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Thursday 28 August 2014

Bird Atlas makes for great reading

Published 25/02/2014 | 05:38

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The Common Crossbill is a species of bird that is spreading rapidly throughout Ireland.

For the past week or more I've been dipping into the new Bird Atlas and it is a truly wonderful book and a most impressive piece of work. Formally titled 'Bird Atlas 2007-2011: The breeding and wintering birds of Britain and Ireland' it was published recently by the British Trust for Ornithology.

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Production of the atlas was a joint project between the British Trust for Ornithology, BirdWatch Ireland and the Scottish Ornithologists' Club.

It is a massive tome. Its large format pages are bigger than A4, it runs to 720 pages and on our kitchen scales it weighs in at an impressive three and a half kilogrammes, over half a stone!

While the doorstop of a book has several introductory chapters, each illustrated by a painting by Irish wildlife artist Dave Daly, the main body of the work is made up of species accounts informing the reader via text and maps about the distribution range and abundance of birds both during their summer breeding season and their wintering grounds.

In total, 165 breeding birds were recorded in Ireland. Records were collected over a four-year period by a large number of voluntary contributors, myself included. Between Britain and Ireland some 19 million individual records were submitted so it was a major undertaking to distil all of these data into a series of excellent maps setting out the present status of birdlife in these islands by means of dots and triangles of many colours.

The results show that the well-known Wren, Swallow, Blackbird and Robin are among the ten most widespread breeding species found throughout both Ireland and Britain. One of the more interesting aspects of the Bird Atlas is its focus on changes in distribution since earlier atlases dating back to the 1960s.

The bird showing the greatest decline in Ireland is the Corn Bunting. The species is believed to have become extinct here in the late 1990s. It hangs on in Britain but has suffered a 90% decline and its population is now highly fragmented. Its loss is attributed to changes in agricultural practices.

The bird showing the greatest increase in Ireland is the Common Crossbill. The chunky finch with the bill that crosses over feeds on conifer seeds and it is spreading widely but patchily throughout Ireland in tandem with the spread of forestry plantations.

The hefty Bird Atlas comes at the hefty price of €94, but ships free, from BirdWatch Ireland's online shop.

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