The Raptors of Europe and the Middle East: A Handbook of Field Identification.—Dick Forsman. 1999. T. & A. D. Poyser, London, U.K. xviii + 589 pp., 71 line drawings, 737 color photographs. ISBN 0-85661-098-4. $45 (cloth).
The serious raptor watcher usually requires hiking great distances, carrying lots of equipment and other commodities, and putting up with uncomfortable positions from which to scan the skies. One of the most important pieces of equipment is invariably a reliable raptor identification guide. In recent years, all in-flight raptor identification guides of Palearctic raptors have been larger than the normal pocket book sized bird guides. My experience has been that the extra size and weight has not always justified the effort involved. That is until this book was published. This book is more than just a handbook as its name implies—it is even larger and heavier (1,450 g) than its predecessors. However, after having used it for a whole spring in the field, and having checked the methods and lay out used in the book to help the novice observer, I consider its extra weight and size an advantage. This is especially true for those who are unfamiliar with the 43 Palearctic raptor species, and their diverse morphs and plumages, that are common to Europe and the Middle East.
I have known Dick and his work for quite a few years. He is a frequent visitor at our watch sites in Eilat, Israel, and quite a few photographs included in the book are either those he photographed at the site or by others who also frequent the region. The choice and range of photographs is excellent and sets new standards for a field-usable handbook.
The book begins with the table of contents, Preface, Acknowledgments, and then three sections which I consider as being very instructive to the reader, whether a novice or a professional, titled “Abbreviations and Terminology,” “How to Use the Book,” and “Introduction to the Field Identification of Raptors.” The last is especially important because it explains in detail the strategies (identification by molt, plumage wear and characters, bare parts, size, shape, structure, flight and movement, and the problems of hybrids) used to help identify raptors in the field. The molt section is quite detailed and is broken down as per taxonomic groups and addresses molt strategies in those species that comprise the Accipitridae, Pandionidae, and Falconidae, and how it can be used to age and sex individuals.
Next is the identification section for each species, containing from between 8–31 photographs each. The text is comprised of telegraphic information summarizing subspecies, distribution, habitat, population estimates and trends, movements, and hunting and prey. Then follows detailed sections pertaining to and titled as “Species identification”—biometrics (mostly from live birds in the field) which is followed by a few sentences on diagnostic characteristics of the species. Next is a bordered, blue colored box, entitled “Identification summary,” and is especially helpful if one wishes to only read the highlights of the species involved without wasting time on detailed and convoluted explanations. These are in the next sections which include points on how to identify the species—in flight–distant, in flight–closer, perched, bare parts, confusion species, and molt by age class. Each species account ends with a section on “Ageing and sexing,” and which also has a blue highlighted box for summaries. The appropriate age or sex section references each of the photographs included. Each account ends with a list of the bibliography relevant to the species, and the full citation is listed at the end of the book. Some of the accounts also have black-and-white or color sketches of relevant parts (e.g., wing, tail, head) and markings that aid in identification.
However, because to err is human and no job can ever be perfect, there were a few points that hindered the use of the guide in the field. The first is that one's confidence in the book is a bit undermined by the fact that the section on “confusing species” is not comprehensive for the region. An example of this is a species that I handle frequently, Levant Sparrowhawk (Accipiter brevipes). The species account does not mention their similarity to the Shikra (A. badius). Or of the Crested Honey Buzzard (Pernis ptilorhyncus) in the Honey Buzzard account (P. apivorous). Another disadvantage, even if understandable that the author does not relate to the vagrant (e.g., Dark Chanting Goshawk, Melierax metabates), accidental (e.g., Bateleur, Terathopius ecaudatus), or hybrid species reported over the years, is that he does not relate to those species that are resident on a low frequency in the Middle East (e.g., Verreaux's Eagle, Aquila verreauxii). Furthermore, no geophysical maps are supplied of the regions mentioned in the text. This is a great disadvantage because in many descriptions of the species distribution, the author mentions specific rivers or mountain ranges that are not common knowledge for the average birder. Also, the bibliography used is comparatively old and does not incorporate many recent papers published on the subject. This is especially true for morphometric information that has been published in New World journals.
In spite of my finding those problems, I certainly consider this book to be a great improvement upon all previous raptor flight identification guides. The book is appealing to the reader with its many informative photographs, well-spaced and large lettering, neat sketches, and easy to understand language. This is a book strongly recommended for any one who even remotely watches raptors and a must for the serious raptorphile.—