THE BIRDS OF SPURN
- Roadhouse's legacy to the birding community
- The most extensive local atlas on my book shelves
What can I say? The BTO awarded The Birds of Spurn as book of the year 2016. Though on my personal list it might not have ranked number one that year (perhaps because I'm Dutch and this is a 'local' atlas), I can certainly see why the BTO did: this is the most thorough and complete local bird atlas on my shelves.
On the southeastern tip of the East Riding of Yorkshire, not far from Hull (with its ferry to Europoort, NL) a sandy peninsular sticks out into the North Sea. Spurn National Nature Reserve is arguably the most well-known migration hotspot on UK's mainland. It doesn't really need any introduction, does it? Since Spurn is situated on the mainland and on the east coast, it's no surprise that yanks are few and far between. But for eastern vagrants, it's a true hotspot. The site offers the Scilly's, Shetlands and Outer Hebrides stiff competition when it comes down to rarities.
Birds of Spurn is a rather hefty work. The fact that it has 702 (!) pages gives an idea about the amount of information that is summarized. And all of this was written by one man: Andy Roadhouse. Word is on the street that he kindly declined all offered help. Roadhouse openly talks about his incurable cancer in the About the author and Acknowledgements sections. It perhaps gives some insight why he did all of this on his own. Birds of Spurn was gonna be Roadhouse's legacy to the birding world. The book is dedicated to Martin Garner who apparently inspired Andy to keep on pushing. Andy writes in his tribute: “If you think to yourself that it can't be done, then think again...” Well he did it. And a wonderful legacy it is.
This well-edited (by three editors) and well designed book is very richely illustrated, with hundreds of photographs and dozens of paintings (e.g. from Ray Scally – known from Martin Garner's Challenge Series – and Ian Lewington).
The introduction is over 50 pages long and starts with the ornithological history of the site. The bird observatory was officially opened in 1946 and is still running today. Though this entire book is well-written, I only got stuck on the account on ringing activities: Roadhouse can't make up his mind about who's the reader: the general public, ignorant birders, or those who know a few bits about bird ringing. He e.g. starts by explaining the purpose, and how it works, which is irrelevant to most of us. I however appreciate how Andy managed to squeeze in both the history and the results of 70 years of ringing in six pages. It really ispired me to think about an equally readable account for my own ringing site! The final chapters are about birding at Spurn in general (Dutch coastal vis miggers will probably be less impressed by the “unforgetable days” – the Brits might get the rarities, we have the numbers...). The site guide is very useful and it makes me curious to actually go birding there.
The core of the book is of course formed by the species accounts. The incredible 391 species that have been observed get well over 600 (!) pages. The more common species have accounts per season, whenever relevant with histograms based on bird counts added, that give an impression of changes in occurence and abundance over time. Ringing data is included for every species ever caught, and there are lovely recovery maps. For the rarer species, all dates are given. And oh boy, many mouthwatering megas have been seen. What about Yellow-billed Cuckoo, no less than four (!) Pacific Swifts, 25 (!) Alpine Swifts, two Asian Desert Warblers, 29 (!) Radde's Warblers or Masked Shrike, to name just a few? For some rarities there are finder's accounts that describe the thrill of finding a good bird (Roadhouse himself found Spurn's first Baillon's Crake). And whenever possible and (semi) relevant, the Crown and Anchor – the local pub – is of course mentioned.
Roadhouse sadly passed away in 2017. But he managed to publish his mammoth work and receive a BTO award for it. His swansong is impressive. This atlas is an example for future site guides.
PS The magical 2016 (with four new species incl. Siberian Accentor and two new subspecies) came too late to be added, but note that there's a year report.