A Focus On Nature

Books and Reviews

Book Review: Winter Birds by Lars Jonsson

Flicking through this book when it arrived on my doorstep I was immediately impressed by the incredibly beautiful illustrations. Jonsson’s illustrations, a combination of sketch and soft watercolours, are skilfully artistic while maintaining an impressive amount of accuracy and detail. This should be no surprise given the author’s vast experience in producing illustrations over a long career. His images do a wonderful job of capturing the essence of each bird species and conveying the cold wintery surroundings and landscapes.

In hardback, the book’s 343 pages make this quite a weighty book to carry around. However, while the title may imply a field guide and the author frequently illustrates identification guides, this book freely admits to not being intended as one. Instead the focus is a range of the author’s observations and impressive knowledge of the 59 bird species visiting his garden during the winter months. The descriptions throughout the book mainly focus on describing aspects of plumage, behaviour, and ecology. Each species is discussed in a conversational style, but contains a vast amount of useful information on separating species, identifying calls and gender. However, it is clear there are some elements of favouritism between species. For example the willow tit is dedicated a whole eight pages, while the crested tit receives only three. His descriptions of various bird behaviours for different species are charming and informative. The inclusion of often quirky subheadings like “ultramarine crown”, “short drumroll”, “like a facepowder”, and “drop-shaped spots in the gloom of the spruce forest”, break up the blocks of text and add a magical whimsy to the book.

Jonsson’s conversational and highly readable yet detailed style of writing is highly engaging, and I was gripped throughout each species account. I must confess to not being an ornithologist myself. As someone who works across a range of taxa, I frequently find technical terminology confusing between different groups of animals. With this in mind I was grateful that, while the book in no way talks down to the reader, the usage of highly technical or specific birding terms is avoided.

Winter Birds contains a vast reservoir of knowledge and information on species’ appearances and behaviours. Some of these observations can be quite unique. The description of the blue tit’s yellow plumage demonstrates how an artistic eye can spot tiny differences and the challenges of accurately representing a colour from nature that is so indefinable. These occasional discussions of creating colour and textures to interpret a bird’s plumage make this a vital read for any budding artist interested in painting wildlife. These insights on the more practical challenges of Jonsson’s methods and work are fascinating.

The challenges of getting good views of some species are sometimes also touched upon, such as utilising road kill from the freezer to achieve good views of buzzards in his garden. Further glimpses into the author’s life are peppered throughout the book, including accounts of nursing birds when he was ten years old and decorating wooden candlesticks with painted bullfinches at nursery school. These very personal anecdotes combined with more scientific observations create an educational yet charming read.

Originally published in 2015 in Swedish, this English language translation is impressive in retaining a highly readable style and touches of the author’s warm humour. The inclusion of pencil maps of the British Isles along with Scandinavia, shaded to show each species’ approximate distribution is a lovely addition. The book’s Scandinavian focus also means some species we do not encounter in the British Isles are included, such as the vibrant pine grosbeak and the beautifully decorated nutcracker. These inclusions are enough to entice a visit to wintery Scandinavia. While the book does appear to end quite abruptly, this is almost explained by Jonsson’s introduction. He admits to adding another species just a few days before final printing and how the book snowballed from something small and simple into a much larger work. What is clear from the author’s introduction and often whimsical conversational style is that Winter Birds is a real work of love and passion for the subject.

A feast for the eyes and the mind, welcome on any naturalist’s bookshelf.

Imogen Cavadino is a former English Literature and Music student, current cetacean fan and invertebrate nut. Several internships observing whales and dolphins encouraged her to take the plunge and change career, graduating in 2015 with an MSc in Conservation Ecology before undertaking a Natural Talent Traineeship in Non-Marine Molluscs with The Conservation Volunteers at National Museum Wales, Cardiff. She is now an Assistant Conservator at Cambridge University Museum of Zoology, currently closed to the public for redevelopment and reopening 27th March 2018. Follow her via Twitter: @I_Cavadino