commentary, photos & reviews by Don Roberson
The Western Palearctic is composed of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. There are undoubtedly more birdwatchers per capita than any place on earth, and the realm itself is well understood by many observers. The boundaries are well-accepted and defined by the now-complete Handbook of Europe, North African, and the Middle East: the Birds of the Western Palearctic [known by all as the "BWP"; reviews below] series. The realm stretches from the Urals to the Azores, from Iceland to Iraq, from Spitzbergen through the Sahara. Migration may be the most interesting phenomena in the region, especially among shorebirds (termed "waders" over here), raptors, and small passerines. There is now a great emphasis of "twitching" vagrants. Prime locales for vagrants include the lighthouse at Texel I., off the Dutch coast (top photo) or the marshes at Cley-next-to-Sea on the Norfolk coast of England (2nd photo). The Western Palearctic does not have any truly tropical habitat (and therefore the entire Regional list is comparatively small) but it does have habitats ranging from high elevation in the Alps (like around Grossglockner Glacier in Austria, 3rd photo) to the barren wastes below sea-level at the Dead Sea between Israel and Jordan (4th photo). I have not traveled much in Europe, except along a fairly standard tourist track when I was 17 years old (e.g., the leaning Tower of Pisa, Italy; 5th photo), but an October-November 1981 visit to the then-Israeli-occupied Sinai was productive for migrants. There I ran into two famous and beloved Western Palearctic birders: the late David Hunt and Bill Oddie [Bill Oddie's 1980 Little Black Bird Book is a hilarious introduction to "twitching," and he writes about our brief Sinai encounter in his 1983 Gone Birding]. I've yet to see North Africa but presumably parts of it are similar to the Negev Desert in the Sinai (bottom photo).


Only two families are even semi-endemic to the Western Palearctic realm, but both occur into Asia. The Hypocolius straddles the Iraq/Iran border, but the Wallcreeper breeds well into the Asian Himalayas:

Tichodromidae Wallcreeper Hypocoliidae Hypocolius
It is debatable whether the either the Wallcreeper or the Hypocolius warrants family status, but Handbook of the Birds of the World has tentatively adopted that position, so I have as well.


Handbook: The nine volume Handbook of the Birds of the Western Palearctic (1978-1997), edited by Stanley Cramp throughout with help in later volumes by K.E.L. Simmons, C.M. Perrins, and D.J. Brooks, sets the modern standard for this type of endeavor. Even as an American, I refer to the volumes often for information on plumage details, molt schedules, geographic variation, and the bibliography. North America shares many species with the Western Palearctic, and this handbook series is as good as they get (see Salzman 1999 for more).

Britain is fortunate to have a prior major handbook series in Witherby et al. (1933-1944), a five volume series that is a prize on my bookshelf and to which I still refer for plumage descriptions from time to time.

Field Guides: Today there are a plethora of field guides covering all or parts of the Western Palearctic. On my early visits one was limited to Peterson et al. (1967) or Heinzel, Fitter & Parslow (1972), but these have been far surpassed in recent years. Jonsson (1993) looks very good to me in capturing the feeling or "jizz" of each species, and the recently-published Collins guide (Swensson et al. 1999) is playing to rave reviews -- many reviewers have considered it the single best field guide ever (I have not yet tested it in the field). More traditional layout and good maps are still available for Britain & Ireland in Ferguson-Lees et al. (1983) and for the Middle East & North Africa in Hollom et al. (1988). A field guide-sized volume, but aimed at more difficult i.d. questions in the Western Palearctic, is Harris, Tucker & Vinicombe (1989). I have found it quite useful. Just recently published is Beaman & Madge (1998), a much weightier tome which well summarizes the state-of-the-art in Western Palearctic identification.

Other major i.d. and/or status texts: The passerine bird-banding guide by Svensson (1984) is very helpful for difficult problems, as are the photos & art in Porter et al. (1981) for European raptors. Just out are two more raptor i.d. books that saturate this field: Clark & Schmitt (1999) and Forsman (1998). I've seen raptor talks by Dick Forsman at an international rarities' committee meeting on Texel -- they certainly were on the cutting-edge of field identification.

As someone living outside the Western Palearctic, I've also been very interested in the status/distribution books that contain maps, graphs, and identification summaries such as Rare Birds in Britain and Ireland by Dymond et al. (1989), an update of a book with the same title by Sharrock & Sharrock (1976). Then there are the fascinating compilations of "first" records for various countries, such as papers from British Birds documenting "firsts" in Britain & Ireland [Sharrock & Grant (1982)] or papers from Dutch Birding for "first" in the Netherlands in van der Berg (1990). There is an absolute plethora of "Where to go birding" texts for the entire region, much too numerous to cite individually here.

Journals: There is no single journal for the region as a whole; instead, there are a wide variety of cutting-edge birding periodicals in a selection of languages. For English speakers the best may be the venerable British Birds which has been publishing major papers on British field ornithology back to the early 1900s. In recent years it has expanded its viewpoint a bit more widely (with regular features on European news) but its best quality for someone who does not live in England is its regular stream of state-of-the-art identification articles on Western Palearctic birds. In 1999 it changed to a larger format and more color, quite probably in response to competition from Birding World, a very flashy journal which has been published for the past dozen years. It has lots of color photos and emphasizes identification questions, and is broader is scope, more regularly covering Middle Eastern or North African species than British Birds. Both fill somewhat different niches and both rate among the best birding magazines in the world, but each is published monthly and thus each is quite expensive. Dutch Birding is similar to British Birds -- and is another excellent journal -- with the occasional cutting-edge i.d. paper and some broader photo galleries of birds as far away as southeast Asia. The more important papers are almost always in English, and there are English summaries for all papers. There are Finnish, German, and French equivalents of the genre -- Lintumies, Limicola, & Ornithos --which have much less English (but English summaries & captions) but lots of useful color photos, and national journals in most counties. County and regional periodicals also abound. [And I do not even begin to mention the formal ornithological literature such as The Ibis, Le Gerfaut, or Alauda et al.].

