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New bird watchers' bible

PUBLISHED: 09:15 29 April 2003 | UPDATED: 13:48 03 March 2010

A TWELVE-YEAR labour of love has ended with birdwatchers being given "the Holy Grail".

Ornithologist Steve Piotrowski started the Herculean task of writing a new county avifauna for Suffolk - a definitive history of the county's birdlife - in 1991.

A TWELVE-YEAR labour of love has ended with birdwatchers being given "the Holy Grail".

Ornithologist Steve Piotrowski started the Herculean task of writing a new county avifauna for Suffolk – a definitive history of the county's birdlife – in 1991.

Thousands of man-hours later, after a rollercoaster ride of setbacks and breakthroughs, Mr Piotrowski's dream has become reality. The book was launched at Minsmere, the RSPB's flagship Suffolk reserve, and was instantly hailed as a triumph.

The Birds of Suffolk, a sumptuous hardback with scores of photographs and line drawings, is testament to all the aspects of ornithology which make it one of Britain's most popular hobbies – and illustrates why Suffolk is among the most important counties in the country for birds and bird habitats.

The last Suffolk avifauna was written by William Payn in 1962, with a revised edition in 1978, and one of the most important features of the new book is its charting of the subsequent changes in fortunes of the county's birds.

Mr Piotrowski rues the serious loss of some of the county's best habitats and saves his harshest criticism for agriculture. "The cereal-dominated central areas (of Suffolk) are now more reminiscent of the North American prairies with hardly a hedge or tree in sight," he writes.

"This has had a devastating effect on bird populations which can be clearly demonstrated by the blank patches on the distribution maps (in the book)"

However, Mr Piotrowski points out that habitat creation has also taken place, particularly in wetland and heathland projects, and has in part led to the number of species now breeding in Suffolk rising to 135. Losses have included red-backed shrike and wryneck, for example, but gains have included Mediterranean gull, Cetti's warbler, Dartford warbler, firecrest and siskin.

"The years since Payn's avifauna have seen immense changes in Suffolk's birdlife," he said. "Breeding species have increased but we cannot be complacent in our attitude to conservation. A worrying trend is that although the range of species has increased, the volume and densities of populations of once-common birds have, in very many cases, dropped alarmingly."

Of his twelve-year project, he said: "It has been a struggle. Sometimes the financing looked a bit troublesome and there were many twists and turns in the tale. Its funding has been aided by the Suffolk Naturalists' Society and now it is out I hope it will show what an important county Suffolk is for birds and help towards the conservation of our habitats."

At its launch, Minsmere site manager Geoff Welch said the publication was a "Holy Grail" among books. It had been eagerly anticipated by birdwatchers for many years and, he said, the wait had been worthwhile.

The Birds of Suffolk is published by Christopher Helm and is priced at £40.

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