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Jonathan Elphick Online

Jonathan Elphick, author and birder, has taken time out from his busy schedule to answer a few questions for surfbirds and, of course, to help promote his new book, The Birdwatchers Handbook: A Guide to the Birds of Britain and Ireland (click here to see more).

Jonathan Elphick, natural history author, editor and consultant has also been a keen birder for many years. A qualified zoologist and Fellow of the Zoological Society of London, he is the author of The Birdwatcher's Handbook: A Guide to the Birds of Britain and Ireland, recently published by BBC Worldwide.

The innovative Collins Atlas of Bird Migration, of which he was General Editor, won BirdWatching magazine's award for the best general reference book about birds for 1996. Jonathan has also been consultant, editor or author on a variety of other books and CD-ROMs including Coastline (with Greenpeace) and John Sparks' BBC TV tie-in Realms of the Russian Bear.

He has just finished writing a book on the national parks and other wild places of Britain and Ireland with photos by top bird photographer David Tipling, and is currently working on a major new book on the cultural place of birds in the British Isles with Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey.

Surfbirds: how long have you been birding and what were the early field guides that instructed you ?

Jonathan: I started showing an interest in natural history in general from toddlerhood, which had developed into a passion by the time I was about 8 years old. I was very lucky to grow up surrounded by beautiful countryside in North Wales (with a mosaic of habitats, including traditional mixed farmland, woods, rivers, lakes, hills and coast) during the 1950s and early 60s - a time before many of the agricultural and other changes that have proved major factors in the alarming declines of many British birds.

My first bird guide, as with so many other birders of my generation, was the Observer's Book of Birds, but I soon outgrew this, graduating to various other books. I was greatly inspired by the writings of Bruce Campbell, one of the foremost ornithologists of the day, and I learned a lot from his paperback Bird Watching for Beginners, though it had the drawback of having only a few black-and-white illustrations. My oldest brother rectified this by giving me Campbell's Birds in Colour (with artwork by the Danish artist Karl Aage Tinggaard) on my 15th birthday. I also greatly benefited from the Bird Recognition paperback guides by another great ornithologist and one of my greatest heroes, James Fisher; various innovative features in these books were revolutionary at the time

Things took a further leap forward with the Richard Fitter and Richard Richardson Collins Pocket Guide to British Birds (although I am still very impressed with Richardson's artwork, I disliked its unusual plan of dividing the birds by size and habitat rather than by family) - and a mighty one with Peterson', as Collins Field Guide to Birds of Britain & Europe by that great American birdman Roger Tory Peterson, Guy Mountfort and Phil Hollom became universally known.

Surfbirds: when did you first decide that you wanted to make a career out of natural history and ornithology ?

Jonathan: From the middle of my schooldays onward, I had a natural desire to work in the field, my interest having been much encouraged by a host of naturalists and birdwatchers - from the members of my local naturalists' and birdwatching societies and my biology teacher Tony Angell to, a whole family of brilliant birders, the Waltons, and the then Nature Conservancy warden at Newborough Warren National Nature Reserve, on the isle of Anglesey, Peter Hope-Jones. Eventually, in 1969, after gaining a Zoology degree, I secured a job as natural history editor with a dynamic publishing company (whose board members included James Fisher) - and I've been in science and natural history publishing ever since, for many years working as an in-house editor with various publishers, and for the last 15 years as a freelance, writing, editing and providing consultancy in the field of natural history, specializing increasingly in birds.

Surfbirds: what was your motivation for a comprehensive pocket guide to the birds of Britain and Ireland ? What were you trying to better ?

Jonathan: I couldn't find a single field guide that answered all my needs (including concise summaries of each species' biology as well as detailed text and plenty of artworks on identification). The nearest thing that came to my ideal was The Shell Guide to the Birds of Britain and Ireland, which I used for many years when birding in Britain, and which had many of the features I liked but some I didn't, such as the over-pale artwork and difficult to use population information. I realized that there was a need for a portable guide restricted to the birds of the British Isles that included handbook-type information without stinting on identification.

Surfbirds: how did you choose the artists and bring the other contributors together?

Jonathan: As far as the artists were concerned, by means of a difficult compromise between selecting those I wanted in an ideal world to paint each group, the availability of artists much in demand (or, alas, non-availability, in the case of some I'd love to have used, such as Chris Rose and Alan Harris), and the constraints of the publisher's art director, designer, and of course their budget. I might have gone for a single artist for uniformity of style, but no-one I considered suitable was available. So with these provisos, I chose the available artists most suited to painting each group, and I think the results are generally very satisfactory - personal favourites are Robert Gillmor's work, including seabirds and tits, Peter Hayman's waders, David Quinn's skuas, gulls and terns, and Ren Hathway's warblers.

I chose Rob Hume, well-known birder and editor of the RSPB's award-winning magazine Birds to be my Consultant - a task he fulfilled with his usual thoroughness, expertise, wealth of knowledge of tricky identification problems (and bird life generally), and good humour. I was also fortunate indeed to work with a great team at BBC Books, a superb designer and copy-editor, and an able office assistant.

Surfbirds: the quality of birding literature, particularly in the UK, is astonishing. Is there still room for aspiring young authors to make their mark?

