Take flight with superb nature books

TWO new, outstanding nature books from Gill & Macmillan arrived in the post this week.

The first, The Complete Field Guide to Ireland’s Birds, written by Eric Dempsey and illustrated by Michael O’Clery, is perfectly timed to coincide with autumn migrations. Birds are on the move – our summer visitors going south, our winter visitors arriving from northern Europe and North America. We may wake to find a rarity in our garden.

If such a feathered phenomenon should visit us – saving us the cost of seeking it abroad – this volume will not only help to identify it but tell us something of its story. Some 420 species are described, all the birds we see commonly, occasionally or only rarely in Ireland.

Among the exceptional features of this field guide is its text, illustrations and scope. Herein described are birds less often seen, the rarities that send a twitcher’s heart a-fluttering. They are as finely illustrated as the residents. It is easy to see the difference between the brambling, relatively rare and a winter visitor, and the chaffinch, common and resident all year.

A very useful feature is an easy-to-use system to help one quickly locate characteristic details of the bird which one is observing “in the field”. Speed is of the essence: identify it before it flies away! The opening page lists bird groups according to species families. Against each, a tab is printed on the page margin. This tab is set directly opposite a tab on the fore edge of the pages, so that it is simple to slip one’s thumb nail into the pages relating to the selected family. Thus, one is already half way there.

Other aides also help one to form a quick conclusion about the bird. Pre-eminent, of course, is Michael O’Clery’s illustrations, each not only accurate and informative but a work of art. Then, there are the species maps with a colour scheme to indicate if it is a summer bird, winter bird, all-year-round bird, or rare visitor: and it also informs us of which one of the counties where it is seen most.

Finally, for each bird, there is a Time of Year Bar, an excellent idea with each month of the year colour-coded according to the presence or absence of the bird under scrutiny. The deeper the shading the more numerous is the species. If it’s January and you think you are looking at a whinchat, the time bar will disabuse you of the notion of whinchats in Ireland in winter, as will the map alongside. However, you will see that its cousin, the stonechat, illustrated below it, is resident all year.

The book is beautifully produced on fine paper, well bound, with excellent indexes. Retailing at €19.99, it is a joy to use and to behold.

The Wildflowers of Ireland by Declan Doogue and Carsten Kreiger contains more than 300 beautiful, full-colour images of Irish wild flowers photographed in the field. It is a book to admire for its stunning pictures and to savour for its knowledgeable text. Its chapters are marvellously informative, detailing our wild flowers and flowering plants according to habitat and discussing many individually, their place in the landscape, their history, culinary or medicinal uses and current status.

Wild flowers colonise every environment where they can find the smallest rooting medium. Declan Doogue’s text, illustrated by Carsten Krieger’s photographs, gives a chapter to the plants of each ecological niche– the parks and lawns, old ruins and walls, city waste lots, roadside verges, sand dunes, salt marshes and shingle shores, coastal cliffs and rock platforms, river and canal banks, lake shores, bogs, fens and marshes, mountain heaths, grassland, hedges and woodland and devotes a chapter to the very specialised habit of the Burren’s limestone grykes.

Knowing the wildflowers greatly enhances any walk. The more one knows the more one looks and the more one sees. A walk becomes an entertainment. Knowing the birds, equally so.

Gill & Macmillan have done Irish nature conservation a great service in publishing these books. Available from October 1, in hardback 280mm x 230mm format, The Wildflowers of Ireland retails at €29.99.

Finally, an important addition to west Cork history: Diane Hodnett’s The Metal Mines of West Cork tells the story of local copper mining and local connections with Cornwall. Well researched, rich in primary source material and with photographs and field surveys by Paddy O’Sullivan, it retails at €19.99 from Maps and Charts, Schull, mizen@eircom.net.


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