Non-bird Book [nature / exploration / adventure]: My choice is an eclectic one -- Brackman's (1980) A Delicate Arrangement: The Strange Case of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace -- but a great read front to back. On July 1, 1858, a paper was presented to the Linnean Society in London by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace. It was entitled "On the tendency of Species to form Varieties and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural means of Selection" and was read by Mr. Darwin, as Wallace was still halfway around the world in the Malay Archipelago. In fact, Wallace didn't even know he was the "joint author" of what would forever thereafter be known as the "Darwinian theory" of evolution. The wonderful book -- written by an American journalist with no axes to grind -- tells the remarkable story of how Charles Darwin, already a famous scientist, received Wallace's manuscript in the mail in June 1858 and found in it the "missing link" (pun intended) to the puzzle with which he (Darwin) had struggled for 20 years -- the theory of natural selection. Darwin permitted his high-born friends to "steal" the credit from Wallace and shower it on Darwin (this "delicate arrangement," Huxley's son termed the incident), though Darwin himself was so racked with guilt that he provided Wallace's financial support in the latter's old age. Although a lot of the story is centered in Wallace's work in today's Indonesia, the key element in the story is Britain's class system. Darwin was Victorian upper class; Wallace a penniless & self-educated son of a working-class solicitor. After reading this book, you will never hear the phrase "Darwin's theory of evolution" in the same way again.

BEST BIRDS [see my explanation for choosing "best birds" here]

Since the Western Palearctic -- although a widely recognized avifaunal unit -- is actually just a few portions of a couple other continents, I chose here only the "top 3 birds" of the realm (not the full 7 or more that are awarded to full continents):


At the top of this page are:

All photos © 2000 D. Roberson; all rights reserved.

FAVORITE PHOTOS: This link goes to a page with the three favorite Western Palearctic bird photos that I have taken so far.

Literature cited:

Beaman, M., and S. Madge. 1998. The Handbook of Bird Identification for Europe and the Western Palearctic. Christopher Helm, London.

Brackman, A. C. 1980. A Delicate Arrangement: The Strange Case of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. Times Books, New York.

Clark, W. S., and N. J. Schmitt. 1999. A Field Guide to the Raptors of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford.

Collar, N. J., M. J. Crosby, and A. J. Stattersfield. 1994. Birds to Watch 2: The World List of Threatened Birds. BirdLife Conservation Series No. 4, BirdLife International, Cambridge, U.K.

Cramp, S. 1978. Handbook of the Birds of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa: The Birds of the Western Palearctic. Vol. 1: Ostrich to Ducks. Oxford Univ. Press [and 8 more volumes thereafter through 1997].

Dymond, J. N., P. A. Fraser, and S. J. M. Gantlett. Rare Birds in Britain and Ireland. 2d ed. T. & A. D. Poyser, Calton, England.

Ferguson-Lees, J., I. Willis, and J. T. R. Sharrock. 1983. The Shell Guide to the Birds of Britain and Ireland. Michael Joseph, Ltd., London.

Forsman, D. 1998. The Raptors of Europe and the Middle East: A Handbook of Field Identification. T. & A. D. Poyser, Calton, England.

Harris, A., L. Tucker, and K. Vinicombe. 1989. The MacMillan Guide to Bird Identification. MacMillan, London.

Harrison, C. 1982. An Atlas of the Birds of the Western Palearctic. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, N.J.

Heinzel, H., R. Fitter, and J. Parslow. 1972. The Birds of Britain and Europe with North Africa and the Middle East. J. B. Lippincott, Philadelphia.

Hollom, P. A., R. F. Porter, S. Christensen, and I. Willis. 1988. Birds of the Middle East and North Africa. T. & A.D. Poyser, Calton, U.K.

Jonsson, L. 1993. Birds of Europe with North African and the Middle East. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, N.J.

Oddie, B. 1980. Bill Oddie's Little Black Bird Book. Eyre Methuen, London.

Oddie, B. 1983. Gone Birding. Methuen, London.

Peterson, R. T., G. Mountfort, and P. A. D. Hollom. 1967. A Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe. 2nd ed. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.

Porter, R. F., I. Willis, S. Christensen, and B.P. Neilsen. 1981. Flight Identification of European Raptors. 3rd ed. T. & A.D. Poyser, Calton, U.K.

Salzman, E. 1999. Birds books of the golden age: current ornithological series and handbooks. Birding 31: 38-55.

Sharrock, J. T. R., and P. J. Grant. 1982. Birds New to Britain and Ireland. T. & A.D. Poyser, Calton, U.K.

Sharrock, J. T. R., and E. M. Sharrock. 1976. Rare Birds in Britain and Ireland. T. & A.D. Poyser, Calton, U.K.

Svensson, L. 1984. Identification Guide to European Passerines. Lars Svennson, Stockholm, Sweden.

Swensson, L., K. Mullarney, D. Zetterstrom, and P. J. Grant. 1999. Collins Bird Guide. Harper Collins, London.

van den Berg, A. B. 1990. Vogels Nieuw in Nederland. [a compilation of papers from Dutch Birding]. Zomer & Keuning, Antwerpen.

Witherby, H. F., F. C. R. Jourdain, N. F. Ticehurst, and B. W. Tucker. 1983. The Handbook of British Birds. Vol. 1: Crows to Firecrest. H. F. & G. Witherby, Ltd., London [and 4 more volumes following, with revisions, through 1944].




Page created 4 Mar 1999; photos rescanned and text rearranged & updated 16 July 2000