Jonathan: The field guide market seems pretty crowded today, but I think there's plenty of scope for bird books on specific aspects, including groups that haven't yet been covered (but hurry up, there seems to be a new book about another bird family out every few months) and particular aspects of birdlife and birding, including further guides to regions of the world not yet covered (or better versions of existing books) and behavioural studies. Recent examples that spring to mind are Nick Davis's stimulating and very readable Cuckoos, Cowbirds and Other Cheats, Erroll Fuller's handsome, scholarly account of The Great Auk, and Mark Cocker's witty, stimulating and thoughtful examination of our consuming passion, Birders: Tales of a Tribe, the best book ever published in this area, I think.

Surfbirds: we're now living in a world of multi-media where traditional learning techniques are changing. What will field guides in 2010 look and feel like?

Jonathan: With the daily increase in the power and sophistication of computer technology, it's anyone's guess, but I'm sure books will be around for a good while yet: nothing is as easily portable, versatile and mains or battery-free. New advances in image manipulation are already creating interesting photo-guides, though I've always preferred good artwork myself. There are already some excellent CD-ROM guides (and some dreadful ones!), with the huge benefit of adding sound and video footage, but lugging a laptop around is not my idea of a day's birding. With small hand-held devices already with us, and advances in miniaturization, battery power and other technologies, though, it surely won't be that long before we are offered multimedia programmes on a truly portable machine - perhaps no larger than a pack of cards. The content could include actual downloads of video footage and bird sounds recorded by the owner or others for comparison - or the ability to convert vocalizations instantly into sonagrams for comparison with a loaded directory of known species, for sorting out those similar calls and songs.

Surfbirds: what have been some of your most enjoyable birding moments ?

Jonathan: Early memories, aged up to about 8, in pre-binocular days, include many discovering the birds on the farmland a few minutes' walk from my house, such as falling asleep at the edge of a field and waking to watch a cock Pheasant feeding a few inches away from my head, and after carefully approaching a pond, hearing a parent Moorhen "talking" to one of its chicks still in the egg. Later, after I'd just acquired my first pair of binoculars, I was astounded by close views of a Redshank on a local shore - what had seemed to be a rather nondescript brown streaked bird suddenly became transformed into a creature of wonderful subtlety, and I could actually look into the eye of this other being. Later, on a trip to the magical and bird-rich island of Bardsey, in September 1957 at the age of 12 (a trip which the members of my local bird club had, bless them, chosen to sponsor), I felt the first thrill of watching a real rarity, a hugely off-course 1st winter male Summer Tanager - a first not only for Bardsey but for the Western Palearctic (still true today). Still in Wales, I breathlessly made detailed notes and drawings of a pair of Corncrakes - one of the last pairs to breed in Wales - as I crouched hidden in some considerable pain inside a very thorny hedge on my local patch.

From more recent times, too, there are so many other indelible memories. On a trip to Spain, I stood as the sun was setting on a high pass in the beautiful Sierra de Guadarrama and watched over a hundred croaking Ravens flying in to their roost in a group of large conifers, until it was dark, when my wife and friends left the warmth of the ski bar to come and see what I was up to. Another holiday to the south coast of Turkey saw me lying in a hotel pool, cooling off with my family, looking up through the heat haze to watch a Short-toed Eagle lazily soaring in circles overhead as it passed up the adjacent valley, with small parties of migrant European Bee-eaters travelling in the opposite direction. Then there are my first experiences of Andean Condors, Black-browed Albatrosses, Magellanic Woodpeckers and many other great birds on a month-long exploration of Argentina, watching a pair of big Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos circling in graceful, buoyant flight in the Blue Mountains of Australia and, most recently and perhaps most powerful of all, my discovery of Panama as one of the world's top birding countries - which included stunning views of my first Resplendent Quetzals and Three-wattled Bellbirds in the cool wet western highlands, and so many memories of my stay at Cana in the mighty Darien jungle, with four species of macaws, Ornate Hawk-Eagle and White Hawk and so much else, amid awe-inspiring terrain.

Surfbirds: living in London with a newly elected government and a not so old mayor, what do you see as the biggest environmental challenge facing londoners ?

Jonathan: As a Fellow of the Zoological Society of London, I am well aware of Mayor Ken Livingstone's work on the council of ZSL and his commitment to conservation issues, particularly in terms of encouraging public transport and reducing car use and road-building, but whether he is allowed by Government to deliver on these issues is another matter. There's so much that could be done, and some of it has been done already, without necessarily involving large sums of money; my local ecological park, converted from an old railway coal yard with the inspiration of David Bevan, a visionary botanist/conservationist, is a splendid example. On a larger scale, we also now have a superb wetland reserve and education centre in the heart of London: the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust Wetland Centre at Hammersmith.

Surfbirds: Many thanks Jonathan. Now, in the style of the Birdwatcher's Handbook here are some key facts on Jonathan.

Jonathan Elphick - key facts:

Identification: see illustration above

Movements: North London, primarily in and around Walthamstow although known to range widely with records from Mediterranean to Australia and South and Central America.

Maturity: 56 years old, married to Melanie, with three children (Becky, 31, Alys, 11 and Tom, 8), and two grandchildren, Callum and Jacob.

Biometrics: 5 ft 11 in (1.8 metres), 160 lb (72.6 kg)

Voice: General Editor,
Collins Atlas of Bird Migration; contributing author to the lllustrated Encyclopaedia of Birds of the World; consultant, Orbis' 62-volume Encyclopaedia of Wildlife; Coastline (with Greenpeace) and John Sparks' BBC TV tie-in Realms of the Russian Bear. Consultant to the David Bellamy Reader's Digest best-seller The Countryside Detective and articles in Bird Watching and other magazines.