Book Review: RSPB British Naturefinder by Marianne Taylor
Marianne Taylor’s output of natural history works stretches comfortably into double figures. In 2018’s RSPB British Naturefinder, she goes through a list of some of this country’s best-loved animal species and many more, hoping that keen enthusiasts will end up with enhanced experiences of their favourite wild creatures far into the future.
The easiest observation to make when performing an initial flick through this book is that expected members of the class Aves are missing. However, there is a perfectly valid explanation for this omission: RSPB British Birdfinder, also authored by Taylor, has existed in published form since 2012. Therefore, Naturefinder serves as a companion to Birdfinder, featuring the mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish and invertebrates that the average person in this country is likely to come across either incidentally or via a deliberate journey, but always without excessive effort or specialist training. On the main pages, a short passage acts as a summary, including ways of separating similar living things. Entries for timing, habitat, search tips and watching tips then follow to make for a compelling instruction manual. The lack of distribution maps may be divisive, but the internet should be available to assist in this regard, plus their absence frees up valuable space. And despite there being absolutely nothing wrong with hand-drawn depictions per se, the use of colour photographs throughout happily gives the ultimate realistic look to the organisms involved.
All of the breeding butterflies, Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies) and terrestrial mammals of the British Isles are included because they have been deemed sufficiently easy to find, though the difficulty levels therein do vary. Elsewhere, Taylor has been much more selective when deciding exactly which species to include, either because groups are too big and complicated to be covered in their entirety (e.g. spiders) or because most members of a particular group are unlikely to be observed under typical conditions (e.g. marine fish). What is more, not all of the species mentioned are given a page to themselves. Rather, some pages hold two or three different species, whilst others hold a whole taxonomic family, order, class or even phylum. Seven small squares represent all of the broad habitat types that can be found in Britain — town and garden, woodland, open lowlands, open uplands, river and lake, marsh and estuary, at sea — with any number of these having the potential to accompany a subject’s description (e.g. clearwing moths are present in all habitats, but the hazel dormouse is restricted to woodland). A linear calendar clearly indicates when the animal(s) on that page will most likely be found. In increasing order of scarcity, a score from 1 to 5 denotes the abundance of a focal species/group in the British Isles. This score is sensibly biased towards the areas that contain more people, as the aim is for the guide to have as much general applicability as possible. Sometimes more than one score is given: in the case of the page dealing with the Scotch argus and mountain ringlet butterflies, 3 and 4 are filled in because it is more challenging to find the latter species compared to the former. By contrast, the page for greater and lesser horseshoe bats only has 4 filled in because both species are similarly elusive. Perhaps most notably, the periodic web links, the double-page spreads advising on popular activities (e.g. pond-dipping), the highlighting of crucial duties (e.g. using greener modes of transport where possible), and the useful glossary, not only serve to be refreshing when comparing this book to ID-only resources, but are arguably the making of it as well.
For all of Naturefinder’s delights, a few errors and shortcomings seem to manifest themselves. Some of the web links no longer work, but this was bound to happen sooner or later; tests prove that a carefully-worded Google search comes to the rescue in each case. Much more strangely, the page for pipistrelles is missing an abundance spectrum, echinoderms are shown to occur outside the marine environment, the labelling on the roach and rudd photos looks as if it should be the other way round, and blow shape is mentioned as being important for identifying whales but receives no further elaboration. Finally, even though the book should be thought of mostly as a guide for setting up and making the most of interactions with chosen species, consistently showing one species/group per page might have made a few tricky examples (e.g. the mice and some of the fritillaries, skippers and Odonata) easier to tell apart by creating room for more informative text and photos.
All of that said, the overwhelming majority of the content is beyond great, so this book is still very much deserving of a place in any wildlife-watcher’s library.
Al Adamoulas will begin a Conservation Studies MSc at the University of St Andrews in September 2018. He is interested in all aspects of organismal biology, but is most keen on birds. Al’s dream career would involve presenting and writing about nature, with plenty of international travel. You can follow him on Twitter @FindMeARareBird.