Sunday book review – Flight Lines by Mike Toms

For me, this book is almost a perfect 10 – let’s give it a 9.6.

I was handed this book by its author at the Bird Fair at the weekend and, after saying thank you, said I’d put it on the pile of books to review. But having unwrapped it from its cellophane I dipped into it and now I’ve read it from cover to cover. It’s a really good book.

This is a joint initiative between the BTO and the Society of Wildlife Artists which celebrates and documents the wonders of bird migration, the birds that do the migration, the places they visit through the year and the scientists who unravel its details. The focus is on ‘our’ birds which ‘winter’ in Africa.

This book is easy to read and easy to look at. Both acts repay the time.  The text is clear but informative and fact-filled but not stodgy.  The artwork is beautiful, in places very beautiful, and often arresting and thought-provoking too. There are good photographs that work with the text and add to the pleasure of the look of the book.  And the layout and design (Mike Toms and Esther Tyson are credited) are crisp and clear.  I didn’t spot anything I would call a mistake, nor did I trip over any typos (although I cannot guarantee they are entirely absent).   The BTO shouldn’t hesitate too politely about pressing their own claim to win the BTO/British Birds Best Bird Book award for 2017 when the time comes.

You will find portraits of birds, places and people by your favourite artists and some well-chosen words by some of them too.   The melding of science and art is so good that the interface is invisible – you really don’t notice the join.  I have some strong favourites amongst the art featured here but there is none that I dislike – you will have other favourites but I’m confident you will enjoy the collected work. OK, I can’t resist, I kept going back to Esther Tyson’s (that name again) Sand Martins and thinking ‘How clever, how different, how beautiful!’.

But this is a book to read, not just to look at. Mike Toms has a very winning way with words and I enjoyed the combination of information and stories very much. The text is very good so don’t let the beauty of the art distract you too much from actually reading the words.

Why can’t I give this book a 10? Well, three smallish reasons. First, the cover and title are clever but don’t hint strongly enough at the contents and actually look slightly dull (the cover is grey after all). Second, there’s not a graph or map in the book – a slightly strange choice as this is a book about where birds go (no maps?) and how they do it (no graphs or tables to explain things succinctly?). It’s not as though the BTO lacks science from which to extract a few well-chosen examples to illustrate what’s going on. And third, there is no further reading, which is a shame for the reader and a missed opportunity for the BTO to parade their (and others’ science) in a few tight pages at the end of things.

This is a very good book.  And it is also a testament to how the BTO has made strides in recent years. A decade ago this would have been an impossible collaboration and product to emerge from the Thetford boffins.

Flight Lines: tracking the wonders of bird migration by Mike Toms is published by the BTO.

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