Review – Best Days With Shetland’s Birds

There’s probably no more appropriate time to review this book than now. I am rained off in Lerwick at the end of a couple of weeks in Shetland, and spent half an hour this afternoon talking on the street to one contributor (Dennis Coutts) and said hi to another as we crossed the road in opposite directions (Phil Harris).

As I think I alluded to in the Skerries posts I did recently the format of this new book will be familiar to many birders from the ‘Best Days With British Birds’ book. Like that publication from 1989 it consists of short chapters all by different authors, in this case selecting a special day from their time watching Shetland birds. The day concept is treated with varied strictness by different contributors, some being literal about it and others being more flexible. Accounts are grouped by season, but could equally be dipped into by the reader as they are all free standing.

As you might expect the general standard of the accounts is exceptional. Many of the people involved have written extensively about birds and birding over the years, and the source material for memorable birding days is among the best in Britain whether it’s extreme rarities or the highlights of surveying Shetland’s special seabird population.

It’s difficult to pick out favourites among such high quality pieces but I would mention two in particular. David Parnaby’s account of a day (or technically two…) when both a Cretzschmar’s Bunting and a Caspian Stonechat turned up on Fair Isle on the same day in 2014 is a good read. I also especially enjoyed Rory Tallack’s reflections on pioneering the west side of mainland Shetland, as an honest insight into a birder’s psyche, swear words and all.

‘Fair Isle – 27th April 2014’ by David Parnaby
Sample layout – Snowy Owl by Dennis Coutts

It will always be a matter of individual preference but I found the chapters that were basically accounts of twitching already identified rarities least stirring (though not the Hawk Owl and Tengmalm’s Owls as the circumstances are exceptional). My only other minor quibble would be that for a book which is well designed and sumptuously illustrated with stunning photographs the back cover image is, well, a bit of an odd mix:

If you have been birding in Shetland this is a terrific read and well worth getting. If you’ve never been to the archipelago but have a keen interest in UK rare birds it’s certainly also worth getting a copy, it’s inspiring and engaging.

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