork for the next bird atlases – what’s next for the club and its activities?

“One of the things we highlighted for each species was gaps in our knowledge,” Andrews explains.

“That will hopefully direct people to areas where work still needs to be done and, over the next few years, I hope some of those gaps will be filled, either through bird watching by amateurs or by professionals looking for PhD topics.”

Scotland is one of the leading nations in terms of bird study – and much of the research and observation over the years has been carried out by talented amateurs.

“That’s one of the recurring themes of bird watching and research in the Scotland and the UK – a lot of the ground work is done by volunteers, like SOC or RSPB members.”

The SOC was founded in 1936 by a group of ornithologists who met at the Royal Scottish Geographical Society in Edinburgh. Today, the club has around 2,500 members and 14 branches, ranging from Orkney to Stranraer, which organise field trips and talks.

The club’s headquarters is at Waterston House, in Aberlady, East Lothian, which also houses Scotland’s most comprehensive library of literature on birds.

&#149 For more details about The Birds of Scotland visit www.birdsofscotland.org.uk or call the Scottish Ornithologists Club on 01875 871330 (office reopens on Monday).