Sunday Book Review – Bird Atlas 2007-11 by Dawn Balmer et al.

Atlas coverI’ve seen Andy Clements quoted as saying that this is the ‘most important British and Irish bird book for two decades‘ and once or twice thought – well, we’ll be the judge of that!  And you must judge for yourself, but I would find it difficult to argue. And not only is this book important, but unlike many important things (tax returns, getting your car serviced, cleaning your teeth) it is also interesting. More than interesting – it’s fascinating.

Over the next few days (Monday-Friday) I’m going to delve into what the Atlas tells us and what it means for conservation action in future, but in this blog I am reviewing The Atlas as a book which you might want to read and/or buy.  OK, the short version is ‘Buy it! Read it!’.

It’s a big book with 718 big pages.  As you’d expect, there are lots of maps. There are also lots of words – not just the species accounts which you might expect to see in a book like this but also six excellent introductory chapters that set the scene, remind us of the strengths and weaknesses of Atlas data and spell out the whats, whens and wherefores of this mammoth project.

There are many wonderful photographs (and hardly any dull ones) and David Daly’s artwork is superb (in my opinion).

The Atlas, as a book, is a a delight to look at.  It looks clean and clear – the layout is very well done in almost every case.

Remember, this Atlas is for Christmas, not just for the breeding season, and so there are many winter maps as well as lots of breeding season maps.  And this is the second Atlas to cover winter distributions and the third Atlas to cover breeding distributions.  In the second breeding Atlas, measures of relative abundance were calculated for many species and the same can be done in this Atlas too.  This means that for a resident species, such as Jackdaw, we are presented with its current breeding and winter distributions, the changes in both breeding distribution (since the first Atlas of 1968-72) and winter distribution (since 1981-84), current relative abundance in both breeding season and winter, and last, but not least, change in relative abundance in breeding numbers since the ‘middle’ breeding Atlas.

Not only do we get lots of maps, we get lots of species too. Were you expecting to see distribution maps of Muscovy Duck, American Wigeon, Ring-billed Gull, Eurasian Eagle Owl and Yellow-browed Warbler – all are here?

Once or twice I wondered whether I needed all these species and all these maps – whether there might be a little bit of overkill. But it would have been very difficult to decide what to leave out.

I have one gripe about the maps of relative abundance change – which I find the most interesting of all the maps (at least, I have spent more time looking at them than I have the other maps) – and that is that increases in abundance are in red and decreases are in green. I suppose it doesn’t matter but these seemed the ‘wrong way round’ to me and I had to keep reciting to myself, not out loud though, ‘green bad; red good’.  I feel less irritated by it now I’ve mentioned it.

There are some very striking maps in this excellent book.  Here are some examples:

  • Slavonian Grebe and Black-necked Grebe – are Slavs on their way out while Black-necks are on their way in?
  • Honey Buzzard – having heard Steve Roberts talk about this bird twice in the last month (and looking forward to hearing him talk again at the BTO conference) I was struck by the lack of information in the Honey Buzzard maps.  The bird about which we are most secretive?  Does this really help the bird?
  • Red Kite – what an increase! What a success story!  It’s not just over my garden that you see them.
  • Short-eared Owl – big losses!
  • Barn Owl – fascinating relative abundance maps.
  • Lesser Spotted Woodpecker – bye bye!
  • Swallow – high abundance in the island of Ireland.
  • Willow Warbler – up in  Celtic countries and down in the Saxon one.
  • Firecrest – interesting where they have spread and where they haven’t.

…and there are so many more.

I wondered whether there would be enough in this Atlas to surprise me.  As a reader and purchaser of previous Atlases I remember sitting down and thinking, often, ‘Wow!’ and ‘I wouldn’t have guessed that!’.  These days, we know an awful lot about our birds.  We have a plethora of books and much up-to-date information at our finger tips.  Because the breeding distribution data come from 2008-11 it is already, in a way, out of date.  The Ruddy Duck’s status has changed a lot since 2008 and the Turtle Dove is half way to the ground in its fall off a cliff.  But that is where the maps of change in relative abundance are so fascinating – for almost the first time we can see the patterns of change in some detail, so even if the distribution maps and distribution change maps look much as we might have expected, there is often a map of change in abundance to add something to the story which we might not have known before.

