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Book Review: The Birds of Ireland, A Field Guide

The Birds of Ireland: A Field GuideFor many people a desire to identify the birds they see visiting their garden, or when they’re out and about, is the first step to an enduring fascination with nature and wildlife. It was birds that infected me with the nature bug way back when, and I still remember my first bird field guide… a small hardback copy of “The Observer’s Book of Birds” that I got as a birthday present in the late 1970s.

I loved that little book, for all its shortcomings.

Field guides have come a long way since then… and a good field guide is an essential aid to expanding your knowledge and helping you to identify the birds you see. But which should you choose?

There are so many options out there these days that picking the right one for you can be a tricky business. You don’t want to a guide that’s so basic you quickly outgrow it — but on the flip side you don’t want something that’s overly complex and confusing.

“The Birds of Ireland, A Field Guide” by Jim Wilson and Mark Carmody (endorsed by Birdwatch Ireland and published by Cork publisher The Collins Press) sits squarely in the middle of those two tiers, and is a very well thought out little book. If you’re looking for a clear, concise guide that covers just the birds you’re most likely to see in Ireland then this book has a great deal going for it.

Do we really need another bird ID guide?

Birds Of Ireland under test
A dog-eared field guide is a well used field guide… a good sign!

To be honest the first thing to cross my mind when I heard about this book was whether there was really room in the market for yet another field guide. I know Mark and Jim, and respect their work, but with so much choice out there already, would another guide really add any value?

That was before I got my hands on the book. As soon as the review copy arrived I knew my concerns were unfounded. This is a very well thought out little guide. A quick flick through it was all it took to convince me the authors had got this one right.

Firstly, it is the perfect size: much smaller than I was expecting, and pretty much ideal for slipping into your jacket pocket. So many field guides seem oblivious to the fact that the whole point is that you can carry the book with you in the field. Top marks to the authors and publishers on that score.

It’s also well put together — tightly bound with a protective laminate paperback cover and printed on coated paper that seems robust enough for the sort of abuse every field guide is bound to suffer. My review copy got more than a little damp on a very soggy outing to Cape Clear recently. Some of the pages got soaked, but while the corners of the front and back cover became a little dog-eared, once the book dried out the pages themselves emerged from the ordeal relatively unscathed… another thumbs up!

An Irish field guide for Irish birds

One of the biggest selling points for “The Birds of Ireland” is it’s localised focus on Irish birds. It’s never going to replace the “Birders’ Bible”, the Collins Bird Guide, as the definitive ID resource for more experienced birders — but the Collins guide covers the whole of Europe, and that can make it unwieldy and overwhelming if you’re not very familiar with your local birds to begin with.

“The Birds of Ireland” is perfectly pitched, I think, for people who are starting out on their bird ID adventure, or who are comfortable with the common birds they see regularly in and around their garden and on their local patch, but want to broaden their horizons and take their bird watching to the next level. It’s also likely to prove popular as a “travel guide” for birders visiting Ireland from overseas, who wouldn’t necessarily know what birds to expect here.

The book starts off, as field guides are wont to do, with a preamble on identifying birds. It covers things like field notes, bird anatomy and plumage and what to look for in the field. The authors offer basic advice on choosing birding optics, bird watching and the law and bird conservation. All of that is very useful, if not ground-breaking, and it’s presented in a clear, easily digestible style. But it’s the subsequent species profiles that hold the real value in this intriguing little book.

Birds of Ireland Species Profiles
A photograph of the species profile for Black Redstart (left) and the page for “Scarce and Rare” birds in the “Thrushes” section of Birds of Ireland, A Field Guide.

The authors have managed to pack every bird found regularly in Ireland into a surprisingly compact volume. That’s more than 260 species, illustrated with more than 1,600 high quality photographs. Species are arranged into groups according to visual similarities and habitat preference, as opposed to the taxonomic groupings commonly used in field guides. This is a good thing for the beginner, as taxonomic groupings can be confusing, and add another layer of complexity to the identification process. It could be less useful for experienced birders who are familiar with the various taxanomic groups… although in practice I didn’t find it an issue. It was quick and easy to locate a particular species in the guide

Most species are allocated a whole page in the book. The page is dominated by a series of photographs showing the bird in a variety of different positions, plumage types and light. The result is a remarkably accurate rendition of how you actually see the birds in the field. Below the photographs is an information bar giving the bird’s English, Irish and scientific names, and key ID features like length, wingspan, time of year the bird can be seen and breeding status. Below the information bar is a species description that focuses on features that will help you identify the bird… without superfluous fluff or padding.

One thing that appears to be missing, surprisingly, is a distribution maps showing where the species has been recorded in Ireland. It seems a curious omission, as knowing where a particular species occurs can be an important piece in solving the ID conundrum for a bird you’re not sure about.

At the end of each group there is a small section featuring scarce and rare birds that birders may occasionally encounter in Ireland. Each of these is allocated one or two photos with a brief description, with several species covered per page.

Treecreeper page in Birds of Ireland, A Field Guide
The treecreeper page, showing the bird in a range of positions you’re likely to see in the field.

I’m not generally a fan of photo ID guides, and tend to prefer field guides with illustrations. Part of the reason is that most photo guides only offer one or two photos per species, and I find that a bit limiting given the range of plumage variation and behaviour you’re likely to find in the field. This book is different; the authors have gone out of their way to provide a range of really useful images for each species (the silhouette shot of the treecreeper against a treetrunk on page 224 is a great example — it’s a view you often get of this skulking tree dweller, but one you rarely see in a field guide).

One BIG BLACK MARK against the book though is the omission of from the list of “Useful Websites” on page 256 ;-). Still… I’m sure that’s an oversight the authors can easily remedy in time for the next print run… and if the quality of the book is anything to go by then a reprint will be needed sooner rather than later.

“Birds of Ireland: A Field Guide” is a superb practical guide to the bird life of ireland without the “clutter” of additional species you get in a British or European guide. I’ve already started recommending it to participants on our Discover Wildlife events, and have no hesitation in wholeheartedly recommending it to anyone with an interest in birds and birding in Ireland.

Get yourself a copy… you won’t be disappointed.

Buy The Birds of Ireland on Amazon here:


  • Mary Kyne

    What an interesting review of the guide. I have always been interested in birds, but am just now becoming an active birdwatcher. I am going to order a copy for myself. I woukd like to interest my young grandchildren, aged 9 & 10 yrs in this interesting hobby, All their other hobbies are fast paced sporting activities, apart from hill walking, and birdwatching could blend nicely in with this. I am giving the eldest a nice pair of binoculars for his 10th birthday in December. Would this be a suitable book for his age group. Thanks.

  • Calvin, thank you very much for the positive review! I think you “got” what we wanted to achieve with the book, which is both a relief and great to see. One of the reasons why we left out distribution maps for the species is that Ireland is a small island and any one of the species in the book is likely to turn up anywhere on the island in suitable habitat. We took the decision to leave them out after some debate based on this premise. I hope you will still bring out your dog-eared guide on the wind-swept coasts of West Cork and elsewhere. Kind Regards, Mark

    • Avatar photo

      Thanks Mark… I certainly will (with the Collin’s guide in the glove box as a backup just in case something really unusual turns up 😉 ).

      I figured you must have consciously decided to leave the maps out… it just struck me as a little odd — probably because I’m so used to seeing them.

      Best of luck with the book… and congratulations to you and Jim on what is a tremendous achievement.

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