The authors of this Atlas (Dawn Balmer, Simon Gillings, Brian Caffrey, Bob Swann, Ian Downie and Rob Fuller), and the wider BTO, BWI and SOC team,  have done a fantastic job in producing this work.  We, the observers listed in small type on pages 652-665 (and, yes, I looked for, and found, my name in the list) collected the data but that was the easy and fun part.  This work of synthesis and explanation needed much more than simply sticking lots of dots on maps.  The UK and Ireland are indeed fortunate, although not lucky (because luck had nothing to do with it) in having the organisations and the individuals to carry off such a remarkable feat of data collection and analysis.  Botanists, entomologists, mammalogists – read it and weep!

And this Atlas could not have been so interesting were it not for the Atlases that went before.  The change maps depend on the work of many observers now deceased or now with grey hairs, as well as the efforts of Tim Sharrock, Peter Lack, David Gibbons,  James Reid and Bob Chapman.  Their work is embedded in this book, and supports it greatly – they provided excellent foundations.

Almost all of the species accounts are sponsored by individuals or organisations.  Nicholas Watts and Vine House Farm, providers of bird seed, nabbed the Corn Bunting, the last bird in the book. The other buntings are sponsored, appropriately enough in some cases, as follows: Snow Bunting (a Scottish species which we can expect to be affected by climate change – Scottish Environment Protection Agency); Lapland Bunting (an attractive species – Wincey Willis); Yellowhammer (a declining species – Songbird Survival); Cirl Bunting (a success story – RSPB); Reed Bunting (Lesley J. Nickell).  Everyone who sponsored a species has helped the Atlas into existence too.

I confidently predicted that the previous breeding Atlas would be the last breeding Atlas but it was the penultimate breeding Atlas.  It won’t be right to produce another book like this in 15-20 years time.  The BTO and partners should start now to think how to adapt Birdtrack to become the scheme that can produce the type of information contained in this wonderful volume every year.

Buy it! Read it! And think about what it shows of the ornithological reality of the UK and Ireland, and also what it says about the healthy state of collaboration between amateur and professional ornithology in these isles.


28 Replies to “Sunday Book Review – Bird Atlas 2007-11 by Dawn Balmer et al.”

  1. Mark,

    I am sure that this book will be an interesting an informative read.

    With regard to your review, I assume that the comment “Botanists, entomologists, mammalogists – read it and weep!” is a personal one, rather than the tone of the tome. Whilst the facts behind the sentiment are probably not inaccurate, it strikes me that this is a low blow from someone who preaches a more holistic approach to nature conservation. Indeed, it can be argued that it illustrates the very reason why it will be difficult to bring a broad spectrum of wildlife NGOs together.

    Which is a great shame.

    I apologise for pouring cold water on an otherwise excellent review of what I am sure is a fantastic book.

    Not to worry, you all know where the comment ‘dislike’ button is! :o)

    1. Graeme – thank you. I think you are being overly sensitive though. Those most connected with non-avian taxa need to look hard at the state of data collection and consider why they are where they are. Collaboration with the likes of the BTO might be one way forward. Butterflies and moths are well-served and shows what can be done.

      There is clearly a blog in this subject.

      1. Mark et al.,

        My eyebrows rose slightly too at the comment about entomologists, botanists and others who should read (and then weep) the New Bird Atlas. I have bought the book and await the knock on the door (I assume it won’t fit through a standard letterbox). Whether I’ll weep is another and likely to be, private matter.

        But back to the predicted collective weeping.

        In addition to being a birder, I am also an entomologist and apparently quite rare, an arachnologist too. We are rare breeds, probably numbering, in the UK, less than a 1000 individuals. And these include the inactive ones. Furthermore, there is a concentration in the south-east of England. Yet, despite the paucity of skilled individuals who can distinguish an Erigone atra from an Erigone arctica (both small money-spiders; the former will likely be found in most people’s gardens), there are Atlases.

        Let me promote the national Spider Recording Scheme’s website:

        Take for example, Erigone atra ( Look! It’s everywhere – the blackbird of the spider world. And here is Erigone arctica’s distribution ( – the herring gull (?) of the spider world. Explore the SRS website (all 650 species) and ask if you can contribute too (see If you tweet, follow the British Arachnological Society (BAS) ( on Twitter (@BritishSpiders).

        The SRS (and BAS) website is maintained, almost entirely, by voluntary effort (with some funding). The SRS site is actually managed, more or less, by a single individual (with help) – Peter Harvey, the national recorder should get recognition for this. It’s bang up to date (i.e. latest records are 2013) and there is sufficient data to start commenting on perceived declines; not in the way that the BTO Atlas achieves but based on 10 km x 10 km (hectad) level. This cannot be bad for group that can only be reliably identified to species level under a microscope. How many birders would be prepared to go out in the field, ‘collect their specimens’ and then spend more time at a desk getting their specimen samples down to species level? I think there’d be a lot less contributors (or am I being unkind?).

        But this Atlas did get me thinking. Actually, could it (also) reflect the distribution of the following insect group too: If so, this Atlas is probably the best book of its kind for entomologists!

        Birders, read it and weep (and scratch)!



      2. In the case of butterflies, Butterfly Conservation has collaborated with the BTO in setting up its ‘Butterflies of the Wider Countryside Survey’ which seeks to avoid biases due to selectively surveying ‘hotspots’ by using a sampling process based on randomly selected map squares. An excellent example of cooperation and exchange of expertise that should improve our understanding of how well butterflies are faring across the country and one hopes one that can be applied successfully in other areas of plant and animal monitoring.
        It would be unrealistic though to expect that the level of detailed understanding of distribution and abundance that has been obtained for birds can be achieved for most taxa. Butterflies and dragonflies apart, most insect taxa are very difficult to sample and identify (and the necessary identification keys expensive and not widely available) and it is extremely unlikely that the level of expertise required to accurately survey and record most groups will ever be available to more than a small number of specialists. Other taxonomic groups present other difficulties: we don’t have very many mammal species so in principal it should not be too difficult to acquire the ability to identify them all accurately but unfortunately most of them are shy, nocturnal and hard to see in more than occasional glimpses – surveying them accurately involves the use of more involved techniques than is the case with most birds.
        The detailed knowledge that we have available on bird distribution is a fantastic reflection of the skills and dedication of armies of amateur birdwatchers but it can be recognised without in any way denigrating that effort, that of all taxa, birds are particularly suited to this kind of ‘citizen science’.

  2. Interesting theme these small grebes. Black neck need Black headed Gulls to protect them and may be Slavs could do with the same. The once famous Kinnordy gull site brought with it the Black necks only to see the gulls disappear so not only the wetland needs managing but the agricultural land around the site!! Too many chemicals and both disappear!!

    1. I was interested by your (rather cryptic) comment so i googled for more info.
      There was interesting history and management info on the Wesmuir village website.
      The RSPB who’s reserve it is has no such info about it on its reserve website. I don’t get it! On this blog you all say what interesting info there is in the Atlas but in the main the RSPB seems to go for a corporate “ Ahhhh”” birds are pretty info light approach, in the Magazine too. It looks like: leave the complex stuff to the big boys who know. Surely they should educate their members, not just on identification.
      John you mention chemicals but I did not find mention of that. Did find a blog post suggesting otters were clearing up marsh nesting birds. Have they just moved back to that area as they have to our area. Again the RSPB seem to fight shy of “blaming” such cuddly creatures as corporate policy.
      I am afraid I gave up Googling as I was afraid it was all going to get shrouded in a PR cloak.

  3. Mark – well done getting your review out so fast – mine only hit the doormat yesterday so I wondered if you’d manage it.

    I agree, it is spectacular – for me, this is the second bird book I would own after my field guide. The information in it is quite spectacular.

    I’s like to point up a couple of things I’d welcome your thoughts on one that I looked for, the other that came as a bit of a surprise (though perhaps it shouldn’t have done). The first is the ‘hole’ north of London up to the southern East midlands – the Lodge is right in the middle of it – look at just how many species are absent from this area when their range in some cases extends all around – the most intensive of intensive farming + urbanisation ? A Landscape from which much of the fine detail ahs been squeezed out ?

    The other one is Dumfries and Galloway – quite shocking losses across a wide range of upland species. Actually, I should have been ready for this because researching Birds and Forestry over 20 years ago I followed the story of the retreating Red Grouse from the late 19th c.It isn’t forestry wot done it – although it may have contributed the bellwether ravens that declined as the forests closed canopy are back now felling has produced a more varied landscape. I assume the main culprit is/was conversion of heather to grass moor by overgrazing. In this case the Grouse went first – followed by the Harriers.

  4. I look forward to buying and studying a copy myself.

    I hope that the most notable species distribution & abundance changes – both good and bad – will be summarised for a wider audience (including policy makers and politicians). It would be a shame if a study of this scale ended with the publication of results.

    Science is vital, but communication is key!

  5. Mark – I found your enthusiastic review of this Atlas to be quite infectious, so much so that I’ve already ordered a copy.

    I can well understand your irritation at the choice of colour coding for the relative abundance change maps, a very odd choice. Perhaps the individual responsible is colour blind ?

  6. Received my copy yesterday, meets all expectations. I’m lucky to be able to to do some recording for a local society, and through Birdtrack, in a part of Northern England which still holds for example two species of flycatcher, some remnant wood warblers and quite a few upland waders. The Atlas maps at first glance seem to confirm that this kind of area sits right on the front line of the struggle for a number of species. I look forward to new questions and survey ideas coming out both at national and at our local patch level, spurred on by this excellent, timely and often scary publication.

  7. We too wonder if the person choosing the colour scheme of red – brown – green has a colour vision problem. My partner is partially red colour blind which has rendered these already rather small maps impossible to ‘read’. Red/green is the most common form of colour blindness and there is a higher proportion of men who have this problem than women. Otherwise the Atlas is a really excellent door stop! Seriously – for once it gives all of us who volunteer on surveys to see the results of our cumulative efforts. Well done BTO.

  8. When the courier appeared on the doorstep yesterday morning I couldn’t remember for the life of me any expected deliveries but on feeling the weight of the parcel I was reminded of ordering the discounted Atlas way back when! It also brought back the memories of all those early morning surveys, winter and summer, over four years, sometimes bright and crisp, sometimes cold, wet and very muddy and others when we wished we hadn’t put on as many layers. Here at last was the product of those labours and a realisation that we were a small part of that army of 40,000 “citizen scientists” that gathered the data to make it all happen. And they’ve printed all our names (like Mark, I checked it out and there we were, formally recorded as Mr and Mrs and our friend Mr B). All that walking, watching, listening and scribing come to fruition and what a great result. I think Mark must have got an early look to produce his review so quickly I’ve only had time for a quick scan but it looks great and will remain a resource for years.

    It will act as a great companion to another book that Mark reviewed recently in the New Naturalist series, Bird Populations by Ian Newton (another hefty tome). This book gives an in depth rationale to the reasons for bird fluctuations and may help answer some of the questions, probably, posed by the Atlas.

    As Stella said above, well done BTO, a massive achievement.

  9. A truly spectacular publication. I think I’d forgotten when it was ordered way back in early summer as a birthday present that it had the winter atlas, so even better. Only had chance to scan through and pick out a few favourite birds and a few that I’ve had some involvement with work-wise. Sadly didn’t contribute this time but seeing the atlas is also something of a spur to take on a patch again.

  10. Mark
    I suppose one day I would have to agree with you – in this case on the red-green system for the abundance change maps – yes it is the reverse of what intuitively one would expect.
    What is worth pointing out that you have not (but the Atlas introductory section does) is that this Atlas makes no attempt to provide population estimates. This is in contrast to the previous breeding atlas. It also raises the question – who decided that the voluntary surveyors should be asked to estimate bird numbers in the tetrad and then not use that information. The outcome is that Britain and Ireland does not have up to date population estimates for many birds. The estimates in what superficially looks a really up to date publication – Musgrove et al 2013 Brit Birds 106 64 – 100 – are for many species derived from the previous breeding atlas projected forward using the trends from the BBS. That does not put the UK bird conservation movement in a very strong position, having to base its population estimates for many birds on 20+ year old data.
    A closing thought, why is none of the data available on-line? The printed Atlas is very attractive to browse through but if you want to ask some questions such as how many species have been recorded in a particular area or how often do breeding corn bunting occur in the same square as breeding yellow wagtail you are stumped – other than to carefully count the dots. A lot of people seem to dislike the NBN* ( but at least that gives the potential to access information on the distribution of many taxa on-line, including creating species lists for a site ( Where the non-bird taxa organisations submit comprehensive records to NBN then an on-line atlas is already available.
    Roger Buisson

    * Research that I and others carried out for Natural England revealed that some organisations and recorders did not like NBN because the free supply of information via NBN meant they lost income from the sale of published atlases and sale of records to developers. The report on the workshops that drew out this information does not appear to have been published by Natural England.

  11. I have been mulling over your interesting comment It won’t be right to produce another book like this in 15-20 years time. The BTO and partners should start now to think how to adapt Birdtrack to become the scheme that can produce the type of information contained in this wonderful volume every year.

    I agree that it would be great to see this sort of information frequently, although we do have to separate year-to-year fluctuations from longer-term real trends. But the beauty of Atlas projects is that observers are encouraged/ forced to visit places where they wouldn’t normally go, so there is near-complete coverage of areas and habitats. Birdtrack, on the other hand, only records the observations from places where birdwatchers choose to go.

    So, it seems to me that it is not the technology or recording system that needs to be adapted, but the behaviour of observers. Any volunteer-based project inevitably becomes partly a sociological experiment. Apart from those of us doing BBS transects, is anyone else going to volunteer every year to visit, for instance, urban or farmland habitats?

    1. David, I was going to say exactly the same thing! There are plenty of “ordinary” areas of farmland and woodland and suburbia that birdwatchers would never go to unless asked to by their local atlas organiser. No amount of alteration or improvement in BirdTrack would cause people to go to these areas. We will definitely need to do the whole atlas thing again, and also it was such enormous fun that I hope we do!

    2. David – interesting point. I agree that birdwatchers’ behaviour needs to change. I confidently predict that we won’t want a book in 15-20 years time – like I confidently predicted it last time!

    3. Great to see Mark’s comment about BirdTrack – noting CamelCase 😉 – has prompted some discussion! Of course David and Helen are partly right (BirdTrack collects data from where birdwatchers choose to go). However, we believe there are (relatively simple) improvements that could help direct effort to the areas it was needed to achieve the coverage required for distribution mapping projects (with the support/encouragement of a dedicated team of local organisers, as were behind the success of Bird Atlas 2007-11).

      One such improvement might be an ‘add-on’ to the BirdTrack App, through which it would alert you when you were in an under-recorded area. Similarly, it’s not hard to envisage the App saying something like ‘Look out for species X, Y and Z here – they were recorded in this area in Bird Atlas 2007-11 but haven’t been recorded here since ____‘ or ‘Can you prove breeding for species X, Y and Z in this area?‘.

      Hope that reassures you that we’re already actively thinking about this sort of thing